Pakistan Navy and the Indian Ocean Region: Past, Present and Future

Written By: Captain Sagheer Ahmed


One morning our Navy – just before dawn,
One morning, ere sunrise, to D’warka had gone.
They smashed this proud bastion, ere they did leave,
And India her prestige must now sadly grieve.

 

Pakistan Navy’s history is replete with examples of glorious combats, exquisite maneuvers, and tactical marvels yet Operation Somnath is one of those unique instances where a numerically superior enemy did not exhibit any worthwhile contest to a small but potent naval force. Pakistan Navy challenged the adversary’s very justification of a naval force by going well into limits of enemy’s supposed bastion – Dwarka. In the backdrop, it was just another but important day at Karachi harbour on Monday, September 6, 1965. The port was doing business as usual of unloading vital cargo that was required for much of national economic activities. A usual high pitched bosun’s call which is traditionally used to convey commands at sea had revved the day for in-living officers and men who were unaware of the storm lurking ahead. While the ships of Pakistan Navy (PN) Fleet were getting ready for both watches – an official commencement of the day’s operational activities – the Action Alarms sounded. It was a call for warning of an imminent air raid for the crew to take pre-assigned stations. That was instantly done. What followed was an Order by the Commander Pakistan Fleet (the Operational Commander responsible for the entire PN Fleet) for the Fleet to put to sea. The ships were already preparing for a routine sea exercise programme that day and were in good state of preparedness. Hence, all naval fighting units left harbour as early as 0845 hours. As they were disturbing calm waters of Manora anchorage, the Indians had already attacked Pakistan at Wagah, Kasur and Bedian sectors.

 

pnindianoccean.jpgAt sea, the Force Commander was onboard Flagship Babur (cruiser). The other ships of the Force were Destroyers Khaibar, Badr, Tippu Sultan, Jahangir, Shahjahan and Alamgir which were assigned to patrol in respective sectors of the formation. The Force was deployed to patrol on an arc of 100 miles from Karachi to achieve war principles of ‘concentration of force’ in attacking the enemy as one group. The Task Force had two main responsibilities; defence of coast particularly Karachi Port and ensuring continuous essential supplies from sea for the motherland. In the meantime, Ghazi, the only Submarine available to Pakistan Navy which had sailed earlier on September 2, 1965, had taken war station off Indian principal port. Its objective was to take-on heavy naval combatants i.e., Vikrant, Mysore and Delhi as primary targets. The entire Pakistan Navy Fleet fully prepared in all respects was charged with emotions to encounter the enemy at sea. Their only aspiration was to ‘crush India’.


The enemy on the other hand, much constrained by news of Ghazi out at sea, could not put its naval combatants to action. In effect, all naval units had bottled up at harbour through a classical example of blockade by a single subsurface platform against a numerically superior enemy. On September 6, 1965, one destroyer, two new and two old frigates were deployed on the eastern coast of India. Vikrant and Delhi were under refit at Bombay while most of the remaining destroyers and frigates had just returned to Bombay after completing their exercises at Vishakhapatnam. It so happened that the Indian Navy was caught unguarded right at the outset of an impressive naval action.

 

Operation Somnath is one of those unique instances where a numerically superior enemy did not exhibit any worthwhile contest to a small but potent naval force. Pakistan Navy challenged the adversary’s very justification of a naval force by going well into limits of enemy’s supposed bastion – Dwarka

It was an operational compulsion that Karachi harbour be defended and radar station at Dwarka was providing vital information to enemy air raids aimed at this asset. It was, therefore, planned to carryout naval bombardment at Dwarka to serve following objectives:


• To draw the heavy enemy units out of Bombay for the submarine to attack.
• To destroy the radar station at Dwarka.
• To lower Indian morale.
• To divert Indian air effort away from north.


It was a well thought-out mission by Naval Headquarters and very precisely assigned to the Force Commander through a signal in these words:


“Task Group comprising Babur… Tippu Sultan is to be in position 293 degrees – 120 miles from Dwarka Light House by 071800 E/Sep with maximum power available, thereafter to carryout bombardment of Dwarka about midnight using 50 rounds per ship…”


At 0024 hours, the ships had finally formed up on a north westerly course in firing formation. What followed afterwards was a combination of Kiai and K'ihap – a perfect bombardment on pre-designated targets with split second synchronization, intensity and precision. The old gunnery dictum of “hit-first-hit-hard and keep on hitting” had been perfectly manifested by making an important radar station out of action. The bombardment commenced when ships were 5.5 to 6.3 miles from Dwarka lighthouse and it took only few minutes to complete the firing with altogether 350 rounds on the target. It is an achievement that all personnel of Pakistan Navy endear and hope to repeat such feats in all future naval endeavours.


It is not merely a tale of the past but a connection to our future as a maritime nation. We need to recognize our greater elements of sea power – most coming from sea. One of the greatest advocates of sea power A. T. Mahan outlines six such elements, three of which affect development of the sea power namely: geographical position, physical conformation and extent of territory, while the remaining three relate to realizing such needs namely; number of population, character of people and character of government. Mahan puts Navy in the centre of national policy and provides rationale for navy to be at the centre stage. As follow-up, U.S. has till date maintained its navy as key expression of preponderance. Without going into many details, a broader generalization of Mahan’s sea power theory suggests that physical conditions as well as human factors are equally responsible for one, realizing the importance of sea power and two, developing this according to national needs.

 

Pakistan has a significant maritime interest and naval foot-print in the IOR. The valour of past may be remembered and celebrated but the future depends on right choices that we make as a nation. Since sea continues to hold its importance and due relevance with regard to maritime commerce, we need to utilize our enormous maritime potential to our advantage where Pakistan Navy can act as a key enabler.

What does the sea give us? Today two-thirds of the entire world population lives in coastal regions. Served by over 4,000 major ports and approximately 89, 464-plus commercial ships, 90 percent of intercontinental trade is sea-borne. Sea is the most economical mode of transportation which is approximately 10 times cheaper than rail, 45 times cheaper than road and 163 times cheaper than air. Therefore, sea has a universal appeal and would continue to hold its significance as a preferred medium of trade and connectivity.


Now let us examine the ocean we are more interested with. Indian Ocean Region (IOR) has great geo-strategic importance. As a conduit of commerce, the energy flows are estimated at around 36 million barrels per day which is equivalent to about 64 percent of world oil trade. It is rich in natural resources as forty percent of the world’s offshore oil production takes place in the Indian Ocean basin. Here fishing accounts for almost 15 percent of the world’s total. According to the Journal of the Indian Ocean Region, more than 80 percent of the world’s seaborne trade in oil transits through Indian Ocean choke points; with 40 percent passing through the Strait of Hormuz, 35 percent through the Strait of Malacca and 8 percent through the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait. Half of world’s container traffic passes through Indian Ocean, the ports in this ocean handle about 30 percent of world trade. In addition, 55 percent of known world oil reserves are present in the Indian Ocean, and 40 percent of the world’s natural gas reserves are in its littoral states.


The importance of Indian Ocean is also noteworthy in terms of Pakistan’s maritime interest. 95 percent of Pakistan’s annual trade from its total 38 million tons is routed through sea. Every year, about 36,000 ships transit through Pakistan’s area of interest. Pakistan is geographically situated at crossroads of three important regions: the Middle-East, Central Asia, and South Asia. Due to its vicinity to the global energy highway near Gulf of Oman and Straits of Hormuz; Pakistan acquires a special place. Today Pakistan has an enormous stretch of sea area having roughly over 1000 km coastline extending from Sir Creek in the east to Gwadar bay in west. The Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) of Pakistan is 240,000 sq km along with extended Continental Shelf of over 50,000 sq km.


The most important development in our region is the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) project with investments worth USD 46 billion. Gwadar Port will act as its lynchpin, thus, giving further importance to Pakistan’s geo-strategic needs. This project will integrate regional economies particularly China will benefit from shortest access to the Indian Ocean to reach the markets of Middle East, Africa and Europe. Pakistan Navy is pursuing to develop a special port security force to look after the security needs of our Chinese friends working in the area. Once fully operational, the approaches and sea lines of communication to/from this port will need to be guarded against possible threats while Pakistan Navy would have to deploy additional resources to ensure smooth commercial activities through sea.


Pakistan Navy is a regular contributor to international efforts for peace and stability in the IOR. Combined Task Force 150 is one of the three Task Forces within the ambit of Combined Maritime Forces (CMF) which is a multinational coalition for counter-terrorism operations. Its mission is to promote maritime security at sea, deter, deny and disrupt acts of terrorism while countering related illicit activities at sea. As these lines are being penned down, this is the 10th time that Pakistan has been given the command of the naval coalition which is rotated between participating nations on a four to six-month basis. Similarly, CTF 151 is another 35 nations’ Task Force. Its mission is to disrupt piracy and armed robbery at sea and to engage with regional and other partners to build capacity and improve relevant capabilities in order to protect global maritime commerce and secure freedom of navigation. Pakistan has commanded this task force for 8 times on rotational basis. These two international engagements speak volumes of Pakistan Navy’s professionalism and ability to integrate into international standard naval operations with great interoperability skills. Pakistan Navy also holds AMAN series of multinational naval exercises every alternate year since 2007. The exercises aim to demonstrate the allied nations’ capabilities to fight terrorism and other maritime threats, as well as to provide a platform for participants to hone their skills, and build cooperation and friendship to promote peace and stability. Pakistan Navy is also an active member of Indian Ocean Naval Symposium (IONS) and an observer of Western Pacific Naval Symposium (WPNS).


Pakistan has a significant maritime interest and naval foot-print in the IOR. The valour of past may be remembered and celebrated but the future depends on right choices that we make as a nation. Since sea continues to hold its importance and due relevance with regard to maritime commerce, we need to utilize our enormous maritime potential to our advantage where Pakistan Navy can act as a key enabler. This would entail development of maritime industry, making use of maritime resources, generating fishing and other commercial activities at sea, developing the coastal areas, enhancing maritime awareness at national level while at the same time remaining alert to developing maritime threats. Commemorating Navy Day on September 8 is important but we should also remember that a strong and potent navy holds the key to our maritime aspirations, safety and security of sea trade and prosperity of the whole nation.

 

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