The Indian Navy’s use of Russian language to communicate during the 1971 strike on Karachi harbour proved crucial in the success of the operation.
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In the mid 1960s, when the Indian Navy began to acquire equipment from Russia, there was hardly anyone within the service who knew the Russian language. That began to change as India ramped up its purchases of high-octane hardware from Russia. By 1970, dozens of Indian seamen, mainly those from the 25th Missile Squadron, were undergoing naval training in Vladivostok.
Based at Mumbai, the 25th Missile Squadron was equipped with brand new Russian Osa class missile boats armed with Styx missiles. It proved to be a brilliant decision as these small vessels were to soon undertake the most spectacular mission of the 1971 War.
As the Pakistan Army started the systematic genocide of its own Bengali citizens in its eastern half, in the process sending 10 million refugees into India, war became a matter of time. In the summer of 1971, when Prime Minister Indira Gandhi called a meeting of the three service chiefs and told them to prepare for war, the Indian Navy’s Admiral S.M. Nanda requested clearance for an attack on the oil installations in Karachi. Since it was Pakistan’s main trading port, a successful attack would also ensure an economic blockade of Pakistan.
Knowing that a war in the subcontinent wouldn’t last long, the navy planned to hit Karachi on the very first day that Pakistan attacked India. Based on the success or failure of the first attack, more raids could then be launched.
War breaks out
Pakistan Air Force jets attacked Indian airfields on the evening of December 3, 1971 and the Indian Navy decided to attack on the night of December 4. In order to inflict maximum damage and to confuse the enemy, the raid was to be coordinated with a strike by the Indian Air Force on Karachi harbour.
NAVY SPEAKS RUSSIAN
In 2011 a naval contingent of 152 officers and sailors of the Indian Navy travelled to St Petersburg for training on board the 45,000 tonne aircraft carrier INS Vikramaditya. All members of that crew were imparted Russian language skills.
Because the shore defences in Karachi had six-inch guns, the Indian Navy’s destroyers with their four-inch ones were not suitable for the task. That left the navy with the Osa missile boats with their Styx missiles. Being a coastal defence vessel, the Osa did not have the range to attack a distant port, so the only way out was to tow the ships from Mumbai to Porbandar.
Petya frigates were to follow at a slower speed but stay not too far away from the rendezvous. Naval Headquarters and the HQ of the Western Naval Command were to listen in on Pakistani wireless circuits and pass the relevant intelligence to the attacking force.
Radio silence was critical during the mission but especially while approaching the harbour at night. This was because the Pakistanis had an advanced surveillance radar station gifted by the US under the Suparco defence treaty. If it spotted the Indian ships, the element of surprise would be lost.
A key – and unusual – advantage with the Indian Navy was the Osa crews’ fluency in the Russian language. Communication between the attacking vessels, Naval HQ at Mumbai and the IAF was extensively in Russian.
This was done to fool the Pakistani naval intelligence before the commencement, and during the attack. The enemy could not connect the chatter on the radio waves to any offensive sea movements by the Indian Navy.
In fact, Pakistani intelligence believed the radio chatter came from the Russian Navy’s detachment located further south in the Arabian Sea. They thought the Russians were manoeuvring in response to the US Navy’s movements in the region.
The Osas used their missiles with devastating impact in two separate raids. IAF aircraft returning from a diversionary raid on Masroor airbase described the fire as the “biggest bloody blaze in the whole of South Asia”. The fire was also seen from space by American astronauts on board Spacelab.
Impact on India-Russia relations
In 'Transition to Eminence: The Indian Navy 1976-1990', former vice admiral G.M. Hiranandani writes that in the early years of Russia-India naval cooperation, the relationship matured extremely slowly because of two main factors. One, there was "a near total paucity of naval personnel who knew the Russian language". Secondly, there was the extreme secretiveness – bordering on paranoia – of the Russian specialists who came to India.
"These factors combined to constrict the interaction that was so essential for coping with the new Russian technologies and procedures," Hiranandani writes. "Interaction improved slowly as the two sides got to know each other. It was after the 1971 War that interaction rose exponentially."
The Indian Navy’s innovative use of Russian missile boats in the attacks on Karachi led to two significant developments. "Within India, the Government and the nation became aware for the first time since independence in 1947 of the contribution that naval operations could make to national policy objectives and how the Navy's swift achievement of regional maritime supremacy had hastened the end of the war. This led, during the 1973 and 1975 Defence Reviews, to the government's ready acceptance of the Navy's requirements for the acquisition, from Russia, of ships, submarines and aircraft to fulfil long deferred requirements."
“Within the Russian Navy respect had developed for the way the Indian Navy had used what Russia had supplied. The Russian side responded positively to the Navy's requests for progressively better equipment in future acquisitions.”
The early ships and submarines in the Indian Navy had been designed for the Russian Navy, which operated in the cold and dry climate and in cold, low salinity seas. They were not meant to operate in the hot and humid climate and the warm, high salinity, corrosive seas of the tropics. That changed with better communication between the military personnel on the two sides.
Russian "guarantee specialists" deputed to India reported all shortcomings and improvements considered essential for operations in tropical conditions back to the Russian manufacturers. Based on the feedback received, the Russian side "tried its best that each successor series of Russian acquisitions became better than their predecessors".
Clearly, communication is an important force multiplier in India-Russia relations.