Muhammad Azam Khan
History is by no means unstained. History is a lie that historians agree on, Voltaire is reputed to have said. This becomes truer when author is a triumphant side, even if his victory owed to some evil machinations. Truth is told, in the early hours of 9 December 1971, Pakistan navy submarine, Hangor had two Indian navy frigates in sight.
The Indian warships were patrolling off Kathiawar coast in Indian Gujarat. Hangor kept tracking enemy ships to seek ideal firing position. It was a back-breaking and long pursuit. A bold and accomplished commanding officer with his competent crew onboard nonetheless pressed on with the chase.
Hangors moment finally arrived that evening. At 1957 hours, Pakistan navy submarine fired a homing torpedo from a depth of some 40 metres. The target was two Indian navy ships steaming in close formation. No explosion was heard following firing of the first shot. Hangors crew did not dither and quickly fired a second torpedo.
Five tense minutes passed before a loud explosion was heard. The torpedo had found its mark. This was Indian navy frigate INS Khukri from 14 th Naval Squadron of Western command. The torpedo hit the ships magazine where explosives are kept. Khukri sank in minutes taking down 18 Indian naval officers and 176 sailors.
The spectacular achievement of Hangor had both, tactical as well as strategic impact. The third Indian navy missile attack on Karachi scheduled for December 10 was called off. It upended the entire Western fleet of Indian navy to reverse its offensive posture to defensive and hunt for Hangor.
Between December 9 until Hangor returned back safe to Karachi on December 18, everything Indian navy had in its inventory was thrown in to kill the Pakistan navy submarine, all in vain. Over 150 depth charges are believed to have been dropped by Indian navy to destroy Hangor. The long futile chase of Hangor was enough to underscore the poor anti-submarine skills of Indian navy.
It is said that, submarine and anti-submarine operations are all about training, skill and steady nerves. Nearly forty eight years later, the fragility of Indian navy’s submarine skills was too much exposed. This time Pakistan navy proved its mastery in anti-submarine warfare. On March 4 this year, the newest Indian submarine was promptly detected by a Pakistan navy anti-submarine aircraft on patrol.
The submarine was trying to sneak into Pakistani waters, perhaps for international gathering and if required, to conduct submarine launched missile attacks on coastal facilities of Pakistan. The attempt was however effectively thwarted and submarine compelled to retreat to Indian waters. It would have been a sure kill but for Pakistan’s national policy of restraint.
It seems ludicrous but during the same crisis, Indian navy’s largest platform, the aircraft carrier was deployed in entirely defensive role of escorting smaller vessels holed up elsewhere in ports of the regional countries. Aircraft carrier is an offensive power projection platform. With its fearsome fighter aircraft power onboard and other arsenal, a carrier is meant to exercise sea control.
This provides freedom of movement and flexibility to friendly forces. In the Indian case, it was anything but. This raises serious questions on Indian navy’s claim of being a net security provider in immediate region and beyond as detailed in its premier, Indian maritime security strategy, Ensuring Secure Seas. But such a benign and spineless role of Indian aircraft carrier should come as no surprise. Throughout Indian naval history, its aircraft carrier has been more of an encumbrance than a potent platform.
Here, one is also reminded of Pakistan navy’s bold action in 1965. The offensive bombardment of Dwarka port; the enemy’s failure to venture out in Arabian Sea against Pakistan navy despite clear numerical superiority and strength is a scar in Indian naval history. Here too, Pakistan navy remained the unchallenged master of the seas till the termination of the war. Its lone submarine Ghazi was enough to keep the entire Indian armada holed up inside the country’s harbours. Such stories rarely make it to the mainstream Indian print or electronic media.