The Price of ‘Sea Blindness’

The Price of ‘Sea Blindness’
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Muhammad Azam Khan

Pakistan’s military history is littered with sacrifices by the nation’s valiant young officers – soldiers, sailors and airmen alike.  But these sacrifices could do little to avert the final outcome of conflicts since at the strategic tier there was a universal lack of understanding on the prosecution of war duly exacerbated by misconstrued concepts. One small exchange narrated to this scribe by no less than a four star Admiral goes to explain the level of military leadership’s discretion and insight as it prevailed shortly before the outbreak of the 1971 war. The Admiral, then a middle rank naval officer,  had met the Commander Eastern Command (General A.A.K. Niazi) at the height of military action in the then East Pakistan. He asked the latter as to why should it be necessary for the military government to resort to such brute force against a hapless population particularly when they happen to be co-religionists. “You don’t have an idea; there is a sea difference between your record and mine; I have earned one of the highest grading in my ACRs and you stand nowhere near me,” General Niazi mockingly responded. But, the former Admiral retorted “Sir, wars are not fought by way of ACRs but rather with Emaan (Faith).” Just months later, Pakistan faced the worst military ignominy in its checkered history.

Pakistan inherited a maritime legacy whose foundation rested on what could be called ‘sea blindness.’ Here was a population; a martial race that had neither any knowledge nor penchant for maritime issues but held an intrinsic fondness for land battles. The British established their empire and ruled the far reaches of the world by enriching themselves through sea commerce, protected and preserved by their navy. What started as small time trading by the British traders in India in the early 17th century soon grew into a phenomenal trans-oceanic commerce. The East India Company, seeking slow but sure concessions from the Mughal rulers, took away choicest Indian merchandise thereby draining the Empire. The British traders delighted in the delicate craftsmanship and attractiveness of Indian manufactures particularly textiles and took good advantage of their growing popularity in Britain and France. Aurangzeb, who perhaps saw a connection between growing European trade privileges and falling revenues in overland trade, attempted to reduce these. No other Mughal ruler could grasp the machinations of the East India Company, much less control its activities. The diminishing land trade revenues eventually weakened the Mughals who were unable to resist centrifugal forces. The empire crumbled rapidly.

The decline of the Mughal Empire and the concomitant ascendency of the     British in India is attributable to the former’s fixation with landward concerns; developing outsized armies for land battles at the expense of ignoring the Indian shores or the large coastline (7,500 Km) which provided an ideal Mahanian strategic position in relation to major trade routes. It was ‘sea blindness’ unsurpassed. The vacuum provided outside powers maintaining strong merchant fleets and navies to exploit the Indian riches, accrue advantage and establish a foothold in India. The Portuguese were followed by the Dutch and finally the English enslaved India.

Clever and crafty as they were, the British did not assemble any valuable maritime infrastructure along India’s vast coast. Instead, they relied on the previous set up established by the Portuguese and the Dutch. Earlier, the Portuguese had sustained their Empire through a combination of supremacy at the sea along with a chain of well-fortified settlements on land. Goa, their capital, was linked with Malacca in the Far East and Hormuz in the Persian Gulf in a strategic command of the Indian Ocean.

The British Raj investments in industrial and technical infrastructure in the areas that today constitute Pakistan were equally worthless. This was done on purpose. The first aim was to expand crop production particularly cotton in Indian Punjab in order to sustain the ever growing textile industrial empire of Europe and secondly, to rear a soldierly race that could be requisitioned to fight the imperial wars in Burma, Africa and elsewhere.

Yet how well the British understood the strategic value of Karachi and its adjoining Baluchistan (Makran) coast is summarized in an unsigned memorandum of Lord Mountbatten dated 19 May 1948. ‘The Indus valley, western Punjab and Baluchistan(the northwest) are vital to any strategic plans for defense of (the) all important Muslim belt—-the oil supplies of the Middle East.——–Only through the open ocean port of Karachi could the opponents of the Soviet Union take immediate and effective countermeasures. The sea approaches to all other countries will entail navigation in enclosed waters directly menaced by Russian air fleets—not only of the sea lanes of approach, but also the ports of disembarkation. If the British Commonwealth and the United States of America are to be in a position to defend their vital interests in the Middle East, then the best and most stable area from which to conduct this defense is from Pakistan territory. Pakistan (is) the keystone of the strategic arch of the wide and vulnerable waters of the Indian Ocean.’ As the partition drew near, such views had gained much currency.

Lord Mountbatten, the last British viceroy in India was a cousin of King George VI who married, in July 1922, one of the richest heiresses in England. Edwina Ashley was the most sought after girl in London, admired as much for her brilliance as for her elegance. Mountbatten’s father, Admiral Prince Louis of Battenberg, was a German migrant. He held the top post in the British navy till the beginning of the First World War, when he was asked to resign on account of his German birth. An ambitious man, Mountbatten was commanding a destroyer, HMS Kelly, which received a direct hit from German bombers in May 1941. The ship capsized. Instead of serving as a curtain call, the incident further benefitted Mountbatten in his naval career. The well connected sailor was rewarded and sent to the United States on a lecturing tour to recount British naval exploits against Germans and to cultivate useful contacts.

Mountbatten’s rise in ranks was purely by virtue of his links with the Royal family and it was not on grounds of professional competence that he was appointed by the British Raj to oversee the fate of their most important colony in Asia.

Born in a state of insecurity and under the shadows of a large and inimical neighbor that had forcibly annexed Kashmir, Hyderabad and Goa, Pakistan’s defense concerns were but natural. The country’s post partition geography with its two wings separated by India placed it in a unique position. An unaccommodating Afghanistan to the west and an ambitious USSR further complicated Pakistan’s security apprehensions. The 1948 Kashmir war proved to be the proverbial ‘icing on the cake.’ Thus, external security concerns assumed an overwhelming precedence for the fledgling state.

The Pakistan Navy started its journey with an assortment of just sixteen ships and 92 commissioned officers. Even so, the service was never short of stout hearts. Admiral H.M.S. Chouhdri who took over command of the Pakistan Navy in January 1953 as the first Pakistani C-in-C was a sagacious and erudite sailor. He wanted to lay the foundation for a formidable naval force; a versatile armada that could operate both in the North Arabian Sea as well as Bay of Bengal with much flexibility and fearsome firepower to strike terror in the heart of the enemy on whose flanks the Pakistan navy was to extend national maritime security umbrella.

Admiral Chouhdri strongly believed that in order to safeguard the national maritime interests including the 3000 mile sea route between the two wings of Pakistan, (the only reliable and economical means of communication for transportation of men and material both in peacetime as well as in the event of hostilities), a strong navy was an indispensable national need. It was also Admiral Chouhdri who stressed the urgency of acquiring submarines by the Pakistan navy. But this dream could only be realized in May 1963 when the U.S government leased a Tench class submarine, USS Diablo to Pakistan, long after Admiral Chouhdri had relinquished charge as C-in-C, Pakistan navy. On 1 June 1964, the submarine was commissioned into Pakistan navy as PNS Ghazi.

Admiral Chouhdri’s dream could not be realized during his term of office because of the doctrinal concept ‘the defense of east lies in the west.’ Coined by the Army Chief, General Ayub, the concept ruled out any need for keeping the sea lines open in the event of war with India. Ayub, who as a junior officer had fought in Burma during WWII conceptualized that since war with India would be short and fought from within the existing stockpiles, keeping sea lines open protecting nearly

3000 miles of sea lines was not vital. It was then generally believed that with a hard hitting and well trained standing army, Pakistan would quickly reach Delhi and Indian resistance would collapse. A man of pride and integrity, Admiral Chouhdri resigned in protest. The premise on which the Admiral stepped down was to later to be proved by events and the faulty reasoning on which Ayub’s defence concepts was based was exposed.

Admiral Chouhdri and later Admiral Ahsan, who between them shared sterling qualities of leadership, saw the Pakistan navy surface as a formidable force during the 1965 war against India. As the sole submarine PNS Ghazi stalking outside Bombay harbor effectively pinned down a large and numerically superior Indian navy inside its home port, the PN surface fleet pounded Dwarka that housed important radar facilities. An effective maritime control over the Arabian Sea was fully established by the Pakistan navy.

The awe-inspiring role of PN submarine Ghazi later led to the expansion in the submarine fleet and a deal for the purchase of three French Dauphines submarines was inked in February 1966. Consequently, these submarines played a crucial role during the next Indo-Pak encounter in 1971. But for the flawed notion and all pervading national ‘sea blindness,’ a more balanced and vibrant Pakistan navy could have once again, to all intents and purposes, effectively taken on a numerically superior Indian navy in the Bay of Bengal. The valiant journey of PNS Ghazi ended in tragedy off Vishakapatnam harbor on 4 December 1971.

Nearly 44 years after the Pakistan navy held uncontested command in the North Arabian sea during the September 1965 war, the country once again stands at the cross roads. This time absence of a sea based strategic deterrence and the want of a nuclear second strike capability compounds national security problems. Sadly, once more it was a tangled doctrinal concept; the ‘strategic depth’ being sought in a neighboring country, that came in the way and held back a timely development and deployment of the most reliable arm in the nuclear triad with inbuilt features of mobility and stealth.

Shrouded in secrecy and after denying its existence for years, ATV (Advance Technology Vehicle), the project name of India’s locally designed SSN (nuclear powered attack submarine), was finally officially confirmed by the Indian navy chief, Admiral Suresh Mehta, in the fall of 2007. On 26 July this year the sluice gates of the naval dockyard at Vishakapatnam were opened by the Indian Prime Minister to commission the country’s first locally constructed SSN, INS Arihant. The 6,000 tonne, 124 m long ATV, a derivative of the Soviet 670 A Skat class SSN (NATO designation Charlie I class) was under development since the mid-1970s. Powered by a miniaturized 85 megawatt nuclear reactor the SSN can reach a top underwater speed of 24 knots (44Km per hour) and can be armed with a mix of torpedoes and ballistic missiles.  With an onboard crew of 95, INS Arihant will now undergo sea trials for about two years. Upon completion of the trials, the SSN is expected to enter service with the Indian navy in 2010 as a ‘technology demonstrator.’ The fielding of a nuclear powered submarine makes India the sixth SSN operating country after China, France, Russia, the UK and the US.

In addition to the ATV, is yet another important Indian project involving the lease from Russia of a Type 971 Akula II (Bars) class nuclear powered submarine. The under-construction 12,000 tonne submarine rechristened as INS Chakra was to be completed and leased to India for 10 years under a $ 650 million deal signed in 2004. It was to be inducted into the Indian navy on 15 August 2009 but was delayed by a year following technical snags. ‘Project India’ as the classified lease program is called, now seems to be back on track after being seemingly caught in last year’s freeze in Indo-Russian ties over the escalating costs of the aircraft carrier, Vikramditya (former Gorshkov) undergoing refit in Russian yards. The 44,500 tonne ex-Russian carrier was negotiated by India in 2004 at a cost of $ 2.5 billion and has since been subjected to steady price increases because of the technical glitches usually associated with used naval platforms.

Due to its design commonality with ATV, INS Chakra is being leased by the Indians primarily to train crews to man ATVs. Accordingly, over the past two years three Indian navy SSN crews of around 300 personnel have undergone training at a dedicated facility near St Petersburg. Now expected to be delivered by the end of this year, INS Chakra together with INS Arihant will constitute the third strand of India’s strategic deterrence supplementing air-delivered and mobile land-based missile systems. In partnership with private industry, India’s Defense Research and Development Organization (DRDO) plans to locally construct three to five more SSN’s to expand its strategic deterrence capability.

India is also vigorously engaged in developing a strategic missile for integrating with SSN’s weapon systems suite. Designed too by the Indian Defense and Research Development Organization, the enigmatic two stage missile dubbed K-15 or Sagarika (Oceanic) was successfully tested in April 2007. The test was described as a technological breakthrough. Rapidly ejected from the submarine’s launcher by igniting an underwater gas booster, the missile rises nearly 5 km above the Ocean. Upon reaching a pre-determined height, it ignites a solid booster and travels to a range of nearly 750 km to deliver its lethal pay load.

Sea-launched nuclear missiles are at the core of second strike capability and function as a stabilizer in nuclear strategy since it reduces the necessity for a first strike. A single nuclear submarine can carry at least 12 missiles with Multiple Independently Targetable Reentry Vehicles which could mean as many as 96 warheads.  When one such submarine goes out to sea, that many missiles are thus removed from the country’s soil and cannot be targeted by the enemy.

Enunciated in 1999, India’s nuclear doctrine calls for its nuclear forces to be effective and responsive to the requirements in accordance with the concept of credible deterrence. The doctrine demands high survivability against surprise attacks and a rapid punitive response. A nuclear submarine, that can remain submerged almost indefinitely can attain and sustain high speeds underwater without being detected. It therefore meets all these criteria and offers an almost invulnerable launch platform to India for nuclear weapons.

The launch of INS Arihant (Destroyer of Enemies) signals the nuclear militarization of the Indian Ocean. It poses a formidable challenge to Pakistan’s brown water navy. In the years ahead this potential will reinforce India’s capability to blockade and choke the flow of trade from the Gulf via the Suez Canal in the west and the Strait of Malacca in the east. In a drawn out period of coercion, Pakistan’s predominantly sea-based commerce and in turn its national economy could be dealt a crippling blow. In the wake of the launch of INS Arihant, Pakistan duly expressed concern and said that the move will jeopardize the security paradigm of the entire region. It was further stated that India’s nuclear submarine would have far-reaching destabilizing effects on the security environment not only for Pakistan but also for all the littoral states of the Indian Ocean and beyond.

Indeed, with one province now engulfed in war and another in a state of political turmoil, spatial options for deployment of land-based strategic weapons by Pakistan stand grossly reduced. The problems of the Pakistan army, deployed on two axes, are further intensified given the precarious internal security situation.

In October last year, the Chief of Staff of the Pakistan navy, Vice Admiral Asif Humayun, had declared that the Pakistan navy is fully capable of deploying strategic weapons at sea but added that the government is yet to take a clear decision in this context. It is now well established that Pakistan is on track to ensure such a capability onboard its conventional French submarines of the type Agosta 90B fitted with AIP (Air Independent Propulsion). However, the AIP technology while allowing enhanced submerged periods is not in any way a substitute for a nuclear submarine’s underwater potential. In order to ensure nuclear balance, Pakistan will have to respond to this ominous development rapidly and in earnest.

Like the overt demonstration in May 1998, this time too Pakistan would only be reactive. Sagacity, backed by a proactive strategy, could have provided the Pakistan navy the lead time to steadily integrate and mature the weapon systems as well as shape national nuclear doctrinal concepts including Command and Control of sea-based strategic weapons. Had the Pakistan navy been fielding sea-based deterrence in the North Arabian Sea, the security complexion in the region would not have registered such an enormous strategic tilt in favor of India. Pakistan’s nuclear parity at sea would have effectively matched India vis- à-vis the security paradigm in the Indian Ocean Region. Furthermore, the availability of such a platform at sea could have provided the Pakistan army the much needed resilience and psychological ascendancy in its battles on multiple fronts. But for the unceasing ‘sea blindness,’ Pakistan’s national security potential would have been far more robust.