How the Indian Navy Used Russian to Hoodwink Pakistan
The Indian Navy’s use of the Russian language to communicate during the 1971 strike on Karachi harbour proved crucial in the success of the operation
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
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