40 Years Since Operation Trident

Potential adversaries cannot be deterred by mere threats or rhetoric, but by the possession of a combination of such capabilities, which are far superior to their own. It is thus reassuring that the ongoing force accretion measures of the Indian Navy are endowing it with a war-fighting potential, which can be unleashed with ferocity, if required.

Issue: 6 / 2012By Commander (Retd) Neil Gadihoke

The Indian Navy celebrates its Navy Day on December 4 to mark the operational success of the attack on Karachi, during the 1971 Indo-Pak War. Code named “Operation Trident,” it was aimed to degrade and demoralise the Pakistan Navy, as the defence of Karachi harbour was paramount to Pakistan. The port city received some of the best defence Pakistan had to offer, as well as cover from strike aircraft based at two airfields in the area.

Since Indian Navy Vidyut class missile boats had limited range, the plan for Operation Trident called for towing the missile boats towards Karachi and including a refuelling tanker in the task force to enable the task force to return back to Indian ports. The Vidyut class vessels were each armed with four SS-N-2B Styx surfaceto-surface missiles with a range of 40 nm (about 75 km). On December 4, 1971, the task group for the operation consisted of three Vidyut class missile boats, INS Nipat, INS Nirghat and INS Veer from the 25th “Killer” Missile Boat Squadron, escorted by two anti-submarine Arnala class corvettes, INS Kiltan and INS Katchall, and a fleet tanker, INS Poshak. The task group was led by the Commanding Officer of the 25th Squadron, Commander B.B. Yadav, embarked on INS Nipat.

As per the operational plan, the task group reached 250 nm (about 460 km) south of Karachi and stayed in the area during the day, outside the range of Pakistan Air Force (PAF). The plan was to attack Karachi at night because most PAF aircraft did not possess night-bombing capability. In the evening on December 4, INS Kiltan and the three missile boats approached Karachi, evading Pakistani reconnaissance aircraft and surface patrol vessels. At 2230 hours Pakistan Standard Time (PST), the task group converged about 70 nm (about 130 km) south of Karachi and detected Pakistani targets, analysed as warships, about 70 km to the north-west and north-east.

INS Nirghat then steered towards and engaged the north-westerly target and after verification fired the first SS-N-2B Styx missile at the destroyer, PNS Khaibar, which was on patrol. Khaibar mistook the missile to be an aircraft and engaged it with its anti-aircraft guns. The missile struck Khaibar on the starboard side and exploded below the aft galley in the electrician’s mess deck, at about 2245 hours PST. The ship immediately lost propulsion, plunged into darkness and the No. 1 boiler room exploded, engulfing the ship in thick black smoke. Khaibar sent out an emergency transmission to the Pakistan Naval Headquarters (PNHQ) which read: “Enemy aircraft attacked in position 020 FF 20. No. 1 boiler hit. Ship stopped.” In the panic of the attack, the transmission sent incorrect coordinates of the ship’s position, which resulted in delays in rescuing the survivors later. With the target still afloat, at about 2249 hours, INS Nirghat fired a second missile, which was seen approaching and again engaged with anti-aircraft guns of Khaibar. The missile struck the No. 2 boiler room on the starboard side, sinking PNS Khaibar.

At 2300 hours, INS Nipat engaged two targets to the north-east, approaching Karachi. Verifying the targets, Nipat launched 1 Styx missile each at the MV Venus Challenger and its destroyer escort PNS Shah Jahan. It was believed that MV Venus Challenger was carrying ammunition for Pakistan from the US forces in Saigon. The ammunition on the Venus Challenger immediately exploded as the missile struck, sinking it about 42 kilometres south of Karachi. The other missile hit PNS Shah Jahan which was badly damaged. At 2320 hours, the minesweeper PNS Muhafiz was targeted by a Styx missile from INS Veer. The missile hit Muhafiz on the port side abaft the bridge, instantaneously disintegrating the vessel before it could send a transmission to the PNHQ.

INS Nipat continuing towards Karachi, locked on to the Kemari oil storage tanks of the port from 14 nm (about 30 km) south of the harbour. It fired two missiles at the tanks. One of the missiles misfired, while the other hit the fuel tanks, which were burnt and destroyed, causing heavy loss. The task force then withdrew back. Overall, the Indian Navy missile attack was carefully planned and executed well. The attack achieved complete surprise and was a shock to Pakistan’s Armed Forces Command. A disjointed and haphazard rescue operation was launched to locate and recover survivors of PNS Khaibar, while PNHQ was not aware of the sinking of PNS Muhafiz. PNHQ learnt of the fate of Muhafiz from its survivors who were rescued when a patrol vessel steered towards its burning flotsam while searching for survivors from the Khaibar. Operation Trident was considered an enormous success for the Indian Navy with no casualties or damage to the Indian Task Group, which returned safely back to Indian ports. The success of this operation prompted another successful attack on Karachi on December 8, 1971, known as Operation Python.

In hindsight, the success of the 1971 operations could be traced to Indian Navy decisions in the late 1960s. Year 1969 and 1970 had been busy years for the Indian Navy. This period had witnessed induction of five Petya class submarine chasers (Kamorta, Kadmatt, Kiltan, Kavaratti and Katchall), four submarines (Kalveri, Khanderi, Karanj and Kursura), submarine depotship (amba), submarine rescue vessel (Nistar) and two Polish-built landing ships LST (M)s (Gharial and Guldar).

In the 1970-71 period, the Indian Navy latest acquisitions were the eight Soviet missile boats which were at various stages of acceptance and delivery (Nashak, Nipat, Nirghat, Nirbhik, Vinash, Veer, Vijeta and Vidyut).

The success of the attack was also attributable to the weak opposition offered by the Pakistani Navy. In the Pakistan of 1960s, the Pakistan Navy continued to be accorded a lower priority and the fleet was allowed to degenerate into a shrinking force quite incapable of taking on the task of providing protection to the sea lines of communication between the two wings i.e. East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) and West Pakistan. The Pakistan Navy particularly lacked an air reconnaissance capability which was to prove a significant factor in the outcome of the 1971 war.

The Indian Navy has thus created history owing to the blazing success of Operation Trident and Operation Python during 1971. Can a 1971 type attack operation be replicated in this day and age?

The answer to this question is convoluted, owing to the geopolitics and geoeconomics of the present era. The Cold War, under the overhang of which the 1971 operations took place, is long over. Further, in the last decade, the north Arabian Sea has been inundated with warships and merchant vessels of many countries, thus constricting the space for surprise naval operations.

Thus, the question does not have easy answers. However, an overview of the present status of the Indian Navy is encouraging. In the ensuing 40 years since Operation Trident, the Indian Navy has grown by leaps and bounds. Without doubt, it is today a transformed, multidimensional and immensely more powerful entity, than it was in 1971. It is clearly evident that the Indian Navy, as in 2012, is in the middle of its most impressive growth plan, which would catapult it into a truly world-class force.