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Force Magazine
Guest Column - Force Magazine
Silent Attacker
India urgently needs an indigenous mine warfare doctrine
Cmde Lalit Kapur (retd)
By Cmde Lalit Kapur (retd)

Soon after Lt Gen. A.A.K. Niazi surrendered to Lt Gen. J.S. Aurora on 16 December 1971, the Indian Navy (IN) was tasked to prepare Bangladesh ports for resumption of seaborne traffic, including clearing their approaches. The Mukti Bahini was known to have laid influence mines across the entrance to Pussur River (leading to Chalna and Khulna), while interrogation of Prisoners of War (POWs) revealed that the Pakistan Navy (PN) had laid 94 moored contact mines in the approaches to Chittagong. IN ships Cannanore (a coastal minesweeper), Bulsar and Bhatkal (both inshore minesweepers) began their task on 18 January 1972. This marks the only time that the IN has carried out minesweeping under operational conditions. Given IN aspirations for sea control, it would be wise to factor in the lessons from this experience.

To quote Lt (later RAdm.) Ajit Tewari, Bulsar’s Commanding Officer, “Only those who have served in minesweepers can really understand the difficulties of minesweeping and how tedious, hard and demanding it can be. Handling the heavy sweep gear, cables, floats and wires requires seamanship and professional competence of the highest order. With the limited complement, all have to contribute their mite — there is no exception to this rule. There are no watches, no special duty men and no time for rest. There are no breaks for meals and the work goes on uninterrupted and takes priority over everything else. This routine was maintained continuously for four days, starting from 0400 till 2400 hours each day and ended with almost every one exhausted and dog-tired after being on deck for 20 hours at a stretch, followed by less than four hours of sleep”. This to sanitise a small minefield whose extent was well known!

After completing their task at the Pussur River mouth, the Indian minesweepers proceeded to Chittagong. Theoretically, this should have been the easier task: moored mines are expected to float to the surface when their mooring wire is cut; they can then be destroyed by sharpshooters. Minesweeping commenced on 25 January 1972. Ten days of intensive effort later, Shipping Corporation of India’s (SCI’s) MV Vishwa Kusum was hit by a mine on February 5. The effort continued. On February 11, the tanker Esso Ark hit a mine and sank. The mines laid by the PN didn’t behave as was expected. Even after their wire was cut, they remained just below the water and drifted with the tide, remaining a danger to shipping and necessitating continued effort. The Government of India (GOI) had directed that all Indian armed forces be withdrawn from Bangladesh by 25 March 1972. After nearly two months of effort, the IN eventually informed GOI that it did not have the capability to clear the minefield at Chittagong. Following this, Bangladesh requested that Indian minesweepers continue their work and asked Russia to help. A number of Russian minesweepers and support vessels arrived off Chittagong in April 1972. By the time they finally finished six months later, 18 mines had been destroyed by the Indians and two by the Russians. Six were washed ashore. The rest remained unaccounted for.

The above brings out the complexities and unpredictable nature of mine clearance at sea. “Mining is recognised as one of the most economical ways of disrupting shipping traffic in choke points, harbours or bottling up powerful fleets. Our ability to keep designated harbours open during a conflict would have a direct bearing on the conduct of maritime trade and operations. This would be dependent on the sophistication of our Mine Counter Measures (MCM) hardware as well as the proficiency of our personnel in this warfare speciality.

Cmde Lalit Kapoor

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