The induction of new ships, submarines, aircraft and helicopters from 1976 onwards and the evaluation in Indian waters of their capabilities enabled the Navy to evolve and prove at sea, the tactics appropriate for its unique mix of platforms, sensors and weapons.
Carefully structured exercises helped to pin down inadequacies and provide feedback to the R & D laboratories.
The two significant operations were Operations Pawan and Cactus.
Operation Pawan in Support of the IPKF in Sri Lanka - 1987 to 1990
Sri Lanka's location astride the main shipping routes of the Indian Ocean and its proximity to the Indian mainland has strategic significance for the security of India's southern seaboard. The political situation is complex - it has entailed the Navy's involvement for over 30 years.
Operation Pawan started with the induction of the IPKF on 30 July 1987. The de-induction started in August 1989 and by October 1989, the bulk of the IPKF had withdrawn. Operation Pawan terminated on 24 March 1990, when the final contingent of the IPKF sailed out of Trincomalee on board ships of the Eastern Fleet. When the last elements withdrew, there still had been no solution of the political problem that had necessitated the induction, nor indeed has a solution emerged till the date of publication.
In round figures, over 1200 deaths and 3500 wounded was the price that the officers and men of India's Peacekeeping Force paid to help a neighbour in distress.
Though often criticised, Operation Pawan achieved the objectives that had been listed by India's Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in his letter to Sri Lanka's President Jayawardene when the Indo-Sri Lankan Accord was signed on 29 July 1987:
“You had, during the course of our discussions, agreed to meet some of India's concerns as follows:
Your Excellency and myself will reach an early understanding about the relevance and employment of foreign military and intelligence personnel with a view to ensure that such presence will not prejudice Indo-Sri Lankan relations.
Trincomalee or any other ports in Sri Lanka will not be made available for military use by any country in a manner prejudicial to India's interests.
The work of restoring and operating the Trincomalee oil tank farm will be undertaken as a joint venture between India and Sri Lanka.
Sri Lanka's agreement with foreign broadcasting organisations will be reviewed to ensure that any facilities set up by them in Sri Lanka are used solely as public broadcasting facilities and not for any military or intelligence purposes.”
During Operation Pawan, the wear and tear on naval ships was substantial. The usage of ships exceeded stipulated norms by 50%. Despite the heavy toll that it took in terms of wear and tear, it was invaluable for its experience of low intensity conflict and inducting troops over uncharted beaches.
Personnel stood up well to the multifarious tasks of providing operational and logistic support for the IPKF, maintaining round the clock ship and air patrols in the Palk Strait and along Sri Lanka's eastern seaboard and transhipping refugees, many of whom had to be given medical attention at sea.
Immediately after the last contingent of the IPKF had been de-inducted from Sri Lanka, ships and aircraft of India's Navy and Coast Guard were deployed for Operation Tasha to patrol the Palk Strait to minimise the movement of militants and their material between Sri Lanka and India. Operation Tasha started in April 1990 and continues to this day.
In the years after 1990, India has abstained from further direct involvement and has encouraged every peace-making effort for reconciliation between the Sri Lankan Government and the LTTE.
The lessons of Operation Pawan are instructive for future missions of a humanitarian but political nature, which the Navy will be called upon to undertake, or assist, as it grows in eminence.
Operation Cactus in Support of the Maldivian Government 1988
Whilst Operation Pawan was in full swing, a crisis erupted in Male, the capital of the Maldive Islands. On the night of 2/3 November 1988, between 300 and 500 armed, Tamil / Sinhala-speaking mercenaries landed in Male harbour by boats from a mother ship and captured key locations. During this attempted coup, President Gayoom went into hiding and, in the early hours of 3 November, sought India's help and immediate intervention.
During the next 24 hours, the nearest naval ships were diverted to Male at maximum speed, naval reconnaissance aircraft established surveillance over the Maldive Islands. On the night of 3rd /4th, Air Force aircraft landed troops on Male's airport on Hulule Island. On learning that these troops were headed for Male, the mercenaries hijacked the merchant vessel 'Progress Light', taking Maldivian VIP hostages with them, and set course for Sri Lanka. In Male, law and order was restored as soon as Indian troops arrived on the morning of the 4th.
INS Godavari was diverted towards Colombo to embark, by helicopter, the team of negotiators that had been flown from Male to Colombo.
Reconnaissance aircraft shadowed all moving contacts during the night of 3rd /4th. At first light on the morning of the 4th, the aircraft confirmed the detection of Progress Light and homed INS Betwa as soon as it arrived on the night of 4th /5th. INS Godavari who had by then embarked the negotiators from Colombo arrived by midday on the 5th.
Negotiations for the release of the hostages made no progress. The mercenary leader insisted that the Progress Light would proceed only to Colombo and demanded intervention by an international team. The Sri Lankan Government intimated that the rebel ship would not be allowed to enter Sri Lankan waters. The Maldivian Government desired that the Progress Light should not be allowed to proceed to Colombo.
Throughout the 5th, the negotiators were unable to dissuade Progress Light from steaming towards Colombo. On the 6th morning, when Progress Light was 60 miles from Colombo, pressure commenced with small arms fire, followed by air-dropped depth charges ahead of the ship, followed by a gun broadside across the bows. When, despite a final warning, Progress Light still refused to stop, a broadside was fired on the forward cargo section. The ship stopped immediately.
Naval teams boarded the ship and rescued the hostages. Godavari's helicopter evacuated the injured hostages to the Military Hospital at Trivandrum. The mercenaries were handed over to the authorities at Male. Progress Light, already listing and flooding, capsized on the 7th morning, 56 miles southwest of Colombo.
Assistance Rendered by the Navy in Peacetime
Integral to the Navy's day to day operations are the myriad facets of the assistance that the Navy provides in peacetime at sea and in the island territories. Together with the Army and the Air Force, the Navy assists in disaster relief operations, particularly in the calamitous cyclones that devastate the coastal areas every year.