Cdr Kavina: India loses 1971 war hero; declassified CIA files reveal impact of his Operation Trident

Cdr Kavina passed away in Australia last week, Indian Navy attended funeral

Article by Manu Pubby | The Print

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The Karachi harbour attack by a group of three small missile boats of the Indian Navy — stretched to their endurance limits and virtually unprotected against air strikes — was a turning point of the 1971 war with Pakistan.

The war, which led to the liberation of Bangladesh, was fought mostly over land but it was a decisive victory at sea that crippled Pakistan — drastically cutting down its ability to continue engaging Indian forces — by choking off resupply routes for oil and ammunition.

Within hours of the 4 December attack by three Osa 1 class missile boats that set Karachi port on fire and took out two frontline Pakistani Navy warships, besides sinking a merchant vessel carrying ammunition, the world stood up to attention.

The Karachi assault was part of the first item on US President Richard Nixon’s morning brief by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) the next day – a detailed view on the conflict and the naval blockade achieved by India.

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Commanding one of the three missile boats armed with four SS-N-2B Styx anti-ship missiles each that unleashed fury on Karachi was Lieutenant Commander BN Kavina who was awarded the Vir Chakra (VrC) for Operation Trident, the code name for the attack.

His missile boat – the INS Nipat – sank merchant vessel Venus Challenger carrying ammunition and crippled her escort, PNS destroyer Shah Jehan on the approach to Karachi. While the others were called back fearing an air assault, Kavina took the Nipat to within 25 km of the Karachi shore, firing a missile to set off the Keamari oil terminal on fire.

On Friday, the hero of the Karachi attack passed away in Adelaide, Australia, where he was living with his son Karl. The officer, who died at the age of 80, got a fond farewell from the Indian Navy at the funeral ceremony Tuesday, with India’s naval attaché in Australia representing the country.

The Karachi attack is seen as the highest point for the Indian Navy post-Independence – 4 December is celebrated as Navy Day in India in honour of Operation Trident – and is recorded in internal history as a turning point of the war.

“The missile boats really did a fantastic job. In fact, there was an effective blockade of the Karachi port without India having really declared one. I remember that all ships and vessels passing through the area were taking permission from the Indian Navy to transit through,” Commodore Vijay Jerath (retd), another war hero and a batch mate of Kavina, told ThePrint.

Jerath, who wrote a tell-all book on the operation — 25 Missile Boat Squadron: An Untold Story – was also awarded the Vir Chakra for a follow on operation to Trident. Codenamed Op Python, it was a repeat attack by the missile boats on Karachi on 8 December, that further crippled Pakistani naval abilities.

While the Karachi attack and its impact on blocking supplies to Pakistan – Karachi was its only big operational port in 1971 – has been well documented in Indian military studies, a recently declassified top secret CIA report reveals how difficult the situation was.

The secret CIA report – the agency had a significant presence in Pakistan – details dangers Pakistan faced due to the Indian blockade. The declassified intelligence memorandum on `West Pakistan: Resupply Problems’ was marked for release in 2010 but was made public in December 2016 under a new disclosure initiative by the CIA.

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Painting a sordid picture for Pakistan, the CIA predicted that its war machinery would come to a grinding halt within weeks as oil and ammunition resupplies had been choked due to the blockade. Pointing out that both land and air routes were unviable to support Pakistan’s war effort, the CIA report warned of impending doom.

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At the core of the CIA analysis was effective Indian stranglehold over Karachi that had crippled all merchant ship traffic to Pakistan. The American assessment was that while Pakistan had the foreign exchange reserves for emergency purchase of supplies for the war, it had no way to get them to its troops.

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The situation on petroleum was even worse for Pakistan with the CIA assessment that stocks were running dangerously low with most its facilities located in Karachi under threat.

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The assessment painted a sorry picture for Pakistan when it came to ammunition reserves as well.

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The CIA document has been declassified but is also heavily redacted, making it unclear whether it was intended for possible intervention by the US or was an assessment for advice to Pakistan. The CIA assessment hinted that the only way out for Pakistan was to attempt a break of the Indian grip on Karachi.

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Incidentally, the lowest point in India-US relations also came in December 1971 when a task force led by the USS Enterprise aircraft carrier entered the Bay of Bengal. The US tilt towards Pakistan has also been documented in previous declassified records that revealed Nixon asking his trusted aide Henry Kissinger to call on the Chinese to deploy troops on the Indian border.

The situation for US involvement in the lifting of the Karachi blockade however never arose with the 16 December fall of Dhaka and the liberation of Bangladesh. And in India, 4 December was designated as Navy Day, in honour of Op Trident and men like Lt Cdr Kavina who led it.