The world was haunted last week by the frantic search for the Indonesian Navy's diesel-electric submarine KRI Nanggala. The Indian Navy joined numerous counterparts in the Indian Ocean region to search for the vessel. The Indonesian Navy announced on April 24 that the KRI Nanggala had sunk after finding debris from the vessel off the coast of Bali. The 53 people on board the submarine were declared dead.
The saga of the KRI Nanggala reminded the world, once again, of the perilous nature of submarine operations, but also of the necessity of these 'steel sharks'.
Theorists of naval warfare have always said there are only two types of warships: Submarines and their targets. Ever since the Confederate Navy's submarine Hunley sunk a warship of the US Navy in 1864 during the US Civil War, the submarine has remained the platform of choice for offensive operations against shipping. Across the decades, submarines have often held the advantages of surprise and stealth, with ships on the surface having to play catch-up.
The loss of the KRI Nanggala raised questions about the state of Indonesia's submarine fleet. Before it went missing, the KRI Nanggala was one of five submarines operated by the Indonesian Navy. Of these, the Nanggala and its sister ship, the Cakra, were delivered by Germany to Indonesia in 1981. The three newer vessels, designed by South Korea's Daewoo Shipbuilding & Marine Engineering, were all delivered since 2016. The weak state of the submarine fleet of the world's largest archipelago marks a shocking fall for what was once a pioneer navy in the region.
One-time submarine power
Little remembered by the layperson has been the fact that Indonesia was once a major 'submarine power' in the Indian Ocean region. Under the leadership of its first president, Sukarno, Indonesia built up a strong navy, with considerable assistance from the erstwhile Soviet Union.
Sukarno had an interesting connection with India. Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru enthusiastically supported the Indonesian nationalist movement in its struggle for independence from Dutch colonial rule. In 1948, Nehru tasked his close friend and later Odiya political giant Biju Patnaik to fly out two aides of Sukarno to India, an act that outraged the Dutch colonisers.
The kind of warships Indonesia purchased from the Soviet Union included missile-carrying small patrol craft (commonly called missile boats), destroyers and frigates and, most notably, 12 'Whiskey' class diesel-electric submarines. Whiskey was the NATO codename for these vessels.
The Whiskey series of submarines was based on the design of a German 'U-Boat' that the Soviet Union seized after the end of the Second World War. The Indian Navy obtained its first submarines and missile boats from the Soviet Union only in the late 1960s.
Missile boats were a revolutionary weapon at the time as navies were only beginning to transition from the heavy artillery gun to the guided missile as their primary weapon for anti-ship warfare. As the Egyptian Navy showed by sinking the Israeli warship Eilat in late 1967 and the Indian Navy did by setting ablaze Karachi in the 1971 war, the Soviet-designed missile boat would prove to be one small platform that could deliver a deadly punch.
In his book Transition to Triumph: Indian Navy 1965-1975, retired Indian Navy vice admiral G.M. Hiranandani traced the dizzying growth of the Indonesian Navy. "Between 1959 and 1964, the Indonesian Navy had acquired... enormous fleet from Russia. It comprised one heavy cruiser, eighteen destroyers and frigates, twelve submarines, sixty-seven corvettes and motor torpedo boats, twelve missile boats, twenty-one minesweepers, eleven landing ships, six landing craft, four transport ships and four oilers."
Rift with India
Coinciding with the growth of the Indonesian Navy was Sukarno's espousal of a nationalist foreign policy that saw the island nation move away from India, despite both nations claiming to be non-aligned. Indonesia made claims to sovereignty over the Nicobar island chain in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, given their proximity to Sumatra.
Indonesia had declared its support for Pakistan in the 1965 war. Even before the war, tension persisted over the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. Hiranandani noted in his book, "In June (1965), there was an increase in Indonesian intrusions into the Nicobar Islands."
Hiranandani wrote "During the 1965 war, Indonesia's stance was markedly pro-Pakistan. There was an increase in the sightings of unidentified submarines and aircraft in the Andaman and Nicobar islands. In response to Pakistan's request for assistance, the Indonesian Navy sent two submarines and two missile boats to Karachi." However, he added the Indonesian vessels reached Karachi only after India and Pakistan announced a ceasefire.
In his book Blueprint to Bluewater: Indian Navy, 1951-65, Satyindra Singh records comments from Admiral Bhaskar Sadashiv Soman, who headed the Indian Navy at the time of the 1965 war with Pakistan.
Soman was worried about the spartan troop presence in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. Soman was quoted as saying, "I also had some intelligence on the presence of some Indonesian ships at Karachi and knew that any operation undertaken by the combined naval forces of Pakistan and Indonesia would neither be against the Indian Fleet nor the Indian mainland. It was most likely to be for the capture of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. I was quite convinced in my mind that the Indonesian Navy, knowing full well... only a small force of sailors in khaki uniform was present on these islands, could make an attempt to capture the Nicobar Island..."
The Indonesian 'threat' was also confirmed by a Pakistani official. Air marshal Asghar Khan, who was replaced as chief of the Pakistan Air Force shortly before the start of the 1965 war, had met Sukarno as an envoy.
In his book The First Round, Asghar Khan claimed Sukarno treated India's attack on Pakistan as an attack on Indonesia and declared his government was "duty bound" to give all assistance to Islamabad. Admiral Raden Eddy Martadinata, who was head of the Indonesian Navy at the time, purportedly asked Khan, "Don't you want us to take over the Andaman Islands?"
Relations between India and Indonesia saw cautious improvement after Sukarno was forced to demit office in 1967 as political and economic unrest engulfed Indonesia. India and Indonesia concluded maritime boundary agreements in 1974 and 1977 over the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. Over the past decade, both nations have grown closer in their pursuit of economic ties, cooperation on maritime security and mutual worries about China.