Could have India won the 1962 war?
Although there is still much speculation about whether India could have won the 1962 war with China, the outcome would have probably been different, had the government of the day, described as ‘criminally negligent’ and mislead by intelligence agencies, heeded saner voices within the military establishment and acted accordingly. Must not the dispensation then bear the ignominy of a devastating defeat it caused to be inflicted upon the Indian Army, which fought honourably, in the numbing cold, without snow shoes, winter clothing, artillery or air support?
Keeping the Indian Air Force out of the border war must rank as one of the gravest ever lapses committed by any government.
The do or die spirit of the Indian jawan, very much in evidence during the Sino-Indian border engagement and wars fought with Pakistan, is beyond dispute. Nothing catches its essence better than what this columnist had noted in the South Asian Monitor: “In spite of overwhelming Chinese superiority in numbers, equipment and logistics, scattered pockets of Indian soldiers, armed only with vintage Lee Enfield Rifles, some submachine guns and mortars, held off the enemy as long as they could, fighting until the last round and the last man.” If only the political leaders had the foresight to provide the Indian Army, one of the world’s finest, with proper weapons, acclimatized and trained in mountain warfare, it would have given a befitting reply to the Dragon.
However, keeping the Indian Air Force (IAF) out of the border war must rank as one of the gravest ever lapses committed by any government. Highly motivated air warriors, primed to attack and bomb enemy positions and break his back, despite being hampered by a lack of spares and reverses on the ground, were aghast at the passivity. Nehru reportedly shot down the proposal of an Air Officer (intelligence) to immediately deploy the IAF in 1962. The cabinet went into a huddle, numbed by the fears of Chinese retaliation and bombing of an industrial complex like Calcutta, along with Tezpur and Guwahati, which pre-empted any likelihood of deploying the IAF.
A panicky prime minster also lost no time in firing a missive to Washington, seeking massive air support, completely oblivious of the fact that the high altitude airfields in Tibet lacked the infrastructure to support or sustain offensive operations against India, which had all the airspace advantages on its side. The United States, caught in the Cuban Missile Crisis, shot down his pleas as impracticable for obvious reasons. Given PLA Air Force’s emphasis on air defence, it could not have possibly deployed its offensive strength against Indian cities, according to Air Marshal Ranjit Singh Bedi (retd).The perception about China having active airbases at Rudok, Gartok and Tashigong could not also be substantiated.
Although the Army felt let down, it must not be forgotten that the Intelligence Bureau (IB), following obsolete British era police procedures, surprisingly overlooked a vital piece of intelligence; namely the state of enemy air force, which happened to be at its weakest in 1962. A critical factor that could have helped India turned the tide of war. The habitual folly not only cost the nation dearly then but also 36 years later in Kargil, as it fumbled in the dark for weeks, regarding Pakistani presence on those hill tops. India ended up ceding more than 43,000 square km of its territory to China. The IAF did have better maintained and more advanced versions like Mysteres, Gnats, Hunters and the Canberras, than the MIG-15s, MIG-17s and some MIG-19s, IL-28 bombers in the Chinese inventory.
The Soviet pull-out from China in August 1960 resulted in the total suspension of supply of spares, leaving its aeronautical industry in tatters, and eroded the serviceability of its fleet, according to western sources.
Pointedly, IL-28 bombers were the only ones that could have threatened Indian positions in the eastern sector. But then the Soviet pull-out from China in August 1960 resulted in the total suspension of supply of spares, leaving its aeronautical industry in tatters, and eroded the serviceability of its fleet, according to western sources. The withdrawal nearly grounded the fledgling air force and impacted its morale. Besides, the discord with Taiwan also necessitated the mainland’s diversion of large PLA and air force contingents to the island country, which placed a heavy burden on its economy.
These conclusions have also been borne out by Wing Commander Jag Mohan Nath’s experiences of flying Canberras in top secret reconnaissance missions over the Aksai Chin and Tibet between 1960 and 1962, uncovering the massive PLA build on the world’s highest plateau, according to a report filed by Claude Arpi. Nath, the recipient of a bar to Mahavir Chakra, whose citation stated he undertook “a number of hazardous operations . . . over difficult mountain terrain, both by day and night, in adverse weather conditions,” averred that Chinese air force existed only in name. However, the peacenik prime minister and his acerbic deputy, Krishna Menon, dismissed the air warrior’s clinching evidence of Chinese presence. A political leadership, conditioned by decades of agitations and protests during the pre-independence phase and jolted by the latest developments, despite ample warning by Sardar Patel, stood exposed in all its strategic naivety.
“If we had sent a few airplanes into Tibet,” Wing Commander Nath told Arpi, “we could have wiped the Chinese out and everything could have been different in the 1962 war. The political leadership did not believe me that China had no Air Force. Can you imagine what would have happened if we had used the IAF at that time? The Chinese would have never dared do anything.” It may be recalled that Jawaharlal Nehru, as the newly minted ‘icon’ of the non-aligned movement, also helped China secure a seat at the UN Security Council, besides virtually legitimizing its forcible occupation of Tibet and ‘gifting’ a huge chunk of territory in J&K to Pakistan.
The IAF could have also disrupted Chinese supplies lines, but for the shenanigans of a myopic dispensation. Although India did have a few other aces up its sleeve, circumstances conspired to foreclose them. For instance, Major G.C. Khosla of the 13 Dogra, who later commanded and led the unit in the 1971 war, had formed a team to disrupt the long enemy supply lines, extending all the way to Tibet. He would have utilised the expertise he had gained as the first ever US Army Ranger certified officer from India, to conduct devastating hit and run raids that would have delivered the maximum surprise and shock and shattered PLA morale. But then the sudden declaration of a ceasefire rendered his plans redundant, unfortunately! The Ranger School has been described as the most physically and mentally demanding course in the U.S. Army.
(Incidentally, the younger sibling of Air Officer referred to above, serving as AoC-in-C, Western Command, took the initiative to bomb Peshawar in 1965. His action destroyed Pakistan’s supply depot and lines, but not before incurring Prime Minister Shastri’s displeasure, even while pre-empting a repeat of 1962 engagement. This nugget of information has been provided by SS Aiyer, a reader commenting on a write-up of Air Marshal Ranjit Singh Bedi, in this journal).