Military & Aerospace

1971 War: Airborne Operations
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The Pakistanis made one or two halfhearted efforts to remove the roadblock at the Poongli bridge, but they were beaten back.

A report issued the next day said the enemy tried to outflank the Poongli bridge but hit the dropping zone gun position and suffered further casualties. Some of them sought refuge in neighboring villages. About midday a party of about 250 men approached the battalion position with their weapons held high above their heads with the obvious desire to surrender. They were allowed to close within 100 yards of the front line and told to lay down their arms.

For some inexplicable reason, they decided to go to the ground and start firing. That was the beginning of a murderous exchange of fire which cost them very heavy casualties. By 1300 hours on 12 December, the total enemy casualties were 229 killed, 20 wounded, and 42 captured, including their two officers.

Since nothing happened during the rest of the day, numerous patrols were sent out on 13 December to comb the nearby villages and surrounding area, but no trace was found of the remainder of the enemy column. The detachment sent earlier to establish a roadblock at the Mulia bridge arrived as the enemy vehicles were crossing it and managed to engage some vehicles.

By now Jamalpur and Mymensingh had been captured and the advance of 95 Mountain Brigade Group and FJ Sector resumed. Radio contact was established with the advance guard about 1630 hours on 12 December, and half an hour later the linkup with the main body took place, thus bringing to a conclusion the airborne aspect of the operation. In this operation, the battalion won a total of 14 awards: one MVC, six VrC, four SM, and three mentions in dispatches. Rather on the liberal side for only an ambush action.

Pakistan endeavored to use these commandos in 1965 against Indian airfields and air signal units as deep as Ambala and Halwara.

Total casualties the battalion group suffered in the airborne operation were four killed and as many wounded, including one JCO. Despite the claim made, the total booty of the 24-hour airborne operation was 45 prisoners of war, four vehicles, three heavy mortars (4.2 inch), four infantry mortars (three-inch), one 3.5-inch RCL, one sten gun, six rifles, two spare LMG barrels and 56 boxes of belted ammunition, .303 inch.

Prisoners of war included two officers of 33 Mortar Battery, 11 other ranks of 31 Baluch, two gunners from 83 Mortar Battery of the regular army, and nine Rangers along with 21 rank and file of EPP, a paramilitary organization. Detailed analysis revealed that this vehicle column belonged to 83 Mortar Battery gun group and possibly 31 Baluch mortar platoon. The weapons and personnel actually captured were traveling in the four trucks damaged in the fire fight on the night of 11 December. If the enemy suffered casualties to the tune of 229 killed, as claimed, where did their personal arms disappear, especially when it is said that about 250 Pakistanis had advanced up to 100 yards of forward defended line with arms held high above their heads?

Since the remainder of the vehicle column ambushed on the night of 11 December was never captured, they might have managed to make their way to Dacca across the river by the uncovered crossings. According to Fazal Muqeem, about 900 men of the Jamalpur/Mymensingh garrison managed to reach Dacca. If the aim was the utter destruction of the withdrawing force, arrangements should have been made in proper ambush style to block the retreat of the vehicular column once its head was engaged.

Whatever the task the planners visualized, whether utter destruction of the withdrawing enemy or to block their retreat to gain time, the employment of a battalion group of paratroopers was certainly a costly way of doing it as a whole, and the method employed by the battalion was no way of achieving it, and the results shown in the way of booty were not commensurate with the effort spent on the operation. It would certainly not stand the scrutiny of cost analysis.

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This task could have, in the first instance, been carried out by the Siddiqi group of Freedom Fighters on their own, and if still considered necessary, a commando company group would have footed the bill. In fact, the active interdiction of the road along the greater part of the stretch between the Mulia and Poongli bridges through a series of ambushes, by even a commando platoon inducted into the area by ground infiltration or by helicopter, could have done better. A paradrop, unless carried out at night, generally gives away this type of task and jeopardizes the surprise element of an ambush.

A pertinent question is the wisdom of maintaining such a specialized force at great cost. India lacks the resource capability to establish an independent airhead in the depth areas of its potential enemies and conduct land operations from them away from the main front. The only capability endowed by the existing resources is that of holding tactical objectives for a limited period of 24 to 48 hours before linkup by land advance takes place.

 India would never have the capability of achieving a favourable air situation against Pakistan or China to allow paratrooping in any depth.

Such tasks can be easily carried out by heliborne troops, and for this no specialization is required except for emplaning and a preliminary introduction in repelling from a Hover. It also enables normal troops to be used for such tasks, thus extending the flexibility of employment. The helicopter gives the capability of both induction and exfiltration by air, and this is an added advantage as once paratroops are dropped they cannot be easily lifted in the event of an adverse situation.

After independence Pakistan tailored its paratroop requirement to the existing airlift facilities and went in for special service group in the shape of a commando organization. Small commando parties were visualized to be paradropped deep in enemy territory for sabotage against chosen strategic targets. The exfiltration of such parties was to be carried out by surface transport captured from the enemy or on foot. Pakistan endeavored to use these commandos in 1965 against Indian airfields and air signal units as deep as Ambala and Halwara. The commandos failed to achieve their aim as they were captured by the hostile population before they could even gather themselves on landing. Most of them were badly beaten tip when caught hiding in sugarcane fields, and some met a cruel death at the hands of enraged villagers aided by policemen.

None of them was able to carry out even the semblance of their allotted tasks. Little did Pakistan realize that this required a drop close to chosen airfields, which were put under heavy surveillance. And how could a Pakistani commando hope to exfiltrate over such vast distances through an area of Punjab thickly populated by an extremely hostile Sikh and Hindu population? The Pakistani commando operations were a dismal failure as their very concept lacked practicability. The experiment was not repeated in 1971. Pakistan had learnt its lesson.

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What should India do in this regard? Parachute formations have no future in the context of the type of wars India is required to fight on the subcontinent and should be done away with in the foreseeable future. India would never have the capability of achieving a favourable air situation against Pakistan or China to allow paratrooping in any depth. Even if such a favorable situation is possible, the Indian Army’s capability, with current tactical concepts, is very limited to effect a timely linkup. Under the circumstances, it is profitable for India to develop further its heliborne capability, as this endows short range and medium-range air induction as well as quicker air exfiltration in the event of adverse tactical situations and enables a faster switchover from one task to another.

The recent acquisition of MI-8 helicopters from the Soviet Union is a step in the right direction and should be further exploited in helicopter-armed fire support in battle. The parachute formations and units should be converted to regular all-purpose formations/units. If required, parachuting may be kept alive by training commando groups in this role.


  1. Asian Recorder, Vol VIII, No 48, “Invasion of NEFA,” p. 4909.
  2. Asian Recorder, Vol XI, No 25, “Indo-Pak Fight in Rann of Kutch – a Narrative,” p. 6509.
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2 thoughts on “1971 War: Airborne Operations

  1. The author Sukhwant Singh is a typical naysayer that thrives on making derogatory articles and books and comments on the IA and its leadership. Perhaps the man is a frustrated officer who typically shouldnt have gone beyond a Major let alone Major General. His articles make for laughable readings and he has a habit of cutting incidents to half truths to tailor make them to suit his agenda. He literally spits on the salt that has fed him. In hindi we call such people namakharam, possibly the worst trait in a soldier in an Army that prides itself on Naam,Namak and Nishaan.This article on airborne forces and why it need not exist is totally delusional.Perhaps Sukhwant Singh is senile.

  2. This author Satinder Singh is quite a clown. He specialises only in making derogatory comments of the Army and its leadership through its history. He thinks hes a know all but he actually knows Fk all.

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