Military & Aerospace

1971 War: The Air Force in War-I
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Strategic requirements dictated modernisation of the regular RAF units through a re-equipment programme with newer types of aircraft and expansion of the force in India as a whole for ever-increasing operational commitments.

India’s foreign exchange reserves, accumulated in Britain as war debts, helped at this stage of procurement, but dried up later. Since India could afford the foreign exchange at that time the criterion for acceptance was quality rather than low price or easy terms of payment. The French Ouragan was purchased in 1953 largely because the British were reluctant to part with their Meteors. Similarly, Canberra bombers and Mystere IV-A fighters were selected in 1957 despite the offer of Soviet IL-28s and MIG-17s at almost one-third the price of the other craft.

Orders for the Hawker Hunter were put through only when the British Government consented to release the superior Mark-6 for export. Menon pushed through this order despite IAF preference for the Mirage. It is significant that in this period India did not go in for Russian aircraft because it wished to adhere to Western weapons systems, and perhaps more importantly to avoid charges of political leanings towards such a source of supply, especially when India depended on Western aid to implement its development plans.

In the transport wing, apart from maintaining VIP communication flights, the capability of paradropping one battalion’s worth of parachutists with accompanying equipment involving heavy drops was achieved. In this period Otters replaced Devons.

The British Viscount was added to the Dakota but was soon transferred to civil airlines. A few American Bell and Sikorsky helicopters were added to introduce the rotary wing to India. A fleet of American Fairchild C-119 Flying Boxcars, also known as Packet short and medium range transport aircraft, augmented the Dakota fleet. About the same time, Russia presented India with two IL-14 commercial transport aircraft.

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The Viscount and the Ilyushin were considered and tested for possible military use but eventually, contrary to expert advice, Krishna Menon decided to manufacture the British HS (Hawker Siddeley) 748 under licence as a replacement for the Dakota. The agreement for indigenous production was signed in 1959.1The HS-748 controversy is too well known to be repeated. Although some pilots call it an underpowered and uneconomical aircraft, it continues to be used both by IAF and Indian Airlines on secondary routes. A military-version of the HS-748 with a wide door for paratrooping has done well in trials.

In recognition of its services in the war IAF received the title, Royal and its pilots won one Distinguished Service Order and a number of other decorations. Quite a few like Mazumdar and Baba Meher Singh became flying legends.

Implementation of Nehru’s “forward policy” in the Himalayas pushed the Army into inaccessible areas of Ladakh and NEFA where its administrative support had to depend primarily on air maintenance both by landing and paradrop. There was an active scouting for helicopters and transport aircraft capable of high-altitude performance in 1959. The Government went in for Russian MI-4 helicopters in 1960,2 and also for AN-12 heavy air-freighters and a few Canadian Caribous in preference to American S-62 helicopters and C-130 transport aircraft partly because of the ruggedness in performance of the Russian aircraft and partly because of easy payment in rupees.

Chinese policies in the Himalayas, the growing menace of insurgency and civil wars in Southeast Asia, and even more the acquisition of supersonic Starfighters by Pakistan, sent India in frantic search for similar aircraft for IAF. The programme Menon initiated for the manufacture of the HF-24 fighter was in trouble for lack of a suitable engine, and further delay would have entailed the maintenance of an increasingly obsolescent fighter arm.

Book_India_wars_sinceThe potential of the HF-24 as a supersonic fighter of world class was becoming doubtful, and Chinese aircraft operating from Tibetan bases were increasingly violating Indian air space. To acquire a fighter to match the F-104 India contracted for the Soviet MIG-21, with licensing facilities for its manufacture in India. This aircraft possessed no obvious advantage over the British Lightning, the French Mirage and the American Starfighter, but manufacturing rights and rupee payment seemed to have decided the issue. Although the Western types could not be had, the MIG-21 was still a decided improvement on the aircraft in service with IAF.


  1. Asian Recorder, Vol V, No 30, “Manufacture of Turbojets,” p. 2787.
  2. Asian Recorder, Vol VI, No 17, “Armed Forces Strengthened,” p. 3278.

On the eve of the Chinese invasion in 1962 IAF constituted the largest and most effective air power in the region. It had organized itself into two wings for operational command and control, namely Western Air Command to look after the northern Himalayas, Pakistan-occupied Kashmir and West Pakistan with headquarters at Palam, New Delhi, and Eastern Air Command, formed at Shillong to meet the growing commitments in the areas bordering China, Burma and East Pakistan. The total strength of the force was 25 operational squadrons, with the capability of raising about seven reserve squadrons from training and other miscellaneous aircraft in the inventory.

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In addition to the Auxiliary Air Force, manpower included the Air Defence Reserve, consisting of technicians and fliers and the regular reserve of IAF men who had retired or had been released from service. One thing is certain: IAF, unlike the other services, had never been starved of money, and its expansion programme had been allowed to flow uninterrupted on the initiative of the politician and without much canvassing on the part of the service. As a result IAF’s growth was so haphazard that by October 1962 it possessed an extraordinary mix of aircraft, some 30-odd types of British, American, Canadian, French, Russian and Indian manufacture, with their attendant problems, especially of logistics. This magnified the problems of maintenance, especially because technically qualified personnel were lacking, multiplicity of spares needed, and continual retraining of ground and air crew.

Although some IAF officers had converted to transport aircraft individually, no transport unit was raised as such.

Bureaucratic failure to produce timely and accurate lists of spares and the strange behaviour of the Government, which spent freely on buying aircraft but displayed miserliness in providing spares, brought about a sharp decline in the serviceability curve of our frontline aircraft. This was aggravated by difficulties in acquiring spares for aircraft which were already obsolete in their countries of manufacture. Spares had to be acquired at times from third countries, or had to b specially manufactured at great cost.

Funds released to the base repair depots at Kanpur were spent on new projects rather than on keeping the existing inventory airworthy. It would have been advisable to procure and stock sufficient spares at the time a particular aircraft was purchased, but the tendency seemed to be to show the acquisition of as large a number of planes as possible with the funds available at the cost of their later maintenance.

The development of the requisite infrastructure in the way of air bases and forward satellite airfields was directed primarily against Pakistan. Training was biased towards supporting land battles in Punjab and Kashmir. Air defences against the potential Pakistani threat was organized on the Second World War pattern, but without much teeth as it lacked early warning radar, both high and low looking.

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In the absence of a satisfactory warning system reliance was placed on early strikes against Pakistani bases to cripple their air force. The overall two to one superiority in aircraft was considered adequate to achieve the desired effect in a prolonged conflict between the two countries. But nothing had been done to meet the contingency of a clash with China, even on a limited scale. Defence of Indian cities in the Gangetic Plain and the industries of West Bengal and Bihar was ignored altogether although it was known that, unlike Pakistan, China would not be deterred from attacking these sensitive targets for fear of counteraction.

Partition of the country into Pakistan and India on the eve of independence changed the entire context in which the British assessment of the force levels of the services had been made.

Air defence against China was not even thought of. Although a few airfields along the outer fringes of the Himalayas could be activated in an emergency, they could not sustain more than four to five squadrons in operations. Moreover, IAF had no serious training in tactical support of land battles in the rugged and mountainous terrain of NEFA and Sikkim. The narrow and deep valleys encountered in these regions presented flying constraints to the jetfighters in service. Transport capacity was fully utilised in Ladakh and had little to spare for NEFA and Assam.

This inherent inadequacy decided Nehru to keep IAF out of the NEFA and Ladakh battles against the Chinese. It would have been imprudent to escalate the conflict in the air when our preparations were so woefully inadequate to meet the Chinese threat. IAF participation in NEFA was confined to limited reconnaissance with Toofani aircraft in the rear areas to spot Chinese infiltration and outflanking movements. No offensive sorties were undertaken in conformity with the Government’s decision. The Fairchild Packet fleet was utilized to fly in troop and artillery reinforcements to the infantry brigade engaged in battle at Chushul in Ladakh. These aircraft performed the remarkable feat of transporting a troop of dismantled AMX tanks to defend Chushul airfield against Chinese assaults towards the end of October.

The entire resources of Indian Airlines were employed along with the IAF transport fleet to fly formations from the plains of Punjab and elsewhere to Tezpur, Gauhati and Dibrugarh to reinforce NEFA, and to Bagdogra for induction in Sikkim. This was the first time troop lifts of such magnitude were attempted in India, and they proved a welcome contribution to overcoming time consuming surface movement. The Hercules (C – 130), rushed in by the US Air Force, helped in lifting heavy equipment and IAF men thus got the opportunity to work with foreign counterparts for the first time after independence. After the ceasefire the old and badly flogged Packets were by 200 C-119 B aircraft as part of the emergency military aid from the US. These aircraft were later modified by fitting an auxiliary jet engine for enhanced power to improve their performance for high-altitude operation.

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Fully conscious of the glaring gaps in air defence arrangements, IAF conducted an exercise in collaboration with USAF and RAF in 1963 1 to pinpoint its weaknesses and seek remedies as part of the emergency military aid. The exercise, named Shiksha, fully deployed the most modern and sophisticated equipment in the way of high and low early warning radars and the communications for the instant dissemination of pickup reports. In addition, Britain and the US brought their frontline defence aircraft, and this enabled IAF Hunters to operate alongside RAF Javelins and USAF F-100 Ds to protect vulnerable points.

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