Military & Aerospace

1971 War: The Air Force in War-I
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The dramatic airlift””to Srinagar on 27 October 1947 was the turning point of the operations to defend Kashmir Valley.

This was an invaluable experience. Although primarily oriented to meet the Chinese threat, the exercise indirectly brought out the weaknesses against Pakistan as well. On consolidating the lessons learnt from the exercise, a programme was drafted to create an air defence infrastructure for early warning and communication, and orders were placed for high-priority requirements.

The process of setting up essentials against Pakistan started early in 1964 and was only partly completed when the 1965 conflict occurred. Its conclusion stopped all Western aid, and that left the infrastructure incomplete in both aspects. India tried to negotiate with the American suppliers directly, but Washington’s embargo on the sale of war material and the rigid attitude of the Johnson and Nixon Administrations2 came in the way of clinching the deal. As a result, India turned in desperation to other sources and started to develop indigenous production.

In view of the newly emerged Chinese threat IAF commitments increased manifold, and with this an increase in force level was indicated. After much debate, the Government accepted a target of 45 operational squadrons, thus making IAF the fifth largest standing air force in the world. This force level was scheduled to be completed over a plan period of five years. The process was underway when hostilities with Pakistan triggered the 1965 conflict. According to the Institute of Strategic Studies, London, the relative strengths of the two air forces were: India—four bomber squadrons (Canberras), ten fighter squadrons (Hunters), three fighter squadrons (Gnats) and several others (Vampires and Toofanis), ten to 15 transport squadrons (C-47, C-119, Antonovs and Viscounts); Pakistan—two bomber squadrons (Canberras), five fighter squadrons (one Starfighter, four Sabres), three to four transport squadrons.

Book_India_wars_sincePakistan struck in the Chhamb sector west of the Chenab on 1 September3 with an infantry division supported by two armoured regiments. The sector was held by an infantry brigade and a tank squadron. Taken completely by surprise, the brigade fell back against superior armoured strength. The invasion force secured the line of Manawar Wali Tawi by afternoon and was poised to cross the river. As the afternoon advanced, the Pakistani intention and strength became discernible, and it was decided that the only way to thwart it was to bring the Air Force into action. It is said that Gen Chaudhuri asked for air support at about 1630 hours and within an hour and a half Prime Minister Shastri gave his approval. The first air strike was launched at 1801 hours the same day. In all, 28 sorties were flown from Pathankot, and of them 12 were flown by No 45 Squadron with Vampire FB-52 aircraft, and 16 by No 3 and No 31 Squadrons with Mysteres.4


  1. Asian Recorder, Vol IX, No 50, “First Joint Air Training Exercises,” p. 5558.
  2. Asian Recorder, Vol XI, No 50, p. 6813.
  3. Asian Recorder, Vol XI, No 40, “Massive Pakistani Attack on Chhamb,” p. 6687.
  4. Asian Recorder, ibid., “Air Battles over Chhamb,” p. 6688.

The Vampires were first in action, and four were soon lost to the Pakistani Sabres and anti-aircraft fire. The Vampires, having a slower speed, were no match for the Pakistani F-100s and in action within 45 minutes of the F-86s. The Mysteres went into action within 45 miniutes of the Vampires. They flew in groups of four and by sunset had destroyed some 14 Patton tanks and 30-odd soft-skinned vehicles with their rockets and cannon, making as many as six runs each over the traget area. Although the Mystere IV-A was adequate in a ground support role, it had its limitations in handling characterisics and manoevrability as a fighter. To make up for these shortfalls it was found expedient to fly at low heights with Gantescorts.

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On 6 September, when full-fledged fighting began on the western front, Air Marshal Arjan Singh concentrated on destroying the PAF air bases, mounting facilities and aircraft canght on the ground and in the air. He employed mainly Hunter Canberras for the purpose. Canberras raided the major air bases at Peshawar and Chaklala on the opening night, and thereafter flew about 200 counter-air sorties against them and other Pakistani air bases, including those at Alknal, Peshawar, Kohat, Chak Jamumra and Raisalwala. The Hunters could hold their own in air combat as was demonstrated over Halwara airfield on the very first day, when they shot down two raiding Sabres.

So apt had IAF become in innovation that it attacked the Kohala bridge along the Rawalpindi-Srinagar highway with bombs rolled out of the open doors of a Dakota by the bare feet of the ejection crew.

This encouraged Ajan Singh to deploy them deeper inside Pakistan and they were accordingly used to attack the major air bases at Sargodha, Chaklala, Peshawar and Kohat. In the late stages of the war, Canberra interdictors attacked with rockets and destroyed the vital radar installation at Badin in Sind. Arjan Singh later justified these attacks on the bases and connected facilities as part of the air war. He hoped thereby to cause high attrition of the aircraft availability of PAF and damage facilities in such a way as would adversely affect the sustenance rate of hostile aircraft in the air both in tactical as well as strategic areas of operations.

After this destruction he visualized that such a favourable air situation would be achieved that IAF elements inferior in performance Pakistani fighters would be able to operate with impunity and thus augment ground support. Despite his claim at the end of the war that he had destroyed nearly half of Pakistan’s air fleet, he failed to achieve freedom of the Pakistani skies and was unable to prevent Pakistani raids on sensitive Indian areas up to the last day of war.

In preparation for war on India, Pakistan had painstakingly developed a network of military airfields covering the entire border from Jammu and Kashmir in the north, the plains of Punjab in the centre, and the Sind desert in the south. These airfields were sited in three tiers. The main air bases like Sargodha, Chaklala and Masroor were sited in medium depth, with satellite fields like Mianwali, Chander and Jacobabad located closer to the border to achieve better range and dispersal if operational facilities at the main air bases were neutralised temporarily or permanently. In addition, Pakistan had a complex of rear airfields like Quetta, Kohat, Wana and Jiwani sited well in depth which would act as dispersal areas if India attacked the forward air bases.

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This wider choice of airfields endowed PAF with flexibility to operate with greater freedom and sense of security than the Indian Air Force. The bulk of the Pakistani aircraft were withdrawn at night to the sanctuary of the rear airfields when Arjan Singh abortively struck the forward or main air bases. Although India enjoyed three to one overall numerical superiority over Pakistan in frontline aircraft, a third of its strength consisted of obsolescent machines. In fact, the superiority in comparable combat aircraft was only two to one.

The performance of the units operating in Jammu and Kashmir was praiseworthy and won undying admiration from soldiers and senior officers alike.

In a short war, unless hostile aircraft are caught unawares on the ground in a pre-emptive attack it is difficult to cripple the enemy air force by counter-air action in the time span such a war allows. This is especially so when the chances of recovery have increased considerably as a result of modern technological advances which permit speedy repair of damage to airfields and communication and radar facilities. Arjan Singh was employing a Second World War concept without much apparent success, as from the very outset of operations PAF was closely supporting the ground actions of the Pakistani Army with such telling effect that within the first few days it had made it difficult for the Indian Army to operate in daylight.

Ajan Singh and his boys were fighting an invisible war, remote from the areas where battle decisions were being achieved, much to the bitterness of the foot soldier, who seldom saw our aircraft although he was harassed and mauled by Pakistani aircraft constantly and with murderous venom. Arjan Singh’s efforts against the air bases were far too dispersed to effect the attrition or crippling of PAF’s operational facilities. On the other hand, PAF continued to raid the Indian air bases day and night, and by perfecting its ground support procedures and techniques it was able to provide very intimate and swift air support to the land operations, thus causing heavy casualties of men and equipment. There were occasions when PAF on its own beat back Indian Army attacks, and others when they blazed the trail for a ground advance with considerable success.

Having failed to cripple PAF, Arjan Singh turned his effort towards interdiction in depth in a big way. Interdiction missions were flown by Canberras, Hunters, Mysteres and Toofanis, supported by Gnats, against the rail and road communication network southwest and northeast of Lahore to prevent a buildup in the Lahore and Sialkot sectors. Various claims were made of destroying trains carrying tanks and other vehicles, oil and other war material. Despite this destruction, and the greatly exaggerated success of the interdiction achieved, there was no letup in the intensity of the Pakistani land operations.

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Arjan Singh and his planners had failed to realize that short modern wars are fought from forward dumps created in the preparatory stage. Deep interdiction of the type IAF set out to achieve has only a long-term effect in war. What is required in short wars is close interdiction of the combat zone where its effects should tell on the land battle within a matter of 24 to 48 hours. In the event, IAF wasted its effort.

Book_India_wars_sinceBy the end of the conflict India claimed 73 enemy planes1 destroyed nearly half the strength Pakistan started the war with—against an Indian loss of about half that number. These claims were belied by a physical count carried out later by foreign military attaches. In spite of well-organized publicity and an endless spate of awards dished out to Indian pilots2 in the course of the war, the fact remains that PAF came out better in the end. There were many reasons for this. The foremost was better ordination of effort at the level of higher direction of the war. The available effort, after due allowance for security of bases, was used effectively to support intimately the land battles, where decisions were being arrived at.

Continued…: The Air Force in War-II


  1. Asian Recorder, Vol XI, No 41, “Indian Gains During War,” pp. 6707-6708.
  2. Asian Recorder, ibid. “Gallantry Awards to IAF pilots,” p. 6709.
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