Military & Aerospace

Bursting Myths of 1962
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Issue Net Edition | Date : 23 Jul , 2020

Formerly head and Joint Dir. War History division, Min of Defence and co-author of official history of 1962 Sino-Indian Border Conflict.He researched as Kennedy Fellow at Presidential Archives in Boston in 2003 and had conversations with Prof JK Galbraith on this issue.  

The current bloody standoff between India and China in Ladakh has seen a deluge of TV programmes (verbal duels is a better term) and resurfacing of several long held myths about China. Politicization of this issue of national security has further muddied the waters. If public opinion (that includes military professionals) is to be guided in a safe direction, it is time to burst long held myths and discard our Sino-phobia.

Indians have a great penchant for myth-making. Historical events of the Ramayan and the Mahabharat have been so exaggerated and distorted that the kernel of truth is lost. The Modern era is no exception to this Indian practice.

Indians have a great penchant for myth-making. Historical events of the Ramayan and the Mahabharat have been so exaggerated and distorted that the kernel of truth is lost. The Modern era is no exception to this Indian practice. The 1962 military disaster in the Eastern theatre (not in the Ladakh sector) has spawned similar myths about Chinese capability. A re-read of the earliest ATMs (Army Training Memoranda) sounds tragically hilarious today. The Chinese were made to be 10 feet tall and capable of advancing distances like 60 kms in a day inthe mountains.

The fear psychosis about the Chinese percolated to the training institutions. For close to three decades after the events of 1962 we remained under this voodoo-like spell.

This was not merely an ‘academic’ issue. These myths affected our policy, strategy and tactics against China. I am disclosing no official secret by saying that we deliberately did not develop the road networks in border areas for fear that the ‘Chinese will make use them to invade us’. The classic case was the Bum La- Towang track.Originally made by the Chinese in 1962, it remained a bone/axle breaker right till 1988, with no effort being made to improve it. This was the case in other sectors as well.

The turning point was the Sumradong Chu incident of 1986-87. In a confrontation with the Chinese on the border in the Towangsector, India used its superior air portability and surprised the Chinese with a quick build up and occupation of the dominating ridge line. In the relations between India and China, this could well be called the turning point. Credit for moving from defensive defence to offensive defence must be given to then Army Chief Genera K Sundarjiand his operation ‘Chequerboard’. The improvement of border road infrastructure began only after this. Even then the mindset of the armed forces was slow to change.

The turning point was the Sumradong Chu incident of 1986-87. In a confrontation with the Chinese on the border in the Towang sector, India used its superior air portability and surprised the Chinese with a quick build up and occupation of the dominating ridge line.

From 1987 to 1990, I was with the War history division in the ministry of defence working on the history of the 1962 conflict.In a division of labour, Dr. SN Prasad, the chief editor asked me to research and writePart II of the official history. That part covered the fighting in Ladakh, air operations and the aftermath. I also contributed to major portions of the review and reflection chapter (these facts find mention in the preface to the official history). As a part of this job, I had full access to the MilitaryOperations Directorate records and the top secret Henderson Brooks- Bhagat report. As a matter of fact for the 3-year period the report was in my personal possession and I was the custodian. Due to this background I had a better understanding of the 1962 event than most officers of the Indian Army.

One of my major observations about the air operations was that these were confined to logistics support only and no offensive or close airsupport was provided to the army fighting on theground. It was almost as if the Air Force fighters and bombers did not exist. Along with the Air Force member, Air Commodore OP Sharma, our team went into the depths of the issue. One of the most curious things noticed was that the Chinese NEVER interfered with our transport aircraft-even at Chushul airfield. It was the airlift of AMX-13 light tanks and 25 pounder field guns to that battlefield that really turned the tide in that sector. There are virtually no reports of sightings of any Chinese fighter aircraft. Even the presence of helicopters or transport aircraft was a rarity.

There are two main explanations to this phenomenon. One was that the Chinese did not have resources or the airfields to use airpower. Second and equally compelling was that since theChinese knew the reality of their weakness in airpower they went out of their way not to provoke the Indian Air Force. Many reports have since surfaced on Indian Canberra bombers having a free run for photo reconnaissance missions over Tibet, with no Chinese reactions.

These omissions and commissions of the Chinese ought to have raised massive Red Flags in Indian establishment and we should have considered using air power to provide close support to ground troops as well as carry out interdiction.

But such was the disarry in Delhi in critical decision-making that a Lt. Gen.B.M.Kaul was commanding IV Corps (that had only one division) from a hospital bed in Delhi. In 1988 as our team interviewed the then ACAS Operations,AirMarshal Diwan, and raised these questions, he was frank enough to say that the Air Force was kept totally out of the decision-making loop and only read about the fighting in the next day’s newspapers.

But such was the disarry in Delhi in critical decision-making that a Lt. Gen.B.M.Kaul was commanding IV Corps (that had only one division) from a hospital bed in Delhi. In 1988 as our team interviewed the then ACAS Operations,Air Marshal Diwan, and raised these questions, he was frank enough to say that the Air Force was kept totally out of the decision-making loop and only read about the fighting in the next day’s newspapers. But he was supportive of the decision to not use offensive air support. In his words “that would have meant ‘escalation’ and India would have lost world ‘sympathy’!” This statement in some sense reflects the views of the then Air Chief whereby earning world sympathy was more important than winning the battle or at the cost of military disaster!

To be fair, Defence Minister Krishna Menon was fully in favour of the use of offensive air power but was by then a discredited person. Panic had set in and a West Bengal Congress party president reached the American Embassy to request US air support to save Calcutta from this non-existent threat of Chinesebombers. It is to be noted that the only Chinese aircraft that could have reached Calcutta was the IL-24 bomber that too at extreme range and would have been easy prey to the Hunter fighters of the IAF.

Chapter VIII of the official history, written in 1988, has dealt with this issue extensively. On a personal note, I attended the Senior Command Course in College of Combat(at Mhow) in 1988. During the course we war gamed operations in Arunachal Pradesh, the same theatre as the 1962 conflict. But drawing wrong lessons from 1962, use of air power was excluded from the war game. Such was the hold of historical memories and repeat of the blunders that the use of air power was ruled out even 26 years after the event.

There is speculation that a lobby in Delhi at that time (1962) was keen that India give up non-alignment and join the Western camp. It is this lobby that possibly sabotaged the December 1960 Chou En Li proposal of exchange of Aksai Chin for Chumbi valley and recognition of the MacMohan line. This lobby wanted India to lose militarily to Chinese and was therefore opposed to the use of air power. Most recent analyses have confirmed that the use of air power (with the timely sacking of Kaul) would have not only stopped the Chinese but actually won a victory for India- such was the effect of air superiority that we had in the battle theatre for the asking.

In 2003, I met Prof. Galbraith (who was virtually the main adviser to Nehru in those tumultuous days) but found no definitive answer. Nehru possibly suspected the ‘plot’ by the Rightist lobby within the Congress. In 1963, he removed most of these ‘suspects’ from his cabinet under the ‘Kamraj Plan’. In this era of fake news, I accept that much of this is speculation.

Nehru possibly suspected the ‘plot’ by the Rightist lobby within the Congress. In 1963, he removed most of these ‘suspects’ from his cabinet under the ‘Kamraj Plan’. In this era of fake news, I accept that much of this is speculation.

Luckily for India, we seem to have learned the lesson of treating battles as joint Air-Land theatre. Success in Kargilwould have been unthinkable without the use of air power for close support and interdiction. Going a step further, in 2019, with strikes on the Balakot terror camp, we have shed our fear of ‘escalation’ and begun to use offensive air power even against terror threat.

In the current (May-July 2020) showdown with China too, our display of offensive air power and use of superior logistic capability has deterred the Chinese. Who says we don’t learn from history?

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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Col Anil Athale

former Joint Director War History Division, Min of Defence. Currently co-ordinator of Pune based think tank 'Inpad' that is affiliated with Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan.  Also military historian and Kashmir watcher for last 28 years. He has authored a book ‘Let the Jhelum Smile Again’ and ‘Nuclear Menace the Satyagraha Approach’ published in 1996.

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2 thoughts on “Bursting Myths of 1962

  1. 99.5 people including military people do not know the difference between conventional war and mountain warfare. They do not know the latest development of rockets and missiles. The development of MANPAD, Weapon locating radar and anti-tank guided missile (ATGM), anti-tank missile, anti-tank guided weapon (ATGW) made Helicopters, Field guns and battle tank almost obsolete. In 1987 encounter with China there were no WLR and anti tanks missiles. Read this report:-
    “Here’s what an advanced Russian tank looks like after getting hit with a U.S.-made missile” . There will be less war in the future There is no weapon which can counter Hypersonic missile. Russia already made Hypersonic missile. India will develop hypersonic missiles within 2022. If required there will be no difficulty for India to get a few Hypersonic missiles from Russia. India and Isreal are the two countries in the world who had fought three front wars. The question here is whether China has got that capability?. For me, this is a small incident created by Infinite power to expose the incapability of fool, Rahul. So that his party will get a single-digit percentage of the vote in the next election and automatically lose national party status. But China will continue this kind of war against India so long Commies, Sonia Congress, and media crooks are allowed to operate in this country. Why did the fool Rahul sign an MoU with the Chinese communist party in the year2008?

  2. An explosive article. Indian minds and public weaves myths, even Army officers and Army training manuals were prey to these. 1962 chines capability , better personal weapons than India, doctrine of waves of chinese attacking soldiers ? myths? Who fights / directs the war ? Politicians or Chiefs and commanders of Forces? Political lobby can steer the militarily wise advice? This has to be decided by a clear cut Rule or Law. This needs to be thought and deliberated as a national issue because the same point was given by Military after the Kargil war that Vajpayee ruled that international boundary will not be crossed by Air force.

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