Military & Aerospace

Lessons from the 1962 Sino-Indian War in Ladakh
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Issue Book Excerpts: The Crimson Chinar | Date : 19 Nov , 2016

This is the third and concluding part of the Sino-Indian war, and although, it covers the wider canvas of the war, it focuses on Ladakh. The previous parts of the extracts from the book: The Crimson Chinar – The Kashmir Conflict: A Politico-Military Perspective that form this series, posted on this site before this: The Overview of the War and Occuparion of Tibet and the American Secret War are recommended to be read prior to reading this part.  

…these are as relevant in the current strategic Sino-India strategic discourse, as they were in the bleak autumn of 1962.

Before coming to the lessons of the war, since, there remains a major controversy on why did India not employ Air Power in 1962, the extract of the relevant part is being covered prior to highlighting the macro lessons from the war – these are as relevant in the current strategic Sino-India strategic discourse, as they were in the bleak autumn of 1962.

The Employment of the Air Force

The Indian Air Force in 1962

After the experience of the first Kashmir War and threats emanating from China, the Government of India (GOI) approved the IAF force structure for a 45 Squadron Force by the end of 1961; composed as 35 Squadrons of Combat Aircraft and 10 of Transport Aircraft.  However, by the end of 1962, the actual strength remained at 36 Squadrons, which included 10 of the Auxiliary Air Force. The delay for raising the additional 9 Squadrons was due to bureaucratic delays in making the choice. The Air Force wanted the F-104 Star fighter from the US, but this was not forthcoming due to objections from Pakistan and the only alternative was the MIG -21 from the Soviet Union. This had been contracted for, but were still not available when the war broke out. With a total of 559 fighter/bomber aircraft, the IAF of 1962 was a formidable force, especially in terms of quality as compared to the PLA Air Force (PLAAF).[1] There was also the factor of appreciating what the PLAAF could possibly throw against India and this depended on the capabilities of her aircraft and the Air Bases she had from where operations could be mounted as also the threat she anticipated from her own eastern coast. Qualitatively, the IAF had an edge as the MIG 15 and 17’s of the PLAAF were obsolete aircraft and only the MIG 19’s were comparable to the Hunters. A quantitative tabulation of fighter assets is given in Table 3-1 below.

Table 3 – 1  :  Comparison of the Fighter & Bomber Assets[2]

CHINA – PLAF INDIA – IAF
MIG 15 & 17              –   1350 Oragans (Toofani)           –   57
MIG 19                      –    150 Vampires                       –   224
Illusion 28                  –    500-600 Gnats                              –   33
  Hunters                          –   140
  Mysteres                        –   105
Total- 1500-1600  Total    –    559

Deployment of Fighter/Bomber Assets

…it seems no intelligence assessment of what the PLAAF could/would deploy against India was undertaken in any professional manner.

Eastern Sector.  Though the bulk of the Indian assets continued to be deployed against Pakistan, by 1960, the IAF had also deployed two Squadrons of Toofanis and Vampires each at Tezpur, Chabua, Jorhat and the Bagdogra Air Bases and in addition, two Squadrons of Hunters were also deployed nearby at Kalaikunda. The infrastructure was considered adequate to meet any threat in the east, and if the requirement came, additional assets could be made available from the aircraft deployed against Pakistan. On the other side, it was assessed that China would use her three airfields at Jeykundu (12,467 feet), Chamdo (10,597 feet) and Nachu (14,763 feet) in the east, though the utility of Nachu was limited due to its height. Lanchou, Zinning and Kunming were too far away from the front, hence they could not contribute directly but their use as feeder bases and for bomber and air transport roles remained significant. It can be seen from the heights of these airfields that the carrying capacity of aircraft would get affected. On the other side, the IAF had the distinct advantage of having bases at lower altitudes.

Western Sector.   The Western sector had an edge over the eastern, since relocation of aircraft by the IAF for meeting the threats was easier. The airfields that China could use were Khotan and Kashgar and both were located at heights between 4000 to 5000 feet; hence the payload factor was favourable compared to her airfields in the east. The Western Command assessment of 9 April, 1960 was that the Chinese could interfere with our own Air support operations as also carry out offensive air raids against our forward posts.[3] On the other hand, airbases like Leh, Thoise and Kargil, which were closer to Eastern Ladakh, could not support fighter operations. As a result, support had to come from the plains, restricting loiter time over the area and the striking range.

India grossly overestimated the capabilities of the PLAAF.

Threat Assessment

As tensions escalated, the Indians carried out an analysis on the capability of the PLAAF against India but unfortunately, this was based on imprecise intelligence and based on western inputs.  In the words of Air Commodore Jasjit Singh, “As regards the balance of air power, it seems no intelligence assessment of what the PLAAF could/would deploy against India was undertaken in any professional manner.”[4]He goes on to say that the assessment made was based on the aggregate ‘bean count’ without assessing the doctrine, strategy or calculation of the deployable air effort and useful payloads. It may be pertinent to point out that in 1962, the bulk of the PLAAF was deployed to meet the threat across the Taiwan Straits and therefore little effort and that too of dubious quality could have been brought to bear on India. However, to be fair, in 1962, the IAF, like the Army, had no institution where the employment of air power could be systematically analysed. The Intelligence Directorate of the Air HQ had no capabilities to assess the IB data, let alone make independent assessments. As a result, the assessment was alarmist and became one of the factors for the Indian decision to keep her fighter/bomber fleet grounded. This was to prove another monumental blunder for which India suffered.

Air Maintenance

India had failed to build up adequate ground infrastructure to counter the Chinese threat; hence, the Army was forced to depend upon Air maintenance. However, the air effort possible could only meet only half of the requirement of the Army. The Indian transport aircraft holdings[5]are given in the table, and due to the paucity, requirements of the eastern theatre were outsourced to the ‘Kalinga Airlines.’

Table 3-2 : Transport Aircraft of the IAF in 1962

Type of aircraft Quantity
AN-12 1 Squadron (7x aircraft)
Dakota 2Squadrons* (8 x aircraft each)
Fairchild Packet 2 Squadrons*
IL -14 1 Squadron*
Otter/Caribou (Light Transport) 2 Squadrons

 …the final decision not to use the Air Force offensively was taken after the Chinese had started their offensive and it was a decision ‘taken under the counsel of fears.

Helicopters. The first of the Helicopter Units had been set up in 1960 and by the time of war, India had three units. The Unit for Ladakh was equipped with the versatile MI-4 transport helicopter which proved invaluable for the movement of men and supplies. In fact, the first operational move of a company in helicopters in the Indian context was carried out by this unit. The other two units were deployed in the east and the third was being raised in Tezpur as late as September 1962 and had a mix of Bell G-3 and Alouette helicopters. These helicopters proved their weight in gold not only in the war but even after it.

Ground Support.The biggest problem the Air Force faced was the absence of ground support at the various ALGs used in the Ladakh sector and absence of radars and radio links were major limiting factors. That the Air Force managed so well in Chushul, Fuchke and later in DBO was indeed commendable. The Air Force was also short of Supply Dropping Equipment which restricted forward delivery.

Application of Offensive Air Power

The controversial Indian decision not to employ the Fighter/Bomber assets of the IAF has been analysed at some length by Air Commodore Jasjit Singh.[6]The underlying reasons as given by him that contributed to the decision of not using offensive air power are summarised:

It united the country in her darkest moments and gave birth to an India who at least temporarily, developed the will and the resilience for introspection.

  1. Lack of Intelligence of the Enemy Air Capability.  India grossly overestimated the capabilities of the PLAAF. In that, quality of the air power and a realistic assessment of what China could deploy were not adequately considered.
  2. Desire to Prevent Escalation.  The fear of avoiding a PLAAF backlash seems to have played heavily on the Indian leadership. The apprehension seems to have been fear of bombing of Indian cities and shooting down of transport aircraft. There was mixed counsel on the utility and effectiveness of close air support in jungle and mountainous terrain. Air Commodore Jasjit Singh has quoted Major General Palit, the DMO that as late as 2 May, 1962, the advice was that the Army should only ask for close air support when faced with the ‘distinct’possibility of a post being overrun. Militarily, this makes little sense as one can never wait for the situation to get out of hand and for exposed posts like those in Aksai Chin and Sumdo (Sugur Sector, adjacent to Ladakh), this was a recipe for disaster. Even the Director of Air Operations, Air Marshal H C Dewan, seems to have advised the Chief of Air Staff on the same lines. 
  3. Lack of Jointness between the Army and the Air Force.   The British had left behind a rich legacy of jointness between the Army and the Air Force and this had proved to be a major battle winning factor in the first Kashmir war. After the departure of Lord Auchinlek, the appointment of Supreme Military Cdr had lapsed by default. Thus the onus for joint planning for the higher direction of war fell on the Chiefs of Staff Committee (COSC) and by default, the Committee, became the de-facto advisors to the DCC. Unfortunately, after the first Kashmir war, the system of the DCC itself was never revived, hence, even the COSC had not even met since 1959 and her two sub committees, including the Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC) had become non-effective. 
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The apprehension that the use of offensive air power would escalate the war seems to have been the major consideration. It appears that there always remained the hope that despite the skirmishes, the conflict would still not escalate to a full blown war. As per Palit, the final decision not to use the Air Force offensively was taken after the Chinese had started their offensive and it was a decision ‘taken under the counsel of fears.[7]Since no one was willing to predict an all-out offensive, use of offensive air support was not considered seriously. The underlying consideration being that India should not precipitate the situation under all circumstances. Once the offensive started, it seems that no one had time to review/reconsider this option.[8]Even the pacing out of the offensive as two distinct phases must have added to the dilemma for the proponents wanting to avoid further escalation.

At another plane was the apprehension that the Chinese might use their bombers to target Indian cities and it seems this underlying fear was what prevailed in the end. Air Commodore Jasjit Singh has provided an insight how this fear could have taken root. While the first Kashmir war was still going on, Pundit Nehru had invited Dr. P M S Blackett from the UK to prepare a report outlining the measures necessary for India to become ‘near self-sufficient’ in terms of defence production. When the force structuring of the Air Force was being planned, Blackett had raised the spectre of the bombing of Indian cities. “In view of the high density of India’s own cities and the impossibility of affording an adequate defence against enemy air attacks, it would seem a great mistake for India to initiate such a campaign of mutual destruction, and probably even a mistake to reiterate in kind even if so attacked.”[9]

Wars are not fought by military leaders; they merely prosecute war within the defined strategic aims of the nation.

The experience of the Japanese bombing of Madras in the Second World War must also have had a sobering effect. Jasjit Singh has written how the Chief Minister of Bengal had advised the Indian Government that use of air power against the Japanese might lead to the bombing of Calcutta. Even the US Ambassador Galbraith advised the Prime Minister against the use of air power. It is relevant to mention that unlike India there were no counter value targets in Tibet, hence it was a ‘no win’ situation for India. To summarise, “The non-utilisation of the Indian Air Force in combat role during the operations was another strategic blunder.”[10]

Lessons of the War

The Sino-Indian War did for India, what was seemingly impossible to imagine just a year prior. It united the country in her darkest moments and gave birth to an India who at least temporarily, developed the will and the resilience for introspection. The two wars fought by independent India, within a short span of fifteen years of independence had revealed a fatal flaw in the Indian national psyche. This was the flaw of lack of strategic vision, perspective planning and maintaining the required consistency in evolving and nurturing of national strategic aims and objectives. The war forced Indian to think beyond the immediate and work for a collective future. The lessons that came out of the war were the cumulative result of the two wars India had gone through-both of them inconclusive; a sure recipe for future conflict and continued strife. For China, this signalled her arrival on the regional scene and a potential global player in the near future. For the Chinese leadership, this brought recognition of a China who had re-emerged to take her rightful place in the world.

Military Forces must be structured and nurtured to achieve the nation’s aims. What the Army in particular was required to do from 1959 onwards, was operationally unachievable.

Higher Direction of War

Wars are not fought by military leaders; they merely prosecute war within the defined strategic aims of the nation. Military Commanders may influence the direction, but their primary task is to prepare their forces and strive for achieving the desired end state and in the most cost effective manner. It is axiomatic that a great deal of mutual trust and professional respect is required between the political and the military leadership. The first Kashmir War had proved that the political leadership had split loyalties and therefore worked towards divergent goals, leading the nation to the brink of disaster. The leadership had learnt little from the lessons of the Kashmir War, as a result, the political and military leadership could not decide on a common approach to the threat that manifested in 1950 itself. Even the best army in the world must be given proper policy parameters and shown the direction and informed of the desired end state to achieve the requisite results.

Military Forces must be structured and nurtured to achieve the nation’s aims. What the Army in particular was required to do from 1959 onwards, was operationally unachievable. The nature, quality and quantity of the nation’s military must remain a political decision for which the leaders are answerable to the people. On the other side, the Indian democratic system should have produced someone to question the wisdom of underplaying and downsizing the forces, especially when her enemies were multiplying in strength. The reasons for applying forces in the manner that they were forced to be employed also needed introspection. That was, and remains the prerogative of the Government for which the political leadership remain answerable.The aftermath of the war called for major structural changes. The Defence Minister was removed and the Chief of the Army resigned. Controversial Commanders were given marching orders and the Government attempted to set its house in order.

The 1962 war proved that much of what India did was ‘incorrect’ as the aim was merely to ‘hold’ the enemy and no more-the aim was never to defeat the enemy.

Application of Forces.    

The principal task of Leaders and Commanders at all levels must be to train themselves to be able to apply military forces at the correct place and time, of the correct type and strength and achieve the desired results. This is the aim and essence of ‘Grand Strategy.’ The 1962 war proved that much of what India did was ‘incorrect’ as the aim was merely to ‘hold’ the enemy and no more-the aim was never to defeat the enemy.

The most glaring omission was the decision not to exploit the offensive capability of the IAF. The controversial decision has been discussed adequately and needless to say that the lesson must be remembered for posterity. The Air Arm with their inherent capability of taking the war to the enemy must be exploited as contributing members for the war effort and there was little reason for them to be sitting out of the battle. On the other hand, the Chinese knew their weakness so they never took to the skies. Thus, while the Chinese played their cards well, India denied herself her strength, while the Chinese multiplied their inherent strength of the ground forces by moving and building up, uninhibited in the rear and even on the front lines.

The Indians were always on the back foot and were only reacting by evasive measures against all the Chinese could throw at her. This defensive mind-set was seen in all planning – diplomatic and military and throughout the month long war. No battle or war can be won by waging successful defence alone, though defence might open up opportunities. Defence by itself does not win wars, campaigns, battles or even skirmishes. Defence, needs to be aggressive or it becomes self-defeating.

Defence by itself does not win wars, campaigns, battles or even skirmishes. Defence, needs to be aggressive or it becomes self-defeating.

In the month long Sino-Indian War, the decision not to employ air power highlighted the Indian fears at the highest level and the fact that India did not consider the use of air strikes even in our own territory is indicative of the extent of this feeling. This fear set in at all levels. In Ladakh, the Indians were caught in a frenzy of building rings for the defence of Leh, more than a hundred and fifty kms in the depth and this was despite the fact that the assessed threat level was only one Chinese Division. Even when the enemy’s strength and intent got clearerand when it became evident that he had only finite resources, the Indian plans remained unchanged and defeatist in nature, as could be seen in the tasking of 114 Brigade for the Battle of Chushul.

Relations with the Media

The pervading interventionist role of the media has become a reality for all wars and its signature has only increased with its proliferation. The role media can play can be both beneficial and negative. The media playing up the Indian sentiments for Tibet were justified but led to the political leaders scrambling for seeking a fig of morality and in a way; this stampeded the leadership into initiating the ill-fated forward policy without taking recourse to any military back up. If the media is to contribute to the national war effort, there are always ways and means. The catchy statement quoted out of context that the ‘Prime Minister orders the Army to throw out the Chinese’ only flared up the tempers. The world watched how, with ‘what’ and ‘where’ the Indians would do something;unfortunately, it was left to the Chinese to provide India the answer.

1962 was a National failure of which every Indian is guilty.It was a failure in the Higher Direction of War.

Conclusion

The anguished words of Brigadier John Dalvi should serve as the biggest lesson: “1962 was a National failure of which every Indian is guilty.It was a failure in the Higher Direction of War,a failure of the Opposition.A failure of the General Staff (myself included);it was a failure of Responsible Public Opinion and the Press.For the Government of India, it was a Himalayan Blunder at all levels.”[11]

The war with China exposed the Indian capability to defend herself-both psychological and militarily. With increasing collusiviety between the China and Pakistan, there is a definite requirement for India to rework her strategic options so that the commissions and omissions of 1962 that Brigadier Dalvi had been so critical of, are never repeated – unfortunately, such lessons are only given lip service: where the need is for operational expediency, actions on the ground are marked with beaurecratic inefficiency – the lack of infrastructure to sustain operations in the mountains,even after fifty-three years of the war bear testimony.

References:

[1]Air Commodore Jasjit Singh has maintained that the IAF had only 300 frontline aircraft organized in 18 Squadrons. The figures quoted above are from the official Indian history of the war  

[2]Prasad S N, Sinha P B, Athale A A, Colonel, History of the Conflict with China, 1962, History Div, MOD, GOI, New Delhi, 1992.

[3]S N, Sinha P B, Athale A A, Colonel, p-444,History of the Conflict with China, 1962, History Div, MOD, GOI, New Delhi, 1992.

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[4] Singh Jasjit, Air Commodore (Retd), p-83, Defence from the Skies: Indian Air Force through 75 years, Centre for Air Power and Knowledge World, New Delhi,2007.

[5]ibid.

* The official History has given the availability as 95 Dakotas, 51 Packets and 23 IL-14s. These may be the total holdings, however, their availability, based on serviceability service seems to be the reason that the Air Commodore has given more realistic figures.  

[6] Singh Jasjit, Air Commodore (Retd), Defence from the Skies: Indian Air Force through 75 years, Centre for Air Power and Knowledge World, New Delhi,2007.

[7] Palit D K, Major General (Retd), p-166-168, War in the High Himalaya, The Indian Army in Crisis, 1962, Lancer International, 1991.

[8]This remains debatable. However, in view of the criticality of the deteriorating situation, even the Naval Aliezes and the Sea Hawks of INS Vikrant had been moved to the forward Air Bases to supplement the IAF’s strike capability.

[9] Singh Jasjit, Air Commodore (Retd), p- 65, Defence from the Skies, Knowledge World, Centre for Air Power Studies, 2007.

[10]Prasad S N, Sinha P B, Athale A A, Colonel,History of the Conflict with China, 1962, History Div, MOD, GOI, New Delhi, 1992.

[11]Dalvi J P, Brigadier (Retd), The Himalayan Blunder.  

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2 thoughts on “Lessons from the 1962 Sino-Indian War in Ladakh

  1. The General has missed many crucial points in his analysis, e.g. the then finance minister Morarji Desai blocked release of funds for purchase of automatic weapons (rifles?) for the army etc although these were sanctioned by the Indian cabinet prior to 1962 debacle. There is also no reference, not to mention an in depth analysis, of the resignation by the army chief Thimayaa in 1959 supported by other higher echelons in the military service which Nehru as the PM succeeded to reverse by his “diplomatic” charm, or better said hoodwinking tactics. In my books, the army commanders, in particular Thimayaa, failed to rise to the occasion to stand up to their political masters to safeguard the nation’s sovereignty in territorial terms by challenging their directives. This stands in stark contrast to what Napoleon had laid out in European context for the military as its foundation for the nation..

  2. Outstanding analysis. I would add one component regarding “fatal flaw”. What was the nature of the Indian polity before & throughout this conflict? What was insufficient about it? What were the social, political components of Indian national identity that were fatal.
    Outstanding historical analysis, but I would have liked to read more about India’s civil-military relations & its consequent political institutions as requisites for prosecuting a war.

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