Military & Aerospace

1971 Air War: Battle for Air Supremacy
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Issue Book Excerpt: Indian Air Force in Wars | Date : 15 Nov , 2017

Crossing the border into East Pakistan at 1605 Hours, 11 December, for airborne operation

The IAF had initially deployed 10 squadrons in the East; four squadrons for air defence and six squadrons in strike role capacity. This against one squadron of F-86 of the PAF, although some inputs from defecting Bengali officers of the PAF pointed to a larger deployment by the PAF.1 But this lone squadron could operate from a number of airfields, the most likely being Kurmitolla and Tezgaon in Dhaka area and others being Chittagong, and Jessore.

In addition, air strips at Barisal and Rangpur were also bombed to prevent operation by Pak transport aircraft. Sabres could relocate between these bases in the event of their mother bases being bombed. So the IAF’s task in gaining control of the air by neutralizing this one Squadron of F-86 was not so straight forward as it would seem at first glance.

The Sabres had been attacking the Mukti-Bahini and often violated Indian air space.

The planners expected to achieve air supremacy by D+2. However, on 22nd November, the IAF managed to intercept a formation of three Sabres in Boyra salient near Calcutta. The Sabres had been attacking the Mukti-Bahini and often violated Indian air space. On this day four Gnats engaged the three Sabres and shot down all of them. Two Pakistani pilots ejected over Indian territory and were captured. They were Flt Lt Parvez Mehdi Quereshi and Fg Offr Khalil Ahmed.2 This opening round of air combat was akin to what had transpired on 1st September 1965 at Chhamb, except this time the fortunes were reversed. This was an excellent start to air operations, though the formal start of the air war was much later. The IAF pilots shooting down these Sabres were Flt Lt MA Ganapathy, Fg Offr D Lazarus and Flt Lt R Massey. This action reduced the PAF’s frequent attacks on the Mukti-Bahini and curbed their tendency of air violations.

In response to PAF’s pre-emptive on 3rd December the IAF started the air war in the East by Canberras of 16 Squadron night bombing the airfields of Chittagong, Jessore, Tezgaon and Kurmitola on the night of 3rd–4th December, flying 5 raids.3 However, the honor of initiating the air war was given to the Mukti-Bahini Air Force. Their lone Otter and Alloutte attacked the oil installations at Narayanganj and Chittagong and set them on fire.

From 4th morning onwards airfield attacks were launched by Hunters and Sukhoi-7s with MiG-21s providing escorts. On 4th a total of 109 sorties were flown for counter-air. In the night, once again the Canberras bombed the airfields in five raids. Yet, on 5th morning IAF pressed into service eight MiG-21s with 500 kg bombs on Tezgaon and Kurmitola airfields. These strikes were highly successful in cratering the runways and, thereby grounding the PAF. This also enabled 18 Hawker Sea Hawks and four Briguet Alize turbo prop anti-submarine warfare aircraft aboard the Indian Navy aircraft carrier Vikrant full freedom to attack targets along the coastal areas and ports of Cox Bazar and Chittagong.4 Total control of air had been attained. But all the PAF Sabres were not yet destroyed. Therefore, to sustain this control of air, airfield strikes would continue till the 12th December.

…on 5th morning IAF pressed into service eight MiG-21s with 500 kg bombs on Tezgaon and Kurmitola airfields. These strikes were highly successful in cratering the runways and, thereby grounding the PAF.

Indeed the IAF had total control of air, as per its planned objectives and this enabled the subsequent blitzkrieg type operations resulting in the fall of Dhaka on 15th December. With twenty by twenty hindsight, while giving full credit and acknowledging all the good work, let us now review this counter air campaign critically. First let us examine the Canberra strikes. Official history states that the Canberra strikes on the nights of 3–4 December and 4–5 December over Tezgaon, Kurmitola and Chittagong were ineffective. So the MiG-21s had to be tasked on 5th December with 500 kg bombs. The MiGs did an excellent job of cratering these two runways, which suggests that even the strikes by the Hunters and Sukhois on 4 December did not match expectations. The reasons were two-fold: one was the attack inaccuracy; the PAF was active on 4th December over these airfields, thus diminishing attack accuracy and foiling the attacks;5 the second was the losses suffered by strike aircraft on the 4th.

The IAF lost four Hunters, one SU-7 and one Canberra. Both these points need further scrutiny, the first being the attack inaccuracy. Runways are usually of a  large area which can be disabled even with fairly large errors in bombing. What about the bombing accuracy of the Hunters and the Sukhois? Their bombing accuracy must have been good, but they were tasked with rockets for counter air mission! So one wonders as to what were the aim points (DMPI — Desired Mean Point of Impact) assigned to them? In fact, Air Chief Marshal Lal admits poor intelligence about Pak air fields: “Intelligence gave no information regarding the actual location of dispersal area and aircraft pens… the pens were discovered with just nets on top, only after the surrender.”6 It is reasonable to presume that in the absence of detailed intelligence regarding airfield layout one would automatically choose the runway for attacks. Is the rocket a proper weapon to bombard a runway?

Obviously not as admitted by PC Lal in his memoirs. At this point let us co-relate another statement of PC Lal: “Air HQ took care to leave enough leeway for the commanders in the field to use their initiative and imagination tactically.” On the face of it the above idea appears to be an excellent one. But it needs to be understood that air warfare is quite different from other forms of warfare. What may be a sound principle in other warfare may not necessarily be so for the air war. Weapon to target matching is an exact science. There can only be so many best combinations of weapons to target for a desired effect. And once arrived at after theoretical study and practical trials, it has to be applicable throughout the Air Force. In this no leeway should be permitted to field commanders. So the question — Why did the IAF task airfield strikes with rockets if the objective was to make the runway surface unusable? And why the trial of MiG-21s in a bombing role on 5th December?

If IAF, during the seven months of preparation time available had done proper weapon to target matching and learnt to saturate enemy defences by launching large strike packages embedded with air defence escorts, it could have achieved Air Supremacy in a matter of hours with probably lesser attrition.

The answer to the latter question is given by PC Lal indirectly: “….They (MiG-21s) could, if necessary, fight their way out again if they encountered any Pakistani aircraft.”7 Which is an admission that Hunters and Sukhois could not fight their way out — this impression is probably a result of the loss of four Hunters and one SU-7 on 4 December in these missions. This belief  is also reinforced by the PAF claims of disrupting Hunter strikes. The PAF claims to have flown 32 sorties on 4 December and 20 sorties on 5 before being fully grounded. After this PAF fighter pilots were flown out to West Pakistan via Burma on 8–9 December.8

The losses need further investigation. Wg Cdr Chatrat, Commanding Officer No 17 Squadron flying Hunters was of the firm conviction that the Hunter was a very capable aircraft and did not need any air defence escorts.9 So he led a 3 aircraft mission (one aircraft having become unserviceable) against Dhaka and got bounced by four Sabres. He claimed shooting down one Sabre. Chatrat was lucky in that his No 2 and 3 barely managed to get away, executing a last-ditch manoeuvre. Other Hunter formations were not so lucky, even though they were escorted by MiG-21s. The argument of a Hunter in strike configuration versus a Sabre in air defence configuration was long over in the 1965 War when the IAF had lost 5 Hunters to Sabres. The PAF had claimed much more.

Therefore, the more important question was why not use Gnats and MiG-21s as air defence escorts properly integrated, particularly when they were available? It is easy to suggest a better way of doing things in hind sight — however, we still need to ask questions. If IAF, during the seven months of preparation time available had done proper weapon to target matching and learnt to saturate enemy defences by launching large strike packages embedded with air defence escorts, it could have achieved Air Supremacy in a matter of hours with probably lesser attrition. The Israeli Air Force, also with the similar acronym IAF, had demonstrated this very idea on 5 June 1967 when it attacked 24 enemy airfields, some of them 3–4 times, plus 16 radar sites and destroyed close to 271 Arab aircraft in a matter of just four hours.10

That is why one gets perplexed when one reads, “On 5 December Station Commander M Wollen suggested replacing rockets by bombs for runway attacks,”11 and “Photographs taken with a hand held camera by one of the MiG pilots showed the bombs exploding on the runway. This pilot also brought back photographs of Tezgaon airfield clearly indicating the layout, and it was most useful for briefing pilots detailed for subsequent missions.”12 With the refugee population being 10 million, which included personnel defected from the PAF, and the forays of the Mukti-Bahini into Pakistan, was detailed intelligence on airfield layout so difficult to come by? After all the IAF had done extensive photo work from 24 October onwards for the Army. Why didn’t it do a few photo recce sorties of these airfields before the war started? And what about the concept of battlefield damage assessment after these crucial strikes? In summary, therefore, it wasn’t smart planning, but the overwhelming strike force that dominated the air battle in the East.

…IAF had done extensive photo work from 24 October onwards for the Army.

Counter Surface Force Operations (CSFO)

“Due to fast moving battles and our by-passing tactics, we used air support mainly for interdiction, isolation of battlefield, and prevention of movement along the river bank of Dhaka. Close air support for ground targets was almost negligible. However, the interdiction effort was very credible… Our major problem was full utilization of unexpended sorties due to the fast moving nature of operations. However, we were able to get maximum results by switching sorties from one sector to another.” This is exactly the way IAF advocates CSFO.  —Maj Gen JFR Jacob, Chief of Staff—Eastern Command for 1971 War

East Pakistan fell in a matter of 12 days. When General Niazi surrendered on 16 December, he still had 93000 personnel who became POW.13 Terrain wise, the countryside was full of riverine obstacles, a tremendous help for any defender to slow down the attacker and inflict severe casualties, no matter how much superior the attacker was in numbers. Major General Fazal Muqeem Khan of the Pakistan Army had estimated that this excellent defence potential would force the war to last 6–9 weeks.14 Yet this did not happen. This most successful campaign for the Indian Armed forces, comparable to the best in the world anywhere, merits serious study to learn how such lightning success was achieved. And it definitely is a good template to fashion the future structure of services to counter any conventional spectrum of threat.

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PC Lal summed it up succinctly by stating, “It was the complete command of air, without any danger of interference by the PAF, that enabled our Army to move as freely as it did.”15 We have already seen how the command of air was won and, thereafter, sustained. But what is remarkable is that our ground war and air war commenced simultaneously because of the time factor. The ground war did not wait for the IAF to first achieve command of air. The IAF was confident about attaining quick control of air because of its overwhelming numerical and qualitative superiority. And also simultaneously providing the Army as much offensive air support as it needed. Simultaneous campaigns were also the fundamental philosophy of the Luftwaffe in World War II, which when combined with bold armored manoeuvres created the Blitzkrieg.16

Once the IAF attained command of air in 36 hours, it released additional squadrons, both from air defence role and counter air role, in support of the Army. Over and above this re-tasking, the IAF relocated two squadrons to the West on 5 and 7 December itself — one Hunter and one MiG-21. A few days later it again moved a SU-7 Squadron to the West. No 30 Squadron on MiGs moved on 5th December; No 7 Squadron on Hunters moved on 7th December and No 221 Squadron flying SU-7 moved West on 14th December. Nearly all air defence squadrons of MiG-21s and Gnats were now given the role of offensive air support of the Army. In fact, they continued with the multi-role tasking between sorties. That is what the flexibility of air power is all about. Thus, 60 per cent of air effort was allotted for the support of the Army.17

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2 thoughts on “1971 Air War: Battle for Air Supremacy

  1. Let the Navy train with Army and IAF for joint operations. I am told Admirals of our Navy frequently visit our Himalayan Heights for familiarization. Let us hope this kind of logic we will not hear in future operations.

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