Military & Aerospace

1971 War on the Western Front: Observations, Comments and Lessons
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Employment of Amour

The main point that came out in this war was that Armoured Formations should be employed concentrated, in order to get the best results. For various reasons which have been brought out, this could not be achieved. Otherwise, 1 Corps might have secured at least some of its planned objectives. Certain other points that emerged are also important. It was necessary chat infantry divisions had their own integral Armour, so that Armoured Formations are not depleted for supporting them. Employment of Armour by night also needs to be fully exploited. The tank fleet was getting old and out of date. This aspect also needed attention. It was also necessary that Armoured Formations had the necessary mechanical means for speedily negotiating minefields and crossing ditches and water obstacles.


Pakistan Artillery had heavier calibre weapons and used these with considerable effect. They also used air burst shells very effectively. As in the 1965 Conflict, infantry found it difficult to stand againt the devastating fire of Pakistan Artillery in some cases. The need for a heavy calibre long range weapon was felt much in the Indian Forces. Equally, while available air defence Artillery was effectively used, the need for more up-to-date weapons to take on modern aircraft got highlighted. The need for a well coordinated air defence system was also apparent. It was also obvious that if Armoured Formations were to undertake longer advances, suitable self-propelled Artillery was provided to them.


As in any other wars, Engineer tasks in this war were numerous and there were never enough Engineers to undertake these. While in the East, the main problem was the crossing of various water obstacles, in the West, it was mainly the clearance of gaps in the extensive minefields laid by the enemy. Available Engineers had to work under great pressure with the inadequate equipment at their disposal. The need for better mechanical means of laying and lifting mines, for canal crossing equipment, for better bridges, and for adequate and more effective mines came out clearly time and again. Equally, the need for track laying equipment in the desert got highlighted.


In the case of formations moving into their operational areas from outside, the need for a previously established system of telephone communications was felt in every case. However, this aspect needs to be considered in relation to security of operational plans, also. The need for more modern equipment was also highlighted.


A major point that came out with regard to Infantry was its ability, or otherwise, to hold on to ground captured, against the inevitable counter-attack by the enemy with Armour. Since own Armour could not fetch up due to minefields, the vital need for equipping the Infantry with effective anti-tank weapons was highlighted. However, despite this, the need for Armour fetching up as early as possible, cannot be over stressed. Infantry Formations also needed integral Armoured Regiments. As in the case of other Arms, the need for more modern weapons within Infantry units was also apparent.


The build-up of formations in their operational areas took considerable time. In the case of this war, as events could be somewhat anticipated, the long period of build up did not aversely affect the operations. However, as much warning may not be available in a future war, it is necessary to ensure that the build up takes place within the available period. One of the ways of overcoming the problem to some extent, is to locate formations suitably during peace time, without prejudicing the security aspect in any case, the necessary infrastructure has to be created in the railways. Equally, requisition of adequate civilian transport in time has to be facilitated by the Civil Authorities, as the transport available to the Army can never he adequate for the moves of entire formations forward at short notice. The development of logistic areas forward, without compromising security, also needs attention.

Army-Air Cooperation

While the strategy in the East was to eliminate the Pakistan Air Force, in the West, it was to contain the threat from the Pakistan Air Force. As such, the close support available to the Army was somewhat limited. Further, Pakistan positions in defence were well concealed and camouflaged; and, therefore, the desired results could not be obtained. However, when Pakistan Armour and guns could be spotted in the open, as during the counter attacks in the Sialkot Sector or during the attack in the Longewala area, the Air Force dealt with the targets very effectively. For the future, in the event of offensive operations, particularly in the plains, the need for a reasonable amount of air effort being made available to the Army, cannot be over emphasized. Equally, this would also be necessary to frustrate enemy’s major offensives. As far as reaction time of the Air Force to immediate close support demands was concerned, while it was initially about two hours, it improved to one and half hours as operations progressed, which was reasonable. Efforts should be made to further reduce this time lag. The need for adequate air photograph coverage and for a proper organization to deliver photographs to the demanding formations in time, also got highlighted in this war.

The air lift capability available was very limited. The need for adequately augmenting this, in order to exploit the third dimension, also came out.


After the reverses suffered in the 1962 War, the Indian Army concentrated much more on training. The 1965 War provided it with further battle experience. Thereafter, there was even more emphasis on training for war. As such, when the Army took the field in the 1971 War, it felt confident and generally equipped itself well. On the other hand, it was noticed that there was a decline in the standard of training and morale of the Pakistan Army. Perhaps, this could be attributed to its continuous involvement in Martial Law and Civil Administration. It appeared that the leadership suffered even more, because of this reason.

A number of useful tactical lessons emerged from this War, both on defensive and offensive operations, particularly the latter. These were disseminated to formations and units: and need constant attention.

The Indian Navy

In this War, the Indian Navy had an opportunity to show their mettle, for the first time after Independence; and they carried out their role in a commendable manner. In the East to start with, the Pakistani submarine Ghazi was sunk off the Visakhapatnam Port on night December 3/4, 1971. The Eastern Fleet established a naval blockade of East Pakistan and made it impossible for Pakistan to move any troops or equipment by sea. Aircraft from INS Vibrant attacked shore targets such as the airfield at Cox’s Bazar, harbours of Chittagong, Khulna, and so on, and military installations, and inflicted serious damage. The Pakistani Navy in the East was completely paralysed In the West, the Western Fleet mounted daring raids on Karachi Harbour and inflicted considerable damage. On December 4/5, Pakistani destroyer Khyber, a mine sweeper and a merchant ship carrying ammunition were stink by a Task Group under Commander K.P. Gopal Rao. On December 8, oil installations in Karachi were destroyed and some ships in the harbour damaged by a Task Group under Rear Admiral Kuruvilla. This created absolute panic in the Pakistani Navy, which remained bottled up in the Karachi area for the rest of the war. The navy lost one ship, INS Khukri under Captain M.N. Mulla, when it was hit by torpedos on December 9.

The Indian Air Force

In this War, the IAF developed its full potential and played an important role in the victory of the Indian Armed Forces, in the East, air supremacy was achieved within the first few days and the Army was able to carry out its operations with impunity as far as the enemy Air Force was concerned. Some dose support was provided to the ground forces; and heliborne operations were carried out which speeded up the defeat of the enemy. For the first time in war,the potential of the third dimension was highlighted.

In the West, the Air Force was able to create a generally favourable air situation. The enemy’s major air bases were attacked interdiction was carried out and considerable damage was inflicted on the PAF and other targets. At the same time, air defence of own territory was also ensured. As far as close support was concerned, as brought our earlier, this was found to be limited. In view of the vulnerability of ground forces, particularly armoured and mechanized forces in the open, a method must be found to better exploit the flexibility that the Air arm enables, to provide adequate dose support to the Army. It has to be remembered that many a time, such support may prove to be crucial to the outcome of an important battle, whereas other missions, though necessary, could wait temporarily for short periods. Overall, the IAF acquitted itself admirably in this war. The first Param Vir Chakra of the Air Force was awarded to Flying Office Nirmal Jit Singh Sekhon posthumously for valour of a high order.

Para-Military Forces

Generally, the BSF guards the borders in peace time. Army formations are located well away from the borders, except in Jammu and Kashmir, where they are deployed on the Line of Control. In the event of a war, the BSF is placed under the Army’s operational control, so that the plans could be better coordinated and all available forces could be made effective use of. During peace time, the BSF attends training with the Army formations and its employment is integrated in the Army plans. It was found that there was avoidable delay in placing BSF under the Army’s operational control. This only results in confusion and delay in the preparations for meeting the enemy’s initial onslaught; and should be avoided. It was found that in Jammu and Kashmir, where the BSF is always under the operational control of the Army, the coordination was much better.


In this War, the leadership in the case of Pakistan proved to be inadequate to meet the requirements of a crisis situation. The country was under a military dictatorship, and Yahya Khan was certainly not the person who could provide imaginative, astute and dynamic leadership to the country. At the Army level, the Chief, Abdul Hamed Khan did not have either the requisite professional competence or the leadership qualities, particularly mental robustness, resilience and moral courage, to handle the war. In the East, Niazi proved to be professionally inadequate, lacking in character and unable to inspire and motivate his command. Tikka in the West was a professional who commanded the confidence of his subordinates, but the test of battle eluded him. At the divisional and lower levels, some of the commanders were competent and brave, while others provided indifferent or weak leadership.

On the Indian side, the country was fortunate in having a Prime Minister who had a clear perception of national interests and understanding of defence, had political acumen and confidence in her abilities, and was decisive; and provided excellent leadership throughout. Manekshaw the Chief of the Army Staff who was also Chairman of the Chiefs of Staff Committee, was a professional to the core, possessed vision, inspired confidence amongst all ranks: and provided brilliant leadership.

Aurora in the East was competent, was a good coordinator and motivator, was up and about most of the time; and ensured speedy completion of his task. Candeth in the West was cool, inspired confidence and moved around a lot, keeping a grip on the war. The Corps Commanders generally measured upto their tasks, with Sagat Singh being easily the most dynamic, aggressive and able commander, who never gave any respite to the enemy; and whose conduct of the war is worth emulation at any time. The field commanders at all levels generally displayed professional skill, dynamism, courage, audacity and self-reliance of a high order. Compared with the wars that were fought earlier, the victory in this war could be ascribed in a large measure to the excellent leadership provided by the officers. This is an aspect that needs constant attention in the future; and it must be ensured that the right type of leaders come up.

Leadership in the Navy and Air Force was just as effective. Nanda and Lai led their Services with distinction. Kohli and Krishnan dominated the high seas. Engineer and Dewan accomplished their tasks with credit. The subordinate commanders at different levels proved to be skilful, dedicated and courageous.

Pakistanis Views

This study will be incomplete without incorporating views expressed by several knowledgeable Pakistanis, who had made deep analyses of the 1971 War and the ‘reasons for debacle’ of Pakistan. A gist of some of these views are given in the succeeding paragraphs.

Maj. Gen. Fazal Muqeem Khan in his book ‘Pakistan’s Crisis in Leadership’, considers that there were political, economic, sociological and military reasons for the defeat of the Pakistani Armed Forces in the 1971 War.

    • He considers that, on the political side, the country ‘failed to produce viable and popular institutions and allowed self-seekers to thrive on colonial types of governments’. He feels chat ‘the country’s intellectuals and the university, college and school teachers failed to create a proper background for unity. The people docilely tolerated incompetent and corrupt governments and tried to salve their consciences by blaming others for their own short comings. They frittered away their energies on regional and local Issues and showed little interest in, and no vision for, the national problems and the unity of the country’. He feels ashamed that the country was ‘not able to produce a workable constitution’
    • He considers that, ‘economic development was planned and carried out without any regard to socio-economic conditions, and the mass of the people consequently did not benefit. The economic policies were particularly unsuited to the socio-economic conditions in East Pakistan.‘
    • On the social side, he feels that, social development was ignored and did not keep pace with economic development. We took short cuts by borrowing Western social institutions and norms which could not be grafted on Pakistani conditions. Society lost its old stability and divided itself into compartments. The state, based on an ideology, had strayed away from it.’ He feels that ‘regionalism started overpowering nationalism.’
    • He laments that defence was kept exclusively in the hands of a few and never came under public scrutiny. No lessons were learnt from past mistakes. ‘This also generated a false image of our military potential which led to national complacency. The nation remained untrained Tor war and unprepared to fight for its integrity.’ He feels that the people and their leaders had no conception of military affairs; nor could they comprehend the interrelationship of politics, diplomacy and military force. Successive governments were too dependent on the army to deal with internal security problems, so much so, that some of them had to rely on the army for their survival. This, in turn, politicised the army, particularly at the higher level. Training and discipline of the army suffered in consequence-, and this was reflected in the performance of the Army in the war.
    • In 1971, he feels that military means were used to solve an entirely political problem. There was confusion between political and military aims. In fact, he stresses that there was no national aim. ‘The country was least prepared to go to war, which should have been avoided by all means.’ There were short-falls of weapons and equipment. There were no Joint Service plans. Ineffective coordination resulted in uneconomical or incorrect use of the available resources. The High Command was indecisive. Inadequate time was given to Field Commanders to launch operations. ‘Defection and treachery of the East Pakistani personnel’ also resulted in leakage of plans. ‘The one single factor that contributed most to our debacle in December, 1971, was the failure of planned and integrated war effort at the national level.’

Lt. Gen. M. Attiqur Rahman in his book ‘Our Defence Cause’ has also made an analysis of the 1971 War. He feels that the grand strategy that, ‘the battle of East Pakistan would be fought in West Pakistan’ was generally correct, as available troops could fight concentrated, with all the backing of the industrial defence base and the main base for recruitment for the army’s manpower. He considers that if this were the strategy, more forces should not have been sent to East Pakistan. Further, the planned major offensive in the West never came through. Perhaps, the GHQ was waiting for the Indians to commit their armoured formations first. In the meantime, in East Pakistan, Indians ‘broke through the thin crust of the Pakistani forces, made deep penetrations, isolated areas of resistance, and quickened the pace by using heliborne forces, all with the assistance of complete air superiority and helped all along the way by Bengali dissidents’. He generally blames the High Command for the debacle. ‘A certain amount of coordination was lacking in the direction of military efforts. The President, who was also Commander-in-Chief, perforce had to leave many decisions to his Chief of Staff. The Chief of Staff did not or could not assume all the responsibilities of the Commander-in-Chief. The Principal Staff Officers were hardly on speaking terms with each other. While it is true to say there are few friends at the top, the state of affairs at the top of the army beggared description.’

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After the war, the then President of Pakistan, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto appointed a high level Commission, to investigate the causes of Pakistan’s surrender and recommend action against those responsible. This Commission comprised Mr. Justice Hamoodur Rehman, the Chief Justice of Pakistan as Chairman, with a judge of the Supreme Court and Chief Justice of the Sindh and Baluchistan High Court as Members. The Commission is reported to have submitted its preliminary report in July 1972 and Anal report in November 1974. This was not made public either by Bhutto or by General Zia-ul-Haq who succeeded him; but extracts from a copy reported to have come to the notice of an Indian journalist (J.N. Parimoo), have been published in The Times of India (October 2, 1988) and illustrated Weekly (October 23, 1988), Some of the relevant points revealed by the report are as under:–

    • It was Pakistan that started the war on the West Pakistan Front.
    • The friends of Pakistan, namely, USA, China and Iran, made it clear that they would not be able to directly get involved in the war, in order to help Pakistan. The mutual Assistance Treaty signed between India and USSR in August 1971 complicated matters. Pakistan should have taken the case to the UN in November 1971 itself, when a satisfactory solution ordering a ceasefire might have been obtained from the Security Council.
    • It says, ‘the concept, therefore, that the defence of East Pakistan lies in West Pakistan remained valid and if there ever was need to invoke this concept it was 21st of November 1971 when the Indian troops had crossed the East Pakistan borders in naked aggression. Unfortunately, the delay in opening the Western front and the half-hearted and hesitant manner in which it was ultimately opened only helped in precipitating the catastrophe in East Pakistan.’
    • There was lack of proper appreciation of the developing enemy threat in the Eastern Theatre.
    • The atrocities committed by the Pakistani Armed Forces on the Bengalis in general were shameful. Even senior Pakistani officers wanted Bengalis, and in particular Hindus, to be killed during internal security operations. The Bangladesh authorities are reported to have told the Commission that ‘the Pakistani Army had killed three million Bengalis and raped two lakh East Pakistani women’, which the Commission apparently thought was ‘highly exaggerated and fanciful’.
    • The Commission is reported to have found several senior officers guilty of criminal neglect of duty in the conduct of war both in East and West Pakistan. Through successive years of Martial Law Administration, these commanders had become depraved, morally corrupt and professionally incompetent. They had lost the will, the determination and the competence to fight… They furthermore brought about a situation in East Pakistan which led to a civil disobedience movement, armed revolt by the Awami League and subsequently to the surrender of our troops in East Pakistan and dismemberment of Pakistan… These commanders have brought disgrace and defeat to Pakistan by their subversion of the constitution, usurpation of political power by criminal conspiracy, their professional incompetence, culpable negligence in the performance of their duties, and physical and moral cowardice in abandoning the fight when they had the capability and resources to resist the enemy.’ The Commission apparently recommended the public trial of some of the officers and courtmartial of others.
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