In 1962 as the war clouds gathered over the Himalayan mountains, Indian Army beefed up its defences. As a result IAF was asked to undertake tremendous surge in air maintenance – nearly thrice the normal amount. The air maintenance flying in Sep 1962 was 1179 hours. It increased to 3263 hours in Nov 1962. However, the inflow at the receiving end of air maintenance was not as spectacular. The dropping zones (DZ) were sub optimum; there was shortage of dropping equipment; there were too few porters to retrieve the dropped load and take it to Army posts; the identification between different items of dropped air load was ineffective or absent. All this resulted in around 80 percent of the drop being irretrievable. 1 This despite the valiant effort of IAF transport crew and helicopter crew which continued to provide much needed support. This has been well recorded and appreciated. They are the reasons of not using combat air – that are little known. This article is devoted to this second part.
During the Sino-Indian War of 1962, the political leadership did not use the combat air arm of the IAF. General Kaul the Army Commander responsible in NEFA, later confessed, “Lastly, we made a great mistake in not employing our Air Force in a close support role during these operations”.
During the Sino-Indian War of 1962, the political leadership did not use the combat air arm of the IAF. General Kaul the Army Commander responsible in NEFA, later confessed, “Lastly, we made a great mistake in not employing our Air Force in a close support role during these operations”.2 This costly and catastrophic omission was a result of multiple factors which impinged on the decision-making process at the highest level. To begin with was the influence of Prof PMS Blackett on PM Nehru in defence matters soon after Indian independence. Blackett was a British advisor for defence. He had advocated only a tactical role for the IAF firmly advising against escalating any war that India may get involved in the future.3 The second major influence was the analysis of Director Intelligence Bureau BN Mullick, a close confidant of Nehru. Mullick concluded that Chinese bombers will bomb Indian cities in response to IAF’s combat use. Probably the horrors of the bombing of the cities during the Second World War were still vivid on Nehru’s mind. The next factor was a counsel on similar lines by the American Ambassador John K Galbraith half way through the war who over estimated the capability of the Chinese air force in the absence of proper air defence infrastructure in India.4 Following was the strength of the two air forces on the eve of 1962 war:
The fourth factor could be the lack of joint planning between Indian Army and Air Force as opined by George Tanham, “The air force knew nothing about the army plans and was not consulted in any way about defence against a Chinese attack – not surprisingly as the army did not have any specific plan”.5 While this may be partly true at the strategic level, nevertheless, it is also well documented that Army-Air Force planners had explored use of air power and recommended the same to the Army Chief on more than one occasion. It is here that the plan came up against a dead end.6 When the chips were down even Kaul demanded combat air.7
Tanham goes on to state, “The Indian government, although in a desperate state and calling for massive American air support, did not investigate what its air power might do to redress the situation”.8 While the political-bureaucratic combine pleaded to US President John F Kennedy for 12 Squadrons of Star fighters (F-104) and four squadrons of B-47 Bombers as an immediate USAF help to stem the Chinese advance, they did not deem it fit even to consult the Indian Air Force Air Chief.9 The question that arises is as to what was the IAF’s professional opinion? It appears that the IAF leadership was quite confident about using combat air to own advantage and did advise the political leadership at every possible opportunity.10 It is a fact that Canberras flew 22 photographic reconnaissance missions between Oct 13 and Nov 11, 1962, during the conflict period, over Aksai Chin, Towang, Se la and Walong area. Some of the sorties were at 300 feet above Chinese concentrations. No damage to the Canberras from Chinese anti aircraft artillery was the proof showing the poor level of Chinese capabilities.11
Mullick admits that around Sep 18, 1962 he was asked to present Chinese air force capability. Since IB did not have first hand knowledge they sought help from `our good friends’ (CIA).
However, as Lieutenant General Kaul states in the “Untold Story”, “Our intelligence set-up, of course, knew little on the subject and was only adept at presuming some facts and not realising the dispensation of exaggerated information about the enemy was as dangerous as understating vital facts”.12 Here General Kaul is referring to Mullick granting exaggerated capabilities to Chinese Air Force. Major General DK Palit put the quandary in the right perspective when he stated that the Intelligence agency (IB) which should have been supplying inputs to user agencies was not only collating information, but also interpreting the same and recommending policy action, mostly directly to the Prime Minister. A case of cart before the horse. Air Marshal Raghvendran then a staff officer (Wing Commander) goes on to recount the exact professional advice given to PM and RM about marginal capability of the Chinese air force operating from Tibet and beyond. He underscores PM’s apprehension about even a single bomb falling over Delhi and the war escalating out of control.
Raghvendran minces no words when he states, “The debacle, partly due to the non use of air power but more so due to our foreign policy blindness as well as emasculation of the Army by playing `favourites’ by Krishna Menon, interfering with the promotion and posting of senior officers in the Army, ordering a totally unprepared army to `throw out the Chinese’ and above all insisting on giving the command of the operations to a totally unqualified and inexperienced `favourite’ General were all the work of the political leaders and the blame must be squarely laid there.” General Kaul airs the same views when he states, “The professional judgement of the Air Force Commanders had been completely disregarded and their operational plans ignored to the extent that they called for greater infrastructural resources”.13 Late JN Dixit, former Foreign Secretary (1992-94) and National Security Advisor (2004 – 05) writing on this stated, “I was the Under Secretary in the China Division dealing with external dimensions of the Sino-Indian crisis. So I claim some personal knowledge… suggestion put forward was that India should consider air strikes against the Chinese forces in Tibet all along the front… Our information was that the Chinese logistical arrangements and supply lines were too stretched and that China did not have sufficient air power in Tibet at that point of time…. India’s air strikes would stop the Chinese advance and neutralise the military successes which they had achieved. The suggestion was dismissed on the ground that the officers concerned were not military experts and their suggestion did not merit serious consideration… And by the time Nehru was coming round to the view of using air power the Chinese declared unilateral cease-fire… Later analyses and records of conversations between Chinese leaders, Henry Kissinger and Nixon clearly indicate that the Chinese considered the decision-making elite in the Indian establishment somewhat naïve and the Indian military planners inept in utilising the strengths which India had at that point of time, particularly in terms of airpower”.14
From one extreme of “throw the Chinese out of Indian territory” announced in the Parliament as an order given to Indian Army, now the leadership and its advisors were afraid to use the air force even when its own army was disintegrating as never before in its entire history.
Air Force could have been employed for interdiction, battlefield air interdiction, attack on areas captured by the Chinese, attack as a retribution on deeper targets. This definitely was possible. It could have been done from July 1962 onwards after Chinese had surrounded our forward post at Galwan in Ladakh. And definitely between Oct 24 and Nov 17 when Chinese were building up the road from Bumla to Tawang inside Indian territory and were restocking themselves. Indian Air force was ready. The ad hoc – so called “China-Council”, to evaluate threat and formulate the strategy and even tactics to counter Chinese formed by the PM in Sep 1962 did not include the Chief of Air Staff.15 Lt Gen Kaul later stated that, ”Unfortunately, it was the reluctance on the part of the IAF to be able to mount offensive sorties as a legitimate exercise of self-defence which added to the fears of Government in Delhi. If the Air Staff had undertaken to do this, the political appreciation might have been different (?)”16 This is sort of finding a scapegoat after the event. Unfortunately Air Chief was never consulted. Kaul was the same General who earlier as Chief of General Staff for Goa operations a year before had refused to include the IAF and the IN in the planning process, despite repeated advice of his DMO then Brigadier Palit. Since he wielded enormous clout with the PM and RM why didn’t he suggest seeking IAF’s appreciation of the matter? It is only when Kaul faced the music as Corps Commander in the field that he realised the importance of air support and asked for it. Mullick admits that around Sep 18, 1962 he was asked to present Chinese air force capability. Since IB did not have first hand knowledge they sought help from `our good friends’ (CIA). Following is a list of arguments put forward by Mullick and my analysis as to why all these were wrong.
Chinese Airfields. Chinese air force could operate from airfields in Tibet, Sinkiang and Yunan province, from all of which air attacks on India could be mounted.
Comment. The airfields of Zinning, Lanchous and Kunming (2080 m) were located too far away from the international border to have any bearing on the ground battle. Nachu, though closest to the battle zone, was situated at an altitude of 4500 m, hence, was unfit for fighter/bomber operations. Jye Kundo, elevation 3800 m, and Chamdo, elevation 3230 m, were fit for MiG-19 operations against NEFA area, though with payload reduced by as much as 2000 kg, a penalty for high elevation.
Thus, these fighters could use only cannons. IL-28 bomber could have operated from these bases striking cities like Dibrugarh, Jorhat, Guwahati, Shillong and Kohima. But certainly not Madras (Chennai) as stated by Mullick or for that matter even Calcutta and Kanpur. The strikes would have been with reduced payload. The IL-28 flying a high-low-high profile to extend its range would have had a radius of action of only 700 km and not 2500 km as implicated by Mullick. Even over the ground battle area, MiG-19, only with cannons would not have made significant impact. Moreover due to very primitive infrastructure at Chinese air bases, none of these air bases could have housed more than few aircraft. That too in the open and themselves highly vulnerable to IAF attacks.