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1962: Why the IAF was not used
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Air Marshal RS Bedi | Date:14 Jul , 2014 8 Comments
Air Marshal RS Bedi
Former Director General Defence Planning Staff.

“The Indians at all levels are in a state of shock. Not one but two pleas for help are coming to us, the second one of them still highly confidential. They want our Air Force to back them up so that they can employ theirs tactically without leaving their cities unprotected…”  JK Galbraith (US Ambassador in India during the 1962 Indo-China War)”

Prime Minister Nehru wrote two letters in quick succession to the US President John F Kennedy on the night of November 19, 1962. The war situation had become desperate and India was at the verge of collapse with the Chinese troops having reached the foothills of NEFA (North-East Frontier Agency, now called Arunachal Pradesh). Bomdila had fallen and the retreating troops from Sela had been trapped between the two passes. Fear of Chinese coming down the valley and occupying the eastern sector had percolated down the line, creating an aura of panic and helplessness. The plans were afoot to evacuate major cities in Assam. This was the grim scenario under which Nehru wrote those two letters.

He asked for a comprehensive aid from the US that included immediate help of the US Air Force for the purpose of air defence of the eastern sector. For the Indian Air Force to be employed in offensive role against the Chinese on the war front, it was felt necessary to have the US Air Force to defend the eastern sector against the PLAAF (People’s Liberation Army Air force as Chinese air force is known), should the Chinese retaliate by attacking Indian cities, oilfields and the industrial complexes in the region. The UK Prime Minister was also kept in the picture. However, by then the Chinese declared a unilateral ceasefire and a phased withdrawal. Obviously, they must have met their limited objective as set at the outset of the war. Besides, they could ill afford to stay on with the passes getting snow bound in days to come. These letters made public recently betray Nehru’s fears and the state of helplessness, as also the deference with which he approaches the subject of help from the US President.In the light of these letters, it has become necessary to re-visit the controversy surrounding this vital issue of non use of combat elements of the IAF, despite the overwhelming Chinese onslaught. The Army rightly feels aggrieved that despite the grave circumstances, the Air Force did not come to its rescue. Perhaps, had Nehru not been so influenced by US Ambassador, Galbraith’s advise and the IB boss, BN Mullick who had Nehru’s ears always, the outcome could well have been somewhat different. Whilst the former had Cold War compulsions in mind in advising Nehru the way he did, the latter was led to exaggerating the Chinese threat in the absence of real intelligence.

India had technologically advance aircraft comprising Toofanis, Mysteres, Gnats, Hunters and the Canberras. Some of these aircraft were in location in the eastern sector

Lack of genuine intelligence with the government, as also the armed forces and consequent fear of Chinese retribution due to over assessment of their capabilities obviously led to this unfortunate decision. Thus, it was the fear of the unknown that created a sort of paranoia amongst the higher hierarchy in the govt which totally froze and took decisions and actions that did not bring much honour to the nation and its Prime Minister, as stands revealed now.

The US advice that it would be unwise to involve the combat elements of the IAF played a major role in arriving at this decision. The suggestion that the eastern cities and the air bases at Tezpur and Guwahati, Calcutta industrial complex, oil installation might become targets for the Chinese bombing unnerved the government. The intelligence about the Chinese having active air bases at Rudok, Gartok and Tashigong further added to the confusion. There are no such bases even today in 2010. Thus, the government was led to deciding in favour of not using the IAF in operations other than the logistic support to the army, lest it should result in some sort of disaster. The demand for twelve all weather supersonic fighter squadrons placed by highly paranoiac Nehru on President Kennedy also seems rather naive and not based on any sound professional advice. It was not a small number that somebody would have given us on a platter. Maj Gen Palit writes in his book “War in the High Himalayas” that when he was shown the draft letter as a DMO at the AHQ, seeking these fighter squadrons, he could only welcome the help in light of desperate circumstances, whatever its source. Whether the Air HQs were similarly consulted is not clear at all.

The Chinese were known to have only Mig-15, Mig-17, IL-28 bombers and a few Mig-19. Most airfields in Tibet are at high altitude and had inadequate infrastructure to take on offensive fighter operations. The IL-28 bomber was the only aircraft that could have posed some threat in the eastern sector. In fact, in 1962, the PLAAF was at its weakest. The Soviets had pulled out of China in August; 1960. Their aeronautical industry was in tatters. Their serviceability was low due to non-availability of spares and so also was perhaps their morale. According to some western estimates based upon inputs from the Chinese sources, the Chinese Air Force was nearly grounded due to total suspension of supplies and the spares by the Soviet Union. Discord with Taiwan was also keeping the Chinese engaged on the eastern board. Large contingent of army and air force were deployed there.

It may be mentioned here, though with the advantage of hindsight that during the period leading from the 62 war with India to its 1979 war with Vietnam, the PLAAF had shown a marked bias towards Air Defence as against Offensive Air Operations. That this was inspite of having more capable bomber like the Tu-16/H-6 at the time implies that this predilection towards Air Defence had more to do with their air force doctrine rather than the ‘short legs’ of its aircraft. Would it therefore, with the hindsight of course, be correct to say that the PLAAF in all likelihood would not have used its offensive power against Indian cities? This is a question that can perhaps never be answered.

In comparison, India had technologically advance aircraft comprising Toofanis, Mysteres, Gnats, Hunters and the Canberras. Some of these aircraft were in location in the eastern sector already, though the Air Defence set up was rather rudimentary. With inherent flexibility that the air power has, it would have not taken much time for the IAF to reinforce the sector with requisite assets.

Unfortunately, the Air Force too was not as clear and certain as it ought to have been, due to the lack of requisite intelligence inputs. And that is the reason indeed for not having any in-depth study on Chinese capabilities in Tibet in hand prior to the start of war. Lack of intelligence on China’s capabilities and their intentions was obviously the limiting factor resulting in India not being as ready as required by the emerging scenario. The fear of Chinese retaliation seemed to have weighed so heavily that it coloured all our decisions. In light of the fact that the Henderson Brookes report is unlikely to be released for public scrutiny, the only source of information in this regard would be the few surviving senior officers of the day.

Ambassador Galbraith went to a great length in pressurising Nehru to desist from using combat aircraft against the Chinese which would widen the scope of the war. The US would not be able to support or provide any fighter cover. Galbraith could not have acted entirely on his own volition or hunch in advising Nehru so strongly without the backing from the home front. It could well have been the US military as also the CIA that were saying so. They had their own Cold War compulsions. Besides, the US was not very sure in regard to the extent of fissures in Sino-Soviet relations. However, what is of great interest is the fact that Prime Minister Nehru trusted Ambassador Galbraith without any trepidation whatsoever.

Writing in his journal later to be published as ‘Ambassador’s Journal’, on 19 Nov 62, the day Nehru dashed off his missives, Galbraith notes, “The Indians at all levels are in a state of shock .Not one but two pleas for help are coming to us, the second one of them still highly confidential. They want our Air Force to back them up so that they can employ theirs tactically without leaving their cities unprotected… I think it would be very unwise for them to initiate any air action.” Then he goes to footnote this event by saying, “In the ensuing days, I urged against doing so in the strongest possible fashion”. In his next entry on 21 Nov 1962, he goes on to explain the logic behind his urgings, when he says, “The cities of the Gangetic Plain are accessible from the airfields of Tibet. There is no chance that the Indians could retaliate to China and there is nothing in Tibet”. It is instructive to note that soon after this entry is an account of Galbraith’s 10 AM meeting with Prime Minister Nehru.

Whether the US deliberately exaggerated the Chinese air threat is indeed debatable. The Soviets too could not afford to take a pro India stand in October 1962…

One of the main factors in the calculus of the Americans would have been the fact that the Cold War was at its peak with the Cuban missile crisis unfolding at this very juncture. Any clear siding with the Indians would have provoked the Soviets in some form or the other. That’s how the US did not want to be seen getting too involved on the Indian side. Any such perception would have brought the Soviets closer to the Chinese who had not yet fully parted company. The US on account of Cold War constraints obviously did not want another region getting embroiled in any major war and hence the advice to Nehru to avoid widening the scope of Sino-Indian conflict by employing its air power. Whether the US deliberately exaggerated the Chinese air threat is indeed debatable. The Soviets too could not afford to take a pro India stand in October 1962 because of their pre-occupation with the US on account of Cuban missile face off.

The unfortunate consequence of this canard being sowed deep into the minds of the Indian decision making elite was that it soon began acquiring a life of its own, as a section of the military came to believe that using the IAF offensively would lead to the PLAAF responding with operations to hinder the IAF’s air maintenance of the Indian Army on which it was extremely dependent. That’s how a few requests for close air support by some units engaged on the front with the Chinese were promptly turned down by the army authorities on these very grounds.

Despite Nehru’s entreaties, the US help was not forthcoming till after the end of the war, although there are references here and there in regard to the US aircraft carrier (USS Enterprise) being present in the Indian Ocean and its movement towards the Bay of Bengal. The US in response to India’s request for help got the Commonwealth countries to come forward and support it in this effort. President Kennedy with the help of British Prime Minister Macmillan worked out a joint military aid package of the order of about $120 million or so for India. Other Commonwealth countries were too roped in to share this responsibility on the grounds that India was more familiar with British and the Commonwealth countries’ equipment and the weapon systems rather than that of the Americans’. The US help therefore, came in the form of non-combat equipment only. It thus became a support from the western powers and not necessarily from the US who was wary of the Soviets’ reaction.

Where India went wrong was in its strategic assessment of Chinese intentions that they would not resort to war. But they did and caught us totally off guard.

Thus, Ex Shiksha was planned between the air forces of the US, UK, Canada and Australia in order to check the air defence of Delhi and the eastern sector. Later, the help materialised in the form of aircrafts and the equipment from these countries. Besides, the US agreed to train certain number of Indian pilots in US. The US also gave badly needed winter clothing, some transport aircraft and later 500 series Star Saphire air defence radars which were later deployed all along the Himalayas from the west to the far east. Canada sent a squadron of Caribous transport aircraft. UK too provided some support in the form of submarine training to one batch of Indian naval officers. Some of this came free, some on concessional rates and some on full payment.

Interestingly, a stage came when India was able to get the best from both the sides. Right till 1965 war, India was able to acquire major military hardware from the US as well as the Soviet Union. No wonder, India’s non-alignment policy came to be referred as ‘bi-alignment’. Questions about India’s foreign policy began to be raised all over, particularly in the western world. Even within the country, the eyebrows were raised that the architect of India’s non-alignment policy was seeking military intervention by the US forces. However, what really matters is the way one looks at it. National interest must remain paramount, ideology notwithstanding.

Where India went wrong was in its strategic assessment of Chinese intentions that they would not resort to war. But they did and caught us totally off guard. This shattered Nehru and his much coveted non-alignment policy. Being still in “Bhai Bhai, era,” even our intelligence could not adjust to the emerging adverse relationship. To add to the woes, Nehru’s proclivity of ignoring the armed forces that unfortunately remained in World War-II mould all this while till the Chinese shook us resulted in the nation paying this heavy price. However, what needs to be debated in India is as to who sowed the seeds of imagination in the minds of the Indian polity of the time. Nehru was obviously not advised correctly or professionally. The unexpected Chinese onslaught and consequent rout of the Indian Army led Nehru and his advisors to overestimate Chinese politico-military objectives.

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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.

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8 thoughts on “1962: Why the IAF was not used

  1. The logic of nehru and IB cheif is palpable. Nehru might want to slow down the advance till mansoon or winter when the passes will choke. And loosing cities (northern plain and kolkata) by leaving their position to attack front would have made the situation more unmanageable. You have to look this way, We have a choice either slow their advance now and not inflicting any damage to their cities and loose more indian cities or the things as happened in current history. I guess Nehru must have guessed that the fact that they havent launched from tibet to target our cities there aim must be to expand and assert. Theres no shame in learning from our mistake. This same thing happened in Kargil where no air force is used I wonder whether we have learnt our lesson or getting advantage off.

  2. Everything seems fine in this article except the assumption that USA’s help was not forthcoming because of cold war dynamics. The threat of India getting overunned by Chinese would have been more real and dangerous than Soviet siding with China against India&USA. When the entire foreign policy of USA was then driven by containment policy, how could they have let a democracy falling to communist state?
    Only plausible reason it seem was the Cuban crisis– almost an existential crisis for USA, and the world.

  3. I always wondered as an Air Force personnel what was it that came in the way of the IAF coming to the aid of the nation during the Chinese aggression. . Today I have my answer and it would be worthwhile if this answer is communicated to all Defense personnel both serving and retired who would want to know how a single decision could turn the tides of history. Defense at times looks so vulnerable in the hands of politicians who have very little military wisdom.

  4. India is woefully bereft of leadership both civilian and military. The one page they could learn from Mrs Gandhi is perhaps respect for competence. Task a service and resource them to get on with it. Not, as in Kargil, tie their hands behind their back at the behest of foreign powers, or attempting to micro manage a sister service by telling them what to do and how to go about it. Ultimately, it is India’s bayonets, the finest fighting infantry men in the World who are sacrificed in their thousands, to the maws of jamming indigenous rifles, ammunition free artillery and Neta-Babu desire for a pat on the back from powers they hope will allow them to strut permanently in the UN. Shastri is venerated because he was given credit for a victory and much of the inside story is obfuscated or forgotten. The 1965 war was won by the then AoC-in-C Western Command who bombed Peshawar (without seeking orders and so preempting a 1962 like situation) and blew away Pakistan’s supply depot and lines. Shastri called the Chief of the Air Staff and reprimanded him for this. (The Army, except for Uncle Sam, never acknowledged 1965 as an air victory) In 1962, Nehru reprimanded the Air Officer (Intelligence) (A graduate of the RAF Staff College Andover) for pressing for an immediate deployment of the Air Force. Not so coincidentally, the 1962 AO (Int) was the elder brother of the 1965 AOC-in-C (West). This was expected of Nehru who, when asked what should be done with surplus military equipment such as amphibians abandoned by the British, replied telegraphically (in writing) “India has no territorial ambitions” (!). Indira Gandhi deserves some credit in that she listened to her Chiefs of Staff and let them follow through on their plans instead of seeking and adopting foreign military advise and doctrines like every Prime Minister before and since and constraining Indian defence to the behest of doctrines hatched by less than friendly powers and the ambitions of local political corruption.

    • The point is not because Indira Gandhi was clever or competent. She was neither and had no alternativie other than to listen to her service chiefs, particularly Gen Manekshaw, who is real architect of the 1971 victory over Pakistan. Indian Army would have conquered Pakistan but for misleading reports presented to Lal Bahadur Shastri about only 20 percent of stockpile of ammunition being in our inventory, when the actual figure was 80 percent.

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