Military & Aerospace

1971 War: The Air Force in War-I
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Issue Book Excerpt: India\'s War since Independence | Date : 01 Dec , 2011

The public clamour for Indianisation of the armed forces in the early 1930s led to the establishment of the Indian Sandhurst Committee. Along with other recommendations the committee insisted that the officer cadres in the air arm in India should be Indianised. This resulted in four to six Indians being sent to Cranwell, in Britain, for training every year. On the return of the first group, the Indian Air Force was formed on 1 April 1933 by raising No 1 Indian Squadron at Drigh Road with four Wapiti aircraft. At the same time some Indian technicians, called hawai sipahi, who had been trained in aeronautical engineering, were posted to service the aircraft.

A beginning was thus made. Wapiti, an biplane, was the main aircraft of the Royal Air Force Squadron in India and was extensively employed in operations against tribesmen in the Northwest Frontier. After the initial training of three years, one flight of the Indian Squadron was inducted into the Frontier on 1 April 1936 for attachment to the RAF Squadron for operational experience. The flight was stationed at Miran Shah and employed in patrolling army columns, tactical reconnaissance, and close support to army picqueting operational with occasional bombing.

Space-Power-2The aircraft were rickety contraptions, very vulnerable to tribal small arms fire, and force landings because of bullet holes in the body and engine failures because of indifferent refuelling environments were common. But these activities provided sound experience of active operations. Two other flights were formed when aircraft and crew became available, and at the start of the Second World War No 1 Indian Squadron was in good shape and had received its baptism of fire. Indian airmen went all out to prove their capacity to man units efficiently although leadership at the command and administrative levels still remained with British officers seconded from RAF.The leisurely pace of Indianisation, started in 1933, was primarily meant to satisfy demands for nationalizing the services, and this would have continued but for the outbreak of war in Europe and its looming shadow on the subcontinent as part of Britain’s colonial empire in the east. Strategic requirements dictated modernisation of the regular RAF units through a re-equipment programme with newer types of aircraft and expansion of the force in India as a whole for ever-increasing operational commitments. In this regard it was decided to raise Indian Air Force Volunteer Reserve units to patrol the long, exposed coastline.

in the future, when mobility is restored on the battlefield by superior generalship and equipment and deeper thrusts are possible, it will be necessary to capture enemy airfields and rehabilitate them speedily to support our operations where possible or devise some method of laying temporary airfields quickly.

Coastal defence flights were raised from volunteers holding civil pilot’s licences at Bombay, Calcutta, Cochin, Karachi, Madras and Visakhapatnam. About a hundred volunteers manned Wapiti aircraft, by then discarded by RAF units in favour of better machines. Most of these volunteer pilots were boxwallahs from business houses in India and of British nationality. Nonetheless these units, equipped with antiquated aircraft from Wapiti to Bristol Blenheims and Hudsons, played a useful role in surveillance of Indian coastal waters and provided an escort to ships carrying troops and war material within their limited range. In fact, the first Japanese fleet off the east coast of India was sighted by a coastal defence unit based at Visakhapatnam.

Japanese entry into the war and speedy conquests in East and Southeast Asia spurred the expansion of the Indian Air Force (IAF). Its strength grew in the war years from one squadron to nine, but this was still no more than one-tenth of the total force the Allies employed in the Eastern Air Command area. These units had to be content with aircraft which the RAF units had phased out. While RAF squadrons flew Thunderbolts and Mosquitoes, IAF continued with Hurricanes and Spitfires, and throughout the war this discrimination generated a feeling of being a mere adjunct to a superior mentor. But despite their older and inferior aircraft, Indian airmen made a name for themselves with their efficiency.

In recognition of its services in the war IAF received the title, Royal and its pilots won one Distinguished Service Order and a number of other decorations. Quite a few like Mazumdar and Baba Meher Singh became flying legends. To cope with the expansion of the force, flying schools were set up initially at Walton, near Lahore, and at Ambala, and later, as war requirements mounted, two operational units—one for fighters and another for ground attack craft-were set up at Risalpur and Peshawar respectively. Several ground schools for training technicians and administrative personnel were established for officers as well as men. Rapid expansion raised the strength of the force to 3,000 officers and 25,000 men. The bulk of this force was deployed along with RAF under what was known as the “substitution scheme.” Most of the rank and file saw action in the Burma theatre and were able to gain invaluable experience of manning and maintaining the most sophisticated equipment of that time, and this knowledge proved useful when independence came.

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Although some IAF officers had converted to transport aircraft individually, no transport unit was raised as such. This shortcoming was redressed after the war by raising a transport squadron which, having trained on Airspeed Oxfords, was equipped with Dakotas drawn from war surpluses. The first squadron commander was Shivdev Singh, who rose to be the Vice Chief of Air Staff and had a hand in planning and directing the air war in the Indo-Pakistani conflict of 1971.

As for the future Air Force inventory, there is need, as has been stressed earlier, for a close support aircraft slow in speed but highly lethal in weaponry.

The British War Office had worked out the postwar defence requirements in India and had spelt out as late as October 1946 that the existing strength of some ten squadrons should be expanded to a force level of 20, to be organized into a balanced force of fighter, bomber and transport squadrons as an all-purpose combat hitting power. Before these plans could be put into operation political changes left it to the emerging national government to work out its own strategic needs.

Partition of the country into Pakistan and India on the eve of independence changed the entire context in which the British assessment of the force levels of the services had been made. In the division of assets, India retained roughly two-thirds of the old RIAF, comprising some seven fighter squadrons and one transport squadron. Almost all its permanent training establishments and air bases, located in what came to be called Pakistan, were lost to India. The tribal invasion of Kashmir launched the active operations of the new IAF without any respite for dealing with the aftermath of partition and its attendant problems. Under the leadership of Air Commodore Meher Singh, affectionately known as Baba, the Air Force swung into action with verve and courage.

The dramatic airlift—to Srinagar on 27 October 1947 was the turning point of the operations to defend Kashmir Valley. Since the theatre of operations was undeveloped for road communications reliance had to be placed increasingly on air supply as the Army developed its thrust towards the interior. It goes to IAF’s credit that its transport aircraft flew along hitherto uncharted routes over the world’s highest mountain ranges and, operating from make-shift airfields, at times under hostile fire, sustained the Army operations till the ceasefire. Many an awkward situation was averted by timely reinforcements of men and material and a great number of lives were saved by timely evacuation, under the most hazardous flying conditions of weather, hostile action, indifferent airfield surfaces, and night navigation and landing.

IAF_Morning_flightTempest aircraft flown in narrow and wooded valleys rocketed and bombed the raiders out of their hideouts with telling effect. So apt had IAF become in innovation that it attacked the Kohala bridge along the Rawalpindi-Srinagar highway with bombs rolled out of the open doors of a Dakota by the bare feet of the ejection crew. The transport element had to grow in these operations and pilots were converted while they were on operational flying, on-the-job training as it were. The performance of the units operating in Jammu and Kashmir was praiseworthy and won undying admiration from soldiers and senior officers alike.The credit for this must go to Meher Singh, who personally led every difficult mission. His briefing of pilots was the briefest—just “Follow me.” He led and they literally followed. He was the first pilot to land a Dakota at Leh airfield, hurriedly cleared for the occasion by removing boulders. The memory of Baba Meher Singh and his daring exploits will endure as long as IAF flies.

Book_India_wars_sinceMeantime, efforts were afoot to create a virtually new IAF, with its own training, administrative, maintenance, operational establishments, and organisation. An inventory of World War II surpluses, discards and even salvage was made to evaluate the equipment resources in hand. This reorganisation was assigned to three outstanding RAF officers. Air Marshal Sir Thomas Emhirst was the first Air Chief after partition. He was succeeded by Air Marshal Sir R. Ivelaw-Chapman, and finally Air Marshal Sir Eric Gibbs.The first enunciation of the force level of IAF came from Sardar Baldev Singh, Defence Minister in 1949. Addressing Parliament, he announced the Government’s intention to create a balanced force of 20 squadrons by 1960. This seemed to be based on the earlier War Office assessment of imperial requirements. It is likely that the British chiefs might have given this advice keeping in view the Commonwealth requirements in the overall context of imperial strategy. It certainly did not appear that the Government had given serious thought to the longterm potential threat in view of our poor relations with Pakistan, or to the fiscal resources required to maintain an air arm of this size. The war surpluses from British stocks however helped immediately.

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In the period 1947-53 about 100 British-built Spitfires and Tempests (33 constituting India’s share and 67 purchased from surplus stocks) were acquired from the RAF storage at Karachi. A notable addition to the IAF inventory was the American-built Liberator bomber. Till then, a single-engined combat aircraft filled the role of both fighter and bomber. The salvaging of Liberators from aircraft the US Air Force and RAF had abandoned on the forward airfields in Assam and elsewhere enabled several heavy bombers and reconnaissance units to be raised. Although these bombers were never used operationally, they gave much needed experience to Indian pilots and ground technicians in handling and serving big four-engined aircraft. They also carried out maritime reconnaissance till as late as 1960.

A beginning was thus made. Wapiti, an biplane, was the main aircraft of the Royal Air Force Squadron in India and was extensively employed in operations against tribesmen in the Northwest Frontier.

The transport wing was also expanded about threefold, but it still continued to fly the war-tried workhorse, the Dakota. VIP flight duties were also taken over by IAF with the acquisition of De Havilland Devon light transport aircraft. Simultaneously with this expansion and re-equipping process, training facilities were established to replace those which had gone to Pakistan. A repair and maintenance organisation was also set up to cope with the needs of the fast expanding Air Force. Consistent with Government policy, Indianisation was also going ahead. By March 1954 most of the shortages were made up by direct recruitment of qualified civilians, commissioning deserving NCOs and retaining a few Britons in key posts. At that time there were however no more than nine British officers and 54 civilians still with IAF.

Air Marshal Subroto Mukerjee, the seniormost serving officer, was appointed the first Indian Chief of Air Staff on 1 April 1954. He had established good rapport with Nehru, and this helped him to get timely allocation of financial resources to set IAF on the second, but vital, phase of development which lasted till Mukerjee’s sudden death in late 1960. Nehru was keen on developing a “visible military force” in the region as part of his political diplomacy. IAF fitted this role and received the preferential treatment of an indulgent parent. Two jet streaks seen over Delhi one morning, presumed to be from Chinese aircraft operating from Tibetan bases, hastened the ushering in of the jet age in IAF.

British Vampires were initially purchased to replace the inventory of fighter squadrons on the understanding that the parent company would provide the engines while airframes would be assembled with some indigenous components by Hindustan Aircraft Limited (HAL). The sudden threat of the British Government in 1952 to cut off the supply of Vampire engines made India think of an alternative source, and as a result orders were placed for the French Ouragan jet fighter bomber, renamed Toofani, as an interim measure while negotiations were initiated to manufacture, as a long-term measure, the British Folland Gnat light fighter under licence as a next generation fighter.

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By 1956 IAF had nearly reached its targeted strength of 20 squadrons, but the bulk of the aircraft inventory was obsolescent. Replacement and re-equipment would perhaps have proceeded in a leisurely fashion but for the start of US aid to Pakistan the same year. Pakistan acquired the F-86 Sabrejet and F-104 Starfighter. To maintain an edge over Pakistan both in strength and quality of aircraft, 1957-58 saw the completion of major re-equipment and expansion plans. The choice of aircraft was primarily based on air staff requirements, the willingness of the manufacturing country to release its product and weapons system, and the availability of foreign exchange or ease in making financial arrangements on business terms without political strings.

Strategic requirements dictated modernisation of the regular RAF units through a re-equipment programme with newer types of aircraft and expansion of the force in India as a whole for ever-increasing operational commitments.

India’s foreign exchange reserves, accumulated in Britain as war debts, helped at this stage of procurement, but dried up later. Since India could afford the foreign exchange at that time the criterion for acceptance was quality rather than low price or easy terms of payment. The French Ouragan was purchased in 1953 largely because the British were reluctant to part with their Meteors. Similarly, Canberra bombers and Mystere IV-A fighters were selected in 1957 despite the offer of Soviet IL-28s and MIG-17s at almost one-third the price of the other craft.

Orders for the Hawker Hunter were put through only when the British Government consented to release the superior Mark-6 for export. Menon pushed through this order despite IAF preference for the Mirage. It is significant that in this period India did not go in for Russian aircraft because it wished to adhere to Western weapons systems, and perhaps more importantly to avoid charges of political leanings towards such a source of supply, especially when India depended on Western aid to implement its development plans.

In the transport wing, apart from maintaining VIP communication flights, the capability of paradropping one battalion’s worth of parachutists with accompanying equipment involving heavy drops was achieved. In this period Otters replaced Devons.

The British Viscount was added to the Dakota but was soon transferred to civil airlines. A few American Bell and Sikorsky helicopters were added to introduce the rotary wing to India. A fleet of American Fairchild C-119 Flying Boxcars, also known as Packet short and medium range transport aircraft, augmented the Dakota fleet. About the same time, Russia presented India with two IL-14 commercial transport aircraft.

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The Viscount and the Ilyushin were considered and tested for possible military use but eventually, contrary to expert advice, Krishna Menon decided to manufacture the British HS (Hawker Siddeley) 748 under licence as a replacement for the Dakota. The agreement for indigenous production was signed in 1959.1The HS-748 controversy is too well known to be repeated. Although some pilots call it an underpowered and uneconomical aircraft, it continues to be used both by IAF and Indian Airlines on secondary routes. A military-version of the HS-748 with a wide door for paratrooping has done well in trials.

In recognition of its services in the war IAF received the title, Royal and its pilots won one Distinguished Service Order and a number of other decorations. Quite a few like Mazumdar and Baba Meher Singh became flying legends.

Implementation of Nehru’s “forward policy” in the Himalayas pushed the Army into inaccessible areas of Ladakh and NEFA where its administrative support had to depend primarily on air maintenance both by landing and paradrop. There was an active scouting for helicopters and transport aircraft capable of high-altitude performance in 1959. The Government went in for Russian MI-4 helicopters in 1960,2 and also for AN-12 heavy air-freighters and a few Canadian Caribous in preference to American S-62 helicopters and C-130 transport aircraft partly because of the ruggedness in performance of the Russian aircraft and partly because of easy payment in rupees.

Chinese policies in the Himalayas, the growing menace of insurgency and civil wars in Southeast Asia, and even more the acquisition of supersonic Starfighters by Pakistan, sent India in frantic search for similar aircraft for IAF. The programme Menon initiated for the manufacture of the HF-24 fighter was in trouble for lack of a suitable engine, and further delay would have entailed the maintenance of an increasingly obsolescent fighter arm.

Book_India_wars_sinceThe potential of the HF-24 as a supersonic fighter of world class was becoming doubtful, and Chinese aircraft operating from Tibetan bases were increasingly violating Indian air space. To acquire a fighter to match the F-104 India contracted for the Soviet MIG-21, with licensing facilities for its manufacture in India. This aircraft possessed no obvious advantage over the British Lightning, the French Mirage and the American Starfighter, but manufacturing rights and rupee payment seemed to have decided the issue. Although the Western types could not be had, the MIG-21 was still a decided improvement on the aircraft in service with IAF.


  1. Asian Recorder, Vol V, No 30, “Manufacture of Turbojets,” p. 2787.
  2. Asian Recorder, Vol VI, No 17, “Armed Forces Strengthened,” p. 3278.

On the eve of the Chinese invasion in 1962 IAF constituted the largest and most effective air power in the region. It had organized itself into two wings for operational command and control, namely Western Air Command to look after the northern Himalayas, Pakistan-occupied Kashmir and West Pakistan with headquarters at Palam, New Delhi, and Eastern Air Command, formed at Shillong to meet the growing commitments in the areas bordering China, Burma and East Pakistan. The total strength of the force was 25 operational squadrons, with the capability of raising about seven reserve squadrons from training and other miscellaneous aircraft in the inventory.

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In addition to the Auxiliary Air Force, manpower included the Air Defence Reserve, consisting of technicians and fliers and the regular reserve of IAF men who had retired or had been released from service. One thing is certain: IAF, unlike the other services, had never been starved of money, and its expansion programme had been allowed to flow uninterrupted on the initiative of the politician and without much canvassing on the part of the service. As a result IAF’s growth was so haphazard that by October 1962 it possessed an extraordinary mix of aircraft, some 30-odd types of British, American, Canadian, French, Russian and Indian manufacture, with their attendant problems, especially of logistics. This magnified the problems of maintenance, especially because technically qualified personnel were lacking, multiplicity of spares needed, and continual retraining of ground and air crew.

Although some IAF officers had converted to transport aircraft individually, no transport unit was raised as such.

Bureaucratic failure to produce timely and accurate lists of spares and the strange behaviour of the Government, which spent freely on buying aircraft but displayed miserliness in providing spares, brought about a sharp decline in the serviceability curve of our frontline aircraft. This was aggravated by difficulties in acquiring spares for aircraft which were already obsolete in their countries of manufacture. Spares had to be acquired at times from third countries, or had to b specially manufactured at great cost.

Funds released to the base repair depots at Kanpur were spent on new projects rather than on keeping the existing inventory airworthy. It would have been advisable to procure and stock sufficient spares at the time a particular aircraft was purchased, but the tendency seemed to be to show the acquisition of as large a number of planes as possible with the funds available at the cost of their later maintenance.

The development of the requisite infrastructure in the way of air bases and forward satellite airfields was directed primarily against Pakistan. Training was biased towards supporting land battles in Punjab and Kashmir. Air defences against the potential Pakistani threat was organized on the Second World War pattern, but without much teeth as it lacked early warning radar, both high and low looking.

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In the absence of a satisfactory warning system reliance was placed on early strikes against Pakistani bases to cripple their air force. The overall two to one superiority in aircraft was considered adequate to achieve the desired effect in a prolonged conflict between the two countries. But nothing had been done to meet the contingency of a clash with China, even on a limited scale. Defence of Indian cities in the Gangetic Plain and the industries of West Bengal and Bihar was ignored altogether although it was known that, unlike Pakistan, China would not be deterred from attacking these sensitive targets for fear of counteraction.

Partition of the country into Pakistan and India on the eve of independence changed the entire context in which the British assessment of the force levels of the services had been made.

Air defence against China was not even thought of. Although a few airfields along the outer fringes of the Himalayas could be activated in an emergency, they could not sustain more than four to five squadrons in operations. Moreover, IAF had no serious training in tactical support of land battles in the rugged and mountainous terrain of NEFA and Sikkim. The narrow and deep valleys encountered in these regions presented flying constraints to the jetfighters in service. Transport capacity was fully utilised in Ladakh and had little to spare for NEFA and Assam.

This inherent inadequacy decided Nehru to keep IAF out of the NEFA and Ladakh battles against the Chinese. It would have been imprudent to escalate the conflict in the air when our preparations were so woefully inadequate to meet the Chinese threat. IAF participation in NEFA was confined to limited reconnaissance with Toofani aircraft in the rear areas to spot Chinese infiltration and outflanking movements. No offensive sorties were undertaken in conformity with the Government’s decision. The Fairchild Packet fleet was utilized to fly in troop and artillery reinforcements to the infantry brigade engaged in battle at Chushul in Ladakh. These aircraft performed the remarkable feat of transporting a troop of dismantled AMX tanks to defend Chushul airfield against Chinese assaults towards the end of October.

The entire resources of Indian Airlines were employed along with the IAF transport fleet to fly formations from the plains of Punjab and elsewhere to Tezpur, Gauhati and Dibrugarh to reinforce NEFA, and to Bagdogra for induction in Sikkim. This was the first time troop lifts of such magnitude were attempted in India, and they proved a welcome contribution to overcoming time consuming surface movement. The Hercules (C – 130), rushed in by the US Air Force, helped in lifting heavy equipment and IAF men thus got the opportunity to work with foreign counterparts for the first time after independence. After the ceasefire the old and badly flogged Packets were by 200 C-119 B aircraft as part of the emergency military aid from the US. These aircraft were later modified by fitting an auxiliary jet engine for enhanced power to improve their performance for high-altitude operation.

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Fully conscious of the glaring gaps in air defence arrangements, IAF conducted an exercise in collaboration with USAF and RAF in 1963 1 to pinpoint its weaknesses and seek remedies as part of the emergency military aid. The exercise, named Shiksha, fully deployed the most modern and sophisticated equipment in the way of high and low early warning radars and the communications for the instant dissemination of pickup reports. In addition, Britain and the US brought their frontline defence aircraft, and this enabled IAF Hunters to operate alongside RAF Javelins and USAF F-100 Ds to protect vulnerable points.

The dramatic airlift””to Srinagar on 27 October 1947 was the turning point of the operations to defend Kashmir Valley.

This was an invaluable experience. Although primarily oriented to meet the Chinese threat, the exercise indirectly brought out the weaknesses against Pakistan as well. On consolidating the lessons learnt from the exercise, a programme was drafted to create an air defence infrastructure for early warning and communication, and orders were placed for high-priority requirements.

The process of setting up essentials against Pakistan started early in 1964 and was only partly completed when the 1965 conflict occurred. Its conclusion stopped all Western aid, and that left the infrastructure incomplete in both aspects. India tried to negotiate with the American suppliers directly, but Washington’s embargo on the sale of war material and the rigid attitude of the Johnson and Nixon Administrations2 came in the way of clinching the deal. As a result, India turned in desperation to other sources and started to develop indigenous production.

In view of the newly emerged Chinese threat IAF commitments increased manifold, and with this an increase in force level was indicated. After much debate, the Government accepted a target of 45 operational squadrons, thus making IAF the fifth largest standing air force in the world. This force level was scheduled to be completed over a plan period of five years. The process was underway when hostilities with Pakistan triggered the 1965 conflict. According to the Institute of Strategic Studies, London, the relative strengths of the two air forces were: India—four bomber squadrons (Canberras), ten fighter squadrons (Hunters), three fighter squadrons (Gnats) and several others (Vampires and Toofanis), ten to 15 transport squadrons (C-47, C-119, Antonovs and Viscounts); Pakistan—two bomber squadrons (Canberras), five fighter squadrons (one Starfighter, four Sabres), three to four transport squadrons.

Book_India_wars_sincePakistan struck in the Chhamb sector west of the Chenab on 1 September3 with an infantry division supported by two armoured regiments. The sector was held by an infantry brigade and a tank squadron. Taken completely by surprise, the brigade fell back against superior armoured strength. The invasion force secured the line of Manawar Wali Tawi by afternoon and was poised to cross the river. As the afternoon advanced, the Pakistani intention and strength became discernible, and it was decided that the only way to thwart it was to bring the Air Force into action. It is said that Gen Chaudhuri asked for air support at about 1630 hours and within an hour and a half Prime Minister Shastri gave his approval. The first air strike was launched at 1801 hours the same day. In all, 28 sorties were flown from Pathankot, and of them 12 were flown by No 45 Squadron with Vampire FB-52 aircraft, and 16 by No 3 and No 31 Squadrons with Mysteres.4


  1. Asian Recorder, Vol IX, No 50, “First Joint Air Training Exercises,” p. 5558.
  2. Asian Recorder, Vol XI, No 50, p. 6813.
  3. Asian Recorder, Vol XI, No 40, “Massive Pakistani Attack on Chhamb,” p. 6687.
  4. Asian Recorder, ibid., “Air Battles over Chhamb,” p. 6688.

The Vampires were first in action, and four were soon lost to the Pakistani Sabres and anti-aircraft fire. The Vampires, having a slower speed, were no match for the Pakistani F-100s and in action within 45 minutes of the F-86s. The Mysteres went into action within 45 miniutes of the Vampires. They flew in groups of four and by sunset had destroyed some 14 Patton tanks and 30-odd soft-skinned vehicles with their rockets and cannon, making as many as six runs each over the traget area. Although the Mystere IV-A was adequate in a ground support role, it had its limitations in handling characterisics and manoevrability as a fighter. To make up for these shortfalls it was found expedient to fly at low heights with Gantescorts.

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On 6 September, when full-fledged fighting began on the western front, Air Marshal Arjan Singh concentrated on destroying the PAF air bases, mounting facilities and aircraft canght on the ground and in the air. He employed mainly Hunter Canberras for the purpose. Canberras raided the major air bases at Peshawar and Chaklala on the opening night, and thereafter flew about 200 counter-air sorties against them and other Pakistani air bases, including those at Alknal, Peshawar, Kohat, Chak Jamumra and Raisalwala. The Hunters could hold their own in air combat as was demonstrated over Halwara airfield on the very first day, when they shot down two raiding Sabres.

So apt had IAF become in innovation that it attacked the Kohala bridge along the Rawalpindi-Srinagar highway with bombs rolled out of the open doors of a Dakota by the bare feet of the ejection crew.

This encouraged Ajan Singh to deploy them deeper inside Pakistan and they were accordingly used to attack the major air bases at Sargodha, Chaklala, Peshawar and Kohat. In the late stages of the war, Canberra interdictors attacked with rockets and destroyed the vital radar installation at Badin in Sind. Arjan Singh later justified these attacks on the bases and connected facilities as part of the air war. He hoped thereby to cause high attrition of the aircraft availability of PAF and damage facilities in such a way as would adversely affect the sustenance rate of hostile aircraft in the air both in tactical as well as strategic areas of operations.

After this destruction he visualized that such a favourable air situation would be achieved that IAF elements inferior in performance Pakistani fighters would be able to operate with impunity and thus augment ground support. Despite his claim at the end of the war that he had destroyed nearly half of Pakistan’s air fleet, he failed to achieve freedom of the Pakistani skies and was unable to prevent Pakistani raids on sensitive Indian areas up to the last day of war.

In preparation for war on India, Pakistan had painstakingly developed a network of military airfields covering the entire border from Jammu and Kashmir in the north, the plains of Punjab in the centre, and the Sind desert in the south. These airfields were sited in three tiers. The main air bases like Sargodha, Chaklala and Masroor were sited in medium depth, with satellite fields like Mianwali, Chander and Jacobabad located closer to the border to achieve better range and dispersal if operational facilities at the main air bases were neutralised temporarily or permanently. In addition, Pakistan had a complex of rear airfields like Quetta, Kohat, Wana and Jiwani sited well in depth which would act as dispersal areas if India attacked the forward air bases.

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This wider choice of airfields endowed PAF with flexibility to operate with greater freedom and sense of security than the Indian Air Force. The bulk of the Pakistani aircraft were withdrawn at night to the sanctuary of the rear airfields when Arjan Singh abortively struck the forward or main air bases. Although India enjoyed three to one overall numerical superiority over Pakistan in frontline aircraft, a third of its strength consisted of obsolescent machines. In fact, the superiority in comparable combat aircraft was only two to one.

The performance of the units operating in Jammu and Kashmir was praiseworthy and won undying admiration from soldiers and senior officers alike.

In a short war, unless hostile aircraft are caught unawares on the ground in a pre-emptive attack it is difficult to cripple the enemy air force by counter-air action in the time span such a war allows. This is especially so when the chances of recovery have increased considerably as a result of modern technological advances which permit speedy repair of damage to airfields and communication and radar facilities. Arjan Singh was employing a Second World War concept without much apparent success, as from the very outset of operations PAF was closely supporting the ground actions of the Pakistani Army with such telling effect that within the first few days it had made it difficult for the Indian Army to operate in daylight.

Ajan Singh and his boys were fighting an invisible war, remote from the areas where battle decisions were being achieved, much to the bitterness of the foot soldier, who seldom saw our aircraft although he was harassed and mauled by Pakistani aircraft constantly and with murderous venom. Arjan Singh’s efforts against the air bases were far too dispersed to effect the attrition or crippling of PAF’s operational facilities. On the other hand, PAF continued to raid the Indian air bases day and night, and by perfecting its ground support procedures and techniques it was able to provide very intimate and swift air support to the land operations, thus causing heavy casualties of men and equipment. There were occasions when PAF on its own beat back Indian Army attacks, and others when they blazed the trail for a ground advance with considerable success.

Having failed to cripple PAF, Arjan Singh turned his effort towards interdiction in depth in a big way. Interdiction missions were flown by Canberras, Hunters, Mysteres and Toofanis, supported by Gnats, against the rail and road communication network southwest and northeast of Lahore to prevent a buildup in the Lahore and Sialkot sectors. Various claims were made of destroying trains carrying tanks and other vehicles, oil and other war material. Despite this destruction, and the greatly exaggerated success of the interdiction achieved, there was no letup in the intensity of the Pakistani land operations.

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Arjan Singh and his planners had failed to realize that short modern wars are fought from forward dumps created in the preparatory stage. Deep interdiction of the type IAF set out to achieve has only a long-term effect in war. What is required in short wars is close interdiction of the combat zone where its effects should tell on the land battle within a matter of 24 to 48 hours. In the event, IAF wasted its effort.

Book_India_wars_sinceBy the end of the conflict India claimed 73 enemy planes1 destroyed nearly half the strength Pakistan started the war with—against an Indian loss of about half that number. These claims were belied by a physical count carried out later by foreign military attaches. In spite of well-organized publicity and an endless spate of awards dished out to Indian pilots2 in the course of the war, the fact remains that PAF came out better in the end. There were many reasons for this. The foremost was better ordination of effort at the level of higher direction of the war. The available effort, after due allowance for security of bases, was used effectively to support intimately the land battles, where decisions were being arrived at.

Continued…: The Air Force in War-II


  1. Asian Recorder, Vol XI, No 41, “Indian Gains During War,” pp. 6707-6708.
  2. Asian Recorder, ibid. “Gallantry Awards to IAF pilots,” p. 6709.
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