Military & Aerospace

1971 War: Military Aims and Objectives
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Issue Book Excerpt: Indian Air Force in Wars | Date : 29 Oct , 2016

“1965 and 1971 Wars were a lesson in how wars should not be fought… the sooner people disabused themselves of the impression that the 1965 War ended in a victory for Pakistan the better…”           —Editorial in Pak Defence Journal Sep–Oct 2002

“The Campaign (Bangladesh), though studied by armies abroad, is not studied in much detail in India, nor have the lessons from it, particularly mobility and logistics, been given sufficient weightage.”        —Lt Gen JF R Jacob (Chief of Staff, Eastern Army during 1971 War.)

The two Wings of Pakistan were separated by 1600 km of Indian territory. A host of factors, overtime, accentuated the alienation of the Eastern Wing from the West. Briefly these were: attempt to force Urdu over Bengalis in the East; lesser effort and resource for development of the East compared to the West; more resource and revenue generation by the East — majority of which was spent by the West on itself; the distinct culture of the Bengalis from Punjabi culture and efforts to impose Punjabi culture over the Bengalis, the domination by the West in Civil Services, Armed Forces, etc, and finally the refusal of the West to permit certain amount of autonomy to the Eastern Wing.

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In December 1970 General Elections were held in Pakistan under the martial law of Gen Yahya Khan, to facilitate the return of democracy. The Awami League Party of the East, under Sheikh Mujibur Rahman swept the national assembly elections and emerged as the majority party.1 In the West though Bhutto emerged the victorious leader on behalf of the Pakistan People’s Party, securing majority. The inability of Yahya Khan to work out a political settlement between these rival parties spelled doom for the democracy yet to be born. The ruling junta rejected the popular mandate.

…refugee figures swelled to 8–9 million and killings in East Pakistan estimated over one million amongst a population of 70 million. The refugees mostly comprised the Hindus and Bihari Muslims…

The demand for autonomy by the Awami League was treated as a sign of attempted secession. Mujibur Rahman was arrested on 25 March 1971. At the same time an armed repression in the Eastern Wing commenced. Beginning with the massacre at Dhaka University, using tanks, the ensuing reign of terror resulted in mass destruction, wanton killings and unending plunder and rape of the countryside and women. As the Eastern Wing tried to fight back the military high handedness by organizing sporadic armed resistance, the intensity of repression increased. This triggered an uncontrollable massive flood of refugees from East Pakistan into India.

Soon, refugee figures swelled to 8–9 million and killings in East Pakistan estimated over one million amongst a population of 70 million. The refugees mostly comprised the Hindus and Bihari Muslims, a sign of Pakistani’s attempt at ethnic cleansing in the process of subduing and subjugating the Bengalis. The first major tide of refugees was in April 1971, followed by another in June and continuing. Thereafter, India was faced with an unmanageable demographic crisis. It was unable to face the problems of feeding and rehabilitation of this mass of refugees comprehensively. Despite repeated pleading, international help was meagre. The international community failed to halt the brutal course of events unfolding in East Pakistan.

On the contrary, the American need to open a link with China through the Pakistani diplomatic channel  in July 1971 made the US administration turn a blind eye. This emboldened the military Junta’s resolve to crush the popular uprising in the East. The Pakistani Air Force, including the use of Napalm, and tank columns were used without hesitation or consideration against the unarmed civil population.

The Pakistani Air Force, including the use of Napalm, and tank columns were used without hesitation or consideration against the unarmed civil population.

The Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi spared no efforts in seeking international help to avert the looming disaster. At the same time she made clear India’s intention to facilitate return of the refugees back into East Pakistan. As a precaution against the newly emerging USA–Pak–China axis, Mrs Gandhi, in a strategic master stroke, entered India into a 20 year Treaty of Peace and Friendship with the erstwhile USSR. The treaty also included steps for co-operation, peace, collaboration and mutual consultations to remove threats, and was signed on 9 August 1971.2

Meanwhile, the PM had directed the Indian Armed Forces to help facilitate the safe return of the refugees to East Pakistan. She nevertheless continued seeking international help. In October–November she visited six major western countries, but to no avail. Thus India got sucked into a conflict situation with Pakistan towards  the end of November 1971. All that was required now was for someone to light the fuse.

Political Direction to the Military

Unusual events in Pakistan are of great concern to India. The year of 1970–71 in that respect was an extraordinary one. Subsequent to 25 March 1971 which saw the genocide of Bengali aspirations and population by the Pak Army, the Indian leadership was faced with a challenge never experienced before. The Prime Minister pursued a multiple path strategy simultaneously. Diplomatically her efforts would go on right up to the end of November 1971; militarily she took some difficult decisions quite early on. The PM asked the military as early as April 1971 to facilitate the return of refugees to an area free of atrocities of East Pakistani authorities.3

The Chiefs were kept in constant touch with developments in the subcontinent and what the Cabinet was thinking about them…

The exiled Awami Party had already declared the state of Bangladesh and formed a provisional government on 10 April 1971.4 The political direction in India was quite unambiguous. But equally forthright was the military advise, largely based on Maj Gen JFR Jacob’s suggestion that correct time for operations would be after the monsoons, along with closure of the Himalayan passes in winter. Chief of the Army Staff Gen Sam Manekshaw proposed the same to the government. He expressed inability to fulfil the political direction in April 1971 for sound military reasons. He readily offered to resign if his decision was not acceptable. The reasons for his decisions, which made enormous military sense were: The foremost was to eliminate the possibility of a simultaneous Chinese threat — by planning operations in the middle of winter. The Himalayan passes would be snow bound, hence the second front of China would not be a threat.5

The second reason concerned the after effects of monsoon. The East Pakistan riverine territory would be suitable for rapid ground action and movement only in winter time. Thus, the ensuing period of 6–7 months from May to Nov–Dec would also permit enough time to beef up the Indian Armed Forces in their equipment, in their training, both individual and joint, and the overall preparation for the War.

The political direction was to secure sufficient area within East Pakistan where the provisional government of Bangladesh could be established. This would also permit a safe return passage of now close to 10 million refugees from India into Bangladesh.6 This was to be achieved rapidly. While these operations were going on in the East, the Military was to undertake holding action in the West. Capture of Dhaka wasn’t an objective at this stage.

Air Chief Marshal (Retd) PC Lal stated in his memoirs, “The Chiefs were kept in constant touch with developments in the subcontinent and what the Cabinet was thinking about them… As defined by the Chiefs of Staff and by each respective Service Chief, it was to gain as much ground as possible in the East, to neutralize the Pakistani forces to the extent we could, and to establish a base as it were for a possible state of Bangladesh. In the West the objective was to hold the Pakistani forces.”7

In the Western theatre the strategy of offensive–defence was decided in order to hold the existing situation and denying Pakistani strategy that, “defence of the East lies in the West”.

Military Aims and Objectives

The political aim was spelt out clearly and at a fairly early stage to enable full military preparation. Thereafter, the three Service Chiefs deliberated jointly and arrived at mutually planned military aims and objectives. Objectives for each service, as well as in support of the other two services. The planning process was joint from the word go and each Service considered an equal and important partner. Thereafter, detailed strategy was worked out for the three Services and then each Service evolved its own individual objectives. One common essential factor to all was the rapidity of the operation, especially keeping in mind the riverine terrain in the East, where multitude of rivers, some mighty ones like the Padma (Ganges) and the Jamuna (Brahmaputra) and innumerable others of sizeable dimensions posed serious challenge to army movement on the ground. Second was the disposition of Pakistani troops, spread all over in the major towns as well as all along the border to deny the Mukti-Bahini secure areas of operations within Bangladesh.

This resulted in rural areas where the Pak Army was either thinly deployed or absent. This factor would have an important bearing on joint Army–Air operations. In the Western theatre the strategy of offensive–defence was decided in order to hold the existing situation and denying Pakistani strategy that, “defence of the East lies in the West”. Based on the above the IAF short listed its aims as follows:

In East8

  • Eliminate the PAF at the earliest.
  • Render maximum assistance to the Army in the form of offensive support, transport and helicopter support and airborne operations.
  • Assist the Navy to isolate East Bengal from West Pakistan and also ensure that the PAF was not able to interfere with the operations of Indian naval ships and aircraft.
  • Ensure Air Defence of the area of responsibility.
  • To provide maritime air support to the Navy.

In West

In keeping with the aim of holding operations in the West, the IAF was to accomplish tasks in the following order of priority:

  • Priority One — Defence of the home bases.
  • Priority Two — Support to the Army and Navy, including gaining and maintaining favorable air situation over the tactical areas.
  • Priority Three — Counter air operations against enemy air bases and radar stations, and attacks on strategic targets which had a vital role in sustaining the economy and the war potential of the enemy.
  • To provide maritime air support to the Navy.

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In essence, in the East the IAF had an overwhelming deployment to quickly secure air supremacy and simultaneously provide extensive combat air support to the Indian Army along all the fronts.

In addition, dedicated helicopter support was provided by earmarking No 105 and 110 Helicopter Units to No 4 Corps, which was planned to advance rapidly towards Dhaka from Agartala side. Provision was also made for the contingency Para drop of a Battalion Group.

IAF Deployment - West - 1971 War

Plans and Preparation

The IAF had nearly seven months to gear up operationally. This is a luxury seldom available before going to war. Operational training was therefore, stepped up. Pilots on training and staff duties were routed back to the squadrons well in time to thoroughly acquaint themselves with the aircraft and likely area of operation. Squadrons were earmarked for each Tactical Air Centre (TAC) well in time. Air support exercises were undertaken with the concerned formations to iron out weaknesses in the system and to exercise concerned appointments and make them thorough in their equipment and procedures. The pilots participating in the exercise got acquainted with the terrain, as well as built up necessary rapport with the Forward Air Controllers (FAC). The latter, as far as possible, worked with their squadron colleagues, thereby generating a great deal of confidence. New techniques were tried out to indicate the position of target to the strike pilot, as well as help identify our own armor. One was the use of a powerful searchlight aimed at the pilot to indicate FAC’s position. The other was a cloth panel, bright in color and cross-shaped, to be spread over and across the tank to indicate friendly tanks.

The correct procedure for air support was highlighted to the army officers at all levels. They were indoctrinated against demanding specific number of sorties, but educated to specify the target and task for the IAF.

The FACs were attached with respective army formations and had plenty of time to familiarize themselves with their area of operation. Frequent exercises ensured serviceability of the R/T sets. Incorporation of an additional aerial mounted atop a pole served to increase the line of sight R/T range. The Ground Liaison Officers at all levels also had plenty of time to update themselves and become totally involved with the squadrons at various bases. The correct procedure for air support was highlighted to the army officers at all levels. They were indoctrinated against demanding specific number of sorties, but educated to specify the target and task for the IAF. They were assured that the IAF would optimally task the aircraft with the appropriate weapons and number of sorties required.

The time of two hours for Immediate Air Support was reduced to one to one-and-a-half hours by repeated refinement.10 Improvements were effected in the communication channel for air support demands, both Pre-Planned and Immediate, as well as between various Headquarters of the IAF and the IN and the IA.

Pilots of TACDE (Tactics and Combat Development Establishment) trained themselves for low level strike missions by night against runways and marshalling yards. To warn these aircraft on hostile air activity, an airborne relay using MiG-21 under code name “Sparrow Control” was established. The “Sparrow Control” would gather relevant information from Radar Units and pass it to strike aircraft deep in enemy territory. This was (mis) interpreted by the PAF as an airborne radar aircraft (Moss) of erstwhile USSR helping the IAF — like the later day AWACS. AN-12 crew were tasked to train in bombing role by night, flying ultra low level missions. During this preparation phase, the Soviets offered their bomber TU-22 for immediate sale to the IAF. However, after evaluation it was felt that the TU-22 did not meet our requirements. Hence the offer was shelved.11

While the IAF’s transport fleet continued with normal air maintenance that is repeated year after year, in addition it helped the Army’s redeployment in the East. Later, the IAF flew 2386 hours on AN-12s, Packets and Dakotas. It carried 3700 passengers and 1034 tons of load. Simultaneously it also undertook flood and cyclone relief in four states. To cover East Pakistan from every direction three civil airfields were activated for use by the IAF. These were Dum-Dum, Panagarh and Agartala. Once the operations progressed rapidly after the start of war, the two brigades which became surplus in the East, were quickly air transported to the Western theater.12

The IAF expected to attain total control of the air by D+2 and had prepared plans to allot alternate task to the various Squadrons once the PAF was totally neutralized.

The IAF expected to attain total control of the air by D+2 and had prepared plans to allot alternate task to the various Squadrons once the PAF was totally neutralized. These related to air defence squadrons switching to offensive air support of the army; relocating themselves to cover the entire area of East Pakistan; as well as move of some squadrons to the Western theater. It also included redeployment of air defence artillery guns and surface to air missiles (SAMs) to the west once the air threat was over in the East. To cater to jamming of our radars, as well as gaps in low level radar cover, visual observers were hastily trained and deployed. Till the PAF was actually neutralized, proper air defence had to be provided. The air defence also catered to a possible PAF pre-emptive. To facilitate proper command and control the Eastern theater was sub-divided into three sectors, namely Bengal/Bihar sector, Assam Valley sector and the Kumbhigram/Tripura sector. HQ Central Air Command at Allahabad, as well as HQ Eastern Air Command at Shillong, both had parts of this area under their jurisdiction. This meant that HQ Eastern Army Command had to interact with two Air Command HQs.

Therefore, the boundaries of these air commands were readjusted, so that the Army dealt only with HQ Eastern Air Command. In addition an Advance HQ was set up at Fort William, co-located with Army HQ.13 The AOC Advance Headquarters was responsible for all air operations in the Bengal/Bihar sector. His area of responsibility in East Pakistan lay in the area west of the River Brahmputra. No 3 and 9 Tactical Air Centres operated under his control.

In the other two sectors the air defence was looked after by Commander No 3 Air Defence Control Centre, whereas all other air operations were looked after by Headquarter Eastern Air Command. Discussions were held with the Navy too, since aircraft carrier Vikrant was to operate in this area. The latitude of 22°25’ N (Chittagong area) was the dividing line for air operations between the Air Force and the Naval air arm. Targets to the south of this line were the responsibility of the Navy. Also, during the planning stage, the IN promised close air support to the IA south of Feni, but later was unable to provide the same.14 Since civil airfields and transport airfields were being activated with combat aircraft, officers with fighter background were positioned to ensure smooth operations. As the Army was planning out its multi-pronged thrusts from all around, many photo recce sorties were flown between 24 October and 20 November and aerial mosaics of all thrust lines were provided to the army. The Mukti-Bahini Air Force was given One Otter aircraft and an Alloutte helicopter modified to fire rockets and guns and was christened as “Kilo Flight”. It was located at Dimapur.

Since civil airfields and transport airfields were being activated with combat aircraft, officers with fighter background were positioned to ensure smooth operations.

In the Western theater additional preparations specific to the plans were completed. That the war might start by a pre-emptive strike by the PAF was catered to, and the IAF was prepared to take on a quick offensive thereafter, to wrest the initiative from the PAF. Five squadrons of MiG-21s and four of the Gnats were dedicated to air defence duties. After 1965, the IAF had realized the poor performance of the K-13 missile and wanted the MiG-21 interceptor to be fitted with cannons. GSh-23 mm gun in a gondola had to be fitted under the fuselage. By June 1971 these gun gondolas had been lying at HAL Nasik for over a year, yet they had not been fitted.

HAL expressed difficulty in being able to modify the full fleet within the time available. So the Air Officer Maintenance, Air Marshal YV Malse got the guns air lifted to No 3 Base Repair Depot of the IAF. In record three months the job was done by the IAF. It really was an amazing feat. And in the first duel between the Mach 2 Star-fighter of USA and the MiG-21 of USSR on 12 December, Flt Lt BB Soni would shoot down the Star-fighter with this very gun and gun sight developed and fitted by the IAF.15 Radar deployment was re-examined, SAMs and LLAD guns redeployed and a visual observer system called the low level reporting system (LLRS) was put in place. Transport squadrons were redeployed to inner bases outside the reach of the PAF. AN-12s were adapted in bombing role to unleash a multitude of bombs, both 1000 pounds as well as 500 pounds on area targets.

Regarding the Chinese threat, it was appreciated that the Chinese with no permanent deployment in Tibet would not be a threat beyond a token show of force. So the IAF could devote its strike might unhindered against Pakistan. To gain control of the air in the West, PAF airfields at Sargodha, Mianwali, Shorkot Road, Murid, Peshawar, Chander, Risalwala, Chak Jhumra, Karachi and Drigh Road were earmarked for counter air strikes. To destroy/disrupt PAF air defence, the radars at Lahore, Sakesar and Badin were to be attacked. In concert with the Indian Army, Interdiction was planned to isolate the troops at the front. Continuous recce was planned to locate Pak’s No 1 Armored Division. For maritime recce on both sides, Super Constallations were relocated at Hyderabad (Hakimpet). This also placed them well outside the PAF aircraft range. At a strategic level, it was decided to attack Pak’s Oil and Gas Industry, Power generation stations and facilities at the harbor.

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The official history described the planning and preparations aptly: “The general concept for gaining air superiority was to mount relentless attacks on the Pak airfields and radar installations, so as to force the PAF to deploy a major portion of its resources for their defence.

Such a reaction would enable the IAF to concentrate on special/strategic strikes and on close support to ground forces with relative impunity. In the light of subsequent pattern of PAF reactions the preferred concept stood vindicated.”16


  1. Siddiq Salik, “Witness to Surrender”,  (Oxford University Press, Delhi, 1977), p. 28.
  2. Fazal Muqueem Khan, Major General, “Pakistan’s Crisis in Leadership”, (National Book Foundation, Lahore 1973), p. 139.
  3. DK Palit, Major General, “War in High Himalaya”,  (Lancer International, New Delhi, 1991), p. 429.
  4. Dinesh, “Indira Wins the War”, (Oriental Publisher, Delhi, 1972), p. 46.
  5. DK Palit, op.cit. p. 431.
  6. DR Mankekar, “Pakistan Cut to Size”,( Indian Book Company, New Delhi, 1972),  p. 13.
  7. PC Lal, Air Chief Marshal (Retd), “My Years with the IAF”, (Lancer International, New Delhi, 1986), p. 161 &171.
  8. “Official History of the 1971 War” Editor SN Prasad New Delhi, 1988, p. 42.  Available on Internet: Times of India site.
  9. Pushpinder Singh, Ravi Rikhye, Peter Steinmann, “Fizaya- Psyche of Pakistani Air Force”, (The Society for Aerospace Studies, New Delhi, 1991), pp. 32-46.  Also see Jon Guttman,  “Sub continental Aerial Rematch” in Journal “Modern Warfare” Sept 1989.
  10. PC Lal, op.cit. p. 225.
  11. Vayu II/94 p. 32, Shivdev Singh, Air Marshal,  “ Facets of the Indian Air Force.”
  12. Pran Chopra, “India’s Second Liberation”,  (Vikas Publishing House Pvt Ltd, Delhi, 1973), p. 178.
  13. Lt. Gen.J F R Jacob, “An Odyssey in War and Peace- An Autobiography,” Roli Books, New Delhi,2011.pp. 74-75.
  14. Lachhman Singh, Major General, “Victory in Bangladesh”, (Natraj Publishers, Dehra Dun, 1981), p. 41 and 49.
  15. Vayu VI/97, Denzil Keeler, Air Marshal, “The MiG-21 FL, GSH-23 And C-750” p. 30.  Also see Jon Guttman “Sub Continental Aerial Rematch” in journal “Modern Warfare” Sept 1989.
  16. Official History.  op. cit. p. 44.
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2 thoughts on “1971 War: Military Aims and Objectives

  1. I’ve to be a little critical here. I always see such articles on how well we did in 1971 war. Definitely we won the war and Bangladesh was created. But has anybody discussed the battle of Longewala? Border movie was based on that. Although we won the battle but that was a horrible intelligence failure. Pakistan’s strength was 2,000 soldiers whereas Indian strength was only 120 soldiers. As per Wikipedia, India only lost 2 soldiers and Pakistan lost 200 soldiers along with 34 tanks. Fortunately, I call that fortunately we won that battle. But 9 out of 10 times you will lose in such situation. So why we never question the strategic and intelligence failure, why we only 120 soldiers? Please note that Pakistan could you easily rampaged towards Delhi if we didn’t stop them at Longewala. Why don’t we question our army for such failures? Next time such failure would result in a disaster. Long live India, Jai Hind.

  2. After Bengladesh in 1971 now again India has good opportunity to break pakistan by liberating Baluchistan. I ask Air Vice Marshal AK Tiwary to study about Baluchistan and Baloch freedom fighters like BLA, BRA & BLF with encouraging words so that Indian military and politician make similar plans to repeat 1971 in 2017
    Pakistan is enemy our enemy and they killed our thousands of soldiers in proxy wars since 1987 and in kargil war

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