Military & Aerospace

1971 War: Planning for Operations
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Issue Book Excerpt: My Years with the I.A.F. | Date : 12 Nov , 2018

Two outstanding political leaders were at the helm of affairs in 1971 and any account of the 1971 war would be incomplete without complimenting them. First and fore­most was Prime Minister Mrs Indira Gandhi whose ability to appraise complex situations, identify major problems and define clear-cut lines of action was exceptional. The second was Mr Jagjivan Ram, who held the office of Defence Minister with distinction from 1969 to 1973, who ably supported her.

As Chief of Air Staff during this period, I had the privilege of seeing him work at close quarters: he was a model of what I imagine a Minister should be. He had complete confidence in the Chiefs of Staff and his secretaries; he was unambiguous in making known Government’s aims and intentions and, having done that, left it to the people concerned to get on with the job. He was cool, unflustered, quick-witted, cheerful, with a sense of humour and he did not talk down to people.

…fore­most was Prime Minister Mrs Indira Gandhi whose ability to appraise complex situations, identify major problems and define clear-cut lines of action was exceptional.

The Chiefs were kept in constant touch with developments in the subcontinent and what the Cabinet was thinking about them. There was full and free exchange of ideas amongst the Chiefs. The period of watching and waiting, from 26 March to 3 December was well spent during which the Chiefs of Staff Committee, the inter- Service Committees, the Service Head­quarters and the Ministry of Defence worked in a smooth and coordinated manner. The armed forces were therefore as well prepared as they could be when Pakistani aircraft attacked our airfields on the evening of 3 December 1971.

When talking about planning for war, one tends to think in terms of Staff College exercises for set situations, of the several factors that have to be taken into account and of preparation of a plan of action, a suggested plan of action, which shows every sign of being successful. The whole exercise is cut and dry. It is rather an exercise in logical thinking than in actually fighting a war. When it finally comes to fighting a war, one is faced with imponderables and unknown factors, with situations that cannot be foreseen in advance. The princi­pal question, of course, is how the likely enemy is going to behave. Intelligence can make some intelligent guesses no doubt, so can the Commanders of the opposing forces, but it is virtually impossible to establish with any certainty precisely what the opponent is going to do, where he is going to do it, or how, or when. So, in planning for operations, one has to be prepared to meet a variety of contingencies, not the least of which is that the most unexpected thing is likely to happen.

In the 1971 war, this was demonstrated time and again. To begin with, the information coming in from newspapers, from foreign correspondents, and all other open information indi­cated a considerable buildup of the Pakistani Army in East Pakistan. At the same time, it was obvious that preparations for war were going ahead in the West. Gen Yahya Khan made no secret of it. In fact, every few weeks he made some pro­nouncement or the other to the effect that unless India behaved itself, stayed out of the mess that he was making in East Pakistan, he would have to teach India a lesson. All the information we had indicated that he was preparing for pre­cisely that, to punish us in the West as a counter to his own troubles in East Pakistan.

However, the full scale of such preparations could only be guessed. We could not arrive at any clear estimate of what exactly he was planning to do, where he would attack and with what forces. Bengali officers and men fleeing from the Pak armed forces came into India with reports that confirmed these suspicions, but their information was disjointed and scrappy for none of them had held positions in which they could have had a hand in the framing of operational plans. Those Bengalis who did hold positions of responsibility in the Pak armed forces were presumably locked up, in West Pakistan and in the East, for not many of them come across.

There was full and free exchange of ideas amongst the Chiefs.

We got a picture of a discontent, of the disturbances in the East, the desertions from the Pakistani forces of Bengali officers and men in the West, but it was hardly a sufficient basis on which to draw up a sound plan. Inevitably, therefore, while proceeding with whatever information that came our way from open sources and from intelligence, the plans of the Armed Forces in India had to be revised and updated.

A crucial factor that had to be considered was the timing of the operation. If Pakistan decided to attack during the monsoon season, then the areas in which it could possibly do so would be limited. The activity that we could undertake in East Pakistan would also be limited because of the fact that the rivers would be swollen, ground would be marshy, the rice fields would be full of water and it would be virtually impossi­ble for our transports to move. In the West the effect of the monsoon is not quite so great, but it would limit the area of operation to relatively dry land, to operating on main roads and highways and perhaps in the desert. If the Pakistanis launched their attacks after the monsoon, in the autumn, then the scenario changes, and the disposition of our forces would have to match the changed scenario both in the East and the West.

The likelihood of a war in winter, when the passes are snowbound and Chinese help unlikely to be so easily forthcom­ing to Pakistan, was yet another possibility that had to be considered. The Chinese could come in at any time before the passes along the northern border became snowbound; but they could not come in winter. So again the disposition of our forces to meet the threat from Pakistan and the possible threat from China, had to be considered and provided for.The variety of circumstances and of situations in which the armed forces could be called upon to fight, led to the preparation of a number of plans. The preparation of such contingency plans had necessarily to be done at a fairly high level, at the level of Service Headquarters. This was done, of course, in consultation with the people on the ground; the field commanders, the General Officers Commanding-in-Chief of Western Command, Eastern Command and Southern Command, who in turn consulted their Corps or Divisional Commanders. So, from the time that the threat of a war with Pakistan became more than simply a threat, when it became a probability rather than a possibility, this process of planning, changing plans and revising them continued ceaselessly.

To begin with, the information coming in from newspapers, from foreign correspondents, and all other open information indi­cated a considerable buildup of the Pakistani Army in East Pakistan.

One feature of this, as far as the Army’s planning was concerned, was that it seemed to have been controlled largely from Army Headquarters. In the case of the Air Force, the problem was that of organising a smaller body of men. The advantage was that the aircraft operate from fixed bases which can achieve operational readiness quickly, and targets were relatively easy to define in so far as a counter air attack was concerned particularly on any transportation systems. However, what the Army would need, or the Navy, as air support would depend on their plans and would be known only later. Thus, the basic disposition and deployment of the Air Force could be decided upon and implemented without too many changes being necessary.

In providing support to the Navy, the Air Force faced yet another kind of situation. . . the Navy is not known as the silent service for nothing! They value the secrecy of their plans very greatly; they conduct their operations in an area which is vast; they are highly mobile—they can change their locations by hun­dreds of nautical miles within 24 hours; they can attack or they can disappear beyond the horizon far more easily than can the troops on the ground. Keeping up with the Navy, therefore, presents problems of a very different kind of operation. Moreover, the commander of a fleet, or even the commander of a ship, has to take decisions as the situation develops and with the mobility that he has, with the firepower that he has, he can engage in battle without all the paraphernalia and supporting services which the Army must have before even a brigade goes into operation.

The area in which the Navy can operate out at sea is limited only by its capacity to carry fuel, water for its men, and victuals as they call food. Since, the Air Force operates from fixed bases, it can cover the seas only up to a certain distance. Its limitations of fuel, the radii of action of each type of aircraft, determine the kind of support that the Air Force can provide to the Navy. Given the characteristics of the Naval force, the kind of support that the Air Force can give is limited.

The problem of planning joint operations for the three Services is, therefore, a complicated one, determined by the characteristics of each. The Army is bound down by the enormous weight of manpower, of vehicles, of supplies, of facilities that it needs on the ground. The area within which it can operate is limited. The areas and the plans of operation often change according to the season, the weather, the prevailing situation, enemy action and so on. The Navy is more versatile, and has a for greater range of action than the Army.

The likelihood of a war in winter, when the passes are snowbound and Chinese help unlikely to be so easily forthcom­ing to Pakistan, was yet another possibility that had to be considered.

The Air Force has static bases where it can build up supplies, can provide for proper support for its aircraft provided it knows where the aircraft are to operate from. In wartime, however, detachments may well have to operate from forward bases also. Generally it can maintain its activities in a relatively more stable environment than either the Navy or the Army. Getting the three to work together is not so much a question of writing out detailed plans till each one knows precisely what the others will do at any given time or place but to arrive at an understanding of what each is capable of doing; to know what each may do in given contingencies, and for each to support the other to the extent possible within those general limitations.

The factors that make for effective inter-Service cooperation are improvisation, quick decisions, mobility, flexibility. The most fundamental requirement is that the Services should be willing to, should wish to, cooperate; that they both seek such cooperation and be ready to give it wherever it is necessary. It is when the understanding amongst the commanders at the higher level of command exists that this kind of coordination can be developed in the activities of the units and formations at lower levels.

In the 1971 war we were able to bring about, to some extent, an understanding of each other’s capabilities and limitations, and use the potential of each force to good purpose.

Here, I must clarify one doubt which had existed in my mind, and also in the minds of others, as to what the objectives of the 1971 war were. 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 neutralise the Pakistani forces there 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. We realised that the war could not go on indefinitely, not so much because of limitations of supply or manpower or aircraft but because the UN Security Council and other influential bodies were bound to intervene.

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We realised that any gains that might be made in territories in the West would most likely, as earlier, have to be handed over to Pakistan at the end of the fighting. It was clear from the beginning that our government did not intend, at any time, to destroy the power of Pakistan in the West or to take over large chunks of its territory. We did intend, however, that the people of East Pakistan should determine their own future to the extent possible. And it was for this purpose that a base had to be established for them in the East.

The possibility that the Pakistani forces in East Pakistan would collapse altogether, as they did, that Dhaka would fall and that the whole country would be available to the leaders of the freedom movement in East Pakistan, was not considered something that was likely to happen. Caution dictated that the people commanding the East should work to limited objectives, but go about achieving them as rapidly as possible. It was feared that even a delay of two or three weeks would inevitably bring in the UN Security Council and compel the two sides to come to some sort of ceasefire such as in Kashmir. We did not want such a thing to happen. Whatever we did, we wanted it done quickly and on that we had all agreed.

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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.

About the Author

Air Chief Marshal P C Lal

Former Chief of the Air Staff.

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One thought on “1971 War: Planning for Operations

  1. Thank you Air Marshal for presenting 1971 military success lessons so well.
    Lot of learning happened from 1965 operations. Now , after 44 years , where does our military planning, joint training and capability enhancing stand. Also, what is the quality of leadership , political as well as military? What militay capabilities we have today to protect India’s economic and global interests aimed towards taking this country to greater hights and claim developed and powerful nation status? We can not achieve this by remaining Pakistan centric. Public has no real source of knowing where we stand. It will do good if senior military thinkers and starategists write on current strenghts and weaknesses to make citizens aware and more educated about military power in support of making India stronger , developed and globally accepted power. As of now all we know is sheer mapower number in forces and heavy expense on defence import.

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