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

With that as the basic understanding between the three Services, the Army, the Navy and the Air Force, they were then left to plan their activities as they thought best. The Army deployed its forces in strength in the East believing that there was a large Pakistani force in that area. After the war we realised that some of the divisions which were believed to be in Pakistan were actually nothing but number-plate formations—they had been raised perhaps to deceive us. They did manage to draw like a magnet a very considerable force of Indian troops and tanks into that area.

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.

This was done at the expense of Western Command, whereas, originally the thinking was that the Indian Army in the West would go in in an offensive role. But as more divisions and more troops were moved to the East, it became inevitable for the Army command in the West to shift to a defensive posture. There were, however, some offensive operations, such as that in the Shakargarh area, but the emphasis was on defence.

The Navy which had taken no part in earlier operations was determined to make good on this occasion. If we went to war, the Navy under the leadership of Adm Nanda, the Chief of the Naval Staff, Adm Kohli, the Commander of the Western Fleet, and Adm Krishnan, the Commander of the Eastern Fleet, had decided to employ its forces in an offensive role. As we know, Kohli’s force went in against Karachi and Krishnan’s force, which was built up around the aircraft carrier Vikrant, went in against East Pakistan.

The Air Force’s function in support of the Army and the Navy was defined quite clearly by the Air Force itself. Having learnt our lessons from the war of 1965, the Commanders of the Air Force sat together and decided to alter their operational priorities. The original thinking in the IAF was based on the philosophy of the RAF which believed right up to World War II and even beyond, that the bomber was the principal weapon of the Air Force, the weapon which would destroy the enemy’s ability to make war. The fighter was seen as a defensive weapon.

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

But in 1965, we had discovered that overemphasis on the role of the bomber, and faith in its effectiveness, had led the Air Force not to give enough importance to the need for supporting the Army in the field with tactical air support. This despite the fact that during World War II, the IAF had essentially provided tactical air support to the Army in Burma. The bomber was hardly seen in the Burmese theatre. There were a few Mitchell bombers operated by the Americans and, of course, there were other long range bombers operating out of India which went on mis­sions against targets in Japan. The role of the Indian Air Force, the ten squadrons that we had towards the end of the war, was to support the Army and to provide what would be air defence against possible Japanese air interference.

It is ironic, therefore, that in planning our own operations independently of the Royal Air Force, we should have reverted to the traditional classic concept of the Air Force being bomber oriented, the bomber being its principal weapon. In 1965 that is how we tried to use the Canberras, but admittedly not with any great effect. To an extent we did tie down the Pakistan Air Force to the defence of its own bases. The bombers, however, could only be used at night because they are very vulnerable in flight by day. Even at night the Canberras approached their target at low altitude and in order to drop their bombs they had to pop up to something like 6,000 ft or so before they dropped their high explosive bombs. If they drop­ped them any lower, there was a good chance of their being blown up by their own bombs. While they were flying, when they popped up and flew in straight and level to take aim at their targets, they were extremely vulnerable to ground attack, to anti-aircraft fire. The accuracy and effectiveness of such bombing could not be very great.

…as to what the objectives of the 1971 war were… 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.

After the 1965 operations there was considerable heart searching in the Air Force. Early in 1969, at the Commanders’ Conference, we decided that the priorities for air operations had to change. Air defence of our homeland and the air bases remained priority one. The next most important job was support of the Army and the Navy, the Army taking precedence over the Navy. Bombing, specially as a weapon to neutralise or counter enemy air, came third in our list of priorities. The other operations like paratrooping, transport and so on came thereafter. This alteration in the priorities that we assigned to our commands also brought about a change in the organisation of those commands. As we saw it, the Air Force was primarily, and essentially for air defence. So each of the two major fighting commands—Western Air Command and Eastern. Air Command—took that as their primary responsibility.

The next most important task for which they had to prepare and this happened long before 1971 or before the troubles began in East Pakistan, was that of support of the Army. And then, to the extent possible, came support to the Navy.

In my opinion the air defence and Army support tasks were of sufficient magnitude to justify their being separated from other activities such as maritime support, paratrooping, transport and bomber operations. So Central Air Command, covering most of the UP in the Gangetic area up to the border of Bengal in the East and up to the borders of Delhi, Haryana and Punjab in the West, was given the task of looking after the bomber squadrons in war, the transport squadrons and provid­ing support to the Navy. This redefinition of duties was an important factor in contributing to the success of our 1971 operations.

Previously Eastern Air Command had been responsible for Assam or points outside Bengal and east of it. Now it was made responsible for the air defence of Calcutta area and West Bengal as well instead of Central Air Command. Eastern Air Command had the job of working with Eastern Army Com­mand which was placed at Calcutta for support of ground troops. With the redefinition of the boundaries of the commands, the area of the responsibilities of Eastern Air Command, though the HQ of this was at Shillong, and of Eastern Army Command, based at Calcutta, was the same.In the West, there was a similar separation of the two HQ of the Army and the Air Force that were to work with each other—the Army being at Simla in normal peace time and the Western Air Command HQ being at Delhi. In operations, it was the intention that Western Army Command HQ should move down to the plains, in Jalandhar or Amristar or wherever it was found convenient, while Western Air Command remained at Delhi.

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.

In order to establish close cooperation and understanding between the Army and the Air Force, we had Advance HQ of Western Air Command and Eastern Air Command alongside their respective Army Commands. The Advance HQs were under the command of Air Commodores who were made responsible for providing support to the Army as required. With each Corps HQ under Western Army and the Eastern Army, there was a Tactical Air Centre commanded by a Group Captain who reported direct to the Advance HQ of Western Air Com­mand and Eastern Air Command. And further forward in the field were what were called Forward Air Controllers—men who were made responsible for directing strikes of aircraft that were called out in support of the Army.

In this fashion, the entire organisation for the support of the Army was strengthened. In 1965, we had Advance HQ of Western Army Command, but further extension of this into the Corps and down to the level of Bridges, where Forward Air Controllers operated, was not established. Those tentacles did not operate. The result was that the Army’s demands from the forward area came directly into the Advance HQ. There the messages piled up in baskets without the Army or the Air Force

officers being able to sort out the important from the unimpor­tant ones or assign priorities for the different demands. There­ was considerable amount of confusion in 1965 but it was greatly reduced in 1971. There were situations in which there was confusion but, by and large, the system had been improved by 1971. Tactical Air Centres alongside Corps and the Advance­ HQs alongside Army Commands could distinguish between important and less important demands that came and we could assign the air effort accordingly.

After the war we realised that some of the divisions which were believed to be in Pakistan were actually nothing but number-plate formations – they had been raised perhaps to deceive us.

In 1965 again, there had been no specific earmarking of squadrons or units for support of a particular Corps or area. In 1971, we were conscious of that shortcoming so aircraft were assigned for particular types of tactical support to specific areas and the fact that these aircraft were available was known at the­ level of the Tactical Air Centres (TACs), and even down to the­ level of Forward Air Controllers (FACs). Of course, this entire network of air support was dependent on good communi­cations: the base commander had to know when the need for them arose, the pilots of the aircraft had to be briefed for the kind of job to be done, and it needed to the ensured that the right weapon was carried.

The American Armed Forces have a saying that the Congress appoints the Generals, but the Signal Corps makes Commanders! Previously it had taken the Army a whole day or two days to get the demand through from the forward area to the Air Force. But for the Air Force to send out supporting aircraft in 1971 along the Western border, the average time taken for a sortie to be airborne after it was demanded by a unit, a field unit or a forward unit, in contact with the enemy, was between an hour and an hour and-a-half. This kind of arrangement is vital for effective air support.

Some operations can be preplanned but when the Army is in contact with the enemy there are many situations that may arise but which cannot be foreseen. Then the Air Force has to be called out at short notice. Inevitably such situations arose and the understanding between the two Services, specially at the higher level, brought about effective performance. To achieve this there has to be mutual trust, there has to be the confidence that demands are not frivolous, and that the situation does require the kind of support that the Air Force has been called upon to provide. This is the ideal.

The role of the Indian Air Force, the ten squadrons that we had towards the end of the war, was to support the Army and to provide what would be air defence against possible Japanese air interference.

But it does not always happen like that. There were instances in 1971 where aircraft were wasted, when the air effort was squandered by commanders in the field. However, such a confusion, or mistakes, are perhaps inevitable when men are locked in battle. When emergencies arise, when the fog of war envelopes the whole area and it is not quite clear whether you are winning or losing the commander in the field tends to call on every available resource to fight his battle. And that was how we went about it in the 1971 war.

On the other hand, there are many outstanding examples of air support during the 1971 war which merit consideration because of the contribution they made to the eventual outcome of the conflict. In the East, the Army’s 4 Corps, led by Lt Gen Sagat Singh, became a highly mobile strike force, the activities of which spread from Sylhet down to Feni and beyond. This Corps was operating east of the Meghna river. They came from Agartala in Tripura, moved westward to the Meghna, crossed it to advance rapidly on Dhaka. It had already got to Narayan­ganj on the outskirts of Dhaka when the war ended. The mobility of 4 Corps was due very largely to its intelligent and bold use of helicopters.Besides it had its own road transport and the use of boats and barges. Improvisation was the key to the whole business. They improvised in order to move, in order to strike, in order to get as close to Dhaka as possible. Undoubtedly the manner in which the Air Force and 4 Corps worked together contributed a great deal to the collapse of the Pakistani opposition in East Pakistan.

The Air Force’s major contribution in that area was that it knocked out the Pakistan Air Force within the first two days of fighting. A number of aircraft of PAF were shot down and the others were rendered useless when we bombed the runways of the bases from which these aircraft operated-Kurmitola and Tejgaon, both near Dhaka. The initial bombing by Canberas was not too effective. The airfields were repaired and brought back into use without much delay. That is where some brilliant improvisation came into its own.

If we went to war, the Navy under the leadership of Adm Nanda, the Chief of the Naval Staff, Adm Kohli, the Commander of the Western Fleet, and Adm Krishnan, the Commander of the Eastern Fleet, had decided to employ its forces in an offensive role.

The Mig 21, essen­tially a supersonic high performance fighter, was used. These were loaded with bombs and sent out to attack the two runways. by day. They could, if necessary, fight their way out again if they encountered any Pakistani aircraft. If they did not meet any they could go about their bombing undisturbed as most of them did. They could bomb with very considerable accuracy and both Kurmitola and Tejgaon were put out of operation within 48 hours by the Migs. It was the complete command of the air without any danger of interference by the PAF that enabled our Army to move as freely as it did, and for our Navy to operate as freely as it did in and around East Pakistan. It was one of the major factors to bring about the victory which led to the downfall of General Niazi and the liberation of Bangladesh. This is one of those unforeseen eventualities, and an unforeseen success.

One could rationalise this in retrospect and say that it was our objective, but it was not so. In fact, we had not expected to take Dhaka. However, the intelligent use of the Air Force and the cooperation between the Air Force and the Navy, led to the downfall of the Pakistanis in that area.

In the West similarly, where the Army and the Air Force collaborated we brought about very effective and significant results. One of the most outstanding of them, of course, was the destruction of Pakistani tanks and troops in the desert area north-west of Jaisalmer. On the night of 4 December, the Pakistani force came in from the west against the major Indian Army supply point at Ramgarh, north of Jaisalmer. North of Ramgarh, at Kishangarh near the border, 12 Infantry Division under Maj Gen Khambata was positioned for an attack into Pakistan—its objective was the capture of Rahimyar Khan, an important point on the railway that connects Karachi with Punjab.

The next most important job was support of the Army and the Navy, the Army taking precedence over the Navy.

The division had its main supply depot at Ramgarh. Had the Pakistani tanks, which came in brigade strength supported by infantry, been able to get behind Kishangarh, they could have deprived that Infantry Division of much of the supply support that was required by it to operate. As it happened, in order to get to Ramgarh the Pakistani force had to go past a small outpost of the Army called Longewala. The Pakistanis came at night. It was bright moonlight. They did not come across the desert navigating in the moonlight, but on the longer road that had been built by us towards Longewala and then turned towards Ramgarh. The Company Commander at Longewala, Maj Kuldeep Singh Chandpuri, raised the alarm and informed his Divisional Commander of Pakistani tanks that seemed to be heading for Ramgarh. First his report was ignored.

It seems the Division thought that he was panicky; they expected that the enemy force would come from the northern area, from Rahimyar Khan. The Pakistani tanks went past Longewala but then turned back towards that post. The exact reasons for their turning back are not known, but it is presumed that the lead tanks and the tanks in the vanguard were going too fast for the rear, specially the infantry, to keep up with them. When they turned back to look for the rest of their party they reached Longewala by early morning, and the Company Commander was able to confirm to his Divisional HQ that there was a considerable force of Pakistani armour in the neighbourhood. The Company Commander himself could do nothing. He was supplied with only a couple of anti-tank guns—hardly enough to hold the movement of 60 or 70 tanks and a whole brigade of infantry.

In order to establish close cooperation and understanding between the Army and the Air Force, we had Advance HQ of Western Air Command and Eastern Air Command alongside their respective Army Commands.

The Air Force unit stationed at Jaisalmer, which is about 10-15 minutes flying time from Longewala, was alerted. At that time six Hunter aircraft were based there. This forward airfield had been built in consequence of the 1965 operation when we had no operational airfields in Rajasthan except Jodhpur which was a flying school. This, incidentally, in 1965 took quite a beating from the Pakistanis as the operational aircraft based there were relatively ineffective. Besides Jaisalmer we had also built a new airfield at Uttarlai near Barmer to provide air defence cover and cover for the Army if it should have to operate in that area again. Jaisalmer came in particularly handy. We had moved aircraft to it from the Armament Training Wing at Jamnagar when the war broke out.

Two of the six aircraft were Hunter trainers which were used in the Armament Training Wing training pilots how to operate combat aircraft, and four were single-seater fighter combat aircraft. These four aircraft went out in relays, two at a time. Through the 5th and the 6th, between them, they destroyed/damaged about 40 tanks and chased the Pakistani Infantry over the desert, shot them and immobilised transport in the area.

It was a complete rout. The Army played very little part in it except for one aircraft from the Air Observation Post (AOP) which also operated out of Jaisalmer. This aircraft dived very much lower and flew slower. It could examine every bush in the desert, every sand dune and direct the Hunters on to their targets which were the tanks and the trucks carrying the infan­try. That was the first major demonstration of how air power, tactical air power, can neutralise ground forces. Of course, it was a very special situation and would not be possible every­where.

We could not do it in a jungle for the men could have been hidden or the tanks could have been camouflaged and perhaps not have been seen from the air. But in the desert, it was absolutely fatal for the Pakistanis to arrive without any air cover of their own. They were completely exposed to our four combat aircraft each of which claimed an average of about 10-12 tanks destroyed in this operation. The advance towards Ramgarh and the threat to Jaisalmer was thereby neutralised.Another major event which played a decisive part in the. outcome of the 1971 war was the support to the Army in the Chhamb area and the Poonch area in J&K. In Chhamb, the Army had taken what it believed to be an offensive posture. They were preparing for the offensive but numerous changes of plans occurred and, just three days before the Pakistanis started the war in the West, the Division which was supposed to be in an offensive posture was told to be on the defensive. It just did not have time to redeploy its forces. Its artillery was well forward west of the Munawar Tawi river. It also had a brigade west of the Munawar Tawi, and large supplies of ammunition and other stores in preparation for the offensive. In fact it was still preparing to lay minefields and preparing defensive positions west of the Tawi when the Pakistanis attacked.

Some operations can be preplanned but when the Army is in contact with the enemy there are many situations that may arise but which cannot be foreseen. Then the Air Force has to be called out at short notice.

For two days 196 Brigade, commanded by Brig (now Lt Gen) R.K. Jasbir Singh, held out, that is on 4th and 5th. On the 6th they could no longer resist the far superior forces of the Pakistanis and had to fall back east of the Munawar Tawi where prepared defence existed, where they were well lodged and from where they could fight to keep the Pakistanis away. They did not allow the Pakistanis to gain a foothold east of the river.

During this period of confusion, when 191 Brigade was west of the Tawi and was being attacked and mauled by the Pakistanis, the Air Force was called out in support. The support that could be given to 191 Brigade was per force limited. The situation in the brigade’s area was so confused, Indian troops and the Pakistani troops virtually locked in close quarter battle, that it was difficult to define a line beyond which the Air Force could act with impunity. There was a danger, and it indeed happened, of our own troops being attacked by our own aircraft…it was perhaps inevitable where the situation was so fluid. The Air Force, therefore attacked behind the Pakistani lines, to prevent reinforcements from coming.

These two examples quoted should suffice for the present to explain the role of the Air Force, specially in the context of its relationship with the other two Services. The two indispens­able factors, of equal importance in winning a war it is stressed again, are firstly efficiency within the limits of one’s own respon­sibilities and secondly cooperation among the three Services from the beginning till the end, from the training and planning stage to the implementation and execution, from the seniormost level to the juniormost.

Sometime after the crackdown on East Pakistan, on 25/26 March 1971, when the situation in the subcontinent became unstable, a delegation headed by the Vice Chief of Air Staff (VCAS) was sent abroad to look for deep penetration strike air­craft (DPSA) to replenish our ageing fleet and also for missiles for air defence. But whether it was Mirages from France or other aircraft from Russia, we could not get what we really wanted or needed which was suitable for immediate use. So we had to tighten our belts and continue with the resources we already had. We were not going to be browbeaten into accepting that which was not suitable such as the TU 22. It was better to fight with what we had, and with which we were familiar, rather than be dumped with aircraft which were totally unsuitable for our requirements. Therefore, we resisted acquiring millstones around our necks and managed nevertheless to keep the Air Force trim and well prepared.

The Air War

I must now speak of the operations undertaken by the Air Force on its own as distinct from those in support of the other Services. In 1971, through a process of discussion amongst the joint planners and the Chiefs of Staff and amongst senior Air Force Commanders, a ‘target system’ was evolved for what may be termed the air war. Since the Pakistanis came to know it only too well, I shall not be revealing any secrets by giving it here.

Undoubtedly the manner in which the Air Force and 4 Corps worked together contributed a great deal to the collapse of the Pakistani opposition in East Pakistan.

The basic requirement of air warfare is air superiority: in, other words the freedom to operate where one pleases without undue interference by the enemy. Absolute superiority, such as that achieved in East Pakistan, is rare; in most cases the battle for it goes on along with other operations. This involves the use of fighters to guard one’s own air spaces and to attack the defences of the enemy, along with attack by fighter-bomber and bomber aircraft on vital targets often deep inside enemy territory. This dangerous business, expensive in human lives and aircraft was undertaken in full measure in 1971, covering virtually all known PAF installations in both West and East Pakistan. The fact that there was relatively little or no interfe­rence by the PAF with our land and naval forces in most sectors was largely due to this effort.

The second most important item of the ‘target system’ expressly identified by the Air Force was energy in every shape and form. This included the fuel storage tanks in Karachi harbour, the Sui gas plant in Sind, the Attock Oil Refinery and its storage tanks and power stations such as the Mangla Hydro­electric power plant in Punjab. The precise extent of the losses sustained by Pakistan are not known but this much is certain that during the war its fuel supplies became extremely scarce and fuel had to be imported in tankers by road from Iran. The Attock Refinery declared no dividends for 1971-72 and Sui resumed supply of gas to its consumers only in March 1972.The third and last item was transportation, both road and rail. West Pakistan’s geography limits it to having just one major seaport at Karachi through which almost all its imports and exports must pass. The hinterland of Punjab and the North West Frontier Provinces where most of Pakistan’s food is grown and people live, and where most of its military installations are located lies 400 to 700 miles to the north. About 300 to 350 miles north-east of Karachi the Indian frontier bulges into Pakistan.

The fact that there was relatively little or no interfe­rence by the PAF with our land and naval forces in most sectors was largely due to this effort.

Opposite this bulge hilly terrain comes down close to the west bank of the Indus thus the passage between north and south Pakistan lies east of the river and is only about a hundred miles or so wide. All roads and railways must pass through this neck. The roads and railways thus lie broadside to the Indian frontier, well within reach of our forward bases. One of the facts of Pakistan’s military life is that its communications from Sukkur to Sialkot, over a distance of 500 miles or so, can be dominated by the Indian Air Force as they were in 1971.

Even if Pakistan builds air bases to provide protection, it would not be feasible to keep every mile of road and railway under air surveillance all the time. It needs only a few well-placed bombs, or a salvo of rockets, to put the rail-track out of commission. In 1971 obsolete aircraft such as Vampires and Harvards were able to seriously interfere with road and rail movements at night. In India, on other hand, the roads and railways serving this frontier lie head-on to Pakistan and in order to attack vital ports, the PAF must travel deep into heavily defended territory.

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Whether Pakistan can obtain supplies from the north over the newly made Silk Road from China, or by air either from China or elsewhere is a moot point. Considering that China’s main industrial centres are on the east coast of Asia, some 2,000 miles away, and the Silk Road winds its way through high mountains that are snowbound for months at a time, the possibility of substantial supplies coming by that route appear remote. As for air transportation, that may suffice for limited quantities of small arms and light equipment but no heavy armaments are likely to travel that way.

For some time to come, Pakistan’s armed forces must continue to depend largely on the existing transportation system that links Karachi to the hinterland and there is little that can be done to make it less vulnerable than it is.

This then was the target system on which the air war was mounted in 1971. Changes in detail there are bound to be, but it is my opinion that its main features will remain valid for many years yet. The facts of geography clearly make it futile for Pakistan to wage war with India.

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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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