China declared a ceasefire on November 21 and kept Aksai Chin as its trophy.
The sinews of the IAF were not muscular enough to retake Aksai Chin. What matters is what we have done since 1962.
Air-minded, we are, but are we strong-minded? asks M P Anil Kumar.
Since the fighters/bombers were invisible during the 1962 India-China War, there is a misconception that the Indian Air Force had missed the action. In fact, the IAF was in the thick of it, and its officers won one Maha Vir Chakra and eight Vir Chakras for their exemplary devotion to duty during the conflict.
AirbendersGiven the trashy state of road communications in the hilly wilderness then, not just deployment and maintenance, the very survival of the land forces rested on IAF airlift. And what a challenge it was to operate from primitive airstrips Tezu, Walong and along the North-East Frontier Agency (now Arunachal Pradesh) and Kargil, Leh, Thoise and Chushul in Ladakh.
No radar; eyeballs were the only navigation aid; long flights at extreme altitudes sans pressurisation; fickle orographic weather to contend with; generally defying nature and aircraft design, including operating from high airstrips.
That the exacting missions were carried out speak volumes for the skill and commitment of the aircrew and technicians of the Dakotas, Packets, Otters, Ilyushin-14s and Antonov-12s.
The Union government's 'Forward Policy' translated into the raising of several outposts in NEFA manned by the Assam Rifles. The Dakotas of Kalinga Airways owned by Biju Patnaik maintained these peripheral screens. Although non-combatants, they serviced these 'penny packets' throughout the war as adeptly as the IAF airmen did for the army.
To operate from the Advanced Landing Grounds on the outback and to haul excess payloads, the IAF modified its Packets with dorsal-mounted J-39 jet packs.
On July 23, 1962, Squadron Leader C K S Raje set the world record of highest aircraft landing in a revamped Packet at the 16,700-feet-high ALG in Daulat Beg Oldi. The activation of DBO and Fukche ALGs was a testimony to the dedication of the IAF to support the outlying ground forces.
The Otters of the 59 Squadron based at Jorhat not only carried out risky landings on unprepared surfaces, but also pluckily inducted the entire 11 Infantry Brigade to the Walong garrison from Tezu.
The tour de force of the transport operations was the airlift of eight AMX-13 tanks of 20 Lancers and twelve 25-pounder guns of the 13 Field Regiment, from Chandigarh to Chushul, by the An-12s of 44 Squadron.
This augmentation of firepower contributed to stemming further Chinese adventurism in the Chushul Valley. Not the scale, but the sheer audacity of this feat is certainly comparable to the fabled crossing of Alps by Hannibal.
Though modest, the helicopter line-up comprising Mi-4, Bell 47, Sikorsky S-55 and Alouette III stretched itself and slogged shoulder to shoulder with the transport fleet to undertake logistics, dropping and casualty evacuation sorties, even landing on treacherous terrain aided by mere torchlight.
Once the People's Liberation Army encircled the Galwan post on July 4, 1962, the Mi-4s of the Leh-based 107 Helicopter Unit not only sustained the post, but in a daring mission, the outfit replaced an entire company of 1/8 Gorkha Rifles with one of 5 Jat, right under the nose of the Chinese.
While the IAF toiled to capacity through the conflict, the defining deficiency was the airlifted tonnage was just under half of what the army required.
Reverse swingIf there is any subject flogged to death within the IAF, it is the non-use of its sword-arm -- offensive air power -- in the 1962 war. And the Air Chief reopened the matter recently when he averred that the outcome of the war would have been different if air power was used at that time.
Across the border, the Global Times -- a tabloid under the auspices of the People's Daily newspaper (an organ of the Communist Party of China) -- not only made light of Air Chief Marshal N A K Browne's claim, but also marked the 'failings' of the IAF to rub it in.
A good percentage of Global Times' reaction being wide of the mark could be attributed to ignorance or the figment of a hubristic victor, but the rag was on target about only 40 per cent of the airdrops arriving in the lap of the Indian Army.
Take NEFA. You see, the dropping zones over rugged crests and straitened valleys compelled the crew often to release from height, thus strewing much material into the ravines and mountainsides. The winds too imposed terms.
Besides, large chunks of supplies had to be manhandled over tricky terrain and defiles, and therefore the stocks were behindhand in delivery to the forces. Worse, scarce supply-dropping-equipment further deprived the troops of timely succour and gear.
Since the Air Chief himself rekindled the smoulder, what was the stance of Air Headquarters in 1962?
The official history of the war quotes Air Commodore Hari Chand Dewan, the director of operations, of having advised the then Chief of the Air Staff against the use of offensive air support in NEFA as it would have had little effect on the dispersed infantry, and also for the fear of 'escalating' the conflict and inviting horrid retribution from the larger People's Liberation Army Air Force.
However, old-timers hint at Air Chief Aspy Engineer endorsing the offensive role. The director's opinion prevailed. Since Air Headquarters disfavoured offensive action then, why has Air Chief Browne come up with his version now?
Who cared about the opinion of the services' headquarters anyway when a 'politburo' of Pandit Nehru, V K Krishna Menon, intelligence tsar B N Mullick, Additional Secretary (Defence) H C Sarin and Foreign Secretary M J Desai assumed the exclusive conduct of war!
Likewise, it was no secret that the British strategist-at-large Patrick Blackett and the then US ambassador John Kenneth Galbraith held hypnotic sway over Pandit Nehru. But the selfsame Nehru had no time for the chiefs of the services.
Mullick and Galbraith painted a dire picture of massive aerial retaliation and devastation in case the IAF fighters joined battle. Woe betide India if she provoked the Dragon! Their portrayal of the annihilation of cities and industries would still give a complex to any ranking prophet of doom!
In fact, the doomsday scenario yarned by Mullick and Galbraith left the 'politburo' so alarmed that they deemed the use of offensive air power even within our borders 'escalatory'! Such an 'escalation', they feared, would rob India of international sympathy.
C'mon old chap, China was the aggressor, and India had every right to defend itself with everything in her arsenal. Playing safe in wartime is perilous.
And see the irony: Prime Minister Nehru ordered the army 'to throw the Chinese out', but restrained the sword-arm from carrying out his order!
What was the ground reality? The PLAAF dominated the IAF 3:1 in fighter-bomber count. But, in terms of frontline aircraft and infrastructure either side of the front, the IAF was more battleworthy.
The IAF, a respectable tactical air force, had Vampires, Toofanis, Mysteres, Hunters, Gnats and Canberras to boast of (B-24 Liberators had become non-operational).
The PLAAF had MiG-15s, MiG-17s, MiG-19s and Ilyushin-28s, all from the Soviet stable. The 1350 MiG-15s and MiG-17s just made up the numbers. Only the 150 MiG-19s and the 500-odd Il-28 bombers could have gone into meaningful action.
But China had a sore Achilles' heel -- the PLAAF had to operate from airfields of high elevation, meaning its warplanes would forfeit significant radius of action and payloads.
Google Earth/Maps will tell you that Jyekundo, Qamdo, Nagchu and Kunming were either afar or aloft for the MiG-19s to have had any impact, and the IAF fighters could have toyed with the unescorted Il-28s. The raids that got through would have had no consequential effect on the war.
In sum, the IAF air defences were adequate to counter both strategic and tactical bombing by PLAAF.
To quell the Khampa insurrection, China swamped Tibet with stormtroops who then cut their teeth on mountain warfare. The sustenance of these forces called for erecting vast infrastructure.
If India chose to, these targets in Tibet were game for interdiction by IAF strike aircraft flying from bases at near sea-level elevation (availing of the whole operational envelope).
Besides, China was more vulnerable than India; the IAF Canberras had the requisite sweep to rock the proximate Chinese towns and to mar their war effort by crippling the sprinkling of airfields.
Okay, the above case was for argument's sake. Neither Khotan nor Kashgar in Xinjiang, or the airbases in Tibet, Qinghai and Yunnan, had been prepared for action. Forget fighters/bombers, no PLAAF transport/helicopter flights were ever sighted on the Chinese side, notes the official history.
Apart from aviation fuel shortage, the rupturing of Sino-Soviet comradeship resulted in a spares-crunch crushing enough to picket squadrons. And the airworthy machines were deployed well to the east, facing Formosa.
Thus, the dread spread by Mullick and his newfound CIA buddies was nothing but scaremongering.
Some bases Mullick ferreted out then, even tried with permutations of its pinyin, do not have semblance of airfields even today! The air force lingo for such distortion is 'duff gen'.
In hindsight, for the IAF equipped with relatively superior aircraft and blessed with favourable geography, dominating the air was a breeze.
Effectiveness of offensive air action
Air power is ineffective against diffused targets. The NEFA topography of snowcapped ranges, jungle-canopied mountains and serpentine ravines would have immensely challenged the execution of any offensive air action.
Nevertheless, lines of communication, logistics train and encampments at the valleys and passes could have been picked for aerial attacks.
After occupying Tawang, beginning October 24, the People's Liberation Army began regrouping for the major onslaught on Se La-Dirang-Bomdila.
This three-week pause in the fighting could have been grabbed to disrupt the rebuilding of the Bum La-Tawang road and the bridges, thus throwing a monkey wrench into Chinese preparedness.
One pet tactic the PLA applied to defang the Indian Army and hasten its nosedive was by cutting off routes, investing the trapped Indians and releasing the deadfall. The IAF strike force could have targeted the massed PLA troops and brought relief to the hemmed-in Indian soldiers.
On realising the inferiority of Indian artillery mounted at Namkha Chu Valley, Lieutenant General B K Kaul, the imperious corps commander, who had disregarded the IAF until then with undisguised disdain, sought IAF warplanes to pound the Chinese emplacements. His pleas were shot down as the almighty 'politburo' had prohibited aerial warfare as taboo.
Did Delhi care if the Indian troops became cannon-fodder?
No doubt, effectual close air support for the army in NEFA-like terrain demanded exposure to the operational area and prior practice, which the IAF combat squadrons lacked.
No doubt, the pilots would have struggled in the initial days, but they would have adapted, as they did in Kargil, and slugged the Chinese where it hurt.
Moreover, seasoned veterans of the Burma campaign versed in close air support over similar territory, were at hand to hone the skill of the inexperienced lot.
Aerial attacks, given the type of targets and imprecise weaponry, would have suffered inaccuracy, but one cannot emphasise enough the devastating psychological trauma of recurrent bombardment on the enemy.
The Ladakh battleground stretched from the eastern edge of Ladakh plateau to the western fringes of Aksai Chin. With the average elevation above 5,000 metres, the craggy latitudes and the rarefied ether posed a distinctly different demand on aircraft and weapon delivery.
The IAF fleet of 1962 vintage, launched from Punjab plains, could not have inflicted damaging dent on the PLA there.
As the outgunned Indian Army abandoned Se La-Dirang-Bomdila and made a beeline for the plains, Pandit Nehru opted to bid farewell to the people of Assam and to implore the American President to despatch 12 squadrons of F-104 fighters and two squadrons of B-47 bombers instead of unleashing the IAF fighter-bombers on the Chinese in the cause of Assam.
This vow not to employ IAF assets to not provoke China, was theological, devoid of military logic and a costly mistake. If only the 'politburo' was air-minded, and strong-minded.
So why did Air Chief Browne pronounce that India could have turned the tables on China? Was it to repair the 'grave misjudgement' of Air Headquarters in 1962?
While I believe that an aggressive air campaign would have made a difference, and could have even shaped the course of events in NEFA, I beg to differ with his affirmation that it would have determined the outcome. (A moot point: It is debatable whether IAF heroics could have uplifted the troops demoralised and dismantled by self-destructive generalship.)
What was the outcome of the conflict? China declared a ceasefire on November 21 and retraced to the pre-October locations adjacent to NEFA, but kept Aksai Chin as its trophy. This was in keeping with their stance of sanctifying the Macartney-Macdonald Line in Ladakh.
The sinews of the IAF were not muscular enough to retake Aksai Chin.
Whereas the outcome is a matter of fact, 'what might have been' is mere speculation. My reasoning too inhabits the realm of speculation.
What matters is what we have done since 1962. Air-minded, we are, but are we strong-minded?
M P Anil Kumar is a former fighter pilot. You can read more about him in this feature: The pilot who is a fighter