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The Rediff Special/Air Commodore (retd) Jasjit Singh
1965 war: A reality check
October 17, 2005
In the concluding part of his assessment of the 1965 war, Air Commodore Jasjit Singh (retired) challenges the notion that the Indian Air Force failed to deliver during the war.
Check out our series: 1965 War, 40 Years On
Part I: The wrong lessons
Some of the lessons learnt from the 1965 war pertain to the use of the air force by the two sides.
Pakistan propaganda, our army's perceptions and expectations, and the Indian Air Force's own reticence were some of the factors for mythologies that emerged from that war which at least four decades later we should be able to judge dispassionately.
As noted in the earlier part, our defence forces were in the process of a major expansion and re-organisation at that time, and Pakistan had far superior technology weapons and equipment. For example, it had been equipped with supersonic interceptor F-104 Starfighter since 1960 and modern air defence radars since 1958, compared to our older, slower, aircraft and very thin radar cover.
To begin with, in almost every war that we had to fight, air power tilted the balance of success between victory and loss in our favour in all except one war.
Our land forces (and naval forces in 1971) have performed admirably in wars, often against severe odds. But we need to recognise that air power played a key role in each and every one of them, mostly providing the critical factor that created the opportunities for land forces to defeat the aims of the enemy.
This reality is often ignored even by the air force itself because in most cases this role was performed not so much by combat air power, but by airlift. For our defence, airlift at crucial periods of history has been more significant than the Berlin Airlift for their strategic implications.
One only has to look at the empirical evidence to grasp the reality that the defence of Srinagar (and hence Jammu and Kashmir) would not have been possible if the transport aircraft had not managed to put some troops down on the airfield on October 27, 1947.
If the airlift had not made the landing of the troops possible Kashmir would have been lost before we gained it, and the map of the sub-continent would have been different. Subsequent history of the airlift to Leh only repeated the same scenario except under even more exacting circumstances.
Poonch was another crucial episode where transport aircraft flown by young pilots had even to cut the engines on final approach at night to ensure they could land in the restricted field constantly under hostile artillery fire.
Attempts to support Skardu unfortunately remained weak for a variety of reasons. But it also proves the point that adequate airlift could have made the crucial difference in saving Skardu, and today's map of J&K would have been totally different.
Chushul in 1962 is another case in point of successful defence in the nick of time. Similar situations arose in the defence of Siachen and its maintenance since 1983 till date.
It is in this context that we need to see the lessons of 1965.
The very first is that superior technology provides a critical competitive advantage in war in general, and air warfare in particular since the latter by definition is technology intensive.
There are two dimensions that are relevant in the actual conduct of that war. The first concerns the struggle for dominance in air, or the classical struggle for air superiority, and the second relates to the IAF's support to our army.
Pakistan has been claiming that it rapidly won air superiority and hence was able to support its army more effectively. This view seems to have received some endorsement by the Official History of the 1965 War produced by the Government of India.
Two reasons can be identified for this assessment by the official historians of the ministry of defence. One is that they tended to rely heavily to Pakistani literature, and even more so on one book, John Fricker's Battle for Pakistan and less on our own records.
It is possible that our records were inadequate for the task in hand. But that throws up the larger question of the very existence and functioning of the Historical Division of the ministry of defence and the role it is supposed to play.
Facts are crucial in coming to objective conclusions; and assessment of those facts is crucial for the right lessons to be learnt. Unfortunately, this is where our system has been lacking.
The official history took pains to work out the comparative losses of aircraft of aircraft during the 1965 War. But the fatal flaw is that, contrary to accepted international norms in such matters, losses were calculated as a proportion of the total inventory of the two air forces, instead of working out the attrition rate in relation to the sorties undertaken by them.
The quantum of air effort itself is an indication of the freedom of action enjoyed by the contestants. Even more important, the higher the attrition rate, the less that side can sustain combat, even if the size of the two air forces is equal.
But where the attrition rate is significantly higher in a smaller air force, as indeed was the case of the Pakistan Air Force, it is already down the defeat slope.
The most accurate estimate that we can put together from accounts of both sides is the attrition rate of Pakistan Air Force losses in the air-to-air warfare was 0.9 percent (that is, 9 aircraft lost for every 1,000 sorties flown) compared to 0.6 percent for the IAF.
This actually points to the IAF being the superior force in air warfare progressively gaining dominance.
But during the war the IAF lost a significant number of aircraft to enemy action on the round, especially in the eastern sector. The total attrition rates during the war including losses to enemy action in the air and on the ground work out to 2.16 percent for the Pakistan Air Force and 1.49 percent for IAF, that is, Pakistan was losing combat aircraft in the war nearly one-and-a-half times faster than India.
This ratio would have undoubtedly tilted much more in our favour if the IAF had not been ordered by the ministry of defence not to retaliate against the PAF in East Pakistan after the Pakistanis had destroyed a large number of our aircraft on the ground parked in the open (in spite of World War II blast pens being available)!
And Pakistan expected this to happen. That is why President Ayub despatched Air Marshal Asghar Khan, the former air chief, urgently by special aircraft, to China, Indonesia, Turkey and Iran to seek arms, especially combat aircraft, with a message of help in what Ayub's letter called Pakistan's 'dire need' (Asghar Khan, The First Round).
The Chinese leadership, according to Asghar, was uncertain of Pakistani resolve, and sent him on to Indonesia. Air Marshal Nur Khan, the PAF air chief during the war, according to Altaf Gauhar (Ayub's information secretary), 'wanted the unequal contest to end as quickly as possible.'
But a second issue which became far more contentious and whose vibrations can still be felt four decades later concerns the matter of air support by IAF to our land forces.
No other single issue has vitiated the atmosphere of army-air force relations than the perceived conduct of the air force during the 1965 War. The war itself escalated rather gradually from the action in the Rann of Kutch in April of that year to the covert war beginning on August 1 with a strong Force Gibraltar infiltrated by Pakistan into the Kashmir valley.
This was followed by Pakistan's overt armoured offensive launched on the morning of September 1, 1965, codenamed 'Grand Slam' in the Akhnoor sector of J&K where the Pakistan army held strategic advantages due to terrain and initiative of offensive action.
The Pakistan Air Force had been brought into the operational plans and was ready over the area for any eventuality. The IAF also anticipated action and had moved a couple of fighter squadrons up front. What remains surprising is that given the tactical situation and the expected Pakistan offensive, prior approval of the Cabinet for using all elements of military power was not obtained.
In fact, one whole day would elapse with our ground forces fighting out under severe handicap, before the army chief sought air support. But this was the general who as officiating army chief in 1961 had ordered the planning for military action to take Goa, but had given orders to the Operations branch not to tell the IAF and Indian Navy, according to General D K Palit (War in the High Himalayas)!
The failure of the higher defence organisation is apparent since neither the Chiefs of Staff Committee nor the Emergency Committee of the Cabinet (which had replaced the Defence Committee of the Cabinet) seem to have met.
The defence minister authorised the use of the IAF based on the request of the army chief. In the late hours of the day the air force put in whatever it had and took losses. But the end result was that Pakistani advance to Akhnoor, its immediate objective was stalled.
Why Pakistan did not advance and take Akhnoor in spite of heavily degraded Indian Army capability to defend has never been explained, though the issue has been raised by many Pakistani military writers since.
The only explanation that fits the facts is that the IAF had imposed a heavy attrition on Pakistani armour even against the setting sun, and it would have been suicidal for it to proceed further. Akhnoor was saved and so was a crucial military-logistics key point.
Of course Pakistan's second strategic blunder was to have stopped short on the way to the objective of Grand Slam -- Akhnoor. This has never been explained adequately in the otherwise extensive Pakistani literature.
After its initial gains with a force of an infantry division against and two regiments of Patton tanks against a truncated infantry brigade (as per General Harbaksh Singh) on the 1st September, they hardly moved forward to toward Akhnoor, less than 20 km away on near-flat terrain. The only explanation in Pakistani military writings has been that the commander of the infantry division was changed mid-stream.
But obviously it was also the objective that was changed rather than just the commander. The question is, why?
In the absence of any plausible explanation even four decades later, we are forced to conclude that Indian Air Force strikes (especially by Mystere aircraft) on their armour and artillery had caused enough damage (in spite of the PAF's superior combat aircraft) to make the Pakistan leadership rethink about their ability to get up to Akhnoor and capture the bridge on Chenab which would have cut off the Rajouri-Poonch sector creating serious problems for India to defend this bitterly fought for area in 1947-1948.
But what became the real source of contention was the Indian counter-offensive on September 6, 1965 into Pakistan. The Indian Army's 15 Division decided to launch the offensive at daylight along a major road --without informing the air force!
The army commander, Lieutenant General Harbaksh Singh (A Soldier Remembers), has been scathing in his criticism of the divisional commander (whom he found hiding in an irrigated sugar-cane field that morning) on this count and for exposing the Division (on the Grand Trunk road, 'bumper to bumper,' according to the general) to enemy air strikes while the IAF practically knew nothing.
The Pakistan Air Force, naturally had a field day. But the fact that we had not established adequate organisation and communications for responsive close support seems to have added to the problem.
Unfortunately, the impression grew, recycled by ignorance that the IAF failed to provide air support to the army, and the rhetorical question of 'where was the air force?' continues to be raised till now.
Conventional wisdom would have us believe that Pakistan provided better and more air support to its army than ours.
But this is not supported by facts which indicate that the IAF destroyed as many as 123 Pakistani tanks during the war compared to our losses of just 3 due to PAF strikes; and the PAF could destroy only five pieces of our artillery compared to IAF knocking out 56 of theirs, according to General Harbaksh Singh(War Despatches 1965).
The Indian Air Force destroyed 72 railway wagons including our Hunter aircraft formation blowing up a trainload of ammunition adding to the Pakistan army's acute shortages, except that this was beyond the visual range of our troops.
What needs to be remembered is that our own system of providing air support to the land forces had not been built up adequately. For example, a delay of as much as a day or two would take place for the air force units to receive the demand for air support after it was originated by the army formations due to weaknesses in communications system.
This was rectified by the 1971 war.
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