War of attrition: How the outgunned IAF beat the PAF

14 September 2015 Rakesh Krishnan Simha
Forced to fight with vintage warplanes and short on experience, the plucky Indian Air Force employed guts and gumption to send the Pakistan Air Force into defensive mode.
The MiG-21 proved to be a highly effective air defence weapons system. Source: AP
The MiG-21 became the first supersonic fighter jet to enter service with the IAF. Source: AP

The 1965 War was the first time the Indian Air Force (IAF) got a piece of combat action. The odds of winning, however, were totally against it. This was because under the premiership of Jawaharlal Nehru – a man completely lacking in empathy for India’s armed forces – the air force had been allowed to become a museum of vintage warplanes. Around a third of the air force comprised World War II era fighters, which were rendered useless.

The Pakistan Air Force (PAF), on the other hand, was on afterburners. This was because Pakistan had received a windfall in terms of military assistance for joining US-led pacts – the South East Asian Treaty Organisation and Central Treaty Organisation – aimed at containing Russia.

According to the Stockholm Peace Research Institute, between 1954 and 1964, Pakistan received $1.5 billion – an enormous amount in those years – in military assistance from the US. A lot of it comprised high-octane hardware. The Pakistan Army received 460 M-47 and M-48 tanks; the Navy received coastal minesweepers, two CH class destroyers, and a Tench-class submarine, a first of its acquisition by a South Asian country.

The Pakistan Air Force (PAF) strength was increased significantly with the acquisition of 120 F-86 Sabres fighters between 1956 and 1958 and in 1962, the latest Lockheed F-104 Starfighter, which was equipped with the advanced Sidewinder air-to-air missile, another first in South Asia.

But more ominous was the Pakistani military’s integration with the West. Riaz Ahmed Shaikh writes in ‘Pakistani Military's Role in the Asian Context’, published in Advances in Military Sociology: “While continuing with the modernisation process, attention was also concentrated at the training and exercises of the troops. These were organised at regular intervals, and new experiments were made in techniques of warfare. On several occasions, exercises were supervised by the military experts of the US, UK and other western allies, including Iran and Turkey....These exercises enabled the Pakistan Navy and PAF to acquire the modern techniques of warfare and also increased their striking power, confidence and efficiency.”

Enter the Russians

It was the American refusal to assist India’s defence modernisation effort that led to substantive India-Russia military ties.

During the 1962 war with China, Nehru had requested 12 squadrons of all-weather fighters and two squadrons of B-47 bombers manned by American crews to attack positions in China, plus American help in constructing a radar shield for India’s cities.

But the Americans refused to supply India what it wanted, especially the F-104 jet which had already been sold to Pakistan. Satu Limaye writes in ‘US-India Relations’ that “the US refused to sell India any weaponry, offensive or otherwise, that was not directly applicable to mountain warfare”. This led India to suspect the US was trying to nudge its defence capabilities in the direction of a particular American strategic objective (the containment of China) while at the same time protecting Pakistani sensitivities.

After being spurned by the western powers, India turned to Russia. Moscow offered India full transfer of technology for the MiG-21 and rights for local assembly.

MiGs show potential

In 1964 – two full years after the PAF got the F-104 – the MiG-21 became the first supersonic fighter jet to enter service with the IAF. Because of India’s drawn out defence procurement policies – which haven’t changed to this day – the IAF was able to induct only a limited numbers of the jets. “The first six MiG-21s delivered to India were unimpressive, lacking modern fire control systems and demonstrating an extremely short combat radius,” writes Timothy D. Hoyt in 'Military Industry and Regional Defense Policy: India, Iraq and Israel'.

Along with the resultant lack of pilot training, India’s MiG-21s played a limited role in the 1965 war. But significantly, the first encounter in history between Mach 2 fighters took place on September 11, 1965. A single PAF F-104 encountered two IAF MiG-21s from Halwara in Punjab. The F-104 managed to escape by exiting the combat at tree-top height.

But MiG pilots didn’t spend the rest of the conflict twiddling thumbs. The IAF gained valuable experience while operating the MiG-21 for defensive sorties during the war. The positive feedback from IAF pilots during the war prompted India to place more orders for the fighter jet and also invest heavily in building the MiG-21’s maintenance infrastructure and pilot training programmes.

The Russians supplied the entire production facility for manufacturing MiG-21s. The engine plant was established in Koraput and the fuselage in Kanpur. By the 1971 war, India had acquired seven MiG squadrons comprising around 100 aircraft. The improved MiG-21 not only acted as an interceptor but also as an escort fighter for the Sukhoi Su-7, a heavily armoured and hardy Russian strike aircraft. The MiG-Sukhoi tandem punched big holes in Pakistani airspace, resulting in the country’s quick capitulation in the 1971 war.

Fog of war

The 1965 conflict was a war of attrition in which both sides made exaggerated claims, which is typical of all wars. However, unlike most nations who conduct a reality check once the fog of war drifts off, Pakistan continues to stick to its wild claims.

Pakistan says the PAF defeated the IAF. But Pakistani claims are based solely on the number of aircraft lost, which was clearly higher on the Indian side. But war is not just about aircraft destroyed. War is about achieving objectives and air power is one of the several elements of strategy that help a country achieve those objectives.

But the reality is Pakistan’s chief war objective – the capture of Kashmir – failed utterly and it lost the majority of its armour, including 250 American made tanks.

In the air, Pakistan was on the verge of disaster when the cease-fire was called. B.C. Chakravorty writes in 'History of Indo-Pakistan War – 1965' that the IAF lost 61 aircraft versus 43 PAF planes destroyed. But Indian losses were overwhelmingly on the ground. Owing to the inexperience of its base commanders, the IAF lost 36 aircraft – including two of its latest MiG-21s – on the ground. “These aircraft were destroyed because they were not sufficiently dispersed and camouflaged,” writes Air-Vice Marshal Arun Kumar Tiwary in ‘Indian Air Force in Wars’. “Some of them had just landed back after operational sorties and were being refuelled.” (This has a parallel to the opening days of Operation Barbarossa in 1941 when hundreds of Russian aircraft were shot up by the Germans on the ground.)

On the other hand, in aerial dogfights, the IAF lost just 14 aircraft while shooting down 18 Pakistani jet fighters. According to former Air Commodore Jasjit Singh, Pakistan ended the war having depleted 17 per cent of its front line strength, while India's losses amounted to less than 10 per cent. Moreover, the loss rate had begun to even out, and it has been estimated that another three week's fighting would have seen the Pakistani losses rising to 33 per cent and India's losses totalling 15 per cent.

Retired PAF chief Noor Khan agrees the PAF adopted a defensive strategy because it could not counter the asymmetry with the IAF. At that time, India produced the Ajeet, aka Gnat, the most successful fighter of the war, while Pakistan was totally dependent on imports.

Former Air Marshal Govind Chandra Singh Rajwar who was a young officer posted in Kalaikunda, West Bengal, during the war says the PAF lacked the numbers or the will for a war of attrition. He recounts that on September 7, the Sabres made a surprise attack on his base, shooting up two IAF Camberra bombers on the ground. Because the Sabres had missed a large number of aircraft, the IAF correctly guessed they would be back.

Greed clearly won over better judgement and the Sabres returned 30 minutes later, after refuelling. But this time the Indians were airborne and shot down several Sabres. “This second attack was such a disaster for the PAF Sabres they never ventured to attack Kalaikunda again for the remainder of the 1965 war,” says Rajwar.

To be sure, the IAF wasn’t exactly doing great in offensive mode. Says Tiwary: “On the Indian side MiG-21s had recently been inducted and were not yet night capable for interception. Night flying of Gnat aircraft was limited due to poor cockpit lighting. The night fighter Vampires were already obsolete.”

Former Indian Army chief K.V. Krishna Rao writes in ‘Prepare or Perish: A Study of National Security’ that poor intelligence led to Indian warplanes attacking 16 Pakistani air bases that did not have any PAF aircraft.

Western bias

“Pakistan Victorious” screamed the headline in The Australian, dated September 14, 1965, followed by this intro: “Pakistani forces have repulsed a massive Indian armoured assault in the greatest tank battle since the African desert campaign of World War II.”

The Australians media were, at worse, liars or, at best, parroting a lie. In fact, everything about the report was false. Firstly, the greatest tank battle since World War II was the Battle of Asal Uttar where the Indian Army destroyed Pakistani 70 tanks. India also captured 25 tanks which were abandoned by panic stricken Pakistani soldiers in the face of withering Indian fire.

Secondly, the greatest tank battle of World War II was not in Africa, but in Kursk, Russia, where the Red Army hammered the Germans. This is an instance of the Anglo-American media not wanting to acknowledge Russian military superiority.

The point is that in the West there is a great desire to see Indians – and Russians – fail. It was like that during the Cold War when Pakistan was a loyal ally and India a hated ally of Moscow. Nothing's changed.

Lying to fame in 30 seconds

One of the biggest lies peddled by the PAF was the “30 seconds over Sargodha” incident. Mohammed Alam, a PAF squadron leader, claimed he had shot down as many as five IAF Hunter aircraft in only 23 seconds on September 7.

British writer John Fricker was commissioned by the PAF to write a book, in which Fricker eulogised the Pakistanis. His ‘Battle for Pakistan – The Air War of 1965’ made it to the stores only in 1979 because he couldn’t find a publisher. But because he couldn’t narrate his tales soon enough, Fricker wrote an article titled “30 Seconds Over Sargodha” which was published in ‘Aeroplane’ magazine.

Fricker’s article popularised Alam’s claim in the West, where they gleefully accepted such fiction as truth. There was a huge sense of satisfaction in the West at India’s apparent failure.

However, highly credible research done by military historian Pushpinder Singh and others has shown that Alam was exaggerating. In an article titled ‘Laying the Sargodha Ghost to Rest’ Singh writes why the PAF backed Alam’s claims: “The people of Pakistan had to be re-assured their air force's super image carefully cultivated over the years, was restored by examples of daring-do and glory.”

Not all Pakistanis, however, are delusional. PAF Air Commodore S. Sajad Haider has demolished Alam’s claims in his exhaustive book ‘Flight of the Falcon: Demolishing Myths of the 1965 War’. Referring to Alam as a "very unprofessional" pilot, Haider says: “It is tactically and mathematically very difficult to resurrect the incident in which all five Hunters in a hard turn were claimed to have been shot down in a 270-degree turn in 23 seconds.”

Alam had said he had blown away all five aircraft and that none of the pilots were able to eject. On this Haider adds: “Logically, since the five were claimed to have been shot down in 23 seconds, then they should all have crashed in close proximity. The conjecture that all the rest could have crashed after 8-9 minutes of flying is superfluous and unworthy of the official PAF history.”

Even the PAF is having trouble swallowing such a blatant lie. According to Bharat Rakshak, “While the PAF’s 1982 history accepts Alam’s story as told by Fricker, the PAF’s 1988 history is surprisingly silent about the names. In fact, the PAF 1988 history does not even list the names of the five IAF pilots.”

This is not to say the Pakistanis were chumps. On the contrary, they were excellent flyers and gunners. However, PAF pilots seemed to have underestimated Indian resolve, and also believed their President Ayub Khan’s claim that one Pakistani was equal to three Indians.

Religious fanaticism was also seen rearing its ugly head in the PAF, with many pilots believing they were under divine protection. Alam, for instance, became an Islamic fundamentalist and berated his fellow officers and seniors who consumed alcohol. Not surprisingly, he was sidelined on the amusing allegation that he could not read or write. Post retirement, he lives like a mullah, a virtual recluse. Had he been a real war hero, he would not be treated in so humiliating a manner.

Prelude to 1971

The lessons of the 1965 war led India to refine tactics which proved decisive in the 1971 war. The IAF had been hamstrung by the lack of ground based defensive radar coverage and air-to-air missiles. These deficiencies were addressed.

With Russian aid, India established a modern early warning radar system, including the Fansong low-level radar, linked with SA-2 'Guideline' surface-to-air missiles and a large number of AA guns.

For the technologically outclassed IAF, the 1965 war was a bruising rite of passage. Indians showed that in war, morale matters more than material. IAF pilots had truly internalised what Sergei Dolgushin – a Russian World War II ace with 24 victories – said is a prerequisite to be a successful fighter pilot: “A love of hunting, a great desire to be the top dog.”

When war came again, in December 1971, a better trained IAF – armed with the MiG-21s and Su-7s – was ready for the kill.

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