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How IAF defeated PAF in 1965 War?


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After few sorties by the IAF against East Pakistan on 7 Sept a political embargo was imposed on further attacks in the East. This remained in force despite continued PAF strikes in East on  7 Sept, 10 Sept and 14 Sept.

“The performance of the Army did not match that of the PAF (Pakistani Air Force) mainly because the leadership was not as professional. They had planned the ‘Operation Gibralter’ (infiltration into J&K) for self glory rather than in the national interest. It was a wrong war. And they misled the nation with a big lie that India rather than Pakistan had provoked the war and that we were the victim of Indian aggression.”

Air Marshal (Retd) Nur Khan quoted in ‘Dawn’ – Karachi. 6 Sep, 2005

It took 40 years for Air Marshal (Retd) Nur Khan – Chief of the PAF during 1965 war to state the truth about the genesis of 1965 war.

“Since the 1965 adventure, Pakistan’s generals have maintained a Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) in public relations about military matters.” According to this virtual SOP, “The Pakistani military wins every war it fights and Pakistan’s generals make no mistakes. Any blame for failure lies either with civilians or the Americans”.

Hussain Haqqani-former Pakistani Ambassador in Sri Lanka-quoting

Brig AR Siddiqui-former Head of Pakistan’s Military PR. The Indian Express – New Delhi  10 Jun, 2004.

Both above quotes are true – but spoken nearly after four decades of 1965 war.

Another most blatant lie perpetrated by the PAF and believed by nearly everyone because of intense propaganda, was that ‘PAF defeated IAF during the 1965 war’. And ‘PAF ensured better close air support to Pak Army compared with IAF’s close air support to Indian Army.’

The architect of this blatant misinformation was none other than PAF Air Chief Nur Khan. This article will prove the hollowness of above claims and bring out the true performance of the IAF. It is not that IAF did not make mistakes – it did.  Most importantly it did not hide its mistakes. The truth was that it recovered quickly from initial setback in the war and outdid the PAF in every department. However, it appears that PAF’s well crafted propaganda unfortunately impacted on the perception of even the best analysts leading them to fall prey to PAF’s misinformation. We will cover this story in two parts – first the Battle for Air Superiority and the side that achieved it; the second part will cover support to the respective armies by both the Air Forces and which was better.

The Battle of Air Superiority

In the war between India and Pakistan in 1965 air superiority was never contested, air power was largely restricted to ground support and the air war came to an early halt as a result of shortage of spares and weapons imposed by international embargo.

Tony Mason

On the eve of 1965 war, IAF had 466 combat aircraft against 203 of the PAF. PAF had 16 aircraft in East Pakistan and the rest in West. Against this IAF had deployed 176 aircraft in the East to take care of the Chinese and East Pakistani threat. Thus, IAF had 290 aircraft facing West Pakistan. Numerically this gave IAF a superiority of 1.4:1 against PAF in the West and 11:1 in the East.
On 6th Sept PAF launched pre-emptive attack against four IAF air bases and three radar stations, i.e. Pathankot, Adhampur, Halwara, Jamnagar airfields and radar stations at Amritsar, Firozpur and Jamnagar. PAF’s attack over Pathankot met with great success. PAF claimed to have destroyed 7 MiG-21s, 5 Mysteres, and 2 Packet transport aircraft. IAF admitted to losing 2 MiG-21s, 6 Mysteres, 1 Packet, 1 Gnat as destroyed and damage to 2 Gnats and 1 Mystere. These aircraft were destroyed because they were not sufficiently dispersed and camouflaged. Some of them had just landed back after operational sorties and were being refuelled.

One may like to explain it away as an unkind hand of fate. In the East, PAF attacked Kalaikunda air base. PAF claimed destroying 14 Canberra, 1 x Packet and damage to 4 Canberra and 3 Hunters. IAF admitted loss of 4 Canberra and 4 Vampires. This happened because Kalaikunda did not have any dispersal facilities. Here the aircraft had to operate from a large apron.

On the morning of 7 Sept, having absorbed the PAF pre-emptive the previous day, IAF launch a total of 33 sorties spread over ten hours for this all important battle of air superiority! George K Tanham observed, “Given the importance of the target (Sargodha) the careful planning and practice, and approximately 300 aircraft available to the IAF, this attack was surprisingly small and lightly pressed.” The 1.4:1 superiority of the IAF in the West in fact was further diluted because the PAF aircraft had greater fighting capability.

This was true, especially because of its Sidewinder missile capability of Sabres and Star fighters. Though, it was known that only 25 percent Sabres were missile capable, but to every IAF pilot who would have seen a Sabre in air, it would have been prudent to consider it Sidewinder capable.

Pushpinder Singh an Indian military historian stated that PAF had lost 12 percent of its strength by 8 Sept and, hence, went on defensive. Nur Khan, the PAF Chief, himself agreed that this was the PAF’s chosen strategy considering the asymmetry with the IAF and India being far more self-reliant for war waging material compared to Pakistan.

Nur Khan claimed air superiority for PAF by the end of 6th Sept, the first proper day of air war itself. He went on to claim air supremacy by the end of 8th Sept. No other Air Chief has made such hollow claim either before or after. What actually transpired was a half-hearted counter air battle by fighters of both sides on 7 Sept. In the face of heavy attrition both sides stopped using fighters by daylight, for counter air battle. Both the air forces preferred the option of night bombing utilising Canberra bomber. Canberra bombing though causing occasional damage and serving to harass the personnel was ineffective in winning the battle of air superiority. But it was persisted with since night interception capability was rather limited. “In 1965, night interception proved most frustrating for the PAF when often the F-104s failed to locate low flying IAF Canberras. Streaming tactics used by IAF with multi-pronged attacks and constant changes in altitude and heading strained PAF”.

On the Indian side MiG-21s (T–74) 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. Therefore, for all practical purposes, both the air forces having gone at each other on 6th and 7th Sept, gave up any further fighter effort as they had suffered unsustainable attrition. The exception being a four Mystere fighters strike over Pasroor on 12 Sept by the IAF. During the limited air superiority battle IAF suffered an attrition rate of 20 percent whereas PAF suffered 12.5 percent attrition.

The Pak Air Chief continued to express strange notions of air superiority. The PAF, barring the night attacks by the Canberras, totally gave up its forays into Indian territory. It concentrated on air defence of PAF airbases and certain amount of support to its army coming under attack at Lahore and Sialkot. Whereas at Khem Karan where Pak armour had launched its major offensive, Indian troops of 3 Cavalry and 4 Div did not come under any air attack. If PAF had achieved air supremacy as claimed, it could have decimated Indian Army’s opposition to its major armour thrust – which some claimed was to isolate Amritsar by capturing Beas Bridges. Pak lost 108 tanks here, quite a few in working condition. Nevertheless, Nur Khan claimed air supremacy over Pak air space, even though it was the IAF which attacked Pak armour and its supplies. IAF fighters continued to operate over Pak territory and air space.

In 1965 the only two offensives of the Pak Army were at Chhamb and Khem Karan. In both these sectors PAF did not win the air battle. At Chhamb both air forces continued to operate, with IAF halting Pak advance well short of Akhnoor. Therefore, the PAF could not claim air superiority here. At Khem Karan it was the IAF, which was more active. At Lahore, on the critical day of 6th Sept where Indian Army had launched an offensive PAF had an upper hand. During the rest of the war majority of the PAF air support sorties for Pak Army were over its own territory whereas majority of IAF’s air support sorties were over Pak territory. So actually IAF had the favourable air situation over the battle area of concern during most of the war. In their respective territories both air forces were by and large free to operate.  On the balance it was the IAF, which had greater control of air than the PAF. Of course IAF lost more number of aircrafts, a result of its larger number of offensive sorties over enemy territory, but its attrition rate was lesser than that of the PAF’s. A causative analysis of IAF & PAF losses provides  a better perspective rather than relying just on numbers.

It is true that IAF lost 36 aircraft destroyed and 17 damaged on ground due to enemy air strikes. These losses can  be attributed to failure in proper dispersal and camouflage of aircraft and is not indicative of IAF’s performance during the further course of air war. This loss accounted for 8 percent depletion of IAF which implied that IAF was still a potent fighting force.

Let us consider the air-to-air kills. These need further subdivision i.e., the loss of strike aircraft and loss of pure air defence aircraft. No doubt both these types can engage in air combat albeit with varying degree of maneuverability. But a strike aircraft with heavy configuration with armament load and fuel tanks is no match for a similar fighter in air defence configuration. Of the total air to air losses, IAF’s losses were 18 aircraft in strike role and 4 in air defence role. This is indicative of greater offensive forays by the IAF compared to the PAF. Even in pure air-to-air battle, the score is even, despite PAF’s advantage of fighting over its own territory, with air-to-air missiles and better radar cover and control.

A very daring and innovative idea of the PAF with regard to use of commandos to destroy IAF’s aircraft on ground, where fighter aircraft are always most vulnerable. It was definitely a maverick idea full of surprise but fortunately for the IAF it failed due to insufficient planning, training and last minute coordination between the PAF and the commandos. As the war balloon went up Pakistan launched the commandos without adequate preparation, therefore, this novel idea, failed miserably before it could inflict physical damage. Out of 180 commandos dropped around Halwara, Adhampur and Pathankot only  managed to escape back.  Rest were either killed or captured. Such operations are either spectacular success or catastrophic failure. In the case of Pakistan though many termed it a failure, it nevertheless had an adverse impact on IAF’s operation and did reduce the IAF’s potential.

As a security measure against commandos attacks, the fighter squadrons of Mysteres at Adhampur and Pathankot were relocated on many nights to Palam and Ambala. No 7 and 27 Squadrons of Halwara used to land at Hindon (Delhi) for the night halt. Another reason for this relocation was the more frequent PAF Canberra’s night attacks. This daily relocation apart from creating administrative problems reduced the potential of the sorties generated. On one occasion, Adhampur even witnessed its own Mysteres strafing the grassy area within the airfield, presuming that the commandos were hiding there.

A well-known attribute of airpower is its rapid mobility. An air force can redeploy its combat squadrons from one theatre to another very rapidly. In fact this is what precisely the PAF did on 6th Sept by moving 12 Sabres and six-T-33s from Mauripur (Karachi) to Sargodha for their well crafted pre-emptive plan against the IAF. But IAF by resorting to rigid deployments in the face of over exaggerated threat from China had forsaken the tremendous advantage of numbers. George K Tanham made similar observation in a study on the IAF for the Rand Corporation. “It is not clear why the IAF decided to withhold nearly half of its air force against possible Chinese attack, since one advantage of air power is its ability to move quickly.” This is not all.

After few sorties by the IAF against East Pakistan on 7 Sept a political embargo was imposed on further attacks in the East. This remained in force despite continued PAF strikes in East on  7 Sept, 10 Sept and 14 Sept. Though initially the political executive gave clear direction, but gradually  it began to control air operations. One can infer this from the fact that to use the IAF on 1st Sept Defence Minister’s clearance was required. In the East, the Defence Minister forbade IAF operations after 7th. Even in West, attack on Peshawar was cleared only on 12th Sept.

Psychological Operations (Psy Ops)

PAF realised the importance and played psy ops game in the most spectacular manner whereas, IAF and the Indian Government neglected it. As a result the IAF was discredited in the air war. The truth was far from what was projected by the PAF. Since PAF was at its exalted best and the IAF at its nadir in psy ops in the 1965 war, it will be instructive to examine this aspect in greater details.

One good place to start this examination is review of General Mohammad Musa’s book “My Version – Indo-Pak War of 1965”. General Musa was the Pakistani Army Chief during this war. His book of less than 100 pages has lot of quotations of western correspondents mostly in praise of Pak armed forces and denigrating Indian performance. One of them alleges that the Indian Government did not permit foreign correspondents within 100 miles of the front. So when Pakistan was currying favours with the journalists by going out of their way, PAF Air Chief Nur Khan, went one step further.

To quote Brig AR Siddiqui – Editor Pak Defence Journal, “After the war Air Mshl Nur Khan made a full-length feature film with defence funds titled – ‘No Greater Glory’ in English and ‘Kasam Us Waqt Ki’ in Urdu. Released in end 1969 both movies flopped badly. Subsequently the Air Mshl hired the services of a British journalist John Fricker…The Air Mshl stole the limelight in the narrative as well as the visuals.” This in the issue of No 7-8, 1994. John Fricker, was an aviation and military reporter for the magazine ‘Aeroplane’.

Fricker was commissioned by the PAF Air Chief to write a book on PAF which Fricker did and titled it, “Battle for Pakistan – The Air War of 1965”. The book got published only in 1979, fourteen years later. One wonders why so late? It is alleged that Fricker had difficulty in finding anyone to publish it.  Since the book was not published earlier Fricker wrote an article titled, “30 Seconds Over Sargodha” and it was published in the ‘Aeroplane’ magazine. In this article it was claimed that a Pakistani pilot Squadron Leader Mohammad Alam shot down five Hunters in 30 seconds over Sargodha. The author came across this article in 1975 as a Flying Officer in a fighter squadron. My query to my boss, was forwarded to the Air HQ and was replied. The reply classified the claim as false. As per the IAF, the PAF did shoot down two Hunters on 7 Sept. The  third Hunter in a different formation was lost later when its engine malfunctioned. But Air HQ did not deem it fit to contradict Frickers claim in public. It was left to Shri Pushpinder Singh to refute Frickers claim in Vayu III/1988.

“Battle for Pakistan” is a book eulogising PAF and its erstwhile Air Chief Nur Khan. The author, though supposed to be a military aviation reporter, quotes claims of Nur Khan which are preposterous and defy all experiences and lessons of air power history till then. To illustrate, some pronouncements of the book are listed below with comments:

Air Superiority. PAF won air superiority within two hours of its pre-emptive on the evening of 6 Sept.

Comment. At the end of 6th Sept PAF had claimed destruction of about 16-18 aircraft. India admitted to losing 14 aircraft while shooting down three Sabres on 6th out of the 16 Sabres that came for attacks and two more in Chhamb earlier. IAF still had 452 aircraft left. So the claim of air superiority is nonsense and bogus.

Air Supremacy. PAF won air supremacy at the end of 8th Sept that is within 48 hours.

Comment. Air supremacy implies inability of opposing air force to fly and cause any interference whatsoever. IAF flew more than 3000 sorties after 8th Sept and also shot down 10 PAF aircraft also after 8th Sept. Hence, this claim too is unsustainable. That fact that PAF continued to fly 70 sorties of air defence per day for rest of the war to guard against IAF strikes proves the point amply. PAF and Pakistan pursued their propaganda war in extreme crass ways.

To a reader less informed on the complexities of the air war the propaganda churned out might have seemed true. More so when the other party was not coming out of its side of the story. For instance Air Cmde Jamal Hussain writing in Pakistan’s Defence Journal of Apr 2 claims ‘Excellence in Air Combat – PAF’s Forte’. He states that both in 1965 and 1971 war PAF achieved a kill ratio of over 2:1 in air combat missions over its adversary. What he does not tell the reader is that PAF fighters in air defence configuration were attacking the IAF’s strike aircraft heavily laden for strike mission. If this is considered then 2:1 ratio is actually incorrect. Again what he does not tell the reader is that PAF’s air defence aircraft were shot up by IAF’s strike aircraft like HF-24, SU-7 and Hunters quite a few times in 1971 war. Even in 65 War Hunters shot down 7 Sabres. While talking of air-to-air kills and PAF’s propaganda that PAF pilots were very good in air combat, it is worth mentioning an important point regarding guns carried in fighters of the IAF and the PAF. The F-86 Sabre had six guns of .5 inch Calibre.

The Sabre was a very stable design, permitting steady aiming easily whereas Gnat had two 30 mm Aden cannons. It’s cannons jammed quite often due to minor variations in the links holding the rounds. There were many instances of Gnats on tail of Sabres but with their cannons jammed. In 1971 this problem was resolved  to quite an extent, but not altogether eliminated. Even Hunters on few occasions suffered from jammed cannons. Some of the recorded occasions where Sabre kills were missed being:

  • 4 Sep 65 – Chhamb, Sqn Ldr J Greene, Flt Lt AJS Sandhu, and Flt Lt Manna Murdeshwar behind 3 Sabres – all had jammed guns.
  • 10 Sep 65 – Flt Lt V Kapila and Harry Sidhu – gun stopping during combat with Sabres with Gnats behind Sabres.

In this department of psy ops India as well as the IAF has always been found wanting in all its wars. DR Mankekar described it aptly “…whoever was responsible for the public relations fiasco in the twenty-two day war (1965 war) – and they are all passing the buck from one to another – was largely responsible for the bad press that this war got abroad.”

05 Sep 2020/Thursday                                                                      Source: indian defence review

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