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Air war in 1971: A view from the other side

Mar 5, 2018
By Admiral Arun Prakash, Disregarding the counsel of wise men, from Herodotus to George Santayana, Indians have consistently ignored the importance of reading, writing and learning from history.

So, when retired US Air Force Brigadier “Chuck” Yeager, head of the US Military Assistance Advisory Group in Islamabad during the 1971 War, says, in his autobiography that the “Pakistanis whipped the Indians’ asses in the sky... the Pakistanis scored a three-to-one kill ratio, knocking out 102 Russian-made Indian jets and losing 34 airplanes of their own...”, we are left fumbling for a response. Other Western “experts” have alleged that, in 1971, the IAF was supported by Tupolev-126 early warning aircraft flown by Soviet crews, who supposedly jammed PAF radars and homed-in Indian aircraft.

Where does one seek authentic information about India’s contemporary military history? The Ministry od Defence (MoD) website mentions a History Division, but the output of this organisation is not displayed, and it seems to have gone into hibernation after a brief spell of activity. A Google search reveals copies of two typed documents, circa 1984, on the Internet, titled “History of the 1965 War” and “History of the 1971 War” -- neither of which is designated as “official history”.

A chapter of the latter document deals with the air-war in the Western theatre, and opens with a comparison of the opposing air forces. The 1971 inventory of the IAF is assessed at 625 combat aircraft, while the PAF strength is estimated at about 275. After providing day-by-day accounts of air-defence, counter-air close-support and maritime air-operations, the “History of the 1971 War” (or HoW) compares aircraft losses, on both sides, and attempts a cursory analysis of the air war.

The IAF is declared as having utilised its forces “four times as well as the PAF” and being “definitely on the way to victory” at the time of ceasefire. Commending the PAF for having managed to survive in a war against an “enemy double its strength”, it uses a boxing metaphor, to add a (left-handed) compliment: “ its refusal to close with its stronger enemy, it at least remained on its feet, and in the ring, when the bell sounded...”

This is the phrase that Pakistani Air Commodore M. Kaiser Tufail (retd) has picked up for the title of his very recent book: “In the Ring and on its Feet” (Ferozsons Pvt Ltd., Lahore, 2017) about the PAF’s role in the 1971 Indo-Pak war. Commissioned in 1975, this former Pakistani fighter-pilot is a historian and bold commentator on strategic affairs. Currently unavailable in India, the book may, prima facie, be accepted as authentic, because the author asserts that in two of his appointments, he was the “custodian of PAF’s war records”, which he was, officially, permitted to access in writing the book.

Tufail starts with an attempt to dispel the “ludicrous Indian fabrication about Pakistan having initiated the war”, and offers the thesis that since war was already in progress, the ineffective 3rd December PAF pre-emptive attacks were merely “first strikes” meant to overburden the IAF’s retaliatory capability. Apart from this half-hearted attempt at obfuscation, the rest of Tufail’s narrative is refreshingly candid, free of hyperbole and -- one hopes -- reliable. Having served in an IAF fighter squadron during the 1971 war, I was fascinated by Tufail’s account, and share a few of his frank insights into wartime events in this article.

Tufail suggests that the wartime PAF Chief, Air Marshal Rahim Khan, was an inarticulate, short-tempered and lacklustre personality, who, at this crucial juncture, chose his two most important advisers -- the ACAS (Operations) and the Deputy Chief -- from the ranks of transport pilots. His problems were compounded by low service morale, due to the massacre of 30 airmen in East Pakistan and defections by Bengali PAF personnel.

As far as the two orders-of-battle are concerned, it is interesting to note that the HoW figures of 625 combat aircraft for the IAF and 273 for the PAF are pretty close to Tufail’s estimates of 640 and 290 respectively. A fact not commonly known, in 1971, was that while the IAF’s work-horses, Sukhoi-7s, Hunters, Gnats, HF-24s, Mysteres and Vampires were armed only with 30/20 mm guns, the opposition had the advantage of air-to-air missiles. While all PAF western-origin fighters carried Sidewinders or R-530s, Yeager tells us, “One of my first jobs (in Pakistan) was to help them put US Sidewinders on their Chinese MiGs... I also worked with their squadrons and helped them develop combat tactics.”

Tufail provides a tabular account of both IAF and PAF aircraft losses, with pilots’ names, squadron numbers and (for PAF) aircraft tail numbers. To my mind, one particular statistic alone confirms Tufail’s objectivity. As the squadron diarist of IAF’s No. 20 Squadron, I recall recording the result of a Hunter raid on PAF base Murid, on December 8,1971, as “one transport, two fighters (probable) and vehicles destroyed on ground.” In his book, Tufail confirms that 20 Squadron actually destroyed five F-86 fighters in this mission -- making it the most spectacular IAF raid of the war!

Particularly gratifying to read are Tufail’s reconstructions, of many combat missions, which have remained shrouded in doubt and ambiguity for 47 years. Personally, I experienced a sense of closure after reading his accounts of the final heroic moments of 20 Squadron comrades -- Jal Mistry and K.P. Muralidharan -- as well as fellow naval aviators -- Roy, Sirohi and Vijayan -- shot down at sea. Tufail also nails the canard about Soviet Tupolev-126 support to IAF, and describes how it was the clever employment of IAF MiG-21s to act as “radio-relay posts” that fooled the PAF.

Coming to the “final reckoning”, there is only a small difference between the figures given in the HoW and those provided by Tufail for IAF losses; both of which make nonsense of Yeager’s pompous declarations. According to the tabulated Pakistani account (giving names of Indian aircrew), the IAF lost 60 aircraft. The HoW records the IAF’s losses in action as 56 aircraft (43 in the west and 13 in the east). However, a dichotomy surfaces when it comes to PAF losses. While Tufail lists the tail numbers of only 27 aircraft destroyed, the HoW mentions IAF claims of 75 PAF aircraft destroyed, but credits only 46 (27 in the west and 19 in the east).

Using the “utilisation rate” per aircraft and “attrition rate”, as a percentage of (only) the offensive missions flown by both air forces, the HoW declares that the IAF’s utilisation rate being almost double, and its attrition rate being half that of the PAF, “...had the war continued, the IAF would certainly have inflicted a decisive defeat on the PAF”.

Adopting a different approach, Tufail concludes that the overall “attrition rate” (loss per 100 sorties) for each air force as well as aircraft losses, as percentage of both IAF and PAF inventories, are numerically equal. Thus, according to him, “...both air forces were on par... though the IAF flew many more ground-attack sorties in a vulnerable air and ground environment”.

He ends his narrative on a sanguine note, remarking: “The PAF denied a much stronger IAF... the possibility of delivering a knock-out punch to it.”

Air Commodore Tufail’s book clearly demonstrates that there are at least two good reasons for writing war histories: Lessons are learnt about the political sagacity underpinning employment of state military power, and militaries can test the validity of the Principles of War. Sensible nations, therefore, ensure that history is not replaced by mythology. There is a whole new crop of young scholar-warriors, like Kaiser Tufail, emerging in India, eager to record its rich military history. But as long as our obdurate bureaucracy maintains the inexplicable “omerta” vis-a-vis official records, this deplorable historical vacuum will persist.

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