How the East was won
Orchestrating air battle involved 6 months of careful planning
Air Vice Marshal
Arjun Subramaniam (Retd)
While the Indian Air Force operated in the 1947-48 and 1965 wars with Pakistan primarily in a tactical and supporting role to the Army, the 1971 two-front war saw the IAF showcase its prowess in roles and missions that straddled across the tactical, operational and strategic domains.
At the heart of this newly found confidence was a systematic build-up of capability in areas other than the mere acquisition or upgradation of aerial platforms. The Russians and the ordnance factories were pushed to deliver adequate stocks of weapons; new airfields sprung up and infrastructure like protective aircraft shelters (blast pens) were built in several frontline airfields to ensure that the IAF was not caught napping during a pre-emptive strike like it was in 1965. Reinforcing air defence in both the eastern and the western sectors was a chain of radars and Mobile Observation Posts (MOPs) that provided an additional layer of early warning. IAF fighter pilots had benefited immensely from the formation of the Tactics and Combat Development Establishment (TACDE); the transport fleet had expanded its roles to include bombing and airborne operations; and finally, the helicopter fleet had gathered significant operational experience in Nagaland and Mizoram in specialised heliborne operations that would pay rich dividends during the ‘Lightning Campaign’ that unfolded in East Pakistan.
On the covert front, Air Chief Marshal Pratap Chunder Lal, himself a Bengali, was instrumental in assigning a base and gifting a few aircraft with instructors to Kilo Force, as the fledgling Bangladesh Air Force came to be known, in late September of 1971. Operating out of Dimapur, a small airstrip in Nagaland, Kilo Force was commanded by Group Captain AK Khandker, who later on became the first Chief of the Bangladesh Air Force. It had on its inventory a Dakota freighter aircraft, an Otter light transport aircraft and an Alouette helicopter. The Otter and Alouette were suitably modified to fire rockets and guns and took part in ground support operations during the conflict.
Even as the Indian Army was shaping the battlefield on the eastern front prior to the commencement of hostilities on the western front, the IAF drew first blood in a remarkable aerial dogfight over Boyra on November 22 when PAF Sabres attempted to strafe Indian infantry units as they established pivots for further advance. Scrambled from Dum Dum airfield in Kolkata, four Gnat fighters of 22 Squadron took down two F-86 Sabre jets and earned the IAF its first three Vir Chakras.
The initial days of the air war in the East saw two major objectives being achieved by the IAF. First was the effective neutralisation of the lone Sabre squadron in East Pakistan by repeatedly attacking Tezgaon airfield outside Dacca till it was unusable. Though the IAF suffered attrition during the first few days, both to Sabres and ground fire, it achieved almost total air superiority by December 7, thus paving the way for unrestricted Close Air Support (CAS), heliborne and airborne operations thereafter.
The second objective achieved was effective CAS at some of the tough ground battles being fought at Hilli, Kamalpur, Akhaura and the Belonia bulge. The one significant difference as compared to 1965 was that every Corps had a Tactical Air Centre (TAC) with trained Forward Air Controllers (FACs), who orchestrated CAS in response to the requirements of field commanders. The overwhelming superiority of numbers meant that the IAF also concurrently carried out interdiction of trains, ammo dumps and defences around the fortresses of Dacca, Narayanganj and Sylhet. This was done primarily by the rocket-firing Hunters and Sukhoi-7s as they blasted logistics reinforcements and defences around the beleaguered garrisons.
A major heliborne operation was conducted on December 7 as the entire 4/5 Gurkha Regiment was landed close to Sylhet Garrison by 105 Helicopter Unit and supported by a couple of armed Mi-4 helicopters. If the heliborne operation at Sylhet was a heavyweight boxer’s right hook, it was followed up by Lt Gen Sagat Singh, the corps commander of 4 Corps, with a solid punch to Gen AAK Niazi’s gut between December 9 and 11 when he heli-lifted more than a brigade worth of troops across the mighty river Meghna to two landing zones at Raipura and Narsingdi, barely 60 km from Dacca. Not satisfied with that, he pressed on with a left hook on December 12 by heli-lifting another brigade to Narayanganj, around 40 km south-east of Dacca. Between December 6 and 12, a 14-helicopter task force from three units (105, 110 and 111 Helicopter Units) had landed over 4,000 troops and most of their supporting equipment, including ammunition and light artillery guns, in three locations by flying around 350 sorties, including over 100 by night — a truly spectacular effort.
The Tangail para drop operation by 2 Para on December 11 in the area to the north of Dacca involved over 50 transport aircraft along with Gnat and MiG-21 fighter escorts. The operation fulfilled its objectives of coercing Gen Niazi to surrender as it caused panic in Dacca with news trickling in that a brigade had been dropped and that it was only a matter of time before forces converged onto Dacca.
The psychological impact of innovative operations generally gets underplayed in any post-war analysis. One such operation that caused a disproportionate impact on the psyche of East Pakistan’s leadership as they huddled in Dacca during the closing stages of the war was the strike by IAF fighters on the Governor’s House on December 14. In an operation driven by hard intelligence based on wireless intercepts, four MiG-21s and four Hunters attacked the palatial house in the vicinity of the Dacca Cricket Stadium in quick succession while Governor Malik himself was chairing a meeting with UN officials in attendance. MiG-21s from 28 Squadron followed up with rocket attacks on specific buildings in Dacca University where suspected Pakistani troops and collaborators were taking shelter.
Air power delivered disproportionate effects in the battle for Bangladesh and hastened the surrender of 93,000 able-bodied troops of the Pakistan army as they wilted in the face of a combined assault by Indian soldiers, sailors and airmen. Orchestrating the air battle was not an easy task and involved over six months of careful planning and strategising to first create an overwhelming superiority, and then driving home the advantage to achieve decisive operational outcomes.
The writer, a former fighter pilot and military historian, occupies the President’s Chair of Excellence at the
National Defence College