Air Vice Marshal
Arjun Subramaniam (Retd)
On the western borders, the IAF had over 350 fighters and bombers available for full-fledged operations considering that all squadrons had been asked to ensure a serviceability of 75 per cent at the very minimum. These included over four squadrons of MiG-21s with the innovatively added external gun pack, upgraded Hunters, Gnats, the recently acquired Soviet Sukhoi-7s, HAL-built HF-24s, Mysteres, Canberra bombers and the obsolescent Vampire jets, which would go on to play an important role in the J&K sector. Facing them were 260-280 PAF fighters and bombers, including a squadron of 24 newly acquired Mirage-IIIs from France; barely a squadron of ageing F-104 Starfighters, reinforced by an additional 10 from the Royal Jordanian Air Force; and around seven squadrons of the battle-hardened Sabre jets. These included 90 upgraded Sabres from the German Air Force through the good offices of the Shah of Iran. One squadron of B-57 bombers and five squadrons of the Chinese variant of the MiG-19, the F-6 — gifted to Pakistan by China in 1966 — made up the remaining force.
What was significant in the steady build-up of IAF capability was the fact that its chief, Air Chief Marshal Lal, had a ringside view of all the mistakes made during the 1965 war — he was the Vice Chief during the period. In his quiet and unassuming way, Lal went about addressing the major deficiencies using a systems approach. His strategy vis-à-vis Pakistan prior to the 1971 war was simple: build asymmetry by widening both the qualitative and quantitative gap between the two air forces.
While the Gnats continued to dominate the Sabres, the enhanced ground-attack punch provided by the upgraded Hunters and the relatively new Sukhoi-7s gave the IAF a decisive qualitative and quantitative advantage. Most importantly, the coercive impact of the MiG-21s in the air defence role meant that the PAF was not going to have a free run as it attacked IAF airfields and other ground targets. While in 1965, the IAF was somewhat surprised by PAF tactics, it was better prepared in 1971. An example of this was the ‘defensive split’ air combat tactics of the PAF in which the Sabres when ‘bounced’ would split to give themselves a chance of engaging the two attacking Gnats in two separate 1vs1s, thereby neutralising the initial advantage of the attackers. If the Gnats did not split, the free Sabre would then manoeuvre offensively to get behind the trail Gnat. In 1971, none of this happened as the Gnats were always game to take on the Sabres in a 1vs1. The enhanced range of the Hunters meant that all PAF airfields were within their radius of action. The IAF had also trained for low-level bombing by night in moonlight conditions with a motley bunch of MiG-21 and Sukhoi-7 pilots from the recently formed Tactics and Combat Development Establishment putting together Standard Operating Procedures for ‘blind bombing’ in limited moonlight conditions — this was to pay rich dividends during the initial days of the air campaign in the western sector.
The raids on IAF airfields and installations on the evening of December 3 and early part of the morning of December 4 were spread across the western front. Srinagar and its satellite air base of Avantipur in the J&K sector, Pathankot, Amritsar, Halwara, Ambala and Sirsa airfields in the Punjab sector, and Bikaner, Jaisalmer, Jodhpur and Uttarlai in the Rajasthan sector, were all attacked by fighter and bomber aircraft of the PAF. However, poor planning, inadequate force levels (barely 35-40 sorties were flown in the first strike), poor execution and robust IAF air defence resulted in a negligible impact on the operational potential of the IAF to respond, which it did with measured professionalism the next day.
Hoping to draw the IAF towards Sargodha, in large retaliatory strikes, the PAF was surprised that the IAF chose to respond by carrying out limited strikes through the day and night with their all-weather day/night capable fighter bombers, the Sukhoi-7 and the dependable Hunters, with Canberra bombers and MiG-21s keeping up the pressure by night. MiG-21s and Gnats provided effective top cover to ground attack missions and ensured that the IAF managed to keep attrition down in the first few days. Here, too, having seen the debilitating impact of the opening days of the 1965 air war on IAF morale, Lal had realised that it was important to keep attrition down at the commencement of hostilities.
Not widely known is that hours after the PAF struck several IAF airfields in the western sector on the evening of December 3, the most unlikely of bombing platforms, An-12s from 44 Squadron, bombed a well-concealed armament and logistics depot southwest of Lahore in the Changa Manga forest. The An-12 squadron, brilliantly led by Wing Commander Vashisht, went on to attack the Sui gas plant, a corps headquarters near Bahawalpur, an artillery brigade near the Haji Pir Pass, and a daring raid over Skardu along with Canberra bombers.
The IAF gradually established a steady ascendancy over the PAF and even delivered a decisive punch on Pakistani armour in the historic battle of Longewala where Hunters from Jaisalmer pounded Pakistan’s 18 Division to submission and forced it to abandon its offensive in the desert sector. Among the other early accomplishments were effective attacks by Hunter fighter bombers and the Canberra bombers on the Kiamari oil refineries, Masroor airfield and the harbour at Karachi that coincided with the Indian Navy’s daring missile boat attacks on Karachi Port and the Pakistani Navy on the nights of December 4 and 8. Rounding off the exploits and unmindful of the grave danger of scrambling and taking off even as an air raid was in progress over Srinagar airfield, Flying Officer Nirmaljit Singh Sekhon shot down one Sabre jet and badly damaged another before he himself was shot down in the dogfight where he was outnumbered 4:1.
The intensity and scope of air operations in the western sector far exceeded that in the eastern front. With near parity in the western sector, the IAF flew more than twice the number of sorties as compared to 1965 and though it was not able to achieve complete air superiority, it inflicted greater attrition on the PAF as compared to 1965 and prevented it from operating to its full potential. Though Lal had articulated a departure from old aerial strategies, the offensive flavour of strikes on several strategic targets certainly had an impact on the Pakistani mindset and demonstrated India’s willingness to strike deep to hurt an adversary’s economic potential.