The standout news story of this week was this newspaper’s defence correspondent Manu Pubby’s on the note of regret that a former Pakistan Air Force (PAF) fighter pilot sent out to the daughter of a distinguished Indian pilot whose defenceless civilian transport aircraft he shot down on the last day of the 22-day war of 1965. The Pakistani pilot’s note was unusual, as such sentiments are not usually expressed in this perennially hostile relationship, even if the hint of regret, if any, was entirely qualified. In brief, on the last day of that pointless war of attrition, or rather a war of competitive military incompetence, a Beechcraft owned by the Gujarat government was shot down by a Pakistani Sabre jet in Gujarat, inside Indian territory.
Its eight unfortunate occupants, besides the crew and a Gujarat Samachar reporter, included the then Gujarat chief minister Balwantrai Mehta and his wife. Mehta, a Congress stalwart, thus became the first, and only, politician ever to be killed in wartime action in the subcontinent. The note of the Pakistani pilot, Qais Hussain, has given us the chance of revisiting a question that has never been debated freely in India. That question is, just how well, or poorly, did the Indian Air Force (IAF) do in the war of 1965? For nearly half a century now, India has nurtured a mythology consciously constructed during and in the aftermath of that war: the mythology of the Indian superiority in air, of the little Gnat’s invincibility, and so on. A part of that myth-making was also, and one has to be very careful saying that given how much respect three generations of Indians, including this writer, have held him in, the lionising, subsequently, of the then air chief, Air Marshal Arjan Singh. (A wonderful pilot and leader, he remains the only IAF officer to be elevated to the rank of Marshal of the Air Force).
This latest revelation now attacks that carefully cultivated mythology. Military history is serious business. It is also brutal. Because not only is the early history mostly written by the winner (which none was in 1965, overall), it also rarely resembles the purple prose of the gallantry citations. The simple question is, what kind of control over our own airspace did we have that a PAF Sabre was loitering inside and shot down a civilian VIP aircraft?
Of course, no air force can guarantee that not even a single enemy aircraft would be able to enter its airspace unchallenged. But, nearly a half-century after that inconclusive war there is no harm taking a more robust and questioning view of what exactly happened then, in the air, and of how we were able to create such a fictional history afterwards. It is one thing for the Pakistanis to build such mythologies, and then perpetuate these through chapters in school textbooks. But in India, we should have exhibited better sense of inquiry, and self-questioning. If we fought that war in the air as well as we believe, how come we lost 75 aircraft to Pakistan’s 28? As many as 37 of our losses were on the ground, compared with eight of the PAF (claimed to have been) destroyed by us. This only underlines that the PAF did a much better job of attacking rival airbases than us.
On the very first day of that war, the IAF opened the campaign losing all four of the Vampires (then possibly the slowest moving jet fighter in the world) sent out to help our beleaguered army units in Chhamb. Why these totally vulnerable (and by then not combat-worthy) aircraft were sent out when better options were available, is not a question that has often been asked by Indian military historians.
This was followed by three other disasters that set the IAF back rudely in that war. Three days into the war, on September 6, eight PAF Sabres attacked the Pathankot airbase, bristling with combat activity. The base commanders somehow ignored even warnings from Amritsar radar (conveyed over the phone) and neither scrambled fighters, nor dispersed aircraft on the ground. The Sabres fired unchallenged, and India lost 10 aircraft on the ground, including two of our most vaunted MiG-21s — out of the nine that had so far arrived as our first half-strength supersonic squadron. This loss of 10 was then followed by another 10 in WW II-style, brave, but chaotic, raids over Sargodha. The Pakistanis, of course, made highly exaggerated claims and celebrate that day, September 6, as Defence of Pakistan Day and hold triumphal military parades. But the fact is that on this day the IAF suffered severe losses, followed by more self-inflicted (through command indecision) losses on the ground as the PAF attacked our eastern airfields.
It is now a well-documented fact by non-official historians that the IAF had planned pulverising raids on Pakistani air assets in the east and had even launched fully loaded aircraft, which were called back when they had the targets in their bomb-sites and Delhi got nervous about irritating the Chinese. The PAF Sabres came more or less on the tail of the returning IAF formations, hitting almost all the major IAF bases in the east, particularly West Bengal. Surely, the IAF did much in subsequent days to restore the balance. Its gallant defence of Halwara and Adampur in Punjab resulted in the PAF stopping daylight raids on its air bases, for example. Some of its Gnat and Hunter squadrons demonstrated they had the measure of the Pakistanis, in tactics as well as skill. There was no dearth of courage, ever. One story you can reconstruct with pride is of an audacious plan to lure out the Sabres into combat after the very first loss of the four Vampires. Because it was presumed that the PAF was greedy over the prospect of shooting slow-moving Vampires, a formation of slow and large Mysteres was led by Wing Commander W.M. Goodman to lure the Sabres, with Squadron Leader Johnny Greene’s formation of six Gnats lurking behind them. Sure enough, the Sabres took the “bait” and gave the IAF its first two successes of that war even as the Mysteres exited safely. But, overall, the PAF had greater sway over the skies in daytime. And at night, they pretty much had a free run as the IAF fighters were not night-capable.
The IAF and the defence establishment have avoided facing that truth. This, in spite of the fact that 1971 marked the IAF’s finest hour. It attacked relentlessly, never suffered a setback, and never yielded the PAF any space. In India, we only have to be grateful to two young writer-researchers, P.V.S. Jagan Mohan and Samir Chopra (The India-Pakistan Air War of 1965, Manohar, 2006, Rs 895) who have put together a remarkably accurate and honest history of the 1965 war we have tried hard to forget. But which this part confession by a Pakistani pilot has now brought back to us.
Postscript: Wing Commander M.S.D. (Mally) Wollen was commanding the still forming MiG-21 squadron in that war. He had the mortification of seeing his MiG blown up on the ground at Pathankot, even as he jumped into a water tank, in full flying livery, to duck the strafing Sabres. Earlier he had fired both his missiles at a Pakistani Sabre from an impossible angle and rued the fact that the first MiGs did not have any cannons on them. I was privileged to have a conversation with him in Shillong in 1982 when, now an Air Marshal, he commanded the Eastern Air Command. A couple of new books had just been published on the air war of 1965 (notably John Fricker’s very loaded, pro-Pakistani account) and I asked him what went wrong in 1965.
Wollen spoke with honesty not common to the Indian military establishment. He said, of course, things had gone wrong and we had analysed why. Why, he asked, did some squadrons with the same aircraft do very well and some poorly? That’s because a fighting squadron is just about 16 pilots. In any group of 16 people, he said, you would find a few that would be totally fearless and competent, a few who would become fearless again in the company of these, and the rest who would then be simply positively overwhelmed by this peer pressure. The IAF realised, he said, that in the rush of the post-1962 expansion, its fighter squadrons were not properly balanced. Some had too many of his first category, and did brilliantly, and some had too few and did poorly. On that cold Shillong evening, I learnt a lesson in leadership and team management as relevant to our humdrum civilian lives as to the military. The key to success lies in distributing the best people evenly amongst all your teams. This was addressed, and the history of 1971 was entirely different.