| Expansion | of | the | IAF |
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|Following Pakistan's entry into military pacts
like CENTO and SEATO, the Government of India was forced to re-asses, India's
security concerns. Keeping in view the mounting defence commitments, in 1959 the
authorised force level of the Indian Air Force was increased to 23 Sqns. At the
time of the Chinese aggression in October 1962, the force level was, however,
far below the sanctioned force and there were also serious equipment shortages.
By the end of 1962 the Government had authorised a Cadre of 45 Squadrons for the
Air Force but the building up of this force was to take some time.
In the process of expansion and re-equipment the attempt of the IAF has always been to diversify sources of supply. In 1957 deliveries of the French Dassualt Mystere IV A started, followed by Hawker Hunters, English Electric Canaberras and Folland Gnats. Indigenization was sought to maximise self reliance and reduce foreign dependence. In this area, the contribution of Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL) was significant. On 1 March 1961, the IAF acquired its first AN-12B. These were followed by the induction of a squadron of Il-14B and Mi-4 helicopters, which were to play a major role in coming Chinese aggression of 1962.
In August 1962 the Govt of India entered into an agreement with the Soviet Union for the very first purchase of combat aircraft and missiles for the Indian Air Force. The MiG-21 fighters were the first combat aircraft of non-Western origin in the IAF's inventory. The Soviet Union provided India with the technical assistance required to set up production facilities for the MiGs in India. Along with the re-equipment and expansion of the service, many changes were also being wrought in the operational infrastructure, particularly in view of the changing threat perception from the north and the east in addition to that which already existed in the west.
In response to a call by the UNO, India sent a contingent to Congo to ensure peace and to support the legal Government against the Katangese rebellion of 1961. A detachment of Canberras B(I) 58, the interdictor version, from No 5 Sqn left India on the 9th October 1962 under the command of Wg Cdr Al Saures, who earned a 'Bar' to his Vir Chakra in Congo. In April 1962, the Command was taken over by Wg Cdr (later Air Marshal) Saroj Jena. The Canberras first operated in earnest on 6th December 1961 when they neutralized the Katangese air base and air power at Kolwezi. In the following two weeks, the Canberras provided close support to UN troops in the battle for Elisabethville, besides escorting USAF Globemaster transport aircraft which were providing air transport support. Some of the notable missions flown were the neutralization of the military camp at Elisabethville. Many aircraft were hit during these raids and one crew member was injured by anti-aircraft fire. The mere act of providing air effort 5,000 miles away from the home base, with only the makeshift facilities available in a foriegn country, was an achievement in itself. By meeting the operational demands in full every time, the Air Force contingent earned recognition and respect from the UN Command for its professional efficiency. Prime minister Adoula of Congo wrote to the President of India:
"In the name of the Congolese people, its President and my Government, I would like to express to you our gratitude for the assistance which the sons of your country brought to us...
The action in Katanga enables us to appreciate their humility and courage..."
These words probably express the spirit of the IAF more than anything else. In Dec. 1961, the IAF was also called upon to support the police action for Liberation of Goa from Portuguese colonial 'Operation Vijay' which was again in keeping with the traditions established since its inception. Lt Gen JN Chaudhri, GOC-in-C Southern Command, paid glowing tributes to the IAF "Whose active co-operation made our tasks so much easier", he said.
Tension had been mounting on the Northern Borders from 1958 onwards. In late 1962, troops were hurriedly sent forward to the international border. Their main source of supply was once again air maintenance by the Air Force. The Army had asked for heavy air drops steep slope at a height of 14,500 ft SE of the tri-junction of China, Bhutan and India, across the Namka Chu Gorge. Though the Dakota was the most suitable aircraft for these drops, the 'Packets' had to be pressed into service for the tricky task in view of the magnitude of supply drops required.
Regular air drops by 'Packets' from Gauhati had started on 5th October 1961. The same story was being repeated in other sectors, till on 20th October the transport aircraft reported that a regular battle was raging on Thagla Ridge are and that Tsangdhar DZ was being continuously shelled. This was the first intimation of the Chinese attack. A helicopter flown into Tsangadhar by Sqn Ldr VK Sehgal with Major Ram Singh was lost in this operation along with the crew. They were the first Martyrs of the of the 1962 war. From then onwards the Air Force had a formidable task. It had to support troops and stores, evacuate casualties and maintain air supply in the hazardous mountainous regions of both Ladakh and NEFA and it went headlong with everything it had by way of transport and helicopters. But the time was too short, the terrain most forbidding and resources inadequate for the troops to withstand the massive thrust of the Chinese which was preplanned and extremely well organised. Among the notable feats performed by the IAF during this conflict, were the operation of C-119G Packets from airstrips 17,000 (5180 m) feet above sea level in the Karakorams, and the airlifting by AN-12Bs of AMX-13 light tanks to Chushul, in Ladakh, where the small airstrip was 15,000 feet (4570 m) above sea level.
The notorious 'Operation Gibraltar' - a slight modification of the 1947 plan - was concieved by Pakistan in late 1964 with the intention of grabbing Jammu and Kashmir, the Northern tip of India, by force of arms. After detailed preparations, it was actually put into action at the beginning of August 1965, when trained troops infiltrated into Kashmir to organise guerrilla operations. Earlier, Pakistan had attempted to test Indian resolve through its aggressive actions in the Rann of Kutch in April 1965. India's desire for negotiated peace, despite blatant armed aggression, tended to be viewed as a sign of India's weakness. On 1st September, 1965, Pakistan launched a full scale invasion of India with armour (70-90 tanks) and heavy artillery in the Chhamb-Jaurian Sector of Jammu and Kashmir. By afternoon it was clear that the assualt was heading towards Akhnur and Jammu. The Pakistani Armour rolled on eastwards as it encountered no effective resistance because of lack of adequate forces on our side. Pakistan had picked up time and place well: the Indian armour was some days away and complete surprise was achieved. If anything could save the day, it was the Indian Air Force.
So when at about 1600 Hrs on September, Air Marshal Arjan Singh, the then CAS, was asked by the Defence Minister at the request of the Army Chief as to how soon the Air Force could render support to the Army in the Chhamb Sector, the 46 yr old Veteran unhesitatingly replied in his usual calm, soft way, "Within an hour". At 1719 Hrs, four Vampires delivered their first rockets on Pakistani Patton tanks. In the next one and a half hours, 26 sorties were mounted in the sector by pilots of No 3 (Mystere), No 31 (Mystere) and No 45 (Vampire) Sqns. As night descended to interrupt close air support, 13 enemy tanks, two guns and 62 vehicles had been destroyed. IAF support proved crucial in halting the enemy armour offensive in this vital sector. On 3rd September the first PAF aircraft and American F-86 Sabre jet, was shot down by the puny Gnat: Trevor Keelor of No 23 Squadron had opened the score which was to finally earn the Gnat the nickname 'Sabre Killer'. The Indian developed and produced light weight fighter was equipped with only two guns against the Sabre's six guns and 2 sidewinder air-to-air guided missiles and yet got the better of its adversary. By the time the 22 day war ended, the PAF had lost13 F-86 Sabres (7 with their pilots) according to their own admissions. Pitted against the Sabres, the Gnat fleet of the IAF suffered a loss of two aircraft during the war; both pilots survived, hence putting the Gnat's Kill ratio at 6.5 : 1! By 6th September, Pakistan's ambitious operation 'Grand Slam' had been slammed shut. In sheer desperation the PAF launched a pre-emptive strike against IAF bases at dusk. The IAF so far had restrained itself from attacking PAF bases to avoid escalation. But it was now time to take the war to the enemy's territory and reduce the pressure on our forces in Kashmir. The Indian Army launched an offensive in the Lahore sector and followed this up the next day by opening another front in the Sailkot sector. IAF aircraft attacked PAF bases in retaliation in the same night and the Canberras bombed airfields as far as Peshawar (used as a night harbour by the PAF). No 5 Squadron alone carried out 313 sorties in 17 days and dropped over 2,00,000 Ibs of bombs on their targets. Interdictors, led by Wg Cdr Pit Wilson, Put the Badin radar station out of action. Offensive air operations in support of the army consigned many Pakistani tanks to their graveyard at Khemkaran.
The 1965 war had been started by Pakistan. Its assessment was perhaps best summed up by Altaf Gauhar, then secretary of the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting in Pakistan, who later said: "The result: few people outside the armed forces realise how close Pakistan came to disaster in the 1965 war... unless all the facts of 1948, 1965 and 1971 are made public, our people will go on living in a false world, scoring imaginary victories against fictitious adversaries." Air Marshal Asghar Khan, C-in-C PAF from 1957 till july 1965, went to China on 10th September to seek assistance. He described his conversation with Chinese Prime Minister Chou En-Lai in these words: "Little did he know, nor I, that within 10 days Pakistan would be seeking to end the conflict- on almost any terms."
The 1965 conflict borught many issues concerning India's Defence preparedness into sharp focus. This was particularly true of the IAF, which had faced a modern adversary in all-out open aerial conflict for the first time. It was realised that while the operational preparedness of the air and gorund crews and other support personal was paramount, their level of training and morale were equally important. During the period 1966-69, a number of MiG-21 Type-77s were imported from the USSR to re-equip Sqns still operating obsolete aircraft such as the Vampire FB MK 52. The unexpected success of the diminutive Gnat in air combat during 1965 operations led to it being given a further lease of life, when its 1966 planned de-induction was halted, and four more Gnat squadrons were raised during 1966-68. In 1966 Sukhoi Su-7BM entered IAF service. By 1968; the Indian Air Force was nearing its authorised force level of 45 Sqns. Obsolete aircraft in frontilne combat squadrons were steadily being replaced by MiG-21Fls, Su-7BMs and HF-24 Maruts. By 1971, the IAF had attained its 45-Sqn goal. It was now fully prepared, both in body and in sinew, to meet the opponent in the next round.
Tension between India and Pakistan had been mounting since early 1971 and by autumn the shadow of the impending Indo-Pak conflict loomed large over the Subcontinent. There were numerous air violations by the PAF F-104s and Mirages (which were to be shot down in the later part) particularly in the western sector. In the East, the 'cold war' began to hot up, and on afternoon off 22 Nov 71, four PAF F-86 Sabres engaged in strafing Mukti Bahini and Indian positions were intercepted by four IAF Gnats of 22 Sqn over Boyra, and three were shot down. All the IAF aircraft returned to base unscathed. Escalation of tension continued unabated till the evening of 03 Dec 71, when at last light, the PAF launched its pre-emptive air strikes on forward IAF bases and installations all along the Western front. Having launched its attacks without any warning or declaration of war, Pakistan had declared its hostile intent. The Indian forces who had been exercising remarkable restraint were now free to hit back with full vigour. The IAF had been preparing and training for just such an eventuality and was fully prepared to give a befitting reply to the aggressor.
Keeping the overall Indian Strategy, the IAF's primary responsibility as the defence of home bases, followed by support to other services in the tactical area and counter air operations and interdiction. By careful planning the IAF managed to wrest the initiative from the PAF in the crucial Western Sector. In short span of the first few days the IAF had managed to create a favourable air situation over West Pakistan which it fully exploited in the crucial Chhamb and Longewala battles. Its long-range interdiction drastically affected Pakistan's ability to reinforce. The battle area CAS missions made a significant contribution to the outcome of the land battles. In the Poonch sector, the night bombing of Kahuta destroyed the enemy dumps and silenced his guns. The enemy offensive in Chhamb was blunted by a constant stream of IAF fighters attacking the troops concentrations, armour and forming up areas. In one of the only recorded battles between tanks and aircraft, IAF Hunters of the OCU operating from Jaisalmer, decimated a Pak armoured Regiment (22 Cavalry) and repulsed a two brigade (51 & 206 Bde) thrust by classic air action alone.
On the Eastern front, the Indian forces launched a lightning campaign which included rapid moving infantry and armour advancing from three directions, airborne and heliborne assaults, missile bombardments from ships and an amphibious landing. The IAF's task in the East primarily involved direct support of the ground forces and air-bridging operations. The IAF had enough reasons to be satisfied with its performance during the 1971 conflict. Although Pakistan had initiated the war with pre-emptive air strikes against major forward air bases, the IAF rapidly gained the initiative and thereafter dominated the skies over both fronts. In the Eastern theatre, the IAF gained total air supremacy within 48 hours of going into action, a factor which directly contributed to the ultimate capitulation of the East Pakistan Garrison. In order to cut off the withdrawal of Pak forces to Dacca from the Mymensing area, it was decided to airdrop No 50 Para Brigade with its supporting arms in the Tangail area. The entire operation was conducted with clockwise precision and was the first large scale para-operation conducted by the IAF in war. IAF Mi-4 helicopters helicopters were extensively used for establishing air brigades across the numerous water obstacles criss-crossing the country side. The pin point rocket attack on the Governer's House in Dacca was one of the Major factors which led to the unconditional surrender of the East Pakistan garrison.
In the Western Sector, in spite of the unprovoked pre-emptive strikes launched by the PAF on several IAF bases, not a single airfield was put out of action in the ensuing weeks. The IAF flew nearly 4,000 sorties in the west and close to half that number in the East. During this conflict, a new page was added to the IAF's tradition of valour and sacrifice by a young Flying Officer at Srinagar. The capital of Kashmir was frequently subject to Pakistani air attack. No 18 Sqn flying the dimunitive Gnat was assigned its air defence. On 14 December 1971, the airfield was attacked by six PAF F-86 Sabres. Flying Officer Nirmal Jeet Singh Sekhon was still on the runway when the Sabres attacked. Not withstanding the exploding bombs, Sekhon got airborne and engaged Sabres in combat. In the unequal contest between the lone Gnat and half a dozen Sabres, Sekhon shot down one and set another on fire before he was overwhelmed by the sheer weight of numbers and was himself shot down. NJS Sekhon was awarded a posthumous Param Vir Chakra, the first and only IAF member to win the country's highest award for valour in the face of enemy.
The 1971 Indo-Pak conflict resulted in the creation of Bangladesh and the signing of the Simla Agreement with Pakistan on Kashmir. In the ensuing decades, the Air Force settled down to consolidate and assimilate the lessons learnt which were mainly in the sphere of refinement rather than any substantive change.
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