While doing a post mortem on the 1965 war, after a gap of almost half a century, it must be borne in mind that some of the lessons learnt may not really be applicable in to-day’s tech driven environment. The fault lines then were all too clear.
The first and foremost drawback was inexperience. This was the first ‘modern’ war for the IAF, discounting the skirmishes of 1947. At the senior level there were some who had great experience in WW II. This was the first time that the IAF had to do all the heavy lifting on its own. From planning, procuring to operating. Expectedly there were lapses, specially to start with. There were also systemic limitations.
The Official History (OH) in its assessment concludes the Air Chapter, quoting a very respected and professional IAF veteran, Air Cmde PM Wilson, it would be fool-hardy to ignore him:
“My impression about all Air Force operations, either East or West was that nobody seemed to know what to do. In my opinion the level of professionalism at all levels was extremely low and I do not excuse my own performance.”
“The lessons learned in 1965 were all negative ones – in other words what not do, should there be another conflict. These lessons were so numerous and so cogent that they were more valuable than any positive lessons.”
The OH has made many observations and I am sure this list is not complete.
The first and foremost, in my opinion, was that we paid too little attention to the defence of our ground installations. This hit us hard at the very start of the PAF operations against our bases.
- From my extremely limited experience at Kalaikunda, there was zero awareness of protecting our assets on the ground. I don’t know how things were elsewhere. Yet from reading accounts, they were only marginally better. Shelters for aircraft, equipment, essential offices, safety and dispersal of aircraft, equipment and personnel; all were lacking.
- Have things changed? They most certainly have. In fact these shortcomings were the first to have been corrected.
The inexperience of local Commanders also showed up. The most glaring perhaps, were not anticipating attacks at bases and being prepared with CAP cover. It is also difficult to understand why the initial Vampires were sent in without top cover. If adequate force was not locally available, surely this could have been realised earlier and overcome by asking for a detachment to operate. Was it a case of under-estimating the enemy?
The lack of effective co-ordination between Services was another major factor. Enough has been said in the previous blogs on this and does not bear repetition. I have great respect and personal regard for the other Services and I do believe that taking solace in finger pointing will not yield answers.
- However, it is necessary to first state some facts. Air Cmde Jasjit Singh in his book Icon, hs quoted the government directive on the role of the IAF and given his comments regarding the quantum of air support:
“The IAF will be employed essentially in support of the Army.”
“In this context, the fact has been lost sight of in the post-war period that the Air Force met 90 per cent of the indented air effort by the Indian Army”
- A word about Forward Air Controllers needs emphasis. Had their been joint planning there would have also been realistic exercises and FACs would have been inducted. These are essential to guide aircraft and help them locate targets. In the Western Sector, there were a total of only five FACs deployed – grossly inadequate. The ground equipment needed for them to operate effectively was meagre and often non-functional. These fault lines could have been sorted out if there had been greater inter-action prior to hostilities.
The real question though is, have things changed?
- Perhaps, maybe, yes, no. Depends on whom you ask.
- In 1971 for example, for the Mysteres and Maruts operating from Sirsa and Uttarlai respectively, I think the answer would be yes. At Sirsa squadron pilots were briefed, I think twice, by the Div Cdr. In these briefings he laid out the basic Army plan, the likely tasks and the type of reprisals to expect from the ground forces. He also pin-pointed specific interdiction targets relevant to the army. Subsequently, squadron pilots also visited the battle areas. Experience at Uttarlai was similar.
- At both locations, specific detachments of 6 aircraft per squadron were positioned, basically for offensive support. Squadron pilots also had adequate opportunities to familiarise themselves with the area of operation, at least on our side. 31 Sqn from Sirsa, operating six Mysteres, conducted about 140 sorties during the fortnight. The other Mystere squadron in all probability did as much too.
- However, there are others who say differently and say nothing had changed.
- Though while ’71 was an improvement, can the same be said about the Kargil situation?
- Without starting a discussion on the Kargil operations, a few points need mention. Here was something similar to `65 – things got heated without warning. There was unpleasantness about the air support and time factor. ACM Tipnis, the then CAS, has written a very comprehensive paper “Operation Safed Sagar” on the subject which brings out many important factors.
- Please do take the trouble to read. You will be forgiven if you get the impression you are back in 1965. The resemblance to the two operations is eerily uncanny. Very briefly:
- Same element of surprise.
- No joint training in operational areas
- Lack of co-ordination between two arms and even a lack of communication till things got bad.
- An additional element was that the type of aircraft/weapons too were specified by the Army. On the other hand, the IAF thought it was unsuitable and also not the right weapon platform for that terrain.
- Wouldn’t it be prudent to let the Army specify the task and let the operator decide the platform and quantum of effort to utilise after taking all factors into consideration?
- That the PAF was in the same boat is no consolation. Kargil operation as depicted by Kaiser Tufail in his blog.
- So have things improved? Isn’t there a need for us to buckle down and sort out our systems, if not done yet. Aren’t two lessons adequate?
- What surprises me, is that we are afloat with strategists, experts and analysts; some of whom are brilliant. But except for an occasional paper in IDR, IDSA journals or some security related publication or stray TV debates, does anyone persevere with this issue?
- Its time to set our higher defence organisation in order. The pressure must come from the military brass on the political establishment – else we will continue to squabble, keep repeating terms like architecture, overall-structure, processes and go on to appoint committee after committee to oversee the working of the previous committee and end up sitting on the same spot.
Even after six decades we still do not have a national security doctrine. How often have we heard anyone question this? If not now, when? Hopefully the commemoration seminars will throw up similar questions too.
Questions have been raised often, including in the OH that the IAF failed in not conducting counter air operations and let PAF steal the initiative. This is democracy at work. There was an explicit prohibition from the Govt. Again, quoting from Air Cmde Jasjit Singh’s book, Icon, on the government directive and the late Air Cmde’s comment:
“The IAF should not initiate attacks on PAF airfields.”
However, in the case of the PAF attacking our air bases, we must retaliate to degrade their operational capabilities.
Surprisingly for me, the OH has brought out that the IAF gave up the effort to attack enemy airbases prematurely. According to the OH this alone could have given us decisive results, page 273, even though the cost would have been high, a decisive result could have been achieved.
- I’m have neither the knowledge or the experience to dispute or support this contention. Yet, am sceptical.
Finally I must admit, with no disrespect to the seniors from the three Services as well as the Civilian Officers involved, the Official History itself was a bit of a disappointment. It appears to be a collection of Indian Army, Indian Navy and IAF records, reproduced in one document. A few opening chapters give the back ground and build up. The Air component offers no information as to the preparatory phase, on the planning, or the proposed strategy by senior commanders. The Air War section does provide information on damage inflicted and caused. As far as the Army sections are concerned there is no consolidated figure, nor breakdown of damage inflicted in terms of armour, guns, vehicless and the like.
- Perhaps the reason for that lies in the OH itself.
- The Chief Editor, Mr SN Prasad, writes in the Preface, page V, that he was called out from retirement in 1983 to write the history of the 1971 conflict. Once he completed that in 1985 the government asked him to take up the histories of the 1962 and 1965 conflicts. These he willingly did and they were completed in 1990.
- The cause of the patchy work and poor presentation lies in that Preface itself. After 20 years to expect people to collate events could not have yielded any other result.
- The Official History is a lesson on history writing itself!
Having finally reached the level of my incompetence, I would like to end on a positive note. Once again quote from Jagan and Samir’s book on the air war where they quote, who else but, Air Cmde PM Wilson:
“The 1965 War was a watershed for the Indian Air Force,” he said, “But the 1971 War was bad news to the Pakistani Air Force.”
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