Close Air Support in the 1962 War

Gp Capt Anant Bewoor argues in this article that the IAF was not fully prepared to provide Close Air Support over the battlefields of the 1962 War.


In Oct 1962 I was a cadet in NDA, in Oct 1992 I had been a senior Instructor at DSSC for three years and I had learnt much about Close Air Support (CAS), Transport Air Support, and Logistic Air Support to the land forces in those 30 years. Most of it while on AN-12s, IL-76s and very much more at DSSC as an instructor. I am therefore extremely skeptical about the IAF getting involved in CAS in the mountains, during the 1962 operations, during the 1967 -68 Sikkim tensions or in 1971. This belief gets validated with what we actually did in Kargil in 1999.

The Territory & Our Aircraft in 1962.

The battles were fought at Walong where the Lohit flows Westward. In NEFA, the battle was along the Tawang-Bomdi La- Se La axis heading for Tezpur. In Ladakh it was in the area of Chip Chap, Pangong Tso, Demchok, and territories beyond Darbuk & Chushul. Heights at Walong were close to 8000 feet, higher in NEFA and much higher in Ladakh. What we had were, De Havilland Vampires, Dassault Ouragans (Toofanis), Dassault Mysteres, Hawker Hunters, Folland Gnats, English Electric Canberra and B-24 Liberators.

Training in Hill Flying.

Back in 1962, hill flying was very restricted, because neither the Govt nor the IAF expected to fight the Chinese in the mountains, and with Pakistan,  it was to be in Punjab / Rajasthan. No one had ever tried out bombing, rocket or front gun attacks in the hills / mountains. No SOPs existed about heights to fly, dive angles, weapon release heights, escape routes, weather impact in afternoon operations, range / endurance versus weapon loads, search / rescue, helicopter support etc.

If at all any training was done it was a one off. The type of training that is truly required for quality CAS in the mountains was not even thought of in July 1962 . Quality cooperation with the Army was nonexistent. They made their plans, we made our Counter Air Op plans. TACs were for namesake. Very few IAF officers studied Army ops of war, the Army expected CAS as and when demanded, very much like Arty support, and wanted it to be on call, and under command. The IAF believed in centralised control, and the necessity of exploiting range and flexibility of air power. Truly then, in 1962 we were far from a cohesive Joint operations military machine. Our pilots had not mastered the art of transposing Grid Ref points from a One Inch map onto a million-map.

At DSSC, IAF officers were nominated, they disappeared from Wellington twice or three times during the course for "flying practice" to earn their flying bounty. By the time Diwali happened in 1962 the IAF was still known as the brylcreem boys. and we were like that only.

The Army's Eastern Command was in Lucknow, ours was in Calcutta. Kalinga Airways still flew in Transport Support Role for the Army. Ofcourse there were fighters in the "East", but they did not do range practice in NEFA, or Sikkim, they did it at Dudhkundi or Dulanmukh ranges both in the plains. Hill flying was done to give pilots exposure in handling the ac in valleys. Knowledge of every valley, entry / exit points, how to distinguish the "third ridge" from the 'fifth' was never taught to fighter pilots. This was the job of the Dak and Otter pilots.

Which Aircraft, and What would It Do?

The Vampires, Toofanis and Gnats just did not have the juice and training to go into Ladakh. In NEFA they had the range, but no training at all. Indeed the Hunter and possibly the Mystere could have done some offensive activity, but again, where was the training? Only the Canberra could have put in attacks in Ladakh where it was all in the open. For NEFA their crew were untrained for Jungle / Hills combination.

By Oct 1962 no fighter had even landed in Srinagar, forget about Leh. We just did not have the wherewithall to wage an air war against the Chinese in Oct 62. Surely now nearly 45 years later we can accept this truth? Nothing to be embarrassed about, that is how we were. The Govt of India, with Krishna Menon as Defence Minister, was least interested in defence preparedness. Ordnance factories were manufacturing coffee percolators and toasters, because they had “extra spare capacity”. But as they all shouted in Parliament, “ ------every inch of our land will be defended to the last man.” With what?


Creating Landslides with Bombs.

It is patently incorrect and gross misuse of a bomber to create land- slides. Firstly, there is absolutely no guarantee that bombs, be they 4 or 14 will result in a mountain coming down. The mountain is not like fresh snow that can be triggered into an avalanche. In any case it takes a geologist, and the IAF had no knowledge on this subject, to determine whether bombing will make the mountain fall. One needs special ‘engineers maps’ to know which mountain can be made to crumble. Kargil proved that 500 kg bombs tend to “skip” off mountainsides. What technology of ‘iron’ bombs did we have in 1962? Deep penetration bombs can cause land slides, but only if the soil is loose, and the knowledge is available with the ‘bomber’. We had no such knowledge.

Besides, we are doing this for the Army, so that either they can retreat safely, or they can regroup for an attack. Hopefully all this while, the enemy is trying to clear the land-slide, and not by-passing it. But in 1962, the Chinese did not stick to established routes and roads.

Where all would we have bombed, and how many mountains would we have crumbled ? Is that why we had Toofs, Mysteres, Vampires, Hunters ? To bomb mountains? Who would have guided the ac to the correct target? We had no FACs trained in the mountains?

The Army was in retreat, front lines were unknown, maps were poor, hill / valley flying along the Towang-Bomdi La- Sela axis had never been done by fighter pilots. Even Dak crew were uncertain of where to go, who would be there, and who will actually receive the drop. Recollect the loss of a helicopter with S/L Sehgal, in that sector. Where would the "four ac formation" have gone? Lets forget about whether the PLAAF would have intervened. Lets ask what the IAF would have done with its fighters? We will come to the issue of attacking troops in the open as suggested based on Jaggi Nath's photo recces.

Toofanis

Two Toofanis (Dassault Ouragans) flying somewhere in the North. Though these aircraft have been based in the NE, they had done very little valley flying to familiarise themselves with the area.

Studying our Operations

It has taken a series of Chief Instructors, Senior Instructors, and DS of the Air Wing at DSSC to obliterate the false belief that in the mountains, bombs should be used to create land-slides to slow down the enemy. It took many years for the Air Wing DS / SI's to completely eliminate the thought process of "bombing for land-slides". This was done over some five to six courses by stressing this matter during Divisional discussions on ‘Defence In the Mountains’ and ‘Attack in the Mountains’. Fighter bombers are not the air arm of the GOC of a Div or a Corps. But if they are used as land-slide creators, they are in effect just that. The reason why Army DS, senior ones at that, spoke of land-slides as a part of CAS, is because it is the IAF pilots who gave them the idea in the first place partly influenced by romance from World War II movies like Guns of Navrrone and 633 Sqn etc.

Allied bombers in 1942 / 43 were never used in the Alps to block the retreat of Kesserlings troops from escaping out of Italy. How was it possible to do it with jet fighters 20 years later in NEFA ? One of the reasons why the Indian armed Forces are "like that only" is because we refuse to study our own operations. We will study Battle of Britain, Berlin Airlift, Bomber Harris's strategies, OP Rolling Thunder in Vietnam, the '67, 73 Arab-Israeli Wars, including Bekka valley, OP El Dorado Canyon- the air strikes in Libya, the Gulf war in 1991. But we behave as if 1962, 1965 and 1971 never happened. Other Air Forces may study them, but certainly not the Indian Air Force, nor the other two services.

Kargil was in 1999, even today no formal study and critiques are done at Army War College, CAW, CDM, NDC, DSSC. At least the Staff failures should be discussed at DSSC. Just because MOD refuses to declassify the Henderson Brooks report does’nt mean we do not study them based on our In-House Action Taken Reports. Or is it that there are no Action Taken Reports from any of our operations?

How Was CAS to be Done?

No wonder then that in 2005 there are opinions that we could have taken on the Chinese land forces in 1962 because the PLAAF could not operate from Tibet.  No one states how we would have actually executed the operations in North Ladakh at altitudes of 25,000 feet with Mysteres & Hunters.

The lessons of Kargil, and impact on air intake airflow, when firing guns or rockets at very high altitudes, seems to have been lost. Because six years later, in 2005, we are talking of breaking mountains and attacking troops in the open. Are fighter bombers to be used to attack individual soldiers? Not one Air Force in the world supports this theory. How much geography did fighter pilots know about Ladakh ? Who all had even flown a familiarisation sortie in that stark area? Did any one know what meteorological conditions affect an ac at 27,000 feet when flying from say Ambala to Pangong Tso and back? That’s the height that an AN-12 flies at with four engines. What height would a single engine single seat fighter climb, to feel safe and capable of coming back ? Did the aircraft have the endurance to do all this route flying and also attack Chinese soldiers? Or would one pass have been enough to say that "we did it"?

Doing is one thing, achieving results is another. Once again, the issue is not whether the PLAAF would have intervened, it is just about what would have the IAF have achieved?

When teaching Formal Appreciation at DSSC, one question we would place for consideration was,"Who did the appreciation for AM Arjan Singh to send Vampires into Chhamb ?" Would it not be pertinent today? Surely some one did the appreciation? Or were the Vampires launched just because they were there in Pathankot? Another question we used to throw at both Army & AF students was ,"Who did the appreciation to launch an amphibious assault at Cox’s Bazaar with Gorkha troops”. How many of us in this e-group are aware that some of the Gorkha troops drowned on the beaches of Cox’s Bazaar because it was too steep. Was any recce done of the beaches? Did anyone know what was the slope of the continental shelf? Was the landing done only to satisfy egos and just because we have been practicing this operation at Kakinada, and some one had to say,” Land the Landing forces”. Similarly, "who did the appreciation for ACM Tipnis to put in attacks on the Kargil heights with MiG 23, 27, MI-17" as they were done to start with? Or did we go into that battle by ' situating the appreciation'? Let us then do an appreciation of the situation obtained in Oct 1962, with the luxury of 43 years of "hindsight".

One question that must be answered first is if the IAF was to "join the battle", what would be the aim? Just to take part, whether any useful purpose would be achieved, would it have any impact on the land battle, and most important, what would we have been able to do as a Tactical Air Force in direct support of a losing defensive battle in the mountains? Would IAF aircraft buzzing around Bomdi-La, Walong, Pangong Tso and firing rockets or dropping bombs on mountain slopes raise the morale of Gen Pathania’s and Brig Hoshiar Singh’s troops? What support could the Toofs and Mysteres have given to Brig John Dalvi's 7 Brigade at the Thag La ridge?

We made many “ Blue on Blue” attacks in 1965 as well as in 1971. What would we have done in 1962? Would the enemy be identifiable in the melee that was going on? Had any fighter pilot even flown to the battle area in say June / July 1962 for familiarisation? If it can be said today that the IAF would have taken part if permitted by Govt, what actually did the IAF do as realistic training in preparation when things were hotting up for months before the Chinese attacked? The truth is that we did nothing. We cannot blame the Govt for not gearing up. It was up to the field commanders, and policy framers and operational staff in Air HQs to visualise what may happen in case of a battle in NEFA or Ladakh. The Chinese had clearly indicated what they wanted. The possible battle zones were quite easily understood in Air HQ. After all the Army had taken a “forward posture” and it was known where they were deployed. Did we limber up for the possibility of engaging ground troops in valleys at heights above 9,000 feet? We did not. We were still training for aerial combat, and CAS in the plains, with our very own private Counter Air Operations (CAO). The irony is that there were no CAO targets in Tibet or China.

Even later during the stand off across Nathu-La in 1967, there was no way that Hunters, Gnats, or Migs could have intervened. The General may have asked EAC HQ for it, but what and where would the CAS be given? So many of us have been to Nathu La on ground, even today are we training with FACs to give CAS in Sikkim? Can it be given? I have personally done supply drops on the Kerang and Gaigong plateau in North Sikkim. The biggest bug bear is “do not cross the Line of Actual Control”. How do we practice CAS in Sikkim today, without crossing the LAC.

Importance of Staff Work.

Most surely, if they had been ordered to, the IAF fighters would have gone into the battle zones. If the Daks and Otters were going there why not Toofs?. What they would have actually achieved in support of 4 and 23 Inf Divs at Se-La and Walong, is no secret. Is that why the IAF top brass said we should not take part? Was our limitation hidden under the supposed fear of reprisals by the PLAAF on Delhi and Calcutta? Forget about the Henderson Brooks report. Lets carry out a serious introspection, in-house, about all that we did from 1948 till 1999 during actual war, and in each case, how did we train and prepare for that war? Lets look at ourselves, warts, blemishes, bruises, embarrassments, hot air, truthful inputs, unrelated training, and genuine capabilities along with inescapable limitations. How have we fared in Staff work? Has it improved from 1962 to 1999 ? What did we do in Op Pawan? Are we still tripping over ourselves with two left feet, and three thumbs? Are we training for a battle that will never take place? It is worth while remembering that while the Panzers of Guderian and Rommel, along with the Stukas from the Luftwaffe did terrorise populations, what the French and British held in great regard and fear was the German General Staff. It was Patton's HQs staff work that permitted him to change direction by 90 degrees without exposing his flanks, and move in support of the American airborne divisions during the Battle of the Bulge. What was the quality of IAFs staff work in 1962? What is it today?

The field units will go into battle when ordered to. The tragedy is that Staff at higher formations know very well what are the limitations of their field units. We manufacture at least 80 psc’s every year, many more qualified Staff officers from CAW, CDM, NDC, Naval and Army war colleges. This is a very large pool of expertise, how are we exercising them to generate quality staff work. When we answer this and many more questions, we will get different answers to what we have been used to for the last 30 odd years.

I have discussed these aspects with many of my friends from fighters and bombers. They have endorsed all that I have written here. The fact that I did not fly a fighter cannot be a disqualification for me to state and ask what I have. It has nothing to do with fighter tactics, dive angles, and aerial combat etc. If we declare now in 2005, that we could have given CAS in 1962, then there is something amiss, and we must not mislead the generations who will have to fight in the 2020s. They are just leaving NDA and will join active service in 2008. They will comprise the sharp end of IAF’s lance. We must hone them with correct capabilities, and true lessons from the past.