The India-Pakistan Air War of 1965


Title The India-Pakistan Air War of 1965
Author(s) P V S Jagan Mohan & Samir Chopra
Publisher Manohar Books
Year 2005
Price Rs.895.00
Description Hardbound - 378 Pages
ISBN-10 81-7304641-7
ISBN-13 978-817304641-4
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This is one of the rare and unique books on air war in 1965 between Pakistan and India reconstructing history from personal accounts, diaries and interviews. Undoubtedly human memory would be hazy four decades after a war; and this is even more so in the case of air wars where the fog of war is normally much thicker than on land or at sea. Getting clear authentic accounts of air wars, therefore, have been problematic. An excellent attempt by two academics makes this book unique, especially when seen in the context of the pathetic official history written by a huge team under the Indian Ministry of Defence.

To begin with, the book destroys a number of myths, the most significant being the assumed outstanding performance of Pakistan Air Force (which Pakistan itself started to believe and suffered on this account in the war six years later). PAF had tremendous advantages over IAF, especially in high-technology weapons and systems like super-sonic interceptor and missile firing Sabre Jets, generously supplied by the United States to fight communism. These weapons systems had been fully absorbed through training. IF, on the other hand, like the Indian Army, was in the throes of rapid expansion trying to recover from the trauma of the 1962 War, it had started to expanded from 25 squadrons making to barely 26 by 1965 by spreading its existing aircraft inventory and pilots with vintage aircraft like Vampires in service. Nearly 40% of the combat forces were locked up in the East and not available for use in the West reducing quantitative advantage of IAF; and above all full weight of IAF was not applied on the aggressor. Planning parameters based on government directives required conserving forces for a long-duration war stretching over months. Pakistan was also not only better prepared for the war but also held the initiative since it started the war at a time and place of its choice. In assessing relative performance of the two air forces, the authors make the mistake that others (including India's official historians) have made in assessing the losses in number of aircraft destroyed on either side.

But it is possible to experience low number of aircraft lost if they don't fly and remain protected on the ground! This is why the accepted global norm is to assess the attrition rate, that is, the number of aircraft lost per hundred sorties flown. Attrition rate of Pakistan Air Force losses in the
air during the 1965 War worked out to 0.9 percent of the sorties flown compared to 0.6 percent (0.45% if the authors' data is accepted) for the IAF. Even at this exchange ratio (which logically should have tilted increasingly in India's favour with the passage of time) PAF would have been in no position to conduct air operations beyond another 2-3 weeks. This is the reason why Pakistan despatched the former air chief, Air Marshal Asghar Khan to China (and Indonesia) within ten days of the war starting to get "urgently required fighter aircraft and the vast complex of weapons, equipment, explosives and spares that support air operations."† Indonesia promised MiG-19s and MiG-15s besides other equipment after Asghar Khan gave President Ayub's letter to Indonesian President saying that he expected Indonesia to help us in our "dire need." Help was also sought from Iran which provided sanctuaries for Pakistan Air Force aircraft, Iraq which actually supplied a dozen F-86s and spares, and from Turkey.

PAF managed to destroy a lot IAF aircraft on the ground, especially in the early stages of the war. If all losses (in air and on ground) are taken into account the attrition rate works out to 2.16 percent for Pakistan Air Force and 1.49 percent for IAF. This ratio would have undoubtedly tilted much more in India's favour if IAF had not been barred from striking PAF in East Pakistan. That itself is curious. President Ayub had declared a war on India and PAF in East Pakistan had attacked Indian airfields and destroyed a large number of aircraft. But the Defence Secretary of India "personally issued orders" to bar IAF from striking PAF in East Pakistan! The reasons for this have never been explained by anyone beyond a vague mention of a Chinese threat.

The second major myth that continues to haunt India's defence establishment is that the IAF "failed" to provide adequate support to the Indian Army. Once again the facts speak otherwise. In particular, close air support to the Indian Army on September 6 morning has come under severe continuing criticism, especially when PAF was mauling 15 Division during its daylight advance toward Lahore. But evidence clearly indicates that the Corps Commander had negatived the use of IAF for close support in this sector. The authors indicate that PAF devoted 27% of its combat air effort to close air support of its army compared to IAF devoting 18%. But this translates to PAF flying 647 sorties and IAF flying 729 sorties on close air support to the Indian Army (not to talk of another 709 IAF sorties devoted to battlefield interdiction which had an enormous impact in squeezing supply of ammunition to Pakistani forward troops0. In fact the authors are only partially correct in stating that international pressure brought about a ceasefire. The reality is that Pakistan had ammunition left for only a couple of days and its military would have collapsed as a consequence of the war carrying on for a couple of days.

The lack of adequate leadership at the middle levels led to serious losses. But more important, the account of the war and numerous battles provide a clear indication of gross failure of intelligence placing aircrew and aircraft at enormous risk and causing failures of operational missions in war. For example, even location of airfields against which missions were launched was not known! But the IAF had its own strategic reconnaissance Canberras and it had meticulously mapped territories across the border (its commanding officer was decorated with Maha Vir Chakra, the second highest gallantry award). But it appears that reconnaissance photographs, if available, were not passed down to the combat units for undertaking their missions. A reading of the book gives the impression that the country did not even possess an intelligence system. Was this due to shift of the Joint Intelligence Committee (of the Chiefs of Staff Committee) out of their jurisdiction after 1962 debacle, or was simply the more fundamental deficit of poor intelligence of military significance being available? If the history of the Kargil War 34 years after is any indication, it appears to be a systemic deficit that seems to have continued to afflict Indian defence capability even now.

The book relates the saga of courage and professionalism of combat pilots and the dedication of the ground crews in supporting them and their aircraft. As has happened so often in history, the fighting men paid for the failures of the planning people. The authors have carried out an excellent job of painstakingly putting together enormous details from personal accounts, interviews, diaries and other sources, even from Pakistan.‡ This makes for an absorbing account of the air war of 1965. It therefore, attempts an analysis only on the margins though the volume throws up enormous amount of data for further study and assessment. For example, no attempt has been made to analyse the reasons for the heavy losses by IAF on the ground to PAF strikes. Israel Air Force probably took the cue from this war and carried out the dramatic air strikes on Egyptian and Syrian air forces neutralising them within hours in 1967. Perhaps because of their focus, the authors have completely ignored (like indeed the official history did) the role and performance of transport and helicopters which no doubt played a crucial role in support of the war. The book also follows the official history in making the mistake of ignoring the "Mentioned in Despatches" as a gallantry award.

In conclusion, this is a fascinating book which would remain of abiding interest to military historians, air warriors and the general public.

Reviewed by Air Commodore Jasjit Singh (Retd), Padma Bhushan, AVSM VrC

* Air Commodore Jasjit Singh AVSM VrC VM (retd) is Director, Centre for Air Power Studies, New Delhi. He served the Indian Air Force in peace and war through three decades earning national awards for distinguished service and gallantry in the face of enemy in war. Former director of Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi and recipient of Padma Bhushan.

Notes :
† M. Asghar Khan, Air Marshal, The First Round: Indo-Pakistan War 1965 (London: Islamic Information Services Ltd.. 1979), p. 38
‡ By a strange coincidence, a book titled Great Air Battles of Pakistan Air Force by Air Commodore M Kaiser Tufail (Lahore: Ferozesons Ltd., 2005) was published the same year, which among other things, provides a contradictory account to the famous shooting down of a Sabre by Trevor Keelor in a Gnat on 3rd September, 1965 claiming that the aircraft was flown back to base!