07 December 2009

The Mirage III/5/50 Family

Mirage 5 PA3 with AM-39 Exocet anti-ship missile
“Like a desert vision, so that enemy pilots should see it but never catch up with it.” Thus, Marcel Dassault lyrically interpreted the French Air Staff Requirement (ASR) of 1953 for ‘a lightweight all-weather interceptor, capable of climbing to 18 kilometres in six minutes, with level flight speed of Mach 1.3’. Sud-Ouest’s Trident, Sud-Est’s Durandal and Avions Marcel Dassault’s MD-550 were the three contenders bidding for the contract. The single-seat, tailless delta-winged MD-550 flew for the first time on 25 June 1955, powered by two non-afterburning Armstrong Siddeley Viper turbojets. After some redesign including installation of afterburners and a rocket motor and, reduction of tailfin size, Dassault figured that the aircraft was evocative of his ‘desert vision’ and aptly renamed it Mirage I. While it went Mach 1.3 in level flight with the assistance of a booster rocket motor, it did not have the endurance and, was too small to carry an effective payload. Dassault decided to substantially redesign the aircraft while retaining the tailless delta on an area-ruled (‘wasp-waisted’) fuselage and, enlarging the latter to house a single afterburning SNECMA Atar 101-G turbojet [1]. The prototype Mirage III made its maiden flight on 17 November 1956 with the test pilot Roland Glavany at the controls. The prototype also featured moving inlet shock cones which later helped attain speeds up to Mach 1.8.

When some NATO air forces and Luftwaffe selected the F-104G as the replacement for the F-86 Sabre, it became clear that versatility was the name of the game. The French government accordingly asked Dassault to proceed with a multi-role aircraft. The prototype of this version, the Mirage IIIA, flew on 12 May 1958. On 14 October 1958 it exceeded Mach 2 in level flight at 41,000ft, making it Europe’s first bisonic fighter and, prompting a pre-series production order of 10 aircraft by the French Air Force. These featured a bigger wing and were powered with SNECMA Atar 9B turbojet engine of 13,230-lbs static thrust with a variable (‘eyelids’ type) exhaust; the last six of them were also equipped with the production standard Cyrano I bis airborne intercept (AI) radar.

Mirage IIIC (Chasse – Interceptor)

The first production model of the Mirage series, the Mirage IIIC interceptor first flew in October 1960. It was largely similar to the IIIA, though 18 inches longer and brought up to full operational fit. It was powered by the SNECMA Atar 9B turbojet engine.

The Mirage IIIC was armed with twin 30mm DEFA-552 revolver-type cannon, fitted in the belly with the gun ports under the air intakes. Early production Mirage IIIC had three stores pylons, one under the fuselage and one under each wing, but a second outboard pylon was added to each wing, for a total of five. The outboard pylons were designed to carry a pair of heat-seeking air-to-air missiles.

Although provision for the rocket motor was retained, by this time the threat of the Soviet high-altitude bomber seemed to be over, and the booster rocket was rarely fitted in practice. The space for the rocket motor could be used for additional fuel.

Mirage IIICs were procured by the French Air Force, with initial deliveries in July 1961. The type was also exported to Israel and South Africa with one example going to Switzerland as a sample for licensed production.

The Israelis put their Mirage IIIC fighters to particularly good use in the 1967 Arab-Israeli War. This advertisement, and the low cost of the relatively simple and flexible Mirage fighter, helped make it a major French export.

Mirage IIIB (Biplace) was the two-seat version of the Mirage IIIA as well as the IIIC. It was without radar but was suitable for ground attack missions, in addition to training.

Mirage IIIE (Électronique)

While the Mirage IIIC was being put into production, Dassault was also considering an ‘electronically advanced’ all-weather fighter-bomber variant which eventually materialized as the Mirage IIIE. Its prototype flew in April 1961, followed by the first delivery to French Air Force in January 1964.

The Mirage IIIE differed from the IIIC in having a 12-inch forward fuselage extension to increase the size of the avionics bay behind the cockpit. The stretch also helped increase fuel capacity slightly. The Mirage IIIE is powered by an afterburning SNECMA Atar 9C turbojet having a variable (‘flower petals’ type) exhaust with a thrust rating of 13,670-lbs; it retains the rocket motor option.

The Mirage IIIE avionics featured a Thompson-CSF Cyrano II dual-mode (air, ground) radar in the nose and a Marconi Doppler navigation radar under the forward fuselage, the two components being central to the ‘all-weather’ capability. The Cyrano II radar was compatible with the Matra 530 semi-active radar homing missile, one of which could be carried under the fuselage.

A sizeable number of Mirage IIIEs were built for export, being purchased in small quantities by Argentina, Brazil, Lebanon, Pakistan, South Africa, Spain, and Venezuela. Each had its own sub-type and country designation, with minor variations in equipment fit.

Two versions of the Mirage IIIE that were manufactured outside France, under license, were the Australian Mirage IIIO and Swiss Mirage IIIS (both dispensed with the ‘E’ sub-type label and only used the country codes). The Australian version had two further variants, attack and fighter, essentially differing in avionics. The Swiss version had a Hughes TARAN-18 fire control radar compatible with the Hughes Falcon semi-active radar-guided missile.

The equivalent two-seat trainer for the French Air Force was designated as Mirage IIIBE while for the rest of the export customers it came to be known as Mirage IIID (Dual).

Mirage IIIR (Reconnaissance)

The Mirage IIIR reconnaissance variant first flew in November 1961. It retained the twin DEFA 30mm cannon and external stores capability of the Mirage IIIE but instead of the AI radar, it housed five OMERA optical cameras in the nose. Later models (known as Mirage IIIRD in France) had the Doppler navigation system under the forward fuselage similar to the IIIE; these also had the provision for carrying the Cyclope infra-red package.

Mirage 5

The next major variant, the Mirage 5, grew out of a 1966 Israeli Air Force requirement for deletion of avionics (normally stored in a bay behind the cockpit) from the standard Mirage IIIE and replacing it with more fuel storage for the ground attack mission. As a consequence, fuel capacity was increased by 500 litres. When introduced, the Mirage 5 did not feature the Cyrano II AI radar; instead, it had a small Aida II ranging radar in a long, slender nose. Like its predecessors, the Mirage 5 carries twin 30mm DEFA-552 cannon, and can lift a payload of four tonnes (8,800 pounds). It features two more stores pylons, fitted at the rear junctions of the fuselage and wings, for a total of seven stations.

The Israelis had placed an order for 50 Mirage 5 aircraft, the first of which flew in May 1967. Rising tensions in the Mid-East led French President Charles De Gaulle to embargo the Israeli Mirages on the eve of the 1967 War. The aircraft continued to roll off the production line, even though they were embargoed. By 1968, the batch was complete and the Israelis had made final payments but, unable to get the impounded aircraft, they reluctantly accepted a refund. The 50 aircraft eventually found their way into the French Air Force as Mirage 5Fs.

Like the Mirage IIIE, the Mirage 5 was popular with export customers, with different variants sporting a wide range of different avionics. While the Mirage 5 had been originally devised for the clear-weather ground attack role, it was reoriented for the multi-role mission with some avionic fits. As electronic systems became more compact and powerful, it was possible to squeeze the avionics in the nose alongwith the Cyrano II AI radar and Doppler navigation equipment. This variant combined the best of range, payload and electronics and, aptly came to be known as Mirage 5E (Électronique). A Mirage 5 version equipped with the Agave radar, optimised for use with the Exocet AM-39 anti-shipping missile, was also produced.

Reconnaissance and two-seat versions of the Mirage 5 were sold under the designation Mirage 5R, and Mirage 5D respectively. There was no clear dividing line between the configuration of a Mirage III reconnaissance or trainer version and that of a Mirage 5 equivalent, and in fact they were one and the same in many cases. A study of the differences shows that these designations were simply a clever marketing ploy to complete the particular Mirage sub-type package.

The Mirage 5 was sold to Abu Dhabi, Belgium, Colombia, Egypt, Gabon, Libya, Pakistan, Peru, Venezuela, and Zaire, with the usual list of sub-type designations and variations in kit. (Abu Dhabi, Egypt and Libya ordered a mix of the no-frills Mirage 5 and the more capable Mirage 5E, while one of Pakistan's later orders included the Agave radar-equipped Mirage 5 with Exocet missile capability.) The Israelis eventually built their own copy of the Mirage 5 named ‘Nesher’, which was purportedly based on clandestinely obtained blueprints.

At the time of inception of Mirage 5, the experimental Mirage IIIV (three Vee) was undergoing flight trials for vertical flight. To avoid confusion, Dassault decided to switch from Roman to the Arabic numeral notation for the new Mirage 5 variant. In the event, it also helped avoid confusion when Venezuela bought the Mirage 5V.

Mirage 50

A fully-equipped prototype rebuilt from a Mirage IIIR flew in May 1970, powered by the uprated SNECMA Atar 9K-50 engine, with 15,900-lbs afterburning thrust. Fit of this engine led to the next Mirage variant, the Mirage 50. The uprated engine gave the Mirage 50 better take-off, climb and acceleration characteristics and, better sustained turn rates than its predecessors.

While the Mirage 50 also incorporated newer avionics, it did not prove popular in export sales, as the first-generation Mirage series was becoming obsolescent and, the new swept-wing Mirage F1 offered better capabilities. Chile ordered a small quantity, receiving both the new Mirage 50 with Agave radar (later replaced by IAI’s Elta 2001 radar), as well as some ex-French Mirage 5s upgraded to Mirage 50 standard. Venezuela also ordered a few Mirage 50 fitted with the improved Cyrano IV radar and AM-39 Exocet missile, while survivors of the earlier Mirage IIIEs and 5s were upgraded to Mirage 50 standard. South Africa’s Atlas Aircraft produced a few Atar 9K-50 engines under license, which formed the basis of the uprated Mirage IIID2Z dual-seaters  and Mirage IIIR2Z recce, that came to be known as Cheetah D and Cheetah R respectively.

Canard Mirages

While the canard feature on Mirages did not constitute a new sub-type, the modification was sufficiently unique to warrant a separate mention. The canards concept started with the experimental Milan joint French-Swiss programme in 1968, which featured pop-out foreplanes (‘moustaches’) in the nose of a retrofitted Mirage IIIC. The nose foreplanes had been found to serve the purpose of improving take-off performance and low speed control, but also had the disadvantage of causing turbulence inside the air intakes, besides reducing pilots’ downward visibility to some extent.

Fixed canards mounted on the intakes were a feature of the Mirage III-NG (Nouvelle Génération), a variant that did not go into production but came to be a demonstrator of some of the newer technologies like fly-by-wire, when it was rolled out in 1982. These canards served the desired purposes and had none of the aerodynamic vices that had dogged the Milan project. Mirages of Brazil, Chile, Colombia, South Africa, Switzerland and Venezuela sported canards as part of their mid-life upgrade programs.

Production Run

Over 1,400 Mirage III, 5 & 50 were produced by Dassault or manufactured under license by Australia and Switzerland, till production ended in 1992. Besides reasonable price and easy availability, customisation was the key to export success of the first generation Mirage family. Dassault was glad to accommodate changes in equipment as per customer needs and budget requirements. Even whimsical country codes that played, for instance, on the Australian accent, Jewish religion, Libyan environment and Zaire’s egoistic leader were agreed to, if it satisfied the customer!

Country Codes

Argentina – A; Australia – O (Oztralia’); Belgium – B; Brazil – BR; Chile – C; Colombia – CO; Egypt – E, SD (cancelled Saudi order); France – F (Mirage-5 only); Gabon – G; Israel – J (Jewish’); Lebanon – L; Libya – D (Desert’); Pakistan – P (Mirage III), PA (Mirage-5); Peru – P (Mirage-5); South Africa – Z (Zuid Afrika); Spain – E (Espana); Switzerland – S; UAE – AD (Abu Dhabi); Venezuela – V; Zaire – M (Mobuto’)


[1] SNECMA - Société Nationale d'Étude et de Construction de Moteurs d'Aviation (National Company for the Design and Construction of Aviation Engines). ATAR - Atelier Technique Aéronautique Rickenbach (Rickenbach Aeronautics Technical Workshop)

[2] DEFA - Direction des Études et Fabrications d'Armement (Armament Research and Development Directorate)

Appendix to 'THE MIRAGE III/5/50 FAMILY'

Delta Wing Aerodynamics

Sweep angle of the wing leading edge helps delay drag rise with increase in speed. In a swept wing, the velocity of the airflow normal to the leading edge is reduced by a factor of the cosine of the sweep angle, with a corresponding delay in drag rise. High sweep angles are, however, associated with the problem of wing-tip stalling which results due to the airflow drifting span-wise across the wing, causing the tips to stall before the rest of the wing. The result is usually a violent pitch up followed by a spin. Wing fences and notches are a stop-gap solution as they generate a vortex over the wing which virtually arrests the span-wise airflow.

On a swept wing, the torsional stresses during manoeuvring flight are enormous and indeed, dangerous at high Mach numbers. Greater structural strength can only be obtained by paying a greater weight penalty.

There is one way in which sharp sweep angles can be used without a lot of problems: delta wing. The shape is optimum for high speed flight. The extremely broad chord (average distance between leading and trailing edges) means that a low thickness-to-chord ratio needed for high speed flight can be achieved. The structure can be made rigid, has sufficient volume for fuel and, there are hardly any practical limits to the angle of sweep.

The low aspect ratio (square of the wingspan to wing area) of the delta wing gives excellent supersonic performance by presenting a smaller frontal area to the airflow. At lower speeds, however, the poor lift-drag ratio of the low aspect delta planform demands higher angles of incidence to generate the same amount of lift compared to a conventional wing. This causes greater induced drag resulting in speed bleed-off during manoeuvring flight; it also increases take-off and landing distances. It may be worth noting that the Mirage III/5/50 as well as the double-delta winged Draken, held the dubious distinction of having the lowest (read worst) aspect ratio of any fighter to date ie, 1.94 and 1.8 respectively, but this record has now been surpassed, surprisingly, by the very modern Indian Tejas with a ratio of 1.75!

By its very shape, a delta wing has a large area which tends to give a relatively low wing loading (aircraft weight per unit area of lifting surface ie, the wings). This helps offset its poor sustained turn performance and enables it to turn tightly at low speeds – often below its normal landing speed – especially in descending manoeuvres in which it can trade height for energy.

Woes of Tailless Deltas

To date, only a few tailless delta fighters have been produced besides the Mirage III/5/50. These include the F-102 Delta Dagger, F-106 Delta Dart, J-35 Draken, J-37 Viggen, Mirage 2000 and Tejas.

In a tailless delta, lift augmentation devices like trailing edge flaps cannot be installed for want of space (though in the Viggen, these are cleverly placed on the large fixed canards). Also, upgoing elevons diminish wing lift which needs to be compensated by higher take-off and landing speeds, worsening short-field performance. Many a pilot who ended up in the arrester barrier has ruefully wished for a longer runway when confronted with a take-off emergency.

Two modern tailless delta fighters, the Mirage 2000 and Tejas feature relaxed static stability. A benefit of this design is that it confers an unstable nose-up moment which reduces the pitch-up required for take-off or during manoeuvres; the harm done to wing lift by upgoing elevons is, thus, minimised to a considerable extent. Leading edge flaps/slats on these fighters also add to the total lift when they automatically activate at slow speed, thus allowing lower take-off and landing speeds.

Canards acting as control surfaces work essentially like tailed deltas, except that the ‘tails’ are located at the front. They obviate the need for elevons to change the pitch, hence saving precious main wing lift. Modern delta-winged fighters like Chengdu J-10, Eurofighter, Gripen and Rafale have fully active canard controls.

Some of the older Mirage III/5/50, Cheetah D and Kfir C-II found a partial remedy to their congenital woes through retrofit of small fixed canards, while the Viggen had fixed canards designed from the outset. These canards added to the overall lift in ways similar to the leading edge flaps/slats, except that they remained stuck out even when not needed in high speed flight!


31 October 2009

F-6s at War

The US embargo on military sales to Pakistan at the outbreak of 1965 Indo-Pak War was received with dismay and disbelief by the PAF, whose combat and training aircraft were totally of US origin. Already starting to get outclassed by more modern aircraft, the F-86Fs, F-104s and B-57s were now plagued by spares support problems that rendered them virtually worthless in the PAF. The C-in-C of the PAF, Air Marshal Nur Khan who had cannily led the force during the war, sensed the criticality of the situation and started an immediate search for suitable aircraft from new sources.

Unfortunately for Pakistan, geopolitical realities restricted most available options. Pakistan’s CENTO and SEATO memberships hardly endeared her to the Soviets. The Indians had already made inroads to Moscow and the first shipment of six MiG-21s had made its operational debut during the 1965 War. The Soviets saw India not only as a socialist ideologue that could be helped militarily, but as its influential proxy and mouthpiece in the Non-Aligned Movement. The prospect of Soviets and Pakistanis developing any kind of patron-client linkage, thus, came to be a non-starter.

China, in the throes of the Cultural Revolution, had not shown much interest in developing newer aircraft technologies for the time being. Content with the copy of Soviet-supplied MiG-19s, China mass-produced this single-role fighter in thousands. When Pakistan approached China for military help in 1966, she was only too glad to offer the F-6 as a token of friendship, the initial batch of 60 being free of cost. Though limited in range, speed and weapons payload, PAF inducted the aircraft and assigned it the day interceptor role with a secondary close air support task, which it dutifully went on to perform over the next 36 years.

A Quirky Fighter

The MiG-19 (Mikoyan and Gurevich) was the first supersonic fighter of the Soviet-bloc, making its prototype debut in late 1953; it was contemporaneous with the North American F-100 Super Sabre, the first supersonic fighter of the West. The MiG-19 sported audaciously swept-back wings which, at 55 degrees, were considered the right answer to drag rise during high speed flight, but were also problematic at low speeds due to the lower lift-generating ability of such wings. Designers increased wing thickness to ensure enough lift at low speeds, but more lift meant more drag in another form. Two powerful afterburning RD-9B turbojet engines pushed the aircraft out of this jumble and gave it a respectable status of a transonic fighter which could race through to a top speed of Mach 1.3. A set of three hard-hitting 30-mm cannon and, in later versions, two first-generation K-13 heat-seeking missiles completed the weapons suite as the Soviet bloc’s frontline missile-armed interceptor.[1] (PAF modified the aircraft to carry AIM-9B Sidewinder missiles.) The same set of cannon armed with armour-piercing bullets, along with two rocket pods, served a useful secondary close air support role.

Pilots discovered that they could manoeuvre the aircraft with abandon as long as their speed was not below 500 kph and, they could effortlessly chase their prey if the speed was not above 1,000 kph. Outside these limits lay severe testing grounds requiring special nerves and lots of muscle.

Ready for War

PAF pilots did not take long to master the quirky complexities of the F-6 at the limits of its flight envelope. They often relished the no-holds-barred dogfights with Mirages and Starfighters which could easily be out-turned, if not out-run, in dissimilar air combat. F-6 pilots boasted of some of the best gunnery and rocketry scores in the PAF. Operationally, the pilots seemed pleased to get so much out of so less, as it were. Maintenance of the aircraft was, however marred by a very low time-between-failure of components, as well as a low time-between-overhaul of the aircraft and engine. This was something that the engineers and technicians were able to overcome only when the PAF set up its own F-6 Rebuild Factory at Kamra in 1980 and, rapid overhauls became possible. At the outbreak of the war, PAF had 90 F-6 on its inventory, but due to these maintenance issues, a mere 48 were available for operations. [2]

The F-6s were distributed amongst Nos 11, 23 and 25 Squadrons, each with 16 aircraft. No 11 Squadron, based at Sargodha, was commanded by Wg Cdr Sikandar M Khan. No 23 Squadron, the first Unit to be equipped with the F-6 in early 1966, was commanded by Wg Cdr S M H Hashmi; it had moved from its parent base Sargodha to the forward base at Risalewala, which formed the first tier of air defence against intruders from the east. No 25 Squadron, commanded by Wg Cdr Sa’ad A Hatmi, was split into two detachments of eight aircraft each, based at Sargodha and Mianwali. At the latter base, the detachment had the somewhat unconvincing task of guarding the ‘back-up’ strike assets including 10 B-57 and 5-odd Mirage IIIE for the all-important phase of Army’s main offensive.

Defending the Skies

Air defence cover in West Pakistan was patchy at best, but at low level it had wide gaps and only 7% of the border had radar coverage. Raid reporting by the few rear-located low level radars was not expected to provide enough reaction time for a ground scramble. Similarly, reporting by mobile observers – which is based on visual or aural information – was likely to cause delays. An expedient solution was to mount combat air patrols over possible enemy ingress routes, round the clock, effort permitting. Wasteful though it was, it was decided to man several points in the air and all fighters were ordered up for this task. The F-6 came to be the workhorse for day air defence in the northern region.

The morning of 4 December promised action as the IAF was expected to retaliate in response to PAF’s strikes against some of the Indian airfields the previous evening. The PAF was ready, with fighters continuously patrolling the skies since first light. No 23 Squadron pilots at Risalewala had been tidily scheduled for the day’s proceedings. Around 0930 hrs, as F-6s for the day’s sixth mission were taxiing out of their pens, an air raid warning was sounded. A mission abort was ordered and loudspeakers relayed instructions for everyone to take cover. Flt Lt Javed Latif who was on cockpit standby, started to unstrap from his F-6 for a quick egress. Momentarily glancing out of the pen opening to see what was going on, he was aghast to see a Su-7 diving down straight at his aircraft. “The scary sight of an intake pointing at me is still etched fresh in my memory,” recalls Latif. As he jumped out of his F-6 to take cover, a salvo of rockets landed smack on the pen.[3] Still scampering towards a trench, Latif was rattled by cannon fire from the second Su-7 as the bullets landed a few yards away. Then the raid was over as suddenly as it had started, and the AAA died down too, as if heralding an all-clear. Dusting himself and recovering his composure, Latif rushed to his pen to help put out the fire caught by the hessian camouflage covering. Luckily, his F-6 was unharmed except for a few nicks from slivers of falling plaster. “I was seething with anger at having been violated thus, and hurried to strap up again to settle the score,” remembers Latif. Shortly thereafter, a scramble was ordered for the next pair but confusion reigned as the taxi way had been blocked by the F-6s of the previous aborted mission. This led to yet another abort at a critical time but the situation was salvaged when Latif, who was standing by for a later mission, took charge and hit the starter button on his own. Just as he was taxiing out, his crew chief came rushing towards the aircraft, signalling for a switch off as yet another air raid warning had been notified. “My mind was racing and I had already decided in a split of a second – I was going to take my chances flying and I was not going to repeat the fiasco of the last pair,” Latif recollects. Over-ruling the Air Traffic Control’s somewhat confused recall message, Latif checked if his No 2 was also taxiing out. Hearing no response, he decided to take-off alone. Changing over to the radar frequency, he heard an eager voice wanting to join up as his wingman. It was Flt Lt Riffat Munir on patrol from the fifth mission, whose leader had aborted due to a technical problem. The new partners were only too glad to find themselves as a viable combat entity again. It wasn’t long before the ground radar handed the pair over to ‘Killer Control,’ a cleverly-perched look-out tasked to visually guide the interceptors about the raiders’ position with the help of geographic landmarks. Flt Lt Ahmed Khattak’s confident voice called out that two Su-7s were pulling up for an attack from the north-westerly direction and pointed out their position over the main water tank. After jettisoning their drop tanks and charging their guns, Latif and Riffat confirmed visual contact with both Su-7s. As the attackers approached the airfield, Latif easily positioned behind one of them while Riffat cleared tails. Firing all three of his cannon, Latif waited for some fireworks. Noticing that the aircraft was still flying unharmed, he fired another long burst till all his ammunition was exhausted. Just as he was expecting his quarry to blow up, he felt a huge thud. Thinking that he had been hit by the other Su-7, he broke right and then reversed left but found no one in the rear quarters. Checking for damage, he found that the left missile was not there and the launcher was shattered. The AAA shells bursting in puffs all around the airfield confirmed his suspicion that he had taken a ‘friendly’ hit, but luckily the aircraft was fully under control. Pressing on, he started to look for the escaping Su-7s and within moments, was able to pick one of them trailing a streak of whitish smoke. Convinced that it was the same one he had hit earlier and, assuming it to be crippled, Latif decided to go for the other Su-7. He spotted it straight ahead, flying over the tree tops at a distance of two miles. Engaging afterburners, he closed in for a Sidewinder shot but could not get a lock-on tone. To his dismay, he realised that the missile tone was routed through the circuitry of the left missile which had been shot off. Getting below the Su-7, he fired without a tone nonetheless, half expecting it to connect, if at all it fired. Moments later, he heard Riffat’s excited voice on the radio, “Good shooting, leader, you got him!” Not sure if he had really hit him as he had not seen any explosion, Latif was soon relieved to see the Su-7 roll over inverted and hit the ground. [4] Flt Lt Harvinder Singh of Halwara-based No 222 Squadron went down with his aircraft near Rurala Railway Station. Riffat’s chase of the second Su-7 (flown by the mission leader, Sqn Ldr B S Raje) had to be cut short as he was getting low on fuel and his leader was out of ammunition. No 23 Squadron had drawn first blood after an eventful morning that saw Latif doggedly in business after surviving rocket and AAA hits. For his heroics on the ground and in the air, Latif was awarded a Tamgha-i-Jur’at (Medal of Valour).

Shortly before sunset on the same day, Sakesar radar reported a raid heading towards Mianwali. Sqn Ldr Ehsan and Flg Off Qazi Javed of No 25 Squadron, who were on ‘cockpit standby’ in the hessian-covered pens, started their F-6s and within minutes, were taxiing out for take-off. Just then, Javed reported seeing two Hunters pull up for an attack. Sensing that they had been caught on the ground at the wrong time, Ehsan decided on a hasty take-off and pushed up the throttles to execute a sharp turn on to the runway. Unfortunately, use of excessive power caused him to veer off into the ‘kutcha.’ Stuck in the mud, he became an unwitting spectator as the Hunters delivered their attacks. In the meantime, Javed decided to take-off without his leader. Just as he lined up, he saw the lead Hunter strafing way far to the left of the runway. With half his worries suddenly over, Javed started rolling but danger from the second Hunter remained, as it had all the time to aim carefully and take a hearty shot. Anxious, Javed craned his neck back only to see the Hunter’s cannon blazing at him. “I thought his dive was too shallow and, at the close distance he was, the bullets would overshoot,” Javed recalls his rather masterly prediction. Mercifully, the bullets did land 200 feet ahead and towards the left, so Javed continued his take-off. Once airborne, keeping the Hunter in sight was a problem in the fast-fading light. Speeding at 900 kph, Javed remembered that he had not jettisoned his drop tanks. When he did get rid of them at such a high speed, he induced a porpoise but was somehow able to ride it out. Charging in at 1,100 kph, he had closed in to about a mile and a half, which was just the right range for a Sidewinder shot. He fired his first missile and when he did not see it connect, fired the second one. That too went into the ground. “All this while the Hunter pilot seemed totally oblivious of what was going on and his leader was nowhere in sight, so I gleefully decided to press on for a gun attack,” says Javed. “Since things had been happening too fast, I had forgotten to charge my guns after take-off. Having done that, I first fired with my centre gun till all its ammunition was spent. [5] With the Hunter still flying unharmed, I decided to continue firing with the side guns. After a few frustrating bursts, I closed in to about 1,000 ft and fired a real lengthy one. Luckily, the last few bullets of the volley struck the right wing as I noticed a flash. The aircraft pitched up and rolled over to the right. I only learnt of the pilot’s ejection later, as I had to break away to avoid overshooting the out-of-control Hunter.” The aircraft fell about 14 nautical miles north-east of Mianwali. Flg Off Vidyadhar Chati of the Pathankot-based No 27 Squadron, when interrogated about the circumstances of his shooting down, said he suspected he had been brought down by ground fire! Duck shoot it was, over the idyllic Khabbaki Lake, but Chati should have known better where the bullets really came from. Ironically, the pilots of No 27 Squadron who had been declared the ‘Top Guns’ of IAF’s Western Air Command during a gunnery meet prior to the war, had failed to shoot up the conspicuously exposed F-6s on the runway. [6] For the rookie Javed, who was freshly out of operational training on the F-6, remaining cool under fire was a most worthy achievement and he deservedly won a Sitara-i-Jur’at (Star of Valour) for his daring deed.

The high-powered FPS-20 radar at Sakesar, had received considerable attention on the first day of the war. Shortly after mid-day on 5 December, a pair of Hunters from No 27 Squadron was again able to sneak in and attack the radar with rockets and cannon. Patrolling nearby, over the picturesque Salt Range, were two F-6s of No 25 Squadron flown by Wg Cdr Sa’ad Hatmi and Flt Lt Shahid Raza. They were immediately vectored by the radar towards the exiting Hunters but it was a while before Hatmi spotted the pair. As the Hunters sped away over the hilly terrain, Hatmi wisely decided not to waste his missiles in the unfavourable background clutter. Using his guns instead, he made short work of one of the Hunters which fell 15 miles east of Sakesar. The pilot, Flg Off Kishan Lal Malkani, was killed. Next, Flt Lt Shahid Raza, who had all along kept the second Hunter in sight, closed in and opened fire with his guns which found their mark. The pilot, Flt Lt Gurdev Singh Rai, who was the leader of the mission and, had twice visited Sakesar on the previous day, ran out of luck this time. He met his end when his Hunter crashed near the small town of Katha Saghral at the foothills of Salt Range.

On the afternoon of 8 December, two patrolling F-6s of No 23 Squadron flown by Wg Cdr S M H Hashmi and Flt Lt Afzal Jamal Siddiqui were vectored on to two Su-7s, just as they were exiting after attacking Risalewala airfield. Hashmi caught up with one of the pair, about ten miles east of the airfield, and let off a Sidewinder. The missile homed on unmistakably and the Su-7 exploded above the tree-tops; the pilot was not seen to eject. The remains of Flt Lt Ramesh Gulabrao Kadam [7] were later discovered around the wreckage near the small town of Khalsapur. Hashmi immediately started looking for the other Su-7 and, to be sure of his No 2’s safety, called out for his position. Afzal replied but the transmission was garbled, which Hashmi interpreted as his No 2 being visual with him and, assumed that he was somewhere in the rear quarters. Just then Hashmi picked contact with the second aircraft and did not think twice before launching a missile. If there was any difference between the similar-looking planforms of the Su-7 and F-6, this was surely one time to have had a closer look. His No 2 was nowhere in sight and his frantic unanswered calls to Afzal seemed to confirm Hashmi’s worst fear. Had he mixed up his quarry in the murky winter haze? Afzal, who was chasing the second Su-7 at high speed and had ended up ahead of his leader, was not able to clearly convey his position on a broken radio. Hashmi, an otherwise unflappable squadron commander, should have known better, for he had been too eager for a second kill which unfortunately ended up as a horrific fatality for his wingman. [8]

On one occasion the F-6 was completely outwitted by a Su-7. Flt Lt S S Malhotra of No 32 Squadron, who was on a photo recce mission over Risalewala on 13 December, spotted a patrolling F-6 and took a pot shot before exiting. It was only later that Malhotra learnt of Flt Lt Ejazuddin’s ejection over his home Base.

F-6s flew a total of 674 day air defence sorties (including 42 sorties over the battle area) which was 40% of PAF’s day air defence effort. Five enemy aircraft were downed during the air defence missions, or a kill rate of 0.74% in the role of an air defence fighter. All interceptions took place after the raiders had released their weapons on their targets, which was a reflection of the inadequacy of the air defence system that had been unable to provide sufficient early warning. The saving grace was the ability of the powerful F-6 to accelerate fast and nab the escaping raiders.

Over the Battlefield

PAF’s concept of air support to the land forces was biased towards direct support (close air support, armed recce and battlefield interdiction), as it was seen to yield immediate results in the ongoing battle. Indirect support in the form of deep interdiction beyond the battlefield was considered an exercise wrought with uncertainties in a short war, as the severance of the supply chain was likely to take some time before it showed its effects on a well-stocked front. The F-6 fitted well into the scheme of direct support as its powerful 3x30-mm cannon were ideal for strafing of convoys and rolling stock during armed recce, while two pods holding 8x57-mm rockets [9] each, offered the option of firing a salvo in the midst of an armour concentration.

F-6s found their calling in Shakargarh sector, where the Indians had launched a two-pronged offensive with two infantry divisions along with two armoured brigades, while a third division was deployed in a defensive role. Against this force was Pakistan Army’s beleaguered 8 Infantry Division trying to fight off the massive onslaught, while 8 Armoured Brigade, staunchly but unsuccessfully, tried to launch a belated counter-attack. This sector saw PAF intervening in great force, with the bulk of air support missions flown for 8 Division. F-6s flew all but 9 of their 139 close air support and armed recce sorties in this sector [10] but, regrettably, the mission success was very low; almost half the sorties were wasted as no enemy activity was observed in the area of interest. Hazy winter conditions as well as abundance of natural camouflage and dense habitation contributed majorly to the problem, though wrong reports by the Army were also partly to blame. While it must have been very frustrating for the pilots not to find the ‘armour concentrations’ that the tasking orders promised, they more than made up whenever they stumbled upon them.

An exciting situation developed in one of the close air support missions on the morning of 7 December, when four F-6s of No 11 Squadron found themselves vying for airspace with four Su-7s, which also happened to be on a similar mission near Zafarwal in the Shakargarh salient. The moment the Su-7s sighted the F-6s pulling up for their attack, they lit afterburners and started to exit eastwards. At that time the No 2 called that he had been hit by AAA so he was asked by the mission leader, Flt Lt Atiq Sufi, to pair up with No 4 and recover back. Atiq then smartly ordered a split, so that two F-6s were chasing a pair of Su-7s each. “I remember accelerating to 1,100 kph despite the rocket pods which were retained, as I could not afford to take my eyes off the prey to look inside for the selective jettison switches,” says Atiq. He barely managed to arrest his rate of closure and opened fire on his target with the centre gun. “I had expended the ammunition in the centre gun so I switched to the two side guns and continued firing. A well-aimed volley struck right behind the cockpit and the Su-7 rolled over its back,” remembers Atiq. It was later learnt that Sqn Ldr Jiwa Singh, the senior flight commander of Adampur-based No 26 Squadron had gone down with the aircraft, south-west of Samba just over the border. The F-6 deputy leader, Flt Lt Mus’haf Mir also fired at one of the fast-receding Su-7s but it was lucky to have accelerated away, apparently unscathed.

A brief scrap took place between ‘relatives’ of the MiG family on 14 December when three F-6s of No 11 Squadron, which were on an armed recce mission in Shakargarh area, sighted four patrolling MiG-21s. Flt Lt Aamer Sharief manouvred behind one of the trailing aircraft and fired a Sidewinder. The outcome of the claim has remained moot as the engagement took place in enemy-controlled territory and, no further details of the wreckage or pilot status have emerged ever since.

PAF lost two F-6s to ground fire during the tactical air support campaign. Flt Lt Wajid Ali Khan of No 11 Squadron was shot down by AAA near Marala Headworks on 7 December; he ejected but ended up as a POW after being picked up by Indian troops which were in the vicinity. The other casualty was Flt Lt Shahid Raza of No 25 Squadron who was shot down by AAA near Shakargarh on 17 December, the last day of the war; he was heard to be ejecting in enemy-controlled territory but his fate remained unclear. He was awarded a Tamgha-i-Jur’at for devotion to duty, as well as professionalism shown in his earlier Hunter kill.

The 139 sorties of close air support flown by the F-6 were a mere 20% of PAF’s daytime tactical air support effort, with the bulk flown by F-86E & F. Considering the eminent suitability of the F-6 for the task, a larger share could have been more advantageous. The F-6 detachment at Mianwali was hardly any help in this regard, as it was too far removed from the battle scene; it belatedly flew into Sargodha for air support duties a day before the war ended. Nonetheless, a total of 33 tanks, 42 vehicles and 4 guns were claimed by F-6 pilots in the 80 sorties that were considered successful. [11] It can be seen that this was a useful contribution by the F-6 squadrons to 8 Division’s efforts in stemming the Indian offensive in Shakargarh salient.

Report Card

During the 14-day war, the F-6s flew a total of 821 sorties which was 28% of PAF’s overall war effort of 2,955 sorties. For a relatively new weapon system, the F-6 could have achieved an aircraft Utilisation Rate better than the 1.6 sorties per aircraft per day during the war. [12] While it fell short of the planned 2.2 sorties daily, it reflected a cautious conduct of the war, whereby the PAF was held back so that everything could be thrown in during the army’s main offensive which, in the event, never came through.

Besides the individual gallantry awards won by F-6 pilots, Nos 23 and No 25 Squadron were awarded Squadron Colours for distinguished performance during the war. The battle honours are as much a tribute to the F-6 as its spirited pilots, who forged this spartan aircraft into one of PAF’s most robust and dependable war machines.

[1] A later model, the MiG-19PM, had a rudimentary radar and could carry four beam-riding missiles, while dispensing with the cannon.
[2] Official PAF Records.
[3] The pilot of this Su-7 was OC of No 222 Squadron, Wg Cdr Allan Albert da Costa.
[4] A warhead’s proximity detonation, unlike a direct hit, may not cause an explosion every time.
[5] It was advisable to fire the centre gun and side guns separately to prevent rattle and vibrations, which could loosen or dislodge electrical connectors of radios, etc.
[7] The pilot belonged to the Tactics & Air Combat Development Establishment based at Ambala.
[8] Wreckage of Afzal’s F-6 revealed Sidewinder warhead shrapnel embedded in the exhaust area, which quashed speculation that the F-6 may have flown through Kadam’s exploding Su-7.
[9] PAF modified the F-6 to carry 68-mm rocket launchers in 1979.
[10] Official PAF Records.
[11] Ibid.
[12] Utilisation Rate is based on an average aircraft serviceability of 75%. The F-6 wartime UR is calculated thus: UR = 821 sorties ÷ 36 aircraft ÷ 14 days = 1.6.


This article was published in Defence Journal, December 2009 issue.

12 October 2009

Air Support in Thar – 1971 War

Spiny-tailed lizards scamper across the dunes that make up the vast Thar Desert straddling the Sindh-Rajasthan Border. Buzzards soar on the desert currents during day and caracals prowl the scattered scrub at night. Staking out territory is no easy matter, and every creature treads prudently in this desolate and forbidding expanse.

The 1971 Indo-Pak War saw rival armies face off in the inhospitable Thar Desert, each aiming to unbalance the other’s strategic formations and capturing vital territory in the bargain. The desert offered few objectives of strategic value, as these lay deeper, away from the border. Indian Army’s formidable Southern Command, consisting of two regular infantry divisions (12 Division and 11 Division) and two brigade-sized formations (‘Bikaner’ and ‘Kutch’ Sector HQs) of BSF and Territorial Army troops, was arrayed against Pakistan Army’s single 18 Division required to cover a frontage of over 700 miles. Both of India’s infantry divisions were poised to create footholds inside southern Pakistan for threatening deeper objectives; this, in turn, was expected to unhinge the Pakistani strategic reserves, whose elements would have been detached helter-skelter to cope with the dangerous situation thus obtaining.

The predicament of 18 Division was well-understood by the GHQ at Rawalpindi and, it was decided to pre-empt any Southern Command incursion by undertaking a most unexpected foray into Indian territory. A two-pronged offensive of brigade-strength each was hastily put together for the capture of Ramgarh and, for neutralising Jaisalmer Airfield – the latter, a rather quixotic task dictated by the absence of PAF in the area. It is also open to conjecture if the Pakistani GHQ had wishfully imagined the dislocation of Indian strategic reserves as a consequence of the daring 18 Division sortie. In the event, the offensive bogged down at Longewala soon after initiation on the midnight of 4 December. However, due to the boldness and surprise of the move, Indian 12 Division was knocked off-balance and remained mired in efforts to counter the Pakistani offensive, as well as screening the area for any more surprises. It could not progress beyond the initial capture of a desert outpost of Islamgarh and, failed to develop operations towards Rahim Yar Khan, which were charged with the ambitious objective of severing the rail-road link to northern Pakistan. There is also evidence of panic entraining of some elements of the crack Indian 1 Armoured Division for providing relief, a task that was quickly taken over by a detachment of six IAF Hunters belonging to No 122 Squadron stationed at Jaisalmer.

With no air opposition to menace them, the Hunters carried out text book strafing and rocketing attacks during the 38 sorties [1] flown over two days, in which they wreaked havoc on Pakistani tank columns caught in the open desert. By 7 December, Pakistani brigades were in full retreat, having suffered heavy losses, including at least 20 tanks [2] and scores of other vehicles destroyed or abandoned. At the end of the venture, Major General B M Mustafa, the ill-starred Commander of 18 Division, stood relieved of his command for an undertaking that went awry under his watch.

Costly Oversight

The rout of 18 Division armour at the hands of IAF has been conveniently blamed on GHQ for not forewarning AHQ about the offensive, as a result of which PAF fighters could not be positioned at the nearest airfield of Jacobabad. It has been claimed that AHQ had asked for at least four days notice (and preferably ten days) for activating the airfield with all the operational, logistic and air defence wherewithal. Intriguingly, the vital issue of air support that may have been required by an army formation even if it was not undertaking offensive operations, has been glossed over by air tacticians and official historians alike. This requirement should also have been seen as enormously vital in view of the vulnerability of Rahim Yar Khan rail-road link, whose proximity to the border could result in effortless severance by the enemy, thus practically truncating West Pakistan into two. Air cover was equally crucial due to the overwhelming numerical superiority of Indian Southern Command which was comprehensively supported by fighters stationed at Jaisalmer, Uttarlai, Jodhpur and Jamnagar. The PAF C-in-C, Air Marshal A Rahim Khan, who was accompanying the COAS General Abdul Hamid during a visit to Rahim Yar Khan in October, must not have failed to notice the utter vulnerability of 18 Division elements to air attack. A suitable complement of fighters should, therefore, have figured out for deployment at Jacobabad from the onset of war, irrespective of the offensive or defensive operations 18 Division may have been tasked for.

In a talk to National Defence College some time after the war, PAF's Director of Operations, the late Group Captain M Arshad, reiterated PAF’s viewpoint that, “with the limited resources available at our disposal, it was not feasible to activate Jacobabad without thinning out in the northern sector.” While the plight of the resource-constrained PAF was well-highlighted, it can be pointed out that the half-squadron detachment of F-6s (belonging to No 25 Squadron) at Mianwali could have been relieved, as the base which is sufficiently deep, was well-defended by two successive tiers of over 60 interceptors based at Risalewala and Sargodha; it also had its own integral force of five-odd Mirage IIIE for point defence. It must also be noted that the Mianwali-based F-6s were too far removed from the battle scene in the northern sector and, could not be employed in their proper tactical air support role. Half a squadron of F-6s based at Jacobabad could have, if nothing else, at least mitigated the painful and odious withdrawal of 18 Division elements by providing them much needed air cover.

It is another matter that 18 Division offensive had been planned hastily, had not been war-gamed and, the logistics requirements had been treated most superficially. It was easy to see why it floundered as it did. Even though some diehard strategists make much of the initial advantage of surprise, it must be realised that, had the overstretched Pakistani force somehow reached its objective at Ramgarh, it would have been eventually destroyed by a realigned 12 Division charging in from the left flank.

Despite the battering that it took at Longewala, it can be said that 18 Division’s venture, foolhardy though it was, did not go in vain and, it was somehow able to prevent a befuddled 12 Division Commander, Major General R K Khambata, from achieving his main task of truncating West Pakistan. The Indian Official History of 1971 Indo-Pak War succinctly sums up 12 Division’s disappointment thus: “Had it detected the Pak thrust on 4 December, the Division could have met and dissipated it, and gone ahead with its offensive as originally planned [3].”

Action at Chor

Further south, Indian 11 Division was tasked to capture Naya Chor by launching an offensive along Monabao-Khokhrapar-Naya Chor axis with the help of two brigades and, subsequently to develop operations into the green belt of Sindh. Additionally, the division’s third brigade was to outflank and capture Chachro along the Gadra-Khinsar-Chachro axis. Apparently no link-up of the two widely divergent incursions was planned and, neither complemented the other. The Indians had envisaged that a threat to towns like Mirpurkhas and Umarkot would force Pakistan’s II Corps to detach its elements for the assistance of 18 Division’s single brigade in this sector, thus depleting the former’s offensive potential.

As the two Indian brigades advanced towards Naya Chor on the night of 4 December, they met little resistance at first. The disrupted rail link between Monabao and Khokhrapar was repaired and, it was hoped that a regular logistics supply chain would hasten progress of the onslaught. The rail connection, which had been in disuse for years, had many more snags than expected. The vulnerable rail link proved to be the very bane of the Indian brigades as Pakistan Air Force swung into action and started a concerted day and night interdiction campaign that precipitated the ‘overstretch’ which the Official History of 1971 Indo-Pak War much bemoans [4].

Half the fighter and bomber force of No 32 Fighter Attack Wing, based at Masroor (Karachi) had been detached to bases in the north. What remained included No 19 Squadron with 26 F-86E/F, [5] No 9 Squadron with 7 F-104 (9 more RJAF F-104 became available from 14 December onwards) and half-strength No 7 Squadron with 8 B-57 bombers. The intrepid No 2 Squadron chipped in with 11 T-33 trainers. A small detachment of 4 F-86E was stationed at the forward base of Talhar, to promptly respond to the first-tier mobile observer reports in the absence of low level radar warning.

The rapid Indian push towards Naya Chor had all the portends of a grave situation developing and, immediate air support had to be provided to ward off the threat. The Base Commander at Masroor, Air Commodore Nazir Latif, along with the OC of No 32 Wing, Group Captain Wiqar Azim responded swiftly and decided to throw in everything the Base could muster. Composite missions, including different types of aircraft, were ingeniously flown. The OC Wing and two of his Squadron Commanders, Wing Commander Shaikh Saleem (No 19 Squadron) and Wing Commander Asghar Randhawa (No 2 Squadron) were at the forefront of this air action and led many missions themselves. Many interdiction and armed reconnaissance missions targeted trains laden with fuel and ammunition along the Khokhrapar-Naya Chor railway line. Tanks and vehicles exposed in the open also turned out to be lucrative targets and, in the surprising absence of air opposition, multiple attacks were carried out without much trouble.

One daring mission involving the only daylight B-57 sortie of the war, manifestly inspired the pilots of the Wing to fight fearlessly. On 7 December, Flight Lieutenant Shabbir A Khan, alongwith his navigator Squadron Leader Shoaib Alam, carried out an afternoon bombing raid (9x500-lb bombs) on a concentration of tanks and vehicles and followed it up with several strafing passes on a stationary train. Such was the fervour that Shabbir spent nearly twenty minutes taking steady pot shots, as if on a training sortie at his home firing range.

The same night Wing Commander Randhawa bombed an important POL bulk supply node that served the theatre of operations, while flying in a T-33. “The oil tanks at Barmer railway station were hit and set on fire,” reports the Indian Official History of 1971 Indo-Pak War [6].

Another remarkable mission involved a motley of aircraft flown by No 32 Wing and, it was boldly led by its enthusiastic OC, Group Captain Wiqar Azim. On the afternoon of 14 December, a 9-ship composite formation of 4 F-86Fs and 4 T-33s, escorted by a lone F-86E and, covered on top by 2 F-104s, struck three trains laden with POL and explosives near Naya Chor. In the same mission, a convoy was struck and many vehicles destroyed.

In all, 175 sorties (including 24 night sorties by B-57, T-33 and even C-130) were flown in support of 18 Division in Chor, Ramgarh and Kutch Sectors; this formed one quarter of the total air support effort provided by PAF during the war [7]. In addition, 40 combat air patrol sorties were flown by F-86E and F-104 to cover the vital troop and armour reinforcements arriving by train from the central zone to Naya Chor. The inability of the IAF to interfere with the reinforcements only underscores the effectiveness of PAF’s air umbrella.

Unlike the PAF’s air support in the northern battle zones, where as many as one-third of the air support sorties were unsuccessful (mainly because the enemy tanks and vehicles could not be sighted in the natural camouflage of Punjab), the success rate in Thar was nearly 100% as the desert offered the enemy no sanctuary. A total of 20 tanks, 63 vehicles, 5 trains, 3 bulk fuel stores and an ammunition dump were claimed by the pilots, according to PAF’s official history [8]. During the course of the tactical air support campaign by the PAF, no aircraft were lost to ground fire. IAF, however, lost three Uttarlai-based HF-24s to vigilant Pak Army AAA while on air support missions in Naya Chor area [9].

It is evident that the PAF was able to operate with such impunity in Naya Chor Sector because IAF planners had not paid heed to countering it in earnest, both on the ground and in the air. An incessantly disruptive anti-airfield campaign against the single Base at Masroor, alongwith aggressive fighter sweeps in Naya Chor area, could have helped. After all, IAF had four fighter bases which directly served the Southern Sector and, there was no dearth of air effort. Had IAF’s counter-air campaign been more whole-hearted, Major General R D Anand, Commander 11 Division, may well have been planning his next moves from the district headquarters at Mirpurkhas!

Own Offensive Foreclosed

The third Indian brigade which had Chachro as its objective, was able to overcome minor resistance at various points on the way and managed to capture it by afternoon of 8 December. Later, on 13 December a battalion-sized foray towards Umarkot was launched from Chachro, but was beaten back by a Pakistani counter-attack. The Indian raid did, however, raise concerns at GHQ in Rawalpindi as the ‘green belt’ had been trespassed, as it were. So as not to distract 55 Brigade which was putting up a brave stand at Naya Chor and, to provide it with much-needed relief, it was decided to bolster it with a brigade pulled out from II Corps’ 33 Infantry Division. 55 Brigade and the newly-arrived 60 Brigade, with zealous air support from PAF’s No 32 Wing, were thus able to repel renewed Indian efforts to push forward towards Naya Chor.

Earlier, another of 33 Division’s brigade had been detached to I Corps in Shakargarh, where the ground situation was equally grim. This all but meant that General Tikka Khan’s offensive stood aborted. II Corps, which had been somehow hoping for an improvement in the relative strength ratio of forces, actually found itself denuded to the point of impracticality as far as launching its offensive was concerned.

Though vast stretches of desert amounting to over 1,740 square miles were captured by 11 Division in Naya Chor and Chachro sub-sectors, it is of academic interest to know that the Indian Division Commander was still denied his operational objective. As stated earlier, the significance of Pakistani forces being able to hold on to Naya Chor lay in the enemy being denied a foothold for developing operations deeper, into the core areas of Sindh. This apparently came at the cost of Pakistan’s main offensive, but in retrospect, it can be clearly seen that II Corps’ elements had a ‘fire-fighting’ role chalked out from the outset and, the much talked about offensive was rather delusory in its strategic conception.

[1] ‘Tank Busting in the Hunter’, Air Commodore Narendra Gupta, Take Off magazine, Issue 103. [2] The late Brigadier Zahir Alam, who commanded 38 Cavalry Regiment during the operation, confirms the loss of 20 tanks, all to air action. He gives a blow-by-blow account of the fiasco in his book The Way it Was, Dynavis (Pvt) Ltd, Karachi, 1998.[3] Chapter – IX, The Punjab and Rajasthan Front, page 395.[4] Ibid, page 406.
[5] These included 12 F-86F which were attached to the squadron three months prior to the war.[6] Chapter – X, The IAF in the West, page 427.[7] Of the total 175 sorties, 158 were flown in Chor Sector, 13 were flown in Ramgarh Sector and 4 sorties were flown in Kutch Sector. Official PAF Records.[8] The Story of Pakistan Air Force – A Saga of Courage and Honour, page 464.
[9] Flt Lt P V Apte, 220 Sqn, shot down on 4 Dec (KIA); Flt Lt J L Bhargava, 220 Sqn, shot down 5 Dec (POW); Flt Lt A V Kamat, 10 Sqn, shot down 9 Dec (POW).

This article was published in Defence Journal, September-October 2009 issue.

07 May 2009

Mirages at War

"Enemy pilots should see it, but never catch up with it.” [MARCEL DASSAULT]

At the outbreak of the 1971 Indo-Pak War, Mirage IIIEs were the newest and most advanced combat aircraft in the PAF inventory. Besides performing a wide variety of missions, they could generate a higher daily sortie rate compared to the aging F-86s, F-104s and B-57s. They could navigate accurately to relatively deeper targets and, after the attack, egress at high speed. They could carry out straight line, hit-and-run intercepts against raiders as adeptly as the F-104s, though the radar performance of both fighters was suspect against low-flying targets in ground clutter. Coupled with marginal performance of the five-odd low level AR-1 air defence radars which were interspersed with yawning gaps, the Mirages' intercept capability was of consequence during day only; at night-time, it was a chance in a million, as it were. Surface attack weaponry of the Mirage was not yet commensurate with the more capable platform that it was. PAF relied on the old vintage Mk-117 (750-lbs) high explosive bombs delivered from critical dive angles. Specialist anti-runway weapons had not been not been marketed by the French as yet. Air-to-air weapons included first generation AIM-9B Sidewinder heat-seeking missiles, whose two-degree wide field of view allowed only dead line astern attacks against backgrounds free of extraneous heat sources. Employment of the semi-active radar-guided Matra R-530 missile was found to be impractical in combat situations due to its stringent launch parameters and very short range, particularly at low level, where most of the interceptions were expected. It never saw operational use other than, what amounted to virtual jettisoning in one combat situation. High expectations from these modern Mirages were also tempered by the stark reality of having just one squadron to fulfil the myriad tasks. 23 Mirages – one aircraft had been lost earlier in a flying accident – were a meagre 8% of the 276 combat aircraft available at the outbreak of war. How the PAF would dovetail its much vaunted front-line element into the military’s overall strategic reckoning had to be carefully articulated in its concept of air operations.

Strategic Compulsion

Cognizant of the improbability of successfully holding its eastern wing against a determined Indian onslaught and a vigorous insurgency, Pakistani military planners came to be grounded in the conviction that ‘defence of the East lies in the West’. In practical terms, this aphorism meant that Pakistan would launch a major offensive into India from the western wing at the outset of any conflict. By threatening vital Indian assets in Kashmir and the Punjab, the Pakistan Army planners hoped to draw Indian forces away from the east and, gain enough time for outside powers to restrain an unmistakably rampant India. Additionally, any territory seized in the west could be offered as a sop to the countrymen for losses in East Pakistan. PAF’s concept of operations gave over-riding priority to supporting the Army’s proposed offensive. Air cover was sought to be established over the Army’s deep thrust till such time that it had dug in and established its own defences. It was also felt necessary to attack 4-5 Indian airfields that directly threatened the offensive once it was underway. To prevent timely arrival of logistic reinforcements, PAF was to interdict supplies directly serving the Indian forces; this meant attacking rail yards and other supply nodes soon after start of the offensive. Until the army’s offensive was launched, limited close air support during holding operations was to be provided. Tactical recce was to be conducted regularly to determine the changing disposition of enemy formations. Finally, PAF was to maintain pressure on the IAF with sustained disruptive strikes against some of its forward and rear bases, to accrue a measure of psychological ascendancy in the conduct of air operations. From PAF’s standpoint, it was easy to see that the modern Mirages were the weapon of choice for operations during the critical land battle planned for the western theatre. Yet, far from singling out these vital assets for the critical stage of the war only, it was boldly decided to employ them to the hilt in all phases. The bulk of No 5 Squadron was deployed at its parent Base, Sargodha, under command of Wg Cdr Hakimullah, formerly an old hand on the F-104s. A detachment of six aircraft, led by Sqn Ldr Farooq F Khan, was moved to the deeper located satellite Base of Mianwali to provide redundancy in the night intercept role and, also as a back-up strike element for the all-important land offensive. Mirages were thus poised to be at the forefront of PAF’s ‘coup de main’.

Softening Up

Contrary to the general perception, PAF’s dusk strikes of 3 December against some of the forward Indian airfields were not pre-emptory at all, as the Indian invasion of East Pakistan had already taken place in earnest, on 21 November. While these strikes were, of course, aimed at cratering runways and destroying radars, they also had an intrinsic ‘provocative’ element which the PAF planned to cleverly exploit through its well-prepared air defences, when IAF retaliated the following morning. Mirages got a small share of 8 airfield strike sorties in the opening round of the counter-air operations campaign that also included 24 airfield strikes by F-86s and 4 radar strikes by F-104s. Wg Cdr Hakimullah led a flight of 4 Mirages to Amritsar, while his flight commander, Sqn Ldr Aftab Alam, led another flight of 4 Mirages to Pathankot. Heading east into fast-fading light, Wg Cdr Hakimullah was able to take a cue from Amritsar runway lights, which were inexplicably glimmering when it should have been a complete black-out. His formation pulled up for a dive attack to deliver two 750-lb bombs each. Except for No 4, whose bombs did not release due to some malfunction, the rest were able to put in the attacks in the beginning of the runway. Sqn Ldr Aftab Alam’s formation did not have the good fortune of catching Pathankot with its lights on and could not execute a proper attack in the evening haze and low light. The bombs fell in the general vicinity of the airfield. Given the very short distance from the border, IAF was unable to scramble interceptors from the ground, so standing patrols should have been a sensible option. With no interceptors, all raiding aircraft came back unscathed. The disruptive raids were continued into the night by the B-57s. The missed strike at Pathankot was repeated by Sqn Ldr Aftab Alam’s formation the next afternoon. This time, all the bombs found their mark on the runway and taxi track. As they were exiting after delivering the attack, Nos 3 and 4 found a Gnat closing in behind them, with guns blazing. Thanks to their swift Mirages, they were easily able to get out of harm’s way. Mirages continued with the airfield strikes, flying for five more days. A mission each was flown on 5, 6, 8, 9 and 10 December. Awantipura airfield was added to the usual list of Amritsar and Pathankot. Wg Cdr Hakimullah, alongwith attached senior squadron pilots, Sqn Ldr Rao Akhtar and Sqn Ldr Arif Manzoor alternated as mission leaders for these subsequent strikes. With the threat of enemy interceptors increasing, it was decided to add a pair of escorts during the airfield strikes. Altogether, 38 strike sorties (including 8 escorts) were flown by Mirages against three forward airfields. This was almost one-fourth of the total daytime counter-air effort of 158 sorties flown by the PAF. As stated earlier, these airfield strikes were largely disruptive in nature and served the purpose of softening up, before the actual neutralisation that was to come later with the army’s offensive. Seen in that context, they do not seem measly in quantum, though where they fell short was in the ‘punch’. There is no reason to doubt the IAF assessment of the effects as “negligible/slight damage.” The runways were never out of operation for more than a few hours. The damage could have been longer lasting if special runway penetrating ordnance had been used, as the Israeli Air Force had done in 1967. Non-availability of such weapons led the PAF to resort to conventional iron bombs which would bounce off the runway and explode above the surface, causing more blast and less breach. Also, delivery from shallow dive angles to avoid exposure to Anti Aircraft Artillery (AAA) made the bombs skip off the surface even farther. The disruptive raids seem well worth the effort, however, considering that operational and maintenance activity on IAF forward bases was hampered, and no PAF aircraft was lost while conducting these very dangerous missions. On a few occasions when enemy interceptors managed to get behind an odd Mirage, the latter was able to outpace them, much like Dassault had imagined in his desert vision of a mirage whereby, “enemy pilots should see it but never catch up with it!”

Defending the Skies

Despite a biggish nose which housed a sizeable antenna promising long range pick-up at higher altitudes, the Cyrano II radar of the Mirage lacked the ability to distinguish low flying targets against ground clutter. This drawback rendered the Mirage completely dependent on ground-controlled interception at low level, much like its spares-stricken counterpart, the F-104. PAF’s five low level ground radars could cover just 7% of the eastern border of West Pakistan and were, therefore, deployed at the main bases and a few vulnerable approaches only. Air defence was, thus, largely a function of Combat Air Patrols (CAPs) being able to respond to chance pick-up of low flying targets by ground radars. Once vectored on to its target by ground control, the Mirage could accelerate fast enough to chase an intruder for whom there was little hope of escape. The test of the Mirage’s capabilities as an interceptor came on the night of 4 December, when Flt Lt Naeem Atta was scrambled from Mianwali. The ground controller, Flt Lt Khalid Kashmiri, vectored Atta on to an intruder heading west, towards Mianwali. The controller was able to position the Mirage three miles astern of the low flying target, but even with a nearly full moon, there was no prospect of visual contact at that distance. As the Salt Range loomed ahead, the target started climbing to avoid the hilly terrain. Fortuitously for Atta, this meant that the target was also easing out of ground clutter and there was a good probability that it would be ‘painted’ by the Cyrano radar. Unknown to Atta, his radar had been in standby mode, as he had not been careful in selecting his switches in a hurry. On the radar controller's reminder, Atta rechecked the selection to transmit mode, and was soon able to report a blip on his radar scope at an optimum IR-missile shooting distance of one-and-a-half mile, dead tail-on. Following radar lock-on, the missile’s seeker head swung to the heat source and, a growl in Atta’s earphones confirmed a launch-ready condition; the intruder’s fate was sealed. Moments after launching the AIM-9B Sidewinder, Atta saw a huge fireball silhouetting an aircraft in the night sky. Next morning, the wreckage of a Canberra (IF 916) was confirmed at the village of Nara located at the western edge of the Salt Range, not too far from Khushab town. The aircrew, including the pilot Flt Lt Lloyd Sasoon and navigator Flt Lt Ram Advani, belonging to the Agra-based Jet Bomber Conversion Unit, were killed on impact. [1]

Not far from Mianwali is Sakesar, a small PAF Base perched on the picturesque Salt Range at an elevation of 5,000 feet. The Base housed a high-powered FPS-20 radar as well as the vital Sector Operations Centre – North. At mid-day on 5 December, the IAF had made an attempt at attacking the radar, which cost it dearly, as two Hunters were shot down by a patrolling pair of F-6s. Later that afternoon, a lone intrepid Hunter was able to sneak in for a successful rocketing attack. After the attack a clean getaway for a singleton, right under the noses of patrolling interceptors, was an improbable prospect. As expected, the Hunter was intercepted by two Mirages scrambled from Mianwali. The pair was led by Flt Lt Safdar Mahmood, with Flg Off Sohail Hameed as his wingman. Diving down from the hills, the Hunter had built up speed, but not enough to elude the far swifter Mirages. With the help of instructions from the ground controller Flt Lt Shaukat Jamil, Safdar was able to catch up and settle behind the Hunter, to start his shooting drill. A couple of well-placed bursts of the 30-mm cannon got the Hunter smoking. As Safdar held off while watching his quarry in its last throes, Sohail picked up the smouldering aircraft and let off a Sidewinder missile to finish it off. Just before the aircraft impacted the ground, the pilot ejected but it was too late. Sqn Ldr Jal Mistry of No 20 Squadron was found fatally injured. The wreckage of the Hunter (A 1014) was strewn near the small town of Kattha Saghral.

Chamb was one of the few sectors where Pak Army had made significant advances and the Indian XV Corps desperately sought destruction of heavy guns that had been reported in the area. On 6 December, a pair of Su-7s from Adampur-based No 101 Sqn was tasked to locate and destroy the guns. The Su-7s sought out what appeared like hutments concealing the artillery pieces and were rocketing the place. Flt Lt Salimuddin Awan and his wingman Flt Lt Riazuddin Shaikh, who were patrolling in their Mirages over Gujranwala-Sheikhupura area, were vectored by ground radar onto the two Su-7s. Salimuddin, who was carrying a R-530 radar-guided missile alongwith two Sidewinders, decided to get rid of the bulky weapon by just blindly firing it off, so as to lighten up for the chase. Spotting the Mirages, the Su-7s jettisoned their drop tanks and rocket pods and started exiting east. With the Su-7s doing full speed, a long chase ensued till Riazuddin found himself close enough to fire a missile, but it went straight into the ground. Salimuddin then moved in and, on hearing the lock-on growl, pressed the missile launch button, not once but twice, to be sure. Two Sidewinder missiles shot off from the rails and, moments later, Riazuddin called out that one of the Su-7s had been hit. Salimuddin instantly switched to the other Su-7 and fired his 30-mm cannon. Just then, Salimuddin noted the outlines of Madhopur Headworks near Pathankot, which was not surprising, as they had been chasing the Su-7s for several minutes inside enemy territory, along the Jammu-Kathua Road. Recollecting themselves, the Mirages turned back and recovered at Sargodha with precariously low fuel. Monitoring of VHF radio confirmed a message transmitted to Adampur that an Su-7 had been “fired at … the pilot ejected”. It was later learnt that the wingman, Flt Lt Vijay Wahi had succumbed to his ejection injuries. The leader, Sqn Ldr Ashok Shinde, was lucky to bring back his Su-7 which had been damaged by bullet hits. High-speed pursuit was a forte of the Mirage, a lesson learnt by the IAF the hard way and, one time too late. Mirages flew a total of 317 air defence sorties (221 during day, 96 at night) which was 18% of the overall air defence effort. [2] With three IAF aircraft shot down, the Mirage kill rate, based on the total air defence sorties flown, came to be .95%. This compares quite favourably with kill rates of other PAF fighters which performed air defence missions: F-86F -1.2%, F-86E -1.1% and F-6 - 0.74%.

Scouting the Troops

PAF had three Mirage IIIRs, which were equipped with five OMERA Type 31 optical cameras mounted in the nose. With a Doppler navigation radar available, getting to a destination was fairly easy. Magnesium flares provided enough illumination at night to confer a round-the-clock tactical reconnaissance capability. The number of aircraft was, however, on the low side and did not sufficiently cater for unserviceabilities. A month prior to the outbreak of all-out war, the PAF had started to fly cross-border photo recce sorties, some of which were in the vital Chamb Sector, where the Pak Army’s 23 Division had planned a secondary ‘diversionary’ offensive. With the disposition of forces well-known, the attack resulted in significant advances that threatened India’s overland links to Kashmir, besides depriving Indian forces from establishing a launch pad for offensive operations towards the vital lines of communication passing through nearby Gujrat. Early in the war, another important breakthrough came in the Suleimanki-Fazilka Sector, where 105 Independent Infantry Brigade (IV Corps) was able to surprise the Indian ‘Foxtrot’ Force and, made a firm foothold in the area of Pak II Corps’ planned main offensive. While the Indian forces desperately carried out repeated counter attacks, PAF Mirages conducted regular photo recce missions in Ferozepur area to update the ground commanders about Indian reinforcement efforts aimed at vacating the incursion. In the event, a badly demoralised and confused Foxtrot Force could not make any headway and the Pakistani brigade was able to safeguard the vital Suleimanki Headworks, which was only a mile from the border. In preparation for the main offensive, PAF Mirages fervently conducted photo recce missions along Ferozepur-Kot Kapura, Ferozepur-Fazilka and Fazilka-Muktasar railway networks, as well as in general areas of Ferozepur and Sri Ganganagar, for the latest disposition of forces. An important mission involved recce of crossing points over Gang Canal for a careful scrutiny of obstacles across the waterway that could possibly impede the movement of II Corps. The main offensive could, however, not materialise as explained later, and most of the photo recce effort was rendered worthless. Two pilots who played a sterling role in the photo recce operations were the squadron’s ‘slide rule wizards’, Sqn Ldr Farooq Umar and Flt Lt Najib Akhtar. Of the 30 photo recce sorties (besides 15 escorts) flown by No 5 Squadron before and during the war, 22 were considered successful. [3] Although most of the singleton recce Mirages were escorted by another Mirage, yet some of the missions had to be aborted due to intense enemy air activity. In Shakargarh Sector, a few night recce missions were attempted with partial success. In one such mission on the night of 11 December, an IAF MiG-21 scrambled to intercept a Mirage flown by Sqn Ldr Farooq Umar, ended up shooting down one of its own MiG-21s flown by Flt Lt A B Dhavle, which was patrolling in the vicinity. Four-odd Bomb Damage Assessment missions were also flown following the initial strikes on runways. These helped in better planning of subsequent airfield strike missions.

Interdiction of Supplies

One of the hugely successful missions of the war was an attack on Mukerian Railway Station. On 15 December, Wg Cdr Hakimullah was tasked to lead a four-ship mission to attack Bhangala Railway Station on Jalandhar-Pathankot railway line. After pulling up for the attack, he was dismayed to discover that there was no rolling stock in sight, but he decided to try his luck further south along the railway line. Having flown a mere 30 seconds, he overflew Mukerian Railway Station which was bustling with trains. Peeling off into the attack pattern, the four Mirages set themselves for single-pass dive attacks with two 750-lb bombs each. According to Hakimullah’s estimate, there were at least 100 freight bogies latched to different trains berthed adjacent to each other. The Mirages released their bombs one by one though No 4, who had hung ordnance, pulled off dry. The impact of the bombs on fuel and ammunition laden trains was so furious that the blasts shook the aircraft; No 2’s drop tanks sheared off with the shock wave but he was able to fly back without any further damage. The Mirages had so far been striking at shallow targets, but with the time for the main offensive running out, it was decided to use them more audaciously. It was ironic that one of the most significant interdiction missions was also the one and only flown by Mirages, before the curtain fell two days later.

Drop Scene

Pakistan Army’s plan in the west called for the beginning of offensive operations five or six days after an Indian attack in the east. These, however, were meant to be secondary operations, essentially distractions, designed to fix the enemy and to divert his attention away from the intended site of the main attack by II Corps. With one armoured and two infantry divisions, II Corps was to strike into India from the Bahawalnagar area approximately three days after the secondary attacks. II Corps was to drive east to cross the international border, before turning to the northeast to push for Bhatinda and wishfully, beyond. It was expected that most of India’s armoured reserves would have become embroiled in Pakistan’s defences in the Shakargarh salient during this three-day interval between the secondary attacks and the main effort. After much prodding by the Army’s field formation commanders as well as the PAF C-in-C, the vacillating GHQ reluctantly issued orders for II Corps to shift to its forward assembly areas on 14 December; elements of 1 Armoured Division began to move the following day. By this time, however, the other major component of II Corps ie, 33 Division, had already been detached to reinforce the beleaguered I Corps in the north and 18 Division in the south, where things were not going well for the Pakistan Army. As a consequence, II Corps was deprived of almost one third of its striking power before the offensive had even begun. On the evening of 16 December, however, new instructions arrived from GHQ, “freezing all movements” until further notice. Following capitulation of forces in the Eastern Wing, Pakistan accepted a cease fire on 17 December. Mirages – which were expected to reduce the IAF’s weight of attack by neutralising 4-5 IAF airfields once the main offensive was underway – could, thus, not be utilised for the critical task that had been meticulously planned for months.

Report Card

During the 14-day war, Mirages flew a total of 390 sorties which was 13% of PAF’s overall war effort of 2,955 sorties. [5] For a relatively new and modern weapon system, the Mirage achieved a modest aircraft Utilisation Rate of 1.6 sorties per aircraft per day during the war. [4] While it fell short of the planned 2.2 daily sorties, it reflected a cautious conduct of the war whereby the PAF was held back, so that everything could be thrown in during the army’s main offensive which, in the event, never came through. Wg Cdr Hakimullah, who very ably commanded the Mirage squadron during the war and, also led several dangerous missions in enemy territory, was awarded the Sitara-i-Jur’at (Star of Valour). That coveted award also went to Sqn Ldr Farooq Umar, the senior flight commander of the squadron, who had flown many useful photo recce missions in enemy areas infested with patrolling fighters. The three pilots who shot down IAF aircraft were content with having joined the elite club of fighter pilots with aerial kills. A month after the war, the PAF was able to line up 22 Mirages for all to see on the tarmac at Sargodha, while the 23rd Mirage was under maintenance in a hangar.[6] The impressive sight belied claims of any losses that had been incurred by the Mirage fleet during the war.


[1] The Canberra's 'Orange Putter' tail warning radar (an active device) was prone to picking up ground clutter and, was usually turned off by the pilots at lower altitudes. It is likely that Sasoon had also turned it off, to avoid false alarms that would have been triggered over the hilly terrain.
[2] Official PAF Records.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Utilisation Rate is based on an average aircraft serviceability of 75%. The Mirage-III wartime UR is calculated thus: UR = 395 sorties ÷ 17 aircraft ÷ 14 days = 1.6.
[6] A picture of the lined-up Mirages appeared in Air Enthusiast, May 1972 issue.

This article was published in Defence Journal, May 2009 issue and, Shaheen - Journal of the Pakistan Air Force, Vol 60.

28 January 2009

Kargil Conflict and Pakistan Air Force

Pakistani writings on Kargil conflict have been few; those that did come out were largely irrelevant and in a few cases, were clearly sponsored. The role of the PAF has been discussed off and on, but mostly disparagingly, particularly in some uninformed quarters. Here is an airman’s perspective, focusing on the IAF’s air operations and the PAF’s position.

Operational Planning in the PAF

Since an important portion of this write-up pertains to the PAF’s appreciation of the situation and the decision-making loop during the Kargil conflict, we will start with a brief primer on PAF’s hierarchy and how operational matters are handled at the Air Headquarters.

The policy-making elements at Air Headquarters consist of four-tiers of staff officers. The top-most tier is made up of the Deputy Chiefs of Air Staff (DCAS) who are the Principal Staff Officers (PSOs) of their respective branches and are nominally headed by the Vice Chief of Air Staff (VCAS). They (along with Air Officers Commanding, the senior representatives from field formations) are members of the Air Board, PAF’s ‘corporate’ decision-making body which is chaired by the Chief of the Air Staff (CAS). The next tier is made up of Assistant Chiefs of Air Staff (ACAS) who head various sub-branches, and along with the third-tier Directors, assist the PSOs in policy-making; they are not on the Air Board, but can be called for hearings and presentations in the Board meetings, as required. A fourth tier of Deputy Directors does most of the sundry staff work in this policy-making hierarchy.

The Operations & Plans branch is the key player in any war, conflict or contingency and is responsible for threat assessment and formulation of a suitable response. During peace-time, war plans are drawn up by the Plans sub-branch and are then war-gamed in operational exercises run by the sister Operations sub-branch. Operational training is accordingly restructured and administered by the latter, based on the lessons of various exercises. This essentially is the gist of PAF’s operational preparedness methodology, the efficiency of which is amply reflected in its readiness and telling response in various wars and skirmishes in the past.

In early 1999, Air Chief Marshal Parvaiz Mehdi Qureshi was at the helm of the PAF. An officer with an imposing personality, he had won the Sword of Honour at the Academy. During the 1971 Indo-Pak War, as a young Flight Lieutenant, he was on a close support mission in erstwhile East Pakistan when his Sabre was shot down and he was taken POW. He determinedly resumed his fighter pilot’s career after repatriation and rose to command PAF’s premier Sargodha Base. He was later appointed as the AOC, Southern Air Command, an appointment that affords considerable interaction amongst the three services, especially in operational exercises. He also held the vitally important post of DCAS (Ops) as well as the VCAS before taking over as CAS.

The post of DCAS (Ops) was held by the late Air Marshal Zahid Anis. A well-qualified fighter pilot, he had a distinguished career in the PAF, having held some of the most sought-after appointments. These included command of No 38 Tactical Wing (F-16s), the elite Combat Commanders’ School and PAF Base, Sargodha. He was the AOC, Southern Air Command before his appointment as the head of the Operations branch at the Air Headquarters. He had done his Air War Course at the PAF’s Air War College, another War Course at the French War College as well as the prestigious Defence Studies course at the Royal College of Defence Studies in UK.

The ACAS (Ops) was Air Cdre Abid Rao, who had recently completed command of PAF Base, Mianwali. He had earlier done his War Course from the French War College.

The ACAS (Plans) was the late Air Cdre Saleem Nawaz, a brilliant officer who had made his mark at the Staff College at Bracknell, UK and during the War Course at the National Defence College, Islamabad.

There is no gainsaying the fact that PAF’s hierarchy was highly qualified, and that each one of the players in the Operations branch had the requisite command and staff experience. The two top men had also fought in the 1971 Indo-Pak War, albeit as junior officers.

First Rumblings

As Director of Operations (in the rank of Gp Capt), my first opportunity to interact with the Army’s Director of Military Operations (DMO) was over a phone call, some time in March 1999. Brig Nadeem Ahmed called with great courtesy and requested some information that he needed for a paper exercise, as he told me. He wanted to know when had the PAF last carried out a deployment at Skardu, how many aircraft were deployed, etc. Rather impressed with the Army’s interest in PAF matters, I passed on the requisite details. The next day, Brig Nadeem called again, but this time his questions were more probing and he wanted some classified information including fuel storage capacity at Skardu, fighter sortie-generation capacity, radar coverage, etc. He insisted that he was preparing a briefing and wanted to get his facts and figures right, in front of his bosses. We got on a secure telephone line and I passed on the required information. Although he made it sound like routine contingency planning, I sensed that something unusual was brewing. In the event, I thought it prudent to inform the DCAS (Ops). Just to be sure, he checked up with his counterpart, the Director General Military Operations (DGMO), Maj Gen Tauqir Zia, who said the same thing as his DMO, and assured that it was just part of routine contingency planning

Not withstanding the DGMO’s assurance, a cautious Air Marshal Zahid decided to check things for himself and despatched Gp Capt Tariq Ashraf, Officer Commanding of No 33 Wing at PAF Base, Kamra, to look matters over at Skardu and make a report. Within a few days, Gp Capt Tariq (who was also the designated war-time commander of Skardu Base) had completed his visit, which included his own periodic war-readiness inspection. While he made a detailed report to the DCAS (Ops), he let me in on the Army’s mobilisation and other preparations that he had seen in Skardu. His analysis was that ‘something big is imminent.’ Helicopter flying activity was feverishly high as Army Aviation’s Mi-17s were busy moving artillery guns and ammunition to the mountain tops. Troops in battle gear were to be seen all over the city. Interestingly, Messes were abuzz with war chatter amongst young officers. In retrospect, one wonders how Indian intelligence agencies failed to read any such signs, many weeks before the operation unfolded.

After hearing Gp Capt Tariq’s report, Air Marshal Zahid again got in touch with Maj Gen Tauqir, and in a roundabout way, told him that if the Army’s ongoing ‘review of contingency plans’ required the PAF to be factored in, an Operations & Plans team would be available for discussion. Nothing was heard from the GHQ till 12 May, when Air Marshal Zahid was told to send a team for a briefing at HQ 10 Corps with regard to the ‘Kashmir Contingency’.

Air Cdre Abid Rao, Air Cdre Saleem Nawaz and myself were directed by the DCAS (Ops) to attend a briefing on the ‘latest situation in Kashmir’ at HQ 10 Corps. We were welcomed by the Chief of Staff (COS) of the Corps, who led us to the briefing room. Shortly thereafter, the Corps Commander, Lt Gen Mahmood Ahmed entered, cutting an impressive figure clad in a bush-coat and his trademark camouflage scarf. After exchanging pleasantries, the COS started with the map orientation briefing. Thereafter, Lt Gen Mahmood took over and broke the news that a limited operation had started two days earlier. It was nothing more than a ‘protective manoeuvre’, he explained, and was meant to foreclose any further mischief by the enemy, who had been a nuisance in the Neelum Valley, specially on the road on our side of the Line of Control (LOC). He then elaborated that a few vacant Indian posts had been occupied on peaks across the LOC, overlooking the Dras-Kargil Road. These would, in effect, serve the purpose of Airborne Observation Posts (AOP) meant for directing artillery fire with accuracy. Artillery firepower would be provided by a few field guns that had been heli-lifted to the heights, piecemeal, and re-assembled over the previous few months when the Indians had been off-guard during the winter extremes. The target was a vulnerable section of Dras-Kargil Road, whose blocking would virtually cut off the crucial life-line which carried the bulk of supplies needed for daily consumption as well as annual winter-stocking in Leh-Siachen Sector. He was very hopeful that this stratagem could choke off the Indians in the vital sector for up to a month, after which the monsoons would prevent vehicular movement (due to landslides), and also suspend all airlift by the IAF. “Come October, we shall walk in to Siachen – to mop up the dead bodies of hundreds of Indians left hungry, out in the cold,” he succinctly summed up what appeared to be a new dimension to the Siachen dispute. It also seemed to serve, at least for the time being, the secondary aim of alleviating Indian military pressure on Pakistani lines of communications in the Neelum Valley that the Corps Commander had alluded to in his opening remarks. (The oft-heard strategic aim of ‘providing a fillip to the insurgency in Kashmir’ was never mentioned.)

When Lt Gen Mahmood asked for questions at the end of the rather crisp and to-the-point briefing, Air Cdre Saleem Nawaz opened up by inquiring about the type of air support that might be needed for the operation. Lt Gen Mahmood assured us that air support was not envisaged and that his forces could take care of enemy aircraft, if they intervened. “I have Stingers on every peak,” he announced. Air Cdre Saleem tried to point out the limited envelope of these types of missiles, and said that nothing stopped the IAF from attacking the posts and artillery pieces from high altitude. To this, Lt Gen Mahmood’s reply was that his troops were well camouflaged and concealed, and that IAF pilots would not be able to pick out the posts from the air. As the discussion became more animated, I asked the Corps Commander if he was sure the Indians would not use their artillery to vacate our incursion, given the criticality of the situation from their standpoint. He replied that the Dras-Kargil stretch did not allow for positioning of the hundreds of guns that would be required, due to lack of depth; in any case, it would be suicidal for the Indians to denude artillery firepower from any other sector as defensive balance had to be maintained. He gave the example of the Kathua-Jammu Sector where the Indians had a compulsion to keep the bulk of their modern Bofors guns due to vulnerability of the vital road link to our offensive elements.

It seemed from the Corps Commander’s smug appreciation of the situation that the Indians had been tightly straitjacketed in Dras-Kargil Sector and had no option but to submit to our operational design. More significantly, an alternate action like a strategic riposte by the Indians in another sector had been rendered out of question, given the nuclear environment. Whether resort to an exterior manoeuvre (diplomatic offensive) by the beleaguered Indians had crossed the planners’ minds, it was not discernable in the Corps Commander’s elucidation.

Perhaps it was the incredulousness of the whole thing that led Air Cdre Abid Rao to famously quip, “After this operation, it’s going to be either a Court Martial or Martial Law!” as we walked out of the briefing room.

Back at the Air Headquarters, we briefed the DCAS(Ops) about what had transpired at the 10 Corps briefing. His surprise at the developments, as well as his concern about the possibility of events spiralling out of control, could not remain concealed behind his otherwise unflappable demeanour. We all were also piqued at being left out of the Army’s planning, though we were given to believe that it was a ‘limited tactical action’ in which the PAF would not be required – an issue that none of us agreed with. Presented with a fait accompli, we decided not to lose any more time, and while the DCAS (Ops) went to brief the CAS about the situation, we set about gearing up for a hectic routine. The operations room was quickly updated with the latest large-scale maps and air recce photos of the area; communications links with concerned agencies were also revamped in a short time. Deployment orders were issued, and within the next 48 hours, the bulk of combat elements were in-situ at their war locations.

IAF – By Fits & Starts

The IAF deployments in Kashmir, for what came to be known as ‘Operation Safedsagar’, commenced on 15 May with the bulk of operational assets positioned by 18 May. 150 combat aircraft were deployed as follows:

> Srinagar - 34 (MiG-21, MiG-23, MiG-27)
> Awantipur - 28 (MiG-21, MiG-29, Jaguar)
> Udhampur - 12 (MiG-21)
> Pathankot - 30 (MiG-21, MiG-23)
> Adampur - 46 (Mir-2000, MiG-29, Jaguar)

One-third of the aircraft were modern, ‘high-threat’ fighters equipped with Beyond Visual Range (BVR) air-to-air missiles. During the preparatory stage, air defence alert status (5 minutes to scramble from ground) was maintained while Mirage-2000s and Jaguars carried out photo-reconnaissance along the Line of Control (LOC) and aging Canberras carried out electronic intelligence (ELINT) to ferret out locations of PAF air defence sensors. Last minute honing of strafing and rocketing skills was carried out by pilots at an air-to-ground firing range near Leh.

Operations by IAF started in earnest on 26 May, 17 days after a major attack by Pakistani infiltrators on an ammunition dump in Kargil. The salient feature of this initial phase was strafing and rocketing of the intruders’ positions by MiG-21, MiG-23BN and MiG-27. All operations (except air defence) came to a sudden standstill on 28 May, after two IAF fighters and a helicopter were lost – a MiG-21 and a Mi-17 to Pak Army surface-to-air missiles (SAMs), while a MiG-27 went down due to engine trouble caused by gun gas ingestion during high altitude strafing. (Incidentally, the pilot of the MiG-27 Flt Lt Nachiketa, who ejected and was apprehended, had a tête-à-tête with this author during an interesting ‘interrogation’ session.)

The results achieved by the IAF in the first two days were dismal. Serious restraints seem to have been imposed on the freedom of action of IAF fighters in what was basically a search-and-destroy mission. Lt Gen Mahmood’s rant about a ‘Stinger on every peak’ seemed true. It was obvious that the IAF had under-estimated the SAM threat. The mood in Pak Army circles was that of undiluted elation, and the PAF was expected to sit it out while sharing the khakis’ glee.

The IAF immediately went into a reappraisal mode and came out with GPS-assisted high altitude bombing by MiG-21, MiG-23BN and MiG-27 as a makeshift solution. In the meantime, quick modification on the Mirage-2000 for day/night laser bombing kits (Litening pods) was initiated with the help of Israelis. Conventional bombing that started incessantly after a two-day operational hiatus, was aimed at harassment and denial of respite to the infiltrators, with consequent adverse effects on morale. The results of this part of the campaign were largely insignificant, mainly because the target coordinates were not known accurately; the nature of the terrain too, precluded precision. A few cases of fratricide by IAF led it to be even more cautious.

By 16 June, IAF was able to open up the laser-guided bombing campaign with the help of Jaguars and Mirage-2000. Daily photo-recce along the LOC by Jaguars escorted by Mirage-2000s, which had continued from the beginning of operations, proved crucial to both the aerial bombing campaign as well as the Indian artillery, helping the latter in accurately shelling Pakistani positions in the Dras-Kargil and Gultari Sectors. While the photo-recce missions typically did not involve deliberate border violations, there were a total of 37 ‘technical violations’ (which emanate as a consequence of kinks and bends in the geographical boundaries). Typically, these averaged to a depth of five nautical miles, except on one occasion when the IAF fighters apparently cocked-a-snoot at the PAF and came in 13 miles deep.

The Mirage-2000s scored at least five successful laser-guided bomb hits on forward dumping sites and posts. During the last days of operations which ended on 12 July, it was clear that delivery accuracy had improved considerably. Even though night bombing accuracy was suspect, round-the-clock attacks had made retention of posts untenable for Pakistani infiltrators. Photo-recce of Pakistani artillery gun positions also made them vulnerable to Indian artillery.

The IAF flew a total of 550 strike missions against infiltrator positions including bunkers and supply depots. The coordinates of these locations were mostly picked up from about 150 reconnaissance and communications intelligence missions. In addition, 500 missions were flown for air defence and for escorting strike and recce missions.

While the Indians had been surprised by the infiltration in Kargil, the IAF mobilised and reacted rapidly as the Indian Army took time to position itself. Later, when the Indian Army had entrenched itself, the IAF supplemented and filled in where the artillery could not be positioned in force. Clearly, Army-Air joint operations had a synergistic effect in evicting the intruders.

PAF in a Bind

From the very beginning of Kargil operations, PAF was entrapped by a circumstantial absurdity: it was faced with the ludicrous predicament of having to provide air support to infiltrators already disowned by the Pakistan Army leadership! In any case, it took some effort to impress on the latter that crossing the LOC by fighters laden with bombs was not, by any stretch of imagination, akin to lobbing a few artillery shells to settle scores. There was no doubt in the minds of PAF Air Staff that the first cross-border attack (whether across LOC or the international border) would invite an immediate response from the IAF, possibly in the shape of a retaliatory strike against the home base of the intruding fighters, thus starting the first round. PAF’s intervention meant all-out war: this unmistakable conclusion was conveyed to the Prime Minister, Mr Nawaz Sharif, by the Air Chief in no equivocal terms.

Short of starting an all-out war, PAF looked at some saner options that could put some wind in the sails after doldrums had been hit. Air Marshal Najib Akhtar, the Air Officer Commanding of Air Defence Command was co-opted by the Air Staff to sift the possibilities. Audacious and innovative in equal parts, Air Marshal Najib had an excellent knowledge about our own and the enemy’s Air Defence Ground Environment (ADGE). He had conceived and overseen the unprecedented heli-lift of a low-looking radar to a 12,000-ft mountain top on the forbidding, snow-clad Deosai Plateau. The highly risky operation became possible with the help of some courageous flying by Army Aviation pilots. With good low level radar cover now available up to the LOC, Air Marshal Najib along with the Air Staff focused on fighter sweep (a mission flown to destroy patrolling enemy fighters) as a possible option.

To prevent the mission from being seen as an escalatory step in the already charged atmosphere, PAF had to lure Indian fighters into its own territory, ie Azad Kashmir or the Northern Areas. That done, a number of issues had to be tackled. What if the enemy aircraft were hit in our territory but fell across, providing a pretext to India as a doubly aggrieved party? What if one of our own aircraft fell, no matter if the exchange was one-to-one (or better)? Finally, even if we were able to pull off a surprise, would it not be a one-off incident, with the IAF becoming wiser in quick time? The over-arching consideration was the BVR missile capability of IAF fighters which impinged unfavourably on the mission success probability. The conclusion was that a replication of the famous four-Vampire rout of 1st September 1965 by two Sabres might not be possible. The idea of a fighter sweep thus fizzled out as quickly as it came up for discussion.

While the PAF looked at some offensive options, it had a more pressing defensive issue at hand. The IAF’s minor border violations during recce missions were not of grave consequence in so far as no bombing had taken place in our territory; however, the fact that these missions helped the enemy refine its air and artillery targeting, was, to say the least, disconcerting. There were constant reports of our troops on the LOC disturbed to see, or hear, IAF fighters operating with apparent impunity. The GHQ took the matter up with the AHQ and it was resolved that Combat Air Patrols (CAPs) would be flown by the F-16s operating out of Minhas (Kamra) and Sargodha. This arrangement resulted in less on-station time but was safer than operating out of vulnerable Skardu, which had inadequate early warning in the mountainous terrain; its status as a turn-around facility was, however, considered acceptable for its location. A flight of F-7s was, nonetheless, deployed primarily for point defence of the important garrison town of Skardu as well as the air base.

F-16 CAPs could not have been flown all day long as spares support was limited under the prevailing US sanctions. Random CAPs were resorted to, with a noticeable drop in border violations only as long as the F-16s were on station. There were a few cases of F-16s and Mirage-2000s locking their adversaries with the on-board radars, but caution usually prevailed and no close encounters took place. After one week of CAPs, the F-16 maintenance personnel indicated that war reserve spares were being eaten into and that the activity had to be ‘rationalised’, a euphemism for discontinuing it altogether. That an impending war occupied the Air Staff’s minds was evident in the decision by the DCAS (Ops) for F-16 CAPs to be discontinued, unless IAF activity became unbearably provocative or threatening.

Those not aware of the gravity of the F-16 operability problem under sanctions have complained of the PAF’s lack of cooperation. Suffice it to say that if the PAF had been included in the initial planning, this anomaly (along with many others) would have emerged as a mitigating factor against the Kargil adventure. It is another matter that the Army high command did not envisage operations ever coming to such a pass. Now, it was almost as if the PAF was to blame for the Kargil venture spiralling out of control.

It must also be noted  that other than F-16s, the PAF did not have a capable enough fighter for patrolling, as the minimum requirement in this scenario was an on-board airborne intercept radar, exceptional agility and sufficient staying power. F-7s had reasonably good manoeuvrability but lacked an intercept radar as well as endurance, while the ground attack Mirage-III/5s and A-5s were sitting ducks for the air combat mission.

In sum, the PAF found it expedient not to worry too much about minor border violations and instead, conserve resources for the larger conflagration that was looming. All the same, it gave the enemy no pretext for retaliation in the face of any provocation, though this latter stance irked some quarters in the Army that were desperate to ‘equal the match’. Might it strike to some that PAF’s restraint in warding off a major conflagration may have been its paramount contribution to the Kargil conflict?


It has emerged that there were four principal protagonists of the Kargil adventure viz, General Pervez Musharraf: Chief of Army Staff (COAS), Lt Gen Aziz Khan: Chief of General Staff (CGS), Lt Gen Mahmood Ahmed: Commander 10 Corps, and Maj Gen Javed Hasan: Commander Force Command Northern Areas (FCNA). The clique, in previous ranks and appointments, had been associated with planning during paper exercises on how to wrest control of lost territory in Siachen. The DGMO, Maj Gen Tauqir Zia was less than enthusiastic about the plan, but went along anyway.

The plan had once earlier been out up to the previous Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, but she had not found it acceptable due to possible international repercussions. She was well-versed in geopolitics, and all too intelligent to be taken in by the chicanery. It fell to the wisdom of her successor, Mr Nawaz Sharif, to approve the Army clique's self-serving briefing.

In an effort to keep the plan secret, which was thought to be the key to its successful initiation, the Army trio took no one into confidence, neither its own operational commanders nor the heads of the other services. This, regrettably, resulted in a closed-loop thought process which engendered a string of oversights and failures:
  • Failure to grasp the wider military and diplomatic ramifications of a limited tactical operation that had the potential of creating major strategic effects.
  • Failure to correctly visualise the response of a powerful enemy to what was, in effect, a major blow in a disputed sector.
  • Failure to spell out the specific aim to field commanders, who acted on their own to needlessly capture territory and expand the scope of the operation to unmanageable levels.
  • Failure to appreciate the inability of the Army officers to evaluate the capabilities and limitations of an Air Force.
  • Failure to coordinate contingency plans at the tri-services level.
The flaws in the Kargil Plan that led to these failures were almost palpable, and could not have escaped even a layman’s attention during a cursory examination. The question arises as to why all the planners got blinded to the obvious? Could it be that some of the sub-ordinates had the sight but not the nerve in the face of a powerful superior? In hierarchical organisations, there is precious little room for dissent, but in autocratic ones like the military, it takes more than a spine to disagree, for there are very few commanders who are large enough to allow such liberties. It is out of fear of annoying the superior – which also carries with it manifold penalties and loss of promotion and perks – that the majority decide to go along with the wind.

In a country where democratic traditions have never been deep-rooted, it is no big exposé to point out that the military is steeped in an authoritarian, rather than a consensual approach. To my mind, there is an urgent need to inculcate a more liberal culture that accommodates different points of view – a more lateral approach, so to speak. Disagreement during planning should be systemically tolerated, and not taken as a personal affront. Unfortunately, many in higher ranks seem to think that rank alone confers wisdom, and anyone displaying signs of intelligence at an earlier stage is, somehow, an alien in their ‘star-spangled’ universe.

Kargil, I suspect, like the ‘65 and ‘71 Wars, was a case of not having enough dissenters (‘devil’s advocates’, if you will) during planning, because everyone wanted to agree with the boss. That single reason, I think, was the root cause of most of the failures that were apparent right from the beginning. If this point is understood well, remedial measures towards tolerance and liberalism can follow as a matter of course. Such an organisational milieu, based on honest appraisal and fearless appeal, would be conducive to sound and sensible planning. It would also go a long way in precluding Kargil-like disasters.


Come change-over time of the Chief of Air Staff in 2001, President Musharraf struck at PAF’s top leadership in what can only be described as implacable action: he passed over all five Air Marshals and appointed the sixth-in-line who was practically an Air Vice Marshal till a few weeks before. While disregarding of seniority in the appointment of service chiefs has historically been endemic in the country, the practice has been seen as breeding nepotism and partiality, besides leaving a trail of conjecture and gossip in the ranks. Given Air Chief Marshal Mehdi’s rather straight-faced and forthright dealings with General Musharraf, particularly during Kargil conflict, there is good reason to believe that the latter decided to appoint a not-very-senior Air Chief whom he could order around like one of his Corps Commanders. (As it turned out, Air Chief Marshal Mus’haf was as solid as his predecessor and gave no quarter when it came to PAF’s interests.) Whatever the reason of bypassing seniority, it was unfortunate that PAF’s precious corporate experience was thrown out so crassly and several careers destroyed. Lives and honour lost in Kargil is another matter.


This article was published in Air Forces Monthly (UK) - June 2009 issue, under the title 'Himalayan Showdown'. The article was also published in Defence Journal (Pak), May 2009 issue.