29 December 2010

Air Defence in Southern Sector - 1971 War

No 32 Fighter Ground Attack Wing at Masroor was a large composite Unit, half of whose assets had been moved to the northern bases. What remained of the fighter units included No 19 Squadron with a healthy count of 26 F-86E/F [1]. No 9 Squadron moved in from Sargodha on 6 December with 7 F-104As, after completing a few strikes against forward radars in Indian Punjab. A much belated but welcome reinforcement of the air defence assets were ten Royal Jordanian Air Force F-104As that arrived in two batches, starting 13 December. A small 19-Squadron detachment of four F-86Es was positioned at the forward base of Talhar (located 100-nm east of Masroor) as the first tier of defence against raids emanating from the eastern direction, besides providing a quick-reaction force for the defence of the high-powered radar at nearby Badin.

In case of Masroor being knocked out, the runways at Drigh Road Base and Karachi Airport were well-suited for emergency recoveries, though full-scale operations could not be supported at these locations due to scanty logistics support.

Between Masroor and the next northern base of Rafiqui lay a gap of at least 350-nm without fighter cover, through which traversed Pakistan’s vital north-south railway link running as close as 25-nm from the border. Elements of Pakistan Army’s No 18 Division, which were poised for an ill-planned offensive, also lay at the mercy of the IAF as no PAF aircraft were based anywhere close.

As in the rest of the country, control of the air was essentially based on air defence missions that relied upon non-existent or suspect early warning and, disruptive night airfield strikes, with uncertain results. Base Commander Masroor, Air Cdre Nazir Latif and OC No 32 Fighter Ground Attack Wing, Gp Capt Wiqar Azim had their hands full to juggle the limited assets for the seemingly endless tasks.

Just like his colleagues at Masroor, Gp Capt Anwar Shamim, the Sector Commander, Sector Operations Centre (South) located at its war-time site at Korangi [2], was confronted with a problem of inadequate assets, particularly low level radars and night interceptors. High level radar surveillance cover in the southern air defence sector rested upon a FPS-20 radar at Badin and a P-35 radar (ex-Dacca) [3] at Malir. Another P-35 radar, which was moved from Malir to Jacobabad mid-way in the war, became operational only when the war ended. A decrepit, fifties-vintage Type-21 radar was located near Khanpur; it was scrapped soon after the war, but may well have served a useful purpose of keeping the enemy guessing, as it spewed out queer waveforms at odd hours!

Low level cover was provided by a Civil Aviation ASR-4 approach radar at Karachi Airport and an AR-1 radar at Pir Patho. The latter location was supposed to cover the south-eastern approaches, but was an unfavourable compromise due to constraints of terrain, logistics and security. As a consequence, direct flight tracks from Jamnagar to Masroor remained on the fringes of the radar footprint, and could be easily bypassed by flying a dog-leg and hugging the coast [4]. Practically thus, low level early warning in the whole southern sector rested on the reports by Mobile Observer Units (MOUs). Given the inherently tardy chain of reporting, as well as delays in correlation of these reports with own flight plans, the reaction by interceptors was often hopelessly delayed.

A sad reflection of this state of affairs was the shooting down of an F-86E, one of a pair which had just scrambled from Talhar and, was too late to intercept an incoming raid of three Hunters on 13 December. One of the Hunters was able to lunge on to the vulnerable F-86E as it was turning out of traffic [5]. Flg Off Nasim Baig did not survive the gun attack and his aircraft crashed near the airfield perimeter.
An unsavoury surprise came on the morning of 17 December, the last day of the war, when two Uttarlai-based MiG-21FLs escorting a flight of four HF-24s on a morning army support mission, bounced a pair of patrolling F-104s near Naya Chor. After a head-to-head blow through, both pairs turned for each other. Flt Samad Changezi, the F-104 wingman, apparently having spotted the pair earlier, split from the formation and manoeuvred to get behind the lead MiG-21. He had to close in to gun range as no missiles were being carried – an inexplicable error by the mission planners. [6] In the meantime the MiG-21 wingman, Flt Lt Arun Datta, was able to close in behind Changezi’s F-104 and fire a missile which missed its target. The F-104 leader, Flt Lt Rashid Bhatti, warned Changezi to disengage and exit as he had been fired at, but the warning was disregarded in the heat of combat. That inattention earned Changezi a fatal penalty, when a second K-13 missile slammed into his aircraft with an explosion that left no chance of ejection. [7] A squirming Bhatti thought of chasing Datta’s MiG-21 but, being low on fuel and unsuitably armed, he wisely decided against any more recklessness.

Typically, Canberra night raids were launched from Pune (some staged through Jamnagar) and Hunter daylight raids from Jamnagar, against Masroor or Karachi Harbour. These were flown in a ‘high-low-high’ profile, with the high legs flown in own territory to conserve fuel. Thus, early warning of a raid was usually available through the long range high level radars, but sooner the raiders descended to low level, the prospects of successful interception diminished exponentially. Even the F-104, whose AN/ASG-14T1 airborne radar promised a 20-nm search range in the look-up mode, was no help at low level, due to the inability of its first-generation simple pulse radar to sift through ground clutter. On a few occasions when the ground radar did manage to put the interceptor behind the target – even though after weapons release – the Canberra’s Orange Putter tail warning radar kicked off an alarm, resulting in evasive manoeuvring and a clean getaway.

The PAF was utterly fortunate that, despite serious air defence shortcomings in the southern sector, Masroor runway remained operational throughout the war. Nonetheless, on 4 December, a B-57 and two F-86Es that were being serviced, were damaged in a dusk-time strafing attack by three Hunters. Canberras also carried out incessant stream raids during the first three nights, but the main runway was damaged only once, on the night of 4/5 December. As a safety precaution, a flight of four B-57s was moved to Drigh Road Base for the next two days [8]. On the night of 5/6 December, one valuable ELINT and reconnaissance RB-57 was destroyed and one T-33 damaged by Canberras, in what may have been a chance hit on a maintenance hangar at Masroor.

The runway at Jacobabad was hit on the morning of 4 December resulting in a single crater. The ATC towers at Hyderabad and Nawabshah were damaged during morning raids the same day. On the night of 10 December, Nawabshah runway was cratered in two places following an attack by Canberras.

On the evening of 4 December, a pair of IAF fighters struck Badin radar after slipping through, unseen. The aerial head and vital components of the FPS-6 height finder were destroyed, along with extensive damage to the power house and fuel stores. The radar was recovered, with degraded performance, after a day.

After 6 December, IAF discontinued airfield strikes in earnest following substantial aircraft losses in the north and, switched its focus to interdiction of communications networks and wrecking of energy resources. A more equable appraisal by the IAF could have taken into account the gross weakness of PAF’s air defences in the southern sector and, it could have persisted in its counter-air campaign without let or much hindrance. The rewards that Indian Army’s Southern Command could have indirectly reaped on the ground – by not allowing PAF to be viable over the battlefield in Thar – would have been considerable.

Due to the lack of low level radar cover as well as absence of fighters in the Upper Sind area, PAF found itself completely helpless against IAF’s interdiction campaign which targeted the railway network on Landhi-Khanpur Section and, between Mirpur Khas-Naya Chor Section. Lack of AAA defences over important nodes of the network made matters worse. Nine railway stations on these sections were repeatedly targeted, with particular emphasis on the important junctions of Mirpur Khas and Rohri; the latter was attacked as many as five times. Even the An-12 transport aircraft was mustered for a massive barrage of eight tons of bombs against the latter railway station, on one occasion. Nineteen trains, including two 'special military' type, were also attacked on the above-mentioned sections, while several track segments between Reti and Khanpur were damaged. Besides the general purpose of degrading the country’s rail infrastructure on an enduring basis, IAF’s interdiction campaign in the south was more specifically meant to choke off reinforcements of men and material to the struggling 18 Division in Naya Chor. That a Pak Army relief brigade and much-needed ammunition and other supplies were still able to arrive by train, in time to staunch the onslaught of the Indian 11 Division, clearly shows that IAF’s interdiction effort in the south fell short of what was desired. It was also some solace for the PAF, much discomfited as it was, in the given situation.

IAF sporadically continued its strategic air offensive in the south against a few select energy resources, including oil storage tanks at Keamari Terminal in Karachi and the natural gas facility at Sui. Commencing with an audacious morning attack on 4 December, a flight of four Hunters [9] rocketed and strafed the sprawling storage farms at Keamari that housed about 100 tanks. The licks of flame spread to adjacent tanks and in minutes, turned into a huge inferno that continued to burn for days. Regrettably, the PAF fighters as well as the Pak Navy AAA were unable to react as there had been no warning of the attack, the Hunters having approached low from the seaward side to avoid the MOUs. While the psychological impact of the raging firestorm was devastating, the strategic reserves of POL remained largely unscathed. Not withstanding the Indian bluster about lighting the ‘biggest fires in Asia’, only five storage tanks had burnt, causing a loss of about 15,000 tons of various oils [10].

On 14 December around mid-day, a flight of four Hunters struck the country’s major natural gas facility at Sui with rockets. The attack portended the ominous direction the war was taking as the IAF operated with impunity, unchallenged from Keamari to Sui.

For the defence of VAs and VPs in the southern sector, PAF flew a total of 253 sorties employing F-86E/F and F-104; these included 167 day sorties and a measly 23 night sorties from Masroor, while Talhar generated 63 day sorties. Additionally, 43 CAP sorties were flown over the battle areas in Thar and Kutch. Neither ingressing nor egressing enemy aircraft could be shot down by an interceptor, in what turned out to be an almost futile air defence effort in the south. The Army AAA, however, had a fair amount of success in being able to down five enemy aircraft during the vulnerable attack phase [11].

Given the air defence assets whose quantity as well as quality left a lot to be desired, there were very few tactical tricks that could be pulled out of the proverbial hat. Air Defence in the southern sector was, thus, a hopeless cause.


[1] 12 F-86F were attached to the squadron three months prior to the war.
[2] The headquarters, which was earlier located at Badin, was moved to Korangi at the outbreak of war.
[3] This radar was retrieved from Kurmitola near Dacca in October 1971, leaving East Pakistan with no high level radar cover.
[4] The locations of all radars are believed to have been compromised by defecting Bengali personnel long before the war started.
[5] The F-86E was shot down by Flt Lt Farokh Jahangir Mehta of the Jamnagar-based Hunter OCU.
[6] It was decided to use the RJAF aircraft for night air defence without missiles (ie, gun only), making the wingtips available for carriage of drop tanks instead of carrying them under wings, which increased the drag by about 45%. The rationale was that with the limited effort available, staying in the air for a longer duration was a better pay-off in terms of deterrence, rather than carrying out futile night interceptions in the absence of an effective low level GCI radar or a worthwhile AI radar. It so happened that Bhatti’s pair, which had deployed at Drigh Road a day earlier as a back-up to Masroor, was to return to its parent base as the war in the East had come to an abrupt end. Just before ferrying the aircraft back, the pair was asked to fly an ill-conceived ‘show of presence’ CAP between Mirpurkhas-Naya Chor. That is how an improperly armed pair ended up in a close dogfight that was not quite the F-104's forte.
[7] The downed aircraft was RJAF F-104 serial number 56-787.
[8] While other aircraft could operate from the undamaged portion, the fully-laden B-57s needed a much longer runway for take-off.

[9] The RB-57B was one of two standard B-57Bs specially modifed in USA. These had a pair of cameras fitted aft of the bomb bay for oblique optical photography, in addition to a useful ELINT capability.  One of the aircraft was lost in 1965 War to own AAA fratricide. The RB-57B designation was unique to the PAF.
[10] The raid was led by Wg Cdr Donald Conquest, OC of the Hunter OCU at Jamnagar.
[11] Mr M Niaz, who was the Sales Development Engineer of ESSO in 1971, led the team that put out the fires. He states that out of the five tanks
that were destroyed, three belonging to Dawood Petroleum Ltd contained fuel oil, one belonging to ESSO contained light diesel oil and one belonging to Pakistan Refinery Ltd contained crude oil. A subsequent hit by a Styx missile fired by an IN Osa missile boat on the night of 8/9 December, destroyed one more tank containing crude oil.
[12] AAA shot down the following aircraft in the Southern Sector:
  - 1xHF-24 flown by Flt Lt P V Apte, KIA, Naya Chor, 4 December.
  - 1xHF-24 flown by Flt Lt J L Bhargava, POW, Naya Chor, 5 December.
  - 1xCanberra flown by Flt Lt S C Sandal (pilot) and Flt Lt K S Nanda (navigator), both KIA, Masroor, night 4/5  December.
  - 1xHF-24 flown by Sqn Ldr A V Kamat, POW, Hyderabad, 9 December.
  - 1xMiG-21 flown by Wg Cdr H S Gill, KIA, Badin, 13 December.


21 November 2010

Like the Lovers' Secret

A weirdly amusing yarn with an unsolved ‘whodunit,’ that has myriad possibilities in Pakistan’s bubbling politico-military cauldron. 

A succession of disobedient yawns testified to the excruciatingly long day that the Operations staff had been through. Air Marshal Anis, the Operations boss, had gone to his bedroom to attend an important telephone call, just when the extraordinary meeting was about to be wound up. Air Marshal Anis had called the meeting at his residence to review the efficacy of water-tight measures that had been put in place for the defence of Pakistan’s airspace. Air Commodore Nawaz, in-charge of the Plans Directorate and Group Captain Tufail, of the Operations Directorate, were the only two participants of the meeting. It had been half an hour that the Air Marshal had been talking on the phone and Air Cdre Nawaz and Gp Capt Tufail were alternately heaving their shoulders and flinging their hands in amazement. Were it not for the beeps on their watches that had successively confirmed the time past midnight, they might have waited out their boss’s gossip but now it was starting to get unbearable. Both were slovenly sprawled on the Air Marshal’s sofas, as if under some kind of influence.

Finally, Air Marshal Anis emerged ashen-faced, seemingly bearing the news of someone’s demise. “Here, you guys have a look at this,” as he handed over a small piece of paper to Air Cdre Nawaz. “What do you make out of it?” he queried.

Gp Capt Tufail shuffled up closer to Air Cdre Nawaz to have a look. Air Marshal Anis asked Air Cdre Nawaz to read the hand-scribbled note slowly.


After Air Cdre Nawaz had read it over twice, to be sure, Air Marshal Anis asked Gp Capt Tufail to read it yet again. “Don’t read out the periods and commas,” he instructed. Everyone became more confused with each reading, which was not surprising, as the three of them had had some very hectic days – sixteen intense hours daily, for the whole of the previous week. To soothe the nerves, Air Marshal Anis ordered another round of coffee while teasingly suggesting that an order for breakfast be also placed while the cook was around.

“Who gave this message, sir,” Nawaz and Tufail asked Air Marshal Anis in unison.

“The top military spook himself,” replied Air Marshal Anis. “He informed the CAS first, who told him to discuss the nuts and bolts with me. Of course the PM was informed instantly. Our guys were able to break into their top secret cipher he whispered,” as he craned forward.

A hush fell in the room, only to be broken by an old number, ‘zulf da kundal khulley na, akhh da kajjal dulley na’[1] wafting in scratchily from the direction of National Defence College.

“Hmmmm …. Mike Romeo, Mike Romeo ….. hmmmm …. Maritime Reconnaissance aircraft is all I can guess,” announced Air Marshal Anis.

“Sir, it could be anything. Multi-Role aircraft, maybe,” suggested Air Cdre Nawaz. “Can you help, Tufail?” asked Air Marshal Anis. “I know you don’t start your office work till the daily crossword is solved,” he added, with a twinkle in his blood-shot eyes.

“Sir if Mike Romeo was to be Maritime Reconnaissance, we are surely talking of the sea. In that case, shouldn’t Mike Hills be somewhere near the Arabian Sea?” Gp Capt Tufail counter-questioned.

“Wait, let me see if my geography is correct. Makli Hills, does that make sense?” Air Cdre Nawaz asked enthusiastically. “I am sure you know of the Makli necropolis near Thatta,” he continued.

Air Marshal Anis suggested something more intriguing. “If we take it to be Multi-Role, then we have a wider usage and a number of interpretations for Mike Hills. Margallas for instance.”

“Sir, we seem to be closing on to two interpretations, then. An attack from the seaward side, whereby some kind of maritime reconnaissance aircraft would provide support measures like spoofing etc, or even controlling the strike package during its initial ingress. The other possibility is an approach from the north, involving multi-role aircraft, configured for different roles. Margalla Hills do demarcate the zone boundaries of some of the most sensitive areas,” continued Gp Capt Tufail, quite adept at summing up complex situations. After all, he had been an old hand as an instructor at the Air War College.

“Time, gentlemen, is of essence,” Air Marshal Anis reminded the two officers. “We have just two days to refine our response, in which anything could happen. Nawaz, it says forty-eight hours, right?”

“Yes sir, within forty-eight hours, but if you noticed this twilight bit in the cipher, it could be as early as four hours from now,” Air Cdre Nawaz replied, sending a chill down everyone’s spines.

“What was the last cricket score, if anyone heard the commentary?” Air Marshal Anis suddenly changed the topic as the batman brought in the coffee tray. “Though he has been working with me for fifteen years now, you never know when these people trip up for a few dollars,” he added cautiously.

“So where were we… Mike Romeo? Any more ideas?” asked Air Marshal Anis.

“Sir, does Medium Range mean anything?” asked Gp Capt Tufail.

“It could also be Mentally Retarded, hein?” The strain was showing through as Air Marshal Anis tried a light-hearted banter. “Okay, let’s settle on the first two and do a re-run. Our defensive plan caters for both approaches. Does this Makli or Margalla change anything?” asked Air Marshal Anis.

“Sir we already have fighter patrols and plenty of SAMs and AAA covering both these places,” assured Gp Capt Tufail. The only spanner in the works is that this cipher leads us to believe that an attack from the north is also a possibility, depending on how we interpret Mike Hills. We had assumed an attack on the Chagai Tunnels via a southern approach as the most likely. I don’t see how the planned tests can be stymied by attacking the sites in the vicinity of Margallas. They have been operational for over a decade. Uranium-Hexafluoride has been enriched by the heaps and can sustain a nuclear weapons program for years. Most importantly, the warheads are dispersed and reportedly, dot every gridline on Pakistan’s map. I think our initial appreciation holds correct, that they would bomb our tunnels and stop the testing process in its tracks. Then, painful arm-twisting and blackmail would follow and, they would ensure that we never try such a thing again. For both sides, it is now or never,” Gp Capt Tufail articulated his views.

“Okay, so both of you agree that this cipher does not alter anything by way of our defensive measures, except that it hints at something imminent?” asked Air Marshal Anis.

“Exactly, sir. We have sprung up like a porcupine’s quills. I don’t think they will be able to get through to Chagai without being pricked badly. We have taken every step that we possibly could,” asserted Gp Capt Tufail.

“Sir, I agree with Tufail,” Air Cdre Nawaz observed briefly, before he broke into yet another riotous yawn, complete with a rude little yelp.

“Okay, I think we can break up now. Dekhi jayegi.[2] Now you have about two hours to catch some sleep. If the sirens hoot, just rush to my house. We will drive down to the Ops Room together. Air Marshal Najib is already manning the air defence battle station there….and don’t keep the phone off the hook,” Air Marshal Anis instructed, half in jest. “And Tufail, I have some more instructions for you; stay back for a while. Nawaz, if you want to hang around you are welcome. I am sending Tufail out to visit a number of bases this morning to check that my instructions have been implemented to the last detail.”

“Sir, I will stay back; Tufail has to drop me in his staff car as mine has been withdrawn for use by some visitors,” Air Cdre Nawaz explained.

“Go visit the two forward bases in the south, talk to the pilots, explain all the measures that are in place and, get a run down of how they have implemented our instructions that we issued three days ago. Leave out the morale-boosting bit. That is their Base Commanders’ job. Take the Air Defence assistant chief with you so that he can explain the details of the radar coverage. Also take the Director of Operational Facilities so that he can get a report on the navigational aids, etc. After you are done at the forward bases, repeat the same at Quetta and then stay the night there. Come back the next day. It is rigorous, but I know that you are very fit and can hack it,” finished Air Marshal Anis. “Have you sold off your mountain bike? Haven’t seen you riding around for some time,” he broke into the mundane, as all three got up, finally.

“And yes, take the Y-12. Travel in style, it is at your disposal,” Air Marshal Anis instructed Gp Capt Tufail.

Sunrays stealing through the curtains startled Gp Capt Tufail. Had he missed the sirens? He had asked his wife to wake him up even if Simba, their pet tomcat mewed.

“Did any phone ring?” he asked his wife. “Did Sally call?”

“No, nothing,” she replied.

Picking up the cordless, he dialled Air Cdre Nawaz’s number. At the other end, all hell seemed to break loose.

“Huh, what happened? Has it happened? Who are you speaking?”

“Sir, relax, this is Tufail. Seems safe, so far. I am off to the Air Movement for my tour. You have a good day.”

Gp Capt Tufail drove off to Chaklala Airport where he was met by Air Cdre Ajmal carrying huge map sheets rolled up under both his arms, along with Gp Capt Pervez Mahmood wearing his friendly smile. The Y-12 pilots were waiting and, within seconds they hustled the three passengers into the aircraft. They had submitted a flight plan for a ‘special’ mission which would get them preferential clearances. “VIPs on board,” the pilot called out loudly while asking for taxi permission. The three passengers exchanged grins, quite amused by the importance being given to them that morning.

After a two-hour flight, they reached Sukkur and immediately got down to business. A short briefing by Air Cdre Ajmal and Gp Capt Tufail to the aircrew was followed by a quick drive-through visit to the operational areas. The Base Commander explained the daily air patrol schedule and contingency plans for his base. He then opened up the AHQ instructions and ticked each item after confirming it to Gp Capt Tufail. After the tour was over and they were proceeding to the aircraft, the three visiting officers cheered up the Base Commander by remarking that their readiness state looked 20/20.

The Y-12 took off for Jacobabad around midday. The loadmaster walked up the aisle with a serving of tepid drinks poured out of a thermos marked VIP. Within half an hour, the aircraft landed in what seemed like a hellish other-world. Except for some paddy egrets flapping around their nesting colony adjacent to the runway undershoot, there was not a living being in sight. The pilot announced an outside air temperature of 52°C and, as the visiting officers emerged out of the aircraft, a rush of searing air slapped their faces. By the time they got to the briefing room, they were drenched to their coccyxs. The Sukkur routine was replayed and the readiness state at Jacobabad reviewed. Everything seemed in order and it was noted with satisfaction that the contingencies had been well-rehearsed. The excitement of the aircrew was unbounded and they were ready for action. Pakistanis could sleep tight, thought Gp Capt Tufail.

After a two-hour stay at Jacobabad, the tired and perspiring visitors left for Quetta. The stark Kachhi Plains started to transform into harsh barren hills. Sibi lay nestled a little east of the track, in the trough formed by the Suleiman and Brauhi Ranges. These badlands once harboured the fierce Baluch brigands with whom Brig John Jacob had seasonal spats in the mid nineteenth century. Temperatures in this cauldron routinely cross 50°C during summers.

“Sir, this is a no-fly zone and ours is the only aircraft aloft, other than patrolling fighters. The missiles and guns are free to fire in the area west of Kalat,” explained the pilot as he stood at the cabin door for some leg-stretching.

Suddenly the co-pilot asked the captain to come back to his seat. After some discussion, the captain returned and told Gp Capt Tufail that they had orders to land immediately. Tufail told him to tell the air traffic control that it was a light aircraft and it could not speed up much. “Expedite, expedite,” the controller insisted. Air Cdre Ajmal got up to the cockpit to check what was going on. The pilot told him that the controller wasn’t saying anything more than ‘expedite, expedite,’ every time he called to find out if something was the matter.

After some tense minutes, Quetta airfield was visible and the pilots set up for a straight-in approach. An uneventful landing was followed by fast taxiing to the dispersal, but there seemed nothing extraordinary. Air Cdre Ajmal, Gp Capt Pervez and Gp Capt Tufail picked up their brief cases and maps and drove down to the Base Commander’s office.

Bill Clinton had been in touch with Prime Minister Sharif, for the whole of past three weeks, trying to emphasise the demerits of going nuclear. All the while, Clinton had tried to entice Sharif with firm security incentives. He assured Sharif that he would be rushing his Defence Secretary William Cohen to discuss Pakistan’s shopping list of conventional weapons. Sharif, with a smart politician’s savvy, insisted that a minimum of 72 ‘fully loaded’ F-16s be a starting point and, that he would appreciate if Lockheed set up a factory near Raiwind.

Tough negotiations between the two countries continued day after day while the Pakistanis got restive. Clinton’s National Security Advisor, ‘Sandy’ Berger, had been updating his boss about the situation in Pakistan on an eight-hourly basis and, his recurring conclusion was that people there wanted nothing less than an ‘earth-shaking’ response. “Jang newspaper is the pulse of that nation,” Berger observed. “You look at the pictures of the snarling crowds, it scares you,” he went on.

Berger’s biggest concern was that the khakis in Pakistan were belligerent also, and in no mood to settle for the F-16 sop. He suggested to President Clinton that the package could additionally include 70-odd Abrams tanks, plus 40 Cobra helos that might please the army men. He emphasised that it was most important to keep all power centres in Pakistan charmed, at least publicly, and cajoling and shoving be done back-stage.

“Holy numbers, Sandy,” noted Clinton, as he recalled his high school inter-faith studies.

Time was running short and Berger informed his President that nuclear testing equipment had been in place near the tunnels in Chagai Hills for several days. The tunnels, which had been readied a decade ago and had been plugged, were now being reopened and the work was almost done. “They are all wired up and ready,” announced Berger.

Pakistani scientists had been clearly identified through satellite zooms; the cameras had panned two teams camped some miles apart, one lead by the loud Dr A Q Khan and the other by the civil Dr Mubarakmand. Both were eagerly awaiting a go-ahead, it had been learnt.

Berger suggested to President Clinton that Sharif could be roped in with a plausibly deniable, vague commitment about an F-16 factory and, this could help buy time. All the same, it was extremely important to appease the khakis as signals emanating from Rawalpindi reflected a vigorous determination to detonate rather than deliberate.

“Mr President, if we don’t act fast, we will have only the Buddhists without a bomb,” Berger had noted in his midnight memo to the President on 27 May 1998.

“Congratulations!” uttered the elderly-looking Air Cdre Sethi as he welcomed Air Cdre Ajmal, Gp Capt Pervez and Gp Capt Tufail to his office. Maybe he had picked the wrong interjection to welcome them, thought Gp Capt Tufail. “We have done it!” Air Cdre Sethi uttered excitedly, grabbing both the visitors in effusive bear hugs one by one. Seeing that both officers were puzzled about the situation, he turned to them and dramatically thumped his foot on the wooden floor. “The earth shook like this. You must have been up in the air. It happened a while ago. There was a big tremor and then a smaller one. Right here in Quetta, all the way from Chagai Hills. If we weren’t expecting it, we might have thought it was another of those usual Quetta temblors. Twenty-eighth of May, what a day to remember!” Air Cdre Sethi sighed happily as he looked up at the ceiling.

“Okay, now you can wash up while tea is brought in,” Air Cdre Sethi continued. “I had arranged for you to retire to the beautiful new guest house for the night but unfortunately, that would not be possible. Your boss wants you back. If you are able to take-off in twenty minutes, you should be able to get there before last light. Maybe we can have a sajji roast for you, next time.”

A quick cup of tea and the visitors begged leave. Air Cdre Sethi, courteous as ever, saw them off at the aircraft which had been rapidly turned around.

The three were dog tired and just fell into their seats as the aircraft took off for another two-hour flight home. They were too exhausted to discuss the day’s happenings and nodded off, as their snorts and snores played a bassoon concerto in the midst of the propellers’ drone.

Sooner the aircraft landed at Chaklala Airport, the Warrant Officer on duty at the Air Movement asked Gp Capt Tufail to call up Air Marshal Anis immediately. Gp Capt Tufail closed the office door and dialled his boss.

“Hello….er…..Congratulations sir, it is Gp Capt Tufail here.”

“Congratulations to you too. You guys must be very tired. Okay, we will discuss business tomorrow. There are many important issues. The contingency isn’t over yet, so I had to call you back. Okay, now find an office with a secraphone and call me up again,” instructed Air Marshal Anis.

Gp Capt Tufail bade good bye to Air Cdre Ajmal and Gp Capt Pervez and, drove off to the Staff Operations Officer’s bunker. Sending everyone out, he called his boss again.

“Yes sir, it’s me again… Tufail.”

“Okay, not a word about what we discussed last night. I have told this to Nawaz also. You are not to discuss the cipher with any one,” whispered Air Marshal Anis on the phone. “It’s like the lovers’ secret,” he allowed a hearty chuckle.

“Yes sir,” confirmed Gp Capt Tufail hesitantly.

“Intriguing stuff,” Gp Capt Tufail mumbled to himself as he drove back home. Enigmatically, as he stopped at the traffic light, the adjacent taxi’s radio was sputtering out the last lines of a song that he had heard only a night before, “….. bhed pyar da khulley na!’[3]


[1] The ringlets of the tresses mustn’t straighten, the kohl of the eyes mustn’t run.
[2] We’ll see.
[3] ….. the lovers' secret mustn’t unravel



10 May 2010

Air Support in Chamb - 1971 War

The General Staff at Rawalpindi felt that, besides the main strategic offensive in Ganganagar-Suratgarh area, an additional secondary offensive was obligatory for creating a ‘pull’ on the Indian strategic reserves, thereby improving the relative strength ratio favourably in that sector. It was surmised that control of nodes on communication lines in Kashmir could provide the quickest access to vital areas in the hinterland, while simultaneously choking the enemy by severing his supply line. The Indian formations were, thus, bound to be unhinged by the threat to its jugular and, the Pakistani main offensive could thence be unleashed.

The capture of Akhnur town, along with the vital bridge, could sever the main road communication of Indian troops deployed in the western half of Jammu Province. With the defending Indian troops thus choked off, operations could be developed towards Jammu from the western side. For Pakistan, however, it was important to properly secure the Chamb Sector, before any plans for the capture of Akhnur could be put into action. The Grand Trunk Road and the main railway line ran close enough for the Indians to steal a jaunty ride towards either Lahore or Sialkot. This vulnerability dictated that Pakistan Army improve its defensive posture before any further advance.

23 Division was, thus, tasked to first secure the line up to Tawi River; to this was added the subsequent task of capturing an intermediate objective of Palanwala. Akhnur remained the ultimate goal, for which the task force was to 'remain prepared.' The division had five infantry brigades and one armoured brigade at its disposal. Artillery fire support included a large two-brigade sized group. All in all, 23 Division was a formidable force by any reckoning.

The Indian 10 Division, primarily organized for an offensive task, was purportedly retasked to defend against an impending Pakistani offensive. An infantry brigade was positioned west of Tawi River while another one defended the northern reaches of Chamb. One infantry brigade stayed put at Akhnur, to ward off any attack on the bridge from the exposed southern direction of Pukhlian Salient. An armoured and an infantry brigade at Akhnur made up the assault echelons of the division.

23 Division opened up with its offensive with two infantry brigades on the night of 3-4 December. The Indian forward brigade was pushed back, and over the next three days fierce fighting was witnessed, with Pakistani forays repeatedly countered by Indian forces. During the night of 4-5 December, a small bridgehead was formed by Pakistani infantry elements to enable the armoured brigade to break through. Heavy enemy air and artillery attacks, however, forced them back with heavy losses to armour. The maximum extent of advance was about 2,000 yards east of Tawi River, before the withdrawal.

On 7 December, the indefatigable GOC of 23 Division, Maj Gen Iftikhar Janjua, ordered the capture of Chamb and Manawar after regrouping the forces. Both objectives were easily achieved as Indian resistance west of Tawi River had practically ceased. The gravity of the situation had forced the Indian 10 Division to prepare for a last stand at Akhnur.

With the primary mission accomplished and, seeing the enemy in complete disarray, Maj Gen Janjua decided to expand the operation to the more ambitious phase. He ordered the capture of Palanwala, the springboard for a final hop to Akhnur.

Orders for the attack were issued on 7 December, but operations could not start till the night of 9-10 December for several reasons. Regrouping and positioning of certain units and, resting the fatigued troops took up vital time. A replaced brigade commander needed an extra 24 hours to size up the situation. Finally, the unfortunate loss of the GOC in a helicopter crash on the morning of 9 December robbed the division of a “very bold and competent officer” (according to an Indian assessment). When the attack did commence, the impetus had already been lost. Fierce counter-attacks by the enemy, along with heavy air attacks, limited the extent of the Chamb offensive to the west bank of Tawi River. Capture of 90 square miles of territory was Pakistan’s most substantial gain. Its inconsequentiality was, however, highlighted when India ceded most of it, as the occupied territories were being traded off in the post-war Simla Accord.

Air Support

Three squadrons of F-86E/F at Sargodha, Murid and Peshawar made up the fighter element for air support in the Chamb Sector. T-6G trainers were also found handy for strafing convoys in moonlit nights, with the menacing whine of their engines providing a suitable overture to the staccato fire of the .303” machine guns. F-6s, the better-endowed fighters for tank killing, remained committed in the more critical Shakargarh Sector.

The first phase of 23 Division operations that lasted from 4-7 December was vigorously supported by the PAF. However, weapon-target compatibility left a lot to be desired as neither the F-86’s 0.5” guns, nor the general purpose bombs were effective against armour. Mercifully, the air support demands were not desperate, as the situation on the ground never went out of control for the Pakistan Army.

The sprawling Akhnur ammunition dump was sporadically bombed, involving 21 sorties. Forward stocking of ammunition supplies in the field might have cushioned the blow for the short term, but had 23 Division operations developed towards Akhnur, the Indian forces would have likely felt the ordnance deficiencies, if the smoke billowing from igloos was anything to go by.

T-6Gs flew 12-odd sorties during four nights. General area strafing was done on suspected enemy positions near Akhnur, though jammed guns and night visibility problems often dogged these intrepid attempts. In one mission on the night of 4-5 December, Flt Lt Israr Ahmad got hit in the arm by ground fire, but he determinedly brought back the aircraft for a safe landing.

On 8 December, Flt Lt Fazal Elahi of No 26 Squadron was fatally hit by ground fire while performing a close support mission in Chamb area. Apparently, the AAA shell hit the bomb fuse, causing the F-86F to blow up in mid-air.

On 10 December, two F-86Fs of No 26 Squadron had a brief scrap with two Hunters of No 20 Squadron. Sqn Ldr Aslam Choudhry and Flt Lt Rahim Yousafzai had just arrived on an air support mission near Chamb, when they spotted two Hunters attacking ground targets. Aslam manoeuvred behind one and fired a lengthy burst, ripping the fuselage and drop tanks of the Hunter. In the meantime, the second Hunter flown by Sqn Ldr R N Bharadwaj slipped in and responded with a massive fusillade of four 30-mm cannon. The F-86 went down, with Aslam getting no chance to eject. The Hunter crippled by Aslam was able to limp back to Pathankot, with its pilot, Flt Lt Karumbaya, surviving a fiery fate by a cat’s whisker.

Also on 10 December, two F-86Es of No 18 Squadron manoeuvred to get behind two Su-7s while both formations were on air support missions in Chamb area. Wg Cdr Moin-ur-Rab and Flt Lt Taloot Mirza claimed a Su-7 each in gun attacks, though it later transpired that both aircraft made it back to their base after having taken some nasty hits.

The PAF flew a total of 146 sorties in Chamb Sector, which was 20% of PAF’s total tactical air support effort. 89 sorties were considered successful while 57 were rated as failures. Just as in Shakargarh Sector, on many occasions the pilots found no enemy activity on reaching the target area, resulting in wasted missions.

While interference by enemy fighters in the air was not of much consequence, IAF had expended a heavy effort in support of their ground forces around Chamb. Unfortunately, PAF’s complete lack of low level radar cover and, fringe high level cover in the battle area, underscored the futility of flying blind CAPs to ward off IAF’s persistent attacks against 23 Division targets. Without effective air cover, ground offensive plans are as good as stalemated from the outset. This truism finally drove home as GHQ pragmatically decided to curtail the operation and, be contended with an improved defensive posture at Chamb.

[1] Official History of 1971 Indo-Pak War, Chapter – VIII, ‘Pakistan Choose War – Operations in J & K,’ page 329.
[2] Official PAF War Records


This article was published in Defence Journal, July 2010 issue.

14 April 2010

Air Support in Shakargarh – 1971 War

The Shakargarh Salient juts into Indian territory in a particularly threatening way – the northern boundary of the salient runs not too far from the road between Pathankot and Jammu. The Kathua-Samba stretch is a mere 5-6 miles away, offering the possibility of developing operations astride the road towards the vital Madhopur Headworks. Such a manoeuvre could also serve as a ruse while a major offensive in the shape of a riposte was launched towards one of several important objectives like Gurdaspur, Batala or even Amritsar. Pakistan Army appreciated that a riposte in this sector would likely draw elements of the Indian strategic reserves into the salient and embroil them, thus preventing or delaying their extrication to face the main Pakistani offensive in the Ganganagar-Suratgarh area. The configuration of the salient lends itself well to operations on ‘interior lines,’ whereby a Pakistani threat could be radiated from a single point in several directions with minimal logistic problems. The enemy, conversely, would be compelled to operate on ‘exterior lines,’ having to position a larger quantum of forces all along the periphery of the salient.

Indian Army’s over-riding concern was to protect the vital Jammu-Pathankot artery while capturing important territory through its main offensive by I Corps. This formation had 39 Infantry Division and 54 Infantry Division, each supported by an armoured brigade, as the spearheads of its two-pronged offensive. 36 Infantry Division and two brigades of ad hoc ‘X-Sector’ covered the flanks, while an additional brigade covered the central base, all in a holding role.

For the defence of Shakargarh Salient, Pakistan Army’s (similarly numbered) I Corps had fielded 15 Infantry Division and 8 Infantry Division on the western and eastern sides of Degh Nadi respectively, both divisions supported by 8 Independent Armoured Brigade. The offensive formation tasked to launch a riposte at an opportune time and place, was the so-called ‘Army Reserve North.’ It consisted of 6 Armoured Division and 17 Infantry Division. Though nominally under I Corps, it was directly controlled by GHQ.

The Indian I Corps opened up with its offensive at dusk on 5 December. Facing the brunt of the Indian offensive was Pakistan Army’s lone 8 Division, as 15 Division remained tied up against ‘X-Sector’ force (guarding I Corps right flank) as well as Indian 26 Division (XV Corps), on a wide frontage between Degh Nadi and Pukhlian Salient.

Indian 39 Division, tasked to capture Shakargarh, crossed the international border from a north-easterly direction on the evening of 5 December, but the advance ran into trouble as it hit the first belt of a well-laid out minefield on 7 December. “This, coupled with heavy artillery fire and air attacks frustrated the attempts … to make headway,” reasons the Indian Official History of 1971 Indo-Pak War.[1] Another attempt to attack from the north the following day, was foiled when a second belt of the minefield was encountered. It was evident that the inability to breach the minefield and, stout resistance by Pakistani 8 Division had a demoralising effect. “Standard of stage management for the battle so far displayed was uninspiring and weak,” was the assessment of 39 Division’s performance by the Corps Commander Lt Gen K K Singh.[2] He was compelled to abort his plan of investing Shakargarh and decided to redeploy 39 Division forces in another sector.

The Indian 54 Division launched its attack from a northerly direction on the night of 5 December, with the aim of capturing Zafarwal and, in the process, destroying Pakistani 8 Armoured Brigade. By 11 December, peripheral border villages and small towns had been captured, the flanks of the Corps’ forces secured and, the minefield breached. A bridgehead was established for the final assault on Zafarwal by 15 December, but Pakistani forces counter-attacked fiercely, duly supported by the PAF. While 54 Division’s effort was better planned and executed than that of 39 Division, it failed to penetrate the main defences and was able to advance just eight miles in two weeks of fighting. The objective of Zafarwal remained elusive as fighting ceased on 17 December. Pakistan’s 8 Armoured Brigade paid a heavy price by losing as many as 50 tanks during the counter-attack, but it was some consolation that the Zafarwal-Shakargarh chain of defence remained intact.

Indian 36 Division had been performing a holding role on the eastern side of the salient. After failure of 39 Division to take Shakargarh, 36 Division was hastily charged with an offensive task, with the aim of developing operations towards Shakargarh in yet one more attempt. A rearguard brigade of 36 Division had secured a bridgehead across the border on 9 December. Together with an infantry and an armoured brigade mustered from 39 Division, Indian forces advanced up to Bein River and, an assault was planned on Shakargarh on the night of 14/15 December. Pakistani forces were rushed from other sectors to Nurkot-Shakargarh area, which was already well prepared with deep minefields. Intense artillery shelling and exploding mines caused heavy casualties on the Indian forces, which delayed the advance and exposed the troops to more precise fire from well-concealed platoons having adequate recce support. The Indian armour got bogged down while attempting to cross the soggy bed of Bein River and, the advance fizzled out as soon as it had commenced. 39 Division was thrown completely off-balance, its plight only worsened by the absence of IAF which was said to be committed heavily in the Chamb Sector.

Lying within the area of responsibility of Pakistani 15 Division, at the western flank, was the narrow Pukhlian Salient. Its defences were sloppily left to the para-military 1 Wing of Rangers, along with a regular infantry company. The Indian 19 Brigade (ex-26 Division) attacked the salient on the night of 5 December so as to pre-empt any threat to Akhnur materialising from the southern direction. The Rangers were easily pushed out and, a menacing threat to the nearby Marala Headworks was posed, before the regular Pakistani troops salvaged the situation.

PAF Hastens to Help

With Murid, Sargodha and Risalewala optimally located in relation to Shakargarh Sector, air support could be made available promptly. Peshawar, though distant, could also chip in with the aircraft flying a modified flight profile. All together, two squadrons of F-6 and three squadrons of F-86E/F were available for air support operations. Seemingly an adequate force, the F-86s were, however, ill-armed to conduct anti-armour operations with their small calibre 0.5” Browning guns and 2.75” unguided rockets, the latter neither acclaimed for accuracy, nor penetration. The F-86s were even configured with general purpose bombs to blast out armour, not quite the recommended method to stop a tank onslaught, but the situation demanded that everything be thrown in anyhow. It was surmised that relentless bombing would, at least, have a devastating effect on the enemy's morale. The F-6s, were relatively better endowed for close air support, having three powerful NR-30 30mm cannon which were absolutely lethal, as might be expected of the heaviest aircraft round (.93 lbs) then in use on any aircraft.

As the Indian 39 Division ran into the first minefield belt, PAF’s F-6s and F-86s managed to get some good hits at the stalled armour. For the most part however, PAF had to make-do with sporadic and reactionary air support which, in the given, situation was a godsend for the Army, nonetheless. The vital and vulnerable bridgehead operations and subsequent breakout of all three Divisional offensives, escaped punishment from the air as these took place under cover of the night. A pontoon ferry bridge over Ravi River was destroyed on 11 December, two days after crossing by the main elements of Indian 39 Division had already taken place. While the destruction of the bridge did not induce any delay in the commencement of this offensive, it did possibly hamper subsequent reinforcements, as the stalled offensive seemed to indicate.

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. 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 Ali Mir also fired at one of the fast-receding Su-7s but it accelerated away, apparently unscathed.

In another close air support mission on 11 December, a formation of three F-86Es from No 18 Squadron led by the enthusiastic Squadron Commander, Wg Cdr Ali Imam Bokhari, had a scrap with a flight of Su-7s, also on a similar mission. Bokhari had just released a salvo of rockets on a cluster of vehicles in the battlefield near Nainakot when his No 2, Flt Lt Momin Arif yelled, “Lead, three Su-7s at 2 o’clock.” Bokhari ordered all to jettison their fuel tanks and turned the formation hard right, to position behind the Su-7s. Bokhari manoeuvred on to the tail of one Su-7 and was about to shoot when his No 3, Sqn Ldr Cecil Chaudhry, came charging in from the other side, trying a pot shot at the same aircraft. Cecil requested, “Leader, leave it for me, please.” Bokhari abandoned the attack and switched to the other Su-7 which was not too far off. Centring the enemy aircraft in his gun sight, Bokhari pressed the trigger and saw a stream of bullets rip into the Su-7. Moments later, there was an orange flash and then the aircraft exploded, with bits and pieces showering down. Commendably, this was PAF’s first subsonic versus supersonic aircraft kill.[3] It was later learnt that Flt Lt K K Mohan of Ambala-based No 26 Squadron went down with his aircraft. Cecil also fired at his quarry and claimed a Su-7, but firing from long-range resulted in a missed shot; no details of aircraft wreckage or pilot status have emerged since.

On 14 December, Sqn Ldr Salim Gauhar of No 26 Squadron, while on a close support mission in Shakargarh area, spotted a light observation aircraft and easily shot it down with his F-86’s guns. There were some anxious moments for Salim after he returned from the mission, as a Pakistan Army L-19 was reported to have been flying in the area at the same time. Their was immense relief when it was learnt that the L-19 had landed safely. It later transpired that the downed aircraft was an Indian Army Krishak. Its pilot, Capt P K Gaur of No 660 Squadron, went down with the flaming aircraft.

During the course of air support operations in Shakargarh Sector, PAF lost three aircraft to ground fire. On 7 December, an F-6 flown by Flt Lt Wajid Ali Khan of No 11 Squadron was shot down by AAA, as he was attacking ground targets near Marala. He ejected and was taken POW. The same day, Sqn Ldr Cecil Chaudhry of No 18 Squadron was apparently hit by own AAA, near Zafarwal. He was lucky to fall into Pakistan Army hands as he parachuted down after ejection, only a few hundred yards away from Indian positions. Cecil was also fortunate to be in good shape and was able to fly again, the very next day. On 17 December, the last day of the war, Flt Lt Shahid Raza of No 25 Squadron volunteered for a mission from which he was fated not to return. During ground attack, his F-6 was hit by enemy AAA near Dharman, close to Shakargarh. He was heard to be ejecting but sadly, nothing more was ever learnt about him. He was awarded a Tamgha-i-Jur’at posthumously.[4]

The PAF flew a total of 296 sorties in Shakargarh Sector,[5] which made up 41% of PAF’s total tactical air support effort. Interference by enemy fighters was not prohibitive and, the PAF was able to perform its task without let, by and large. The missions were mostly close air support and armed recce. 183 sorties were considered successful, while 113 sorties were rated as failures.[6] Poor visibility caused by winter haze was the bane of pilots, though an equally frustrating issue was the discovery of lack of enemy activity on reaching the target area. Apparently, time delays – from air support request, till fighters reached overhead the target area – resulted in a completely changed situation than what was expected. The dense foliage and built-up areas also complicated the visual pick-up problem.

Even if assessed on the basis of a high probability of ‘one target hit per sortie’ (assuming a single attacking pass), it can be seen that not more than 186 targets could have been possibly destroyed in the successful sorties flown in the sector. However, actual claims exceed this figure and, include 115 vehicles, 74 tanks, 13 tank transporters and 6 guns, besides a pontoon bridge. Since such claims cannot be verified accurately in a one-sided assessment based on fuzzy gun camera ciné film, it would only be fair to reduce these claims considerably. Attack parameter inaccuracies induced by the heat of the battle, unfavourable weapon-target compatibility and weapon failures, are important factors that cannot be overlooked.

For an academic discussion, even if the claims are reduced by an arbitrary factor of half, the results still remain fairly impressive. It can be clearly seen that Pakistan Army’s 8 Division was effectively supported by the PAF and, was thus able to deny the Indian I Corps the twin strategic objectives of Zafarwal and Shakargarh, despite repeated attempts to capture them. In the bargain, 8 Division suffered considerable losses in men and material, along with the loss of 265 square miles of territory in the Shakargarh Salient.[7] (Additionally, about 40 square miles were lost in Pukhlian Salient.) Any plan to recoup the losses could not be put in place, as the Army Reserve North had already been denuded to the point of futility. Two brigades of its constituent 17 Infantry Division, along with the complete artillery assets, had been detached to other sectors that were confronted with equally critical situations.[8] It is some consolation that the enemy was denied a foothold for developing operations towards the core areas of Punjab – a chilling prospect that could well have followed on the heels East Pakistan’s loss.


[1] Chapter - IX, The Punjab and Rajasthan Front,' page 357.
[2] Chapter - IX, The Punjab and Rajasthan Front,' page 359.
[3] Besides the aerial kill, Wg Cdr Bokhari has the singular distinction of having flown 20 offensive sorties in Shakargarh Sector, which was the maximum flown by any pilot during the 1971 War. Unfortunately, a gallantry award eluded him, despite his sterling contribution to the war effort. He remains an unsung hero of the PAF.
[4] Earlier, on 5 December, Flt Lt Shahid Raza had shot down a Hunter that was exiting after attacking Sakesar radar.
[5] More precisely, of the total 296 air support sorties, 285 were flown in Shakargarh Salient proper, while 9 sorties were flown in Marala area.
[6] Official PAF War Records.
[7] Territory lost in Shakargarh Salient was spread over a frontage of approximately 33 miles, with an average ingress of 7-8 miles.
[8] 17 Division’s 66 Brigade was detached to 23 Division (Chamb Sector) while 88 Brigade was detached to 10 Division (Lahore Sector). The Divisional Artillery was detached to HQ 23 Division.


This article was published in Defence Journal, May 2010 issue.

06 March 2010

Air Support at Sea – 1971 War

At the outbreak of the war, PAF’s maritime support capability of any consequence was limited to night bombing of a couple of Indian Navy’s coastal installations on the Saurashtra Coast and, daytime strafing and rocketing of not-too-distant surface vessels. Measures to locate these vessels were largely of passive nature and, rested on Pak Navy’s shore and sea-based signals intelligence gathering network. Unhappily, at the outbreak of hostilities, much of the communications and radar transmissions had gone discrete and, signals intelligence had all but dried up. Active measures included surface surveillance by a SUPARCO[1]-loaned radar located at Manora, which had been picking contacts as far as 100-nm on occasions, when the somewhat irregular phenomenon of ‘anomalous propagation’[2] was experienced. Ships at sea were good only for more localised flotilla surveillance and, at great risk of giving away their position while their radars transmitted.

Airborne maritime reconnaissance was the optimum and most reliable method, but with Pak Navy lacking any organic air capability, employing the services of PAF’s small transport fleet of six C-130s remained the next best alternative. However, with the planned commitment of the C-130s for unconventional bombing missions, these could not be spared, reportedly. Instead, the C-in-C directed the Managing Director PIA, Air Vice Marshal Zafar Chaudhry to make some assets available to Pak Navy. One Fokker F-27 along with its volunteer civilian crew was put at the disposal of the Navy before the war started. The weather radar of the F-27 aircraft could also provide rudimentary search capability over a calm sea and could, therefore, be utilised at night as well. The Indian Navy, of course, understood that in practical terms Pak Navy’s search capability was of little consequence and, it was surmised that the window of the night offered the maximum chances of sneaking in, unobserved.

According to Indian Navy’s appreciation, if it could take the battle to Pakistani waters at the outset, it would force Pak Navy to abort any offensive plans and, bottle up her surface fleet inside the harbour for the remaining period of war. The planners were also confident that such a move could wipe off Indian Navy’s craven image going back to the 1965 War, when the puny Pak Navy had carried out a daring and morale-shattering raid on Dwarka naval establishment, without being challenged.

Borrowing a leaf from the Dwarka annals – but planning more cerebrally – the Indian Navy decided to hit Pak Navy warships patrolling the outer and inner cordons of Karachi harbour. With the newly-acquired Soviet Osa missile boats, there was no need to get close and exchange broadsides in the old manner. By hugging the Saurashtra-Kutch coast at high speed, the task force would be able to avoid the Pakistani submarines prowling not too far. Arrival at nightfall was a clever safeguard against visual spotting from the air, as the flotilla broke off westwards to take up battle station south of Karachi. A night visual attack on the ships by PAF aircraft was, thus, also out of question.

By 2 December, the main body of the Indian Western Fleet, comprising 13 ships, had already set sail for an area 200-nm south of Karachi and beyond to interdict merchant shipping, but with a more immediate purpose of diverting attention from Operation ‘Trident’ that was to unfold shortly.

The Cordon is Pierced
On the night of 4 December, at 2010 hrs (all times PST), the duty officer at Manora radar picked up a surface contact at a distance of 75-nm on a bearing of 165° from Karachi. The contact was immediately reported to Maritime Headquarters (MHQ). Half an hour later, another contact was picked up at a distance of 100-nm south of Karachi and, duly reported. After an inexplicably long delay, a signal was issued by MHQ at 2200 hrs, warning ships at sea of two surface groups[3] heading towards Karachi. PNS Khaibar, a destroyer which was patrolling the outer cordon, was ordered to investigate. Apparently not responding due to radio silence measures on board, it headed south, as per orders.[4]

At 2245 hrs, watches on board Khaibar reported what appeared like a bright light heading towards them at high speed; everyone took it to be an attacking aircraft in afterburners. The Commanding Officer, Cdr M N Malik, who had rushed to the bridge, ordered the ship’s anti-aircraft guns to open fire. Just then, a deafening explosion was heard as the glowing object slammed into the aft galley, below deck, and blew up the boiler room. Flames leapt upwards as sailors rushed helter-skelter, some trying to jettison the torpedoes, others trying to put out the fires. A hasty message was transmitted to MHQ, informing that, “enemy aircraft attacked…, boiler hit, ship stopped.” A few minutes later, another eerie glow was observed heading towards the stricken ship and, in no time, it tore into the second boiler room with an intense explosion. Uncontrollable fires enveloped the ship and ammunition started to explode. As it started to list, some men jumped overboard from the sinking ship. PNS Khaibar finally went down, taking with her 222 ill-fated hands.

PNS Muhafiz, a minesweeper, sailed out to relieve the survey vessel PNS Zulfiqar, which was patrolling Karachi harbour’s inner cordon. Arriving on station at 2245 hrs, she was just in time to witness the fireworks in the outer patrol area. Altering her course and heading south to investigate the fiery glow on the horizon, Lt Cdr M S Usmani, the Commanding Officer of Muhafiz feared the worst. Suddenly, a speeding light was seen to be headed towards his own ship. Moments later, a swishing object smashed into the minesweeper and exploded with such force that it disintegrated the wooden vessel into pieces. Some of those who had been thrown overboard on impact managed to swim away, but 33 others went down in this second deadly attack, barely twenty minutes after the first one.

The Indian Navy task force had included two frigates for submarine screening and three missile boats for the actual attack. INS Nirghat was the first to engage and it fired two Styx missiles that hit PNS Khaibar. The next to fire two missiles was INS Nipat but its victim remained a mystery for some time till the sunken wreck of SS Venus Challenger, a Liberian merchant ship, was found by navy divers 26-nm south of Karachi, some days after the war ended. Nipat also fired a third missile at the harbour a little later, which hit some oil storage tanks at Keamari terminal. Last to fire was INS Veer whose single missile hit PNS Muhafiz.

Having resoundingly achieved its objective, the task force sped back under cover of darkness to rendezvous with a waiting tanker for refuelling. By dawn of next day, the task force had cleared the estimated strike range of PAF fighters and, was homeward bound. An IAF fighter patrol had been arranged to cover the task force just in case, but no PAF fighters were encountered.

Shocked and demoralised by the surprise attack, a hapless Pak Navy struggled to cope with the crisis that had literally exploded at her doorstep. The PAF, none too happy about its own plight in the south, could only sympathise with its sister service in this sombre situation.

In the aftermath of the attack, an urgent Air Priority Board meeting was asked for (on 5 December) and, Pak Navy was able to muster a motley fleet of aircraft[5] including some more from PIA and different government departments, for the purpose of enhancing maritime reconnaissance measures. Most of them were light aircraft and might have been suitable for daytime ‘coast guard’ duties, at best. Nonetheless, with the warships bottled up in the harbour or hidden away around Cape Monze and Gadani, additional aircraft for patrolling were considered a welcome help for the overworked PIA F-27. It was to be seen if the desperate measure meant anything.

Hitting Back

In the wake of the missile attack, Pak Navy felt – almost as an after-thought – that the home base of the missile boats at Okha needed to be taken out. In all likelihood, the tit-for-tat raid serving as a retribution of sorts would have been uppermost in the minds of the Naval Staff. In any case, the necessity of tackling the threat of missile boats also sank in at PAF’s COC and it was agreed to attack Okha harbour. Of course, it was not expected that the missile boats would still be berthed at the quay-side in Okha. As a matter of fact, these had already been dispersed to smaller locations along the Saurashtra Coast, even before the war had started. Nonetheless, it was the considered opinion of Pak Navy that a hit on the infrastructure could hamper missile boat operations to some extent.

On the evening of 5 December, Flt Lt Shabbir A Khan was standing out on the B-57 tarmac watching preparations for the night missions, when he was informed about being detailed for a strike on Okha harbour. He, along with his navigator, Sqn Ldr Ansar Ahmad, rushed off to the operations room to start planning the mission. Two hours after moonrise seemed like a good selection of the TOT, as the glimmering sea would clearly outline the edges of the darkened harbour.

Taking off at 2210 hrs, the B-57 got a fiery send-off as the AAA opened up in the nearby Karachi harbour, signalling an air raid. Continuing the take-off, Shabbir and Ansar settled down to watch – with unnerving anticipation – the moonbeams dazzling the creeks and estuaries of the Kutch Coast to their port side. Finally, turning to the attack heading, they picked up a sizeable flotilla on their radar, about 20-nm to their starboard. There was a temptation to go for the ships, but discipline prevailed and they continued for the designated target. Reaching the pull-up point, Shabbir pushed the throttles to 100% power, while Ansar started to guide him into the attack. Just when Shabbir pressed the bomb release button and there was no release, Ansar realised that he had forgotten to arm the release switch. In a fraction of a second he flipped the switch on and Shabbir pipped the button again, pulling out of the dive narrowly. After some 10-odd seconds, there was a tremendous flash of light and the aircraft shook up with the blast. A direct hit had been achieved as nine 500-lb bombs slammed into fuel tanks and other stores at the harbour. In the meantime AAA had started to fire and the sky seemed ablaze. Shabbir and Ansar saw the shells continuously exploding along the aircraft’s flight path but luckily, the bomber escaped unscathed.

The attack had been a tremendous success and, news that the home base of the missile boats was in flames turned out to be thoroughly cathartic for all and sundry in the Pak Navy and PAF. A pair of F-104s which visited Okha for another attack four days later, reported that the harbour was still smouldering and the smoke could be seen from as far as 60-nm. The Indian Official History of 1971 Indo-Pak War notes that, “two air attacks were also carried out on Okha and some fuel tanks were set ablaze, thereby denying the missile boats any further use of this port as a forward base.”[6]

Harbour in Flames

Seeing the success of Operation ‘Trident’ which had resulted in huddling up of Pak Navy ships in the harbour, Indian Navy decided that the main force of the Western Fleet would carry out a similar attack from the unexpected south-westerly direction, the very next night. However, breakdown of two vessels forced the withdrawal of a group of five,[7] which sailed back home and consequently, the attack had to be postponed. Subsequent snags, and then bad weather, delayed the operation further.

On the night of 8/9 December, at around 2245 hrs, lookouts at Manora suddenly picked up the infamous glow hurtling towards them, then crossing overhead and slamming into the nearby oil tank farms at Keamari.[8] A tremendous fire engulfed the terminal and the whole harbour lit up, visible from miles. Distressingly, fires lit by an earlier air attack on the morning of 4 December had been laboriously put out just a day earlier.

A few minutes after the first attack, another missile hit the anchored British-owned merchant ship Harmatton, causing it to sink in no time. This was immediately followed by a third missile which hit the SS Gulf Star, also anchored, flying the Panamanian flag. It survived the attack with serious damage.[9]

A fourth missile hit PNS Dacca, the Navy’s supply ship which was idling in the harbour for maintenance, having been out at sea for 25 days at a stretch. A portion of the ship caught fire but, due to the courage and presence of mind of its Officer Commanding, Cdr S Q Raza, the steam smothering system was operated and a major explosion averted; the fires were put out by midnight. By next evening, power had been restored and the ship was moved further inshore, where she remained till the end of the war.

The attacking force had consisted of three frigates escorting the missile boat INS Vinash. All four missiles were fired by this boat from a distance of 12 miles from the harbour. After the attack, the group was able to make a getaway without any hitch and, rendezvoused with the Western Fleet flagship INS Mysore for a return to Bombay.

The operation had again been thoroughly successful and rendered Pak Navy’s surface fleet incapable of any operation during the war. However, it must be said that if international conventions on declaring and enforcing a blockade had been heeded to by the Indian Navy, at least the loss of lives on-board foreign merchant shipping could have been avoided.

Whither PAF?

With ‘do-it-yourself’ maritime reconnaissance in the hands of PIA and Pak Navy, PAF was expected to only carry out anti-surface vessel attacks during daytime. It is alleged that PAF was called out many times but the usual refrain was that ‘effort was not available’. What is known is that PAF flew 22 day missions (F-86E and F-104) and 10 night missions (B-57 and T-33) searching for enemy missile boats and other ships, none of which were successful. Regrettably, the reports of sighting of enemy ships were either bogus or, the ships were incorrectly located. On one occasion, for instance, PNS Zulfiqar was strafed west of Cape Monze by a pair of F-86s, after the target was repeatedly confirmed by a frantic MHQ as being hostile.

It is evident that the fundamental problem of maritime support lay in the inadequacy of airborne maritime reconnaissance, as the platforms were under-equipped and crew untrained. With Pak Navy officers on-board the F-27 aircraft having no prior experience in this role and their PIA pilots literally finding themselves at sea, the outcome could not have been any better. Sadly, but not surprisingly, the PIA Fokker F-27 (AP-ALX) crashed on the night of 12/13 December off the Makran Coast while on a recce mission, killing its crew of four.[10] In all probability, the fatigued pilots were disoriented in a pitch dark night, as the aircraft descended uncontrollably into the coastal Ras Malan Hills. The wreckage of the F-27 was found after the war.

On at least three occasions at night, Indian Navy task groups were reportedly located by the recce aircraft,[11] but these reports could not be followed up with actual strikes as PAF aircraft were not equipped with any aids for sighting and attacking ships at night. In all three cases, the ships had taken evasive measures and had broken off from the area by daybreak and, were not traceable. It is open to question if the attacking aircraft would have been able to successfully penetrate the formidable AAA screen of the task groups for a close-in dive attack, even at daytime. Not the least, lacking any practical training in the anti-shipping role whatsoever, PAF pilots were not expected to blast away bridges and boiler rooms during their first lessons at sea.

It may also be opportune to clarify that of the 127 visual reconnaissance sorties that were ‘made available’, as the Story of the Pakistan Air Force – Saga of Courage and Honour states,[12] PIA flew 59 sorties while other civilian aircraft flew 68 sorties, all with their own crew. Even though the effort did not yield any concrete results, the dedication of the volunteer pilots is, indeed, commendable.

On one occasion on 10 December, while on an unusual maritime recce mission in a F-104 searching for Osa boats, Wg Cdr Arif Iqbal chanced upon an Indian Navy Alizé maritime patrol aircraft off Jakhau on the Saurashtran Coast. The hapless aircraft jinked and thrashed about very low over the water as Arif settled behind it with some difficulty. The Alizé was seen to tumble into the sea eventually; whether it was the result of gunfire or, was due to a wingtip grazing the swells, remains moot.[13] The patrolling Alizé was part of a massive hunt for Pak Navy submarine PNS Hangor in the eastern Arabian Sea, after she had sunk an Indian Navy frigate INS Khukri the previous morning and escaped successfully.

The sum total of all the help that PAF could provide to Pak Navy was only one successful strike against the enemy missile boat facility at Okha harbour. Planners at both services headquarters must have rued their vacillation in striking a couple of harbours on Saurashtra Coast as an opening gambit of the war. An audacious and imaginative plan might have included a staged-through attack on Bombay harbour too, à la Agra strike.[14] Arguably, the Styx missile attacks of 4/5 December may have been preventable after all, if the later raid on Okha was anything to go by.


[1] Space and Upper Atmospheric Research Committee.
[2] Long ranges are possible under conditions of anomalous propagation of radio waves that is particularly prevalent in winter months in the Arabian Sea.
[3] The one nearer to Karachi was the group of three missile boats and the further one was the pair of frigates.
[4] Contrary to some writings that PNS Khaibar was caught unawares, the Indian Official History of 1971 Indo-Pak War confirms that the first target that INS Nirghat engaged had been “zigzagging, revealing hostile intentions,” before heading towards the task force. “This ship continued coming towards the task force and was quickly reducing distance.” (Chapter-XI, ‘Naval Operations in the Arabian Sea,’ page 472.)
[5] These additional aircraft included: 1xF-27 & 2xTwin Otters (PIA), 1xCessna 310 (Governor Punjab), 1xBeaver DHC-2 (Plant Protection Dept), 2xCessna 150 (Karachi Aero Club) and 1xAero Commander (PAF).
[6] Chapter-XI, ‘Naval Operations in the Arabian Sea,’ page 474.
[7] This was the group of vessels picked up by Flt Lt Shabbir A Khan and Sqn Ldr Ansar Ahmad on the B-57 radar while proceeding to attack Okha.
[8] Only one tank containing crude oil caught fire during the attack on the night of 8/9 Dec. This was stated by Mr M Niaz, who was the Sales Development Engineer of ESSO in 1971 and, led the team that put out the fire.
[9] The New York Times correspondent Henry Kamm reported in his 11 December despatch that the wife and child of the Greek captain of Gulf Star were killed in the attack. He also reported that seven seamen were killed in the attack on Harmatton.
[10] The PIA crew included Captain Mubashir Hameed, First Officer Syed Khalid Javaid and Navigator B D Cheema. The PN observer on board was Lt Cdr A I Nagi. The loss of the F-27 has been recorded by CAA and PIA as 'missing on flight from Karachi to Zahedan, Iran.'
[11] The Indian Official History of 1971 Indo-Pak War confirms these three occasions: 1) "From evening of 3 Dec till 0200 hrs on 4 Dec, the Main Fleet was shadowed by three maritime aircraft." 2) "On 6 Dec, several enemy aircraft were shadowing additional vessels (Saurashtra Group) that were to join the Main Fleet south west of Karachi; as a consequence, the group had to turn back without joining the Main Fleet." 3) "At 2040 hrs on 8 Dec, two slow flying aircraft shadowed the Makran Group (INS Mysore, flagship of the Western Fleet)." The number of aircraft reported to be shadowing the ships far exceeds their availability with Pak Navy and, the author is inclined to believe that some of these aircraft may have belonged to foreign forces (likely USA), which may have entered the fray for keeping a tab on what was going on.
[12] 'A War Against Secession,' page 466.
[13] The aircraft belonged to Bombay-based No 310 Squadron of Indian Navy. The crew included the pilot Lt Cdr Ashok Roy and observers Lt H S Sirohi and Aircraftman Vijayan, none of whom survived.
[14] A two-ship B-57 strike on Bombay harbour, staged through Talhar, was planned but cancelled at the last moment, later during the war, according to Wg Cdr Akhtar Bukhari, the B-57 detachment commander at Masroor who was to fly the mission alongwith the Base Commander, Air Cdre Nazir Latif. Some B-57s had been modified to carry four F-86 drop tanks under the wings to be able to fly a lo-lo-lo profile. Two similar long-range strikes had been flown earlier by Mianwali-based B-57s when they staged-through Rafiqui (Shorkot) to attack distant Agra.

Acknowledgements are due to Air Marshal Zafar Choudhry (Retd), Vice Admiral Asif Humayun (Retd), Rear Admiral M A K Lodhi (Retd), Air Vice Marshal M Akhtar Bukhari (Retd) and Captain 'Johnny' Sadiq (PIA), for providing useful information for this article.


This article was published in Defence Journal, April 2010 issue.