05 August 2011

PAF on the Offensive - 1971 War

Planners in the PAF clearly knew that for achieving a favourable situation over the battlefield, air defence alone would not suffice, and the the enemy air force had to be countered through offensive means as well. Runways and air defence radars of consequence were the considered choice targets and the PAF felt that sufficient disruption, if not outright neutralisation, could be effected. It was well-known that aircraft hidden away in concrete pens would be impervious to damage from air attack, while the well-camouflaged fuel storage facilities, ammunition dumps and command centres would also be problematic targeting choices.

PAF’s offensive counter-air campaign also had to be carefully orchestrated, as the limited resources could not be frittered away too early in the war, yet pressure had to be maintained throughout. It was decided to attack deeper bases only at night – when the potency of the interceptors’ targeting ability was the least effective – while the shallower ones could be attacked round the clock. Moreover, those 4-5 enemy airfields that could support an effort against Pak Army’s main offensive, would be attacked in full force, as and when the operation unfolded. Prudent adjustment of attack intensity over time, as well as correct assessment of the desired point of application of force – the ‘when’ and ‘where’ – were, thus, the keys to success of the campaign. PAF was hopeful of achieving a favourable air situation for a limited period, in a restricted area, to be able to provide meaningful air support to the Pak Army.

There have been disparaging commentaries about PAF’s purported ‘pre-emptive’ strikes on the evening of 3 December. An impression is conveyed as if it was beyond PAF’s professional acumen to pull off a feat of that order, totally disregarding the fact that it was none other than the PAF which had boldly struck IAF airfields pre-emptively on 6 September, 1965 (albeit, with mixed results). The IAF may not have been grounded as a result, but its confidence and esteem surely went crashing, right at the outset.

As has been stated earlier, in 1971, a fundamental difference was that all aircraft were parked inside harderned shelters. Closing down a few runways near to the border, even for short durations, was, therefore, considered a not-too-risky option and, well worth the effort. PAF had, wisely decided not to attempt anything foolhardy against deeper targets during daylight hours, which would result in considerable losses and a consequent blow to the morale, early on in the war. Seen in this light, PAF’s first dusk strikes were nothing more than the start of a disruptive counter-air campaign at best, aimed at overburdening the IAF in its flying effort generation capabilities.

To mock these initial strikes as a failed pre-emption effort is also unwarranted. India was not expected to launch any large-scale offensive on the Western front beyond general holding operations and improving defensive posture in some vulnerable areas, so the question of pre-emption did not arise. If at all there was something to be pre-empted, it was the Indian invasion that started surreptitiously at Jessore in East Pakistan on the night of 21/22 November. Alas, this option – and the only one with some military merit – was a non-starter, due to fear of intense international condemnation of an isolated Pakistan run by a much disparaged military dictator.

An interesting rationale for the initial strikes has been elaborated in his book, The Gold Bird[1] by Air Cdre Mansoor Shah, who was the Assistant Chief of Air Staff (Operations) during the war. Shah claims that these strikes were meant to provoke IAF into retaliating against PAF bases, which were the only well-defended target sets in the country. He goes on to state that it was important to keep the IAF’s attention focused on the bases or else, it might have switched to countrywide interdiction of lines of communications, where the PAF was defenceless. This line of reasoning posits that the IAF was not inclined to undertake airfield strikes, at least during daytime, unless provoked. The high attrition suffered by IAF during daylight airfield strikes and subsequent scaling down of these operations, would only suggest that the IAF had not thought out its counter-air strategy carefully. Reading too much into PAF’s ‘provocation’ trap would only result in a one-dimensional view and a wholly self-serving inference. Also, the fact that IAF had simultaneouly started its interdiction campaign targeting the lines of communications right from 4 December onwards, undermines Shah’s conjecture about where IAF’s priorities lay.

First Strikes

The airfields of Amritsar and Pathankot are located just two minutes flying time from the Pakistani border, which is insufficient, even for interceptors already airborne, to prevent any raiders from attacking. Even after the attack, there is not enough time for a fruitful chase before the raiders are safely across. A high speed exit, especially under cover of fast fading light, almost ensures a clean getaway. Similarly, the airfields at Srinagar and nearby Avantipur nestled in the vales of Kashmir, offer low flying raiders the prospect of ingressing and egressing unobserved by radar, under cover of hills.

Though the ease of attacking the above-mentioned airfields made them tempting targets anyway, they were also crucial due to their ability to support Indian ground forces in the vitally important Chamb and Shakargarh Sectors. PAF, therefore, decided to subject these airfields to a concerted, round-the-clock campaign starting at dusk on 3 December.

While the hilly terrain in Kashmir provided the necessary shielding against early radar pick up, the plains of Punjab offered no hindrance to the clear line of sight of IAF radars. Two most menacing early warning radars were the Type-35 located at Amritsar and Faridkot. These were, therefore, also singled out for neutralisation in the first wave. F-104s, which were earmarked for air defence of the Southern Sector while based at Masroor, were being held back at Sargodha for two days especially for these radar strikes.

As excitement built up for first strikes, the President and Chief Martial Law Administrator, General Yahya Khan decided to visit PAF’s Command Operations Centre (COC) to monitor the action first hand. As the President was leaving the Presidency, a most uncanny incident occurred, which could well have been out of a Hitchcock thriller. It is related by his ADC, Flt Lt Arshad Sami Khan in his very informative book, Three Presidents and an Aide[2]:

"At the appointed hour, General Hameed came in driving a Toyota military jeep with his ADC sitting next to him. Before I could lead him into the visitor's room General Yahya walked out to the porch. Greeting General Hameed, he pointed to the blue winter sky and said "Nice weather for flying, Ham".

"As we got into the jeep, both ADCs in the rear, General Hameed at the wheel, and the President in front passenger seat and began to move, an unusually large vulture, more like an American condor, appeared from almost thin air and landed a few metres ahead of us. It blocked the narrow road leading to the inner gate of the Presidency. General Hameed slowly moved up the jeep but the vulture refused to budge. Hameed blew the horn but that only made the bird stare back with great defiance. The President jumped out and tried to scare it away with the General's baton (we were all in uniform). Amazingly, the vulture simply hopped a few steps sideways but remained in the centre of the road dividing the two lawns of the compound. Seeing the goings on, a nearby gardner ran up and began to shoo the bird with a large sickle, that finally made the bird clear the road with an ominous gait and we moved on."

Apparently unruffled by the vulture’s ill-omened antics, the President arrived at the COC and was briefed about the raid plan by an enthusiastic Air Mshl A Rahim Khan. After a crisp fifteen-minute briefing – which could not have been more than a mere formality – the President gave the go ahead at 1630 hrs (PST). The decision was instantly communicated to the pilots who were eagerly waiting at the flight lines. The first raid took off twenty minutes later.

No 26 Squadron opened up with strikes at Srinagar and the nearby non-operational back-up airfield at Avantipur, with a TOT of 1709 hrs. Each strike package consisted of four F-86Fs armed with 2x500-lb general purpose bombs and two escorts with guns only. Both missions were considered successful, with all bombs being delivered on the operating surfaces and, the escorts also getting to carry out strafing runs.

The second set of strikes were designed to neutralise Amritsar and Faridkot radars, so that subsequent strike missions to Amritsar and Pathankot airfields could ingress discretely. A pair of F-104s each carried out a strafing attack on the two radars at 1710 hrs. The antenna of Faridkot radar was claimed to have been hit. During the attack, Wg Cdr Arif Iqbal spotted a Krishak light aircraft on the adjacent landing ground and found it tempting enough to make a risky second pass; the Krishak is acknowledged by IAF as having been damaged, though Arif claimed to have set it on fire. Amritsar radar was also attacked, with both pilots claiming to have hit the antenna; some damage to the communication equipment is acknowledged by the IAF. The lead F-104 (tail no 56-804) was equipped with a locally developed radar homing device, which was the only one of its type in the PAF. Trials had shown it to be a promising gadget and, as expected, had been instrumental in locating the well-camouflaged Amritsar radar. Damage to the radar was, however, short-lived as it became fully operational sometime during the night, which warranted a repeat mission the next morning.

Amritsar airfield was the next target, which was allotted to the speedy Mirages, with a TOT of 1716 hrs. Four Mirage IIIE, quite at ease without escorts, arrived unnoticed over Amritsar airfield which, incredibly, had its runway lights on. Three of the attackers delivered 2x750-lb general purpose bombs each, while the fourth had hung bombs and had to call off dry. All aircraft exited without being intercepted. “They made four to five craters from the beginning of the runway to about 600 meters,” is how the IAF CAS, Air Chief Marshal P C Lal, notes the attack in his book My Years with the IAF.[3]

Pathankot was singled out for two successive raids by Mirages and F-86s. The first raid consisted of four unescorted Mirage IIIE which were to attack Pathankot at 1717 hrs. The formation leader, however, did not have the good fortune of catching the runway with its lights on, and nobody could execute a proper attack in the evening haze and low light. The bombs fell in the general vicinity of the airfield. The second raid on Pathankot followed at 1723 hrs and consisted of four F-86F along with four similar escorts, all from No 15 Squadron based at Murid. Three of the attackers were able to deliver 2x500-lb general purpose bombs each, while the fourth was unable to release his load. Finding the AAA fire not too menacing, the escorts also dove down for strafing attacks in the airfield area.

Considering that one quarter of the 32 planned bombing and strafing sorties were unsuccessful, any pretence about significant success of the first strikes was rather misplaced. The shallow dive angles dictated by AAA avoidance tactics had also worked against deeper bomb penetration and, whatever cratering that occurred was repaired overnight. The saving grace of the whole operation was that the enemy was unable to interfere in any way and, all aircraft were recovered safely. The results of the opening strikes were, however, not completely dismal and, there were ample indications of operational activities being sufficiently disrupted at these forward airfields. This only reinforced the earlier surmise of the planners that, if administered round the clock, such treatment could go some way in mitigating IAF’s air support effort, at least in the Shakargarh Sector, where the Indian Army had opened up mightily with its offensive.

Night Offensive

From the night of 3 December onwards, B-57s came to be the mainstay of the night airfield bombing campaign. The sole No 7 Squadron was split up between Mianwali and Masroor, with ten and eight aircraft respectively. The Mianwali detachment was commanded by OC, No 7 Squadron, Wg Cdr Muhammad Yunis[4], while the Masroor detachment was commanded by Wg Cdr Mahmood Akhtar, a 1965 War bomber veteran and a former OC of No 31 Bomber Wing. T-33s of No 2 Squadron, under command of Wg Cdr Asghar Randhawa, also chipped in usefully in the night campaign. Even the C-130s were mustered to fly a few audacious bombing missions.

Close on the heels of the dusk strikes by the fighters, the B-57s struck eleven IAF airfields: seven in the north, viz Agra, Ambala, Amritsar, Bikaner, Halwara, Pathankot, and Sirsa, and four in the south, viz Jaisalmer, Jamnagar, Jodhpur and Uttarlai. T-33s singled out the latter airfield for their plucky bombing runs on the first night.

The raid on Agra airfield was significant as it was the deepest target attacked by any PAF aircraft. Two Mianwali-based B-57s staged through Rafiqui and managed to reach Agra 375-nm away, without being intercepted enroute. The effort was only a partial success as the first B-57 failed to produce any results due to dud bombs. The second B-57 flown by Flt Lt Mazhar Bukhari with Flt Lt Nasim Khan as navigator, was able to carry out the attack successfully (2105 hrs), though it barely survived a mistaken AAA barrage on recovery at Rafiqui.

Evidence of the success of some other B-57 strikes flown on the night of 3/4 December can be gleaned from Air Mshl P C Lal’s book, in which he makes a mention of the outcome at some of the IAF airfields.

Wg Cdr Mahmood Akhtar and his navigator Flt Lt A B Subhani spearheaded the B-57 night bombing campaign, when they struck Uttarlai on the night of 3 December (1900 hrs). This strike was closely followed by two more T-33 strikes. “The runway was bombed thrice on the very first evening of the war. Such a possibility had been envisaged and Murthy (Station Commander) had trained the pilots of his station to take-off from and land on the taxi track … that is how they operated for the first six days of the war,” according to Lal.[5]

The B-57 strike to Halwara on 3 December (2307 hrs) was flown by Sqn Ldr Abdul Basit with Sqn Ldr G A Khan as his navigator. “The B-57 dropped eight bombs, three of which landed on the runway making two major craters,” recollects Lal.[6] The Indian Official History of 1971 Indo-Pak War also corroborates Lal’s assessment thus: “The craters at Halwara were more extensive and were repaired only by the next morning.”[7] Though Lal claims in his book that one of the three missiles fired hit the B-57, the fact is that the aircraft landed safely, without suffering any damage. Apparently, Lal has been unable to sift from the spurious static when he claims “the PAF Chief admitted this loss.”

In the Sirsa strike on 4 December (0318 hrs), the B-57 pilot Sqn Ldr Yusuf Alvi and his navigator Flt Lt Muhammad Ali, claimed to have seen two bombs explode on the runway. “Part of the runway was hit … It was enough though to make the runway unserviceable for the night … the bombs had time-delayed fuses and kept on exploding at intervals till dawn delaying clearance and repair work,” confirms Lal.[8]

On the following nights, several other airfields were added to the earlier targets and included Adampur, Jammu, Srinagar, and Bhuj. All in all, fifteen IAF airfields came to be targeted incessantly over the next twelve nights.

A report on the outcome of the B-57 attack on Sirsa, on the night of 4 December (2010 hrs), came from a most unlikely source. Flt Lt Harish Sinhji, a Sirsa-based MiG-21 pilot, who had become a POW a day after the attack, gave a rather agreeable account of the results of the B-57 bombing to his interrogators. “After one of PAF’s night bombing strikes on our airfield, we were all grounded for six hours. The runway had been cratered at many places. The following morning, our OC, Wg Cdr V B Sawardekar, took us all to the runway to show us the Pakistani pilot’s bombing accuracy. Pointing to the craters on our runway, he said that this is the kind of accuracy the IAF pilots should achieve against Pakistani targets.”[9] The crew of the B-57, Flt Lt Iftikhar Naqvi and his navigator Sqn Ldr M Irfan had reason to be happy when they received personal compliments from the PAF C-in-C who was in on Sinhji’s report.

The outcome of the attack on Agra on the night of 5 December (0100 hrs) by Sqn Ldr Yusuf Alvi with Flt Lt Muhammad Ali as his navigator, is described thus: “the runway was put out of commission temporarily, and some of the Canberra missions had to be cancelled,” according to the Indian Official History of 1971 Indo-Pak War.[10]

In an apparent chance hit during an attack on Pathankot on the night of 6 December, “a missile preparation shed was hit but the fire was put out before any damage occurred to the main storage area. Also an aircraft servicing hangar was hit and a Vampire aircraft parked inside was partially destroyed,” notes the official Indian history.[11] Since two sorties were flown against Pathankot during that night, it is difficult to credit any particular set of aircrew.[12]

One of the enigmas of the war in the south was the status of Bhuj airfield, against which PAF flew as many as 14 bombing sorties. Official Indian sources do not list this airfield as having housed any combat aircraft during the war, nor was it used as a stage-through base. Due to its proximity to the Kutch Sector, it was used as a transport base for prompt and regular supply of troops to prevent a repeat of the 1965 Rann of Kutch flop. The raids on Bhuj were a costly undertaking for the PAF in terms of air effort expended and the couple of lives lost; nonetheless, an unlikely endorsement of the quality of bombing comes from Air Chief Marshal P C Lal, who notes that, “the PAF bombed it (Bhuj) fairly accurately.” Apparently, Lal is referring to the results of three raids flown shortly after midnight of 8/9 December, in which all three sets of aircrew claimed that their bombs had struck the runway.[13]

If the preceding comments are any indicator of how PAF’s night bombing campaign fared at large, one can be sure that the PAF was causing more than just insomnia at IAF bases.

Disappointingly however, of the 130 sorties flown by B-57, T-33 and C-130, forty percent were reported by the aircrew – in all candour – to be unsuccessful, either due to armament malfunctions or, because the targets could not be located and bombs were dropped in general target vicinity on ‘dead reckoning’. Effects of the 186 tonnes[14] of ordnance dropped in the 77 successful night sorties are best known to IAF, as the PAF had no means of carrying out any damage assessment. Going by the few available reports, one can imagine that flight lines activities would have been hampered considerably and repairs to the operating surfaces and other damaged infrastructure would have used up precious manpower and resources. Night bombings would have kept the supervisors and crews awake, giving them no respite and, inducing intense fatigue. Disruption of operational and maintenance activities, as well as exhaustion of base personnel including key decision-makers would, in a most parsimonious assessment, figure out as fair achievements of the night bombing campaign.

Three B-57s, along with their crew, were lost to AAA during raids on the night of 5/6 December. In the north, Flt Lt Javed Iqbal (P) and Flt G M Malik (N) met a tragic end after being shot down at Amritsar. Though they had managed to eject, both were badly beaten up by the mob that had swarmed at the place of landing and were fatally injured as a consequence.[15] In the south, Sqn Ldr Ishfaq Qureshi (P) and Flt Lt Zulfiqar Ahmad (N) went down at Bhuj and Sqn Ldr Khusro Shadani (P) and Sqn Ldr Peter Christy (N) went down at Jamnagar.[16] Apparently, the benefit of attacking an airfield in moonlit conditions – a 17-day old waning moon, about 85% of its full illumination – worked both ways and, would have helped the AAA gunners in sighting and tracking the attacking bombers.

Wg Cdr Mahmood Akhtar, the B-57 detachment commander at Masroor was also the field coordinator of all bomber operations, liaising with the COC at Rawalpindi. In his view, “despite difficulties in maintaining and operating an aging weapon system, the detachment continued flying with gusto and dedication.” He cites enthusiastic plans for bombing Bombay Harbour in retaliation for raids on Karachi Harbour. The mission was to be flown – rather precariously – after being staged through Talhar on the pattern of the long range strikes to Agra, flying modified B-57s configured with four F-86 drop tanks each. Akhtar was extremely disappointed at the cancellation of the Bombay raid at the last minute, for reasons best known to the COC. His other disappointment was on the wasted effort during the unsuccessful night missions, and in particular, he blames a wrongly-marked location of Jaisalmer airfield on the aeronautical charts, that cost the PAF nine wasted sorties.

Day Offensive Continues

The day counter-air campaign that had started the previous evening, continued on the morning of 4 December (0635 hrs) with a pair of F-104s led by Sqn Ldr Amjad Hussain successfully attacking Barnala radar. “The radar at Barnala was off the air for nearly 12 hours,” reports the Indian official history.[17]

The radar at Amritsar, which had come back on a few hours after being attacked the previous evening, warranted a revisit. Sqn Ldr Rasheed Bhatti along with Flt Lt Amanullah Khan took off on the morning of 4 December (0650 hrs) and were able to spot the radar antenna despite the winter haze. As Bhatti was diving for the attack, Amanullah yelled that there was a Gnat behind him and gave a call to exit. Bhatti jettisoned his drop tanks, lit up the afterburner and sped away. In the meantime Amanullah, who found the Gnat in his gunsight, fired a Sidewinder but was in too much of a haste to join up with his leader and, was unable to confirm the result of his shooting. His gun camera film was also too hazy for ratification of the kill.

Another mission had to be flown against Amritsar radar, so at mid-day, Sqn Ldr Amjad Hussain and Flt Lt Rasheed Bhatti, took off again. Short of reaching the radar, a sharp-eyed Bhatti spotted a pair of Su-7s orbiting overhead. Amjad found himself favourably placed to get behind one of the Su-7s, but the other one was able to manoeuvre behind Amjad. Sensing trouble, Bhatti warned Amjad who promptly disengaged and sped away, pretty much as Bhatti had done in the previous mission. With the Su-7 intent on chasing Amjad, Bhatti found it opportune to let go a Sidewinder which, he claims, rammed the Su-7’s huge afterburning exhaust with a big flash.[18] Bhatti’s attempts at going for the second Su-7 were foiled when he was confronted with an assymetric flight condition due to a drop tank failing to jettison. Both F-104s landed back with the mission unaccomplished yet again, though the pilots were not altogether cheerless after the scrap with the Su-7s.

The Amritsar radar busting project came to a halt at mid-day on 5 December, when the specially-equipped F-104 flown by Sqn Ldr Amjad Hussain was shot down by AAA, while carrying out a strafing pass over the radar. Amjad ejected and was hauled up as a POW.

The 12-odd sorties flown for ‘suppression of enemy air defences’ did not yield the desired results. The F-104s were, therefore, promptly moved to Masroor in the south, where the F-86s were eagerly waiting to be relieved from their largely blind night patrols.

PAF’s day airfield strike missions, in the meantime, continued apace. Besides the four airfields struck on the first evening of war, additional airfields of Jammu and Awantipura in the north and Uttarlai, Jamnagar and Jaisalmer in the south, were included in the day campaign.

Of the 146 day sorties (including 35 escorts) flown against nine IAF airfields, damage caused to the runways was generally minor and was usually repaired within a few hours. Some of the missions that caused noteworthy damage have been mentioned in the Indian Official History of 1971 Indo-Pak War, and are worth studying.

On the morning of 5 December (0637 hrs), Wg Cdr Aziz Ahmad led a flight of four F-86Fs from No 26 Squadron for a raid on Srinagar airfield. The formation claimed four bombs on the runway and four on the adjacent fair-weather strip, where a helicopter was seen to be hovering. The Indian official history acknowledges that, “the runway was slightly damaged, but was soon repaired. One Alouette helicopter flying near the airfield was shot down and both pilots were seriously injured.”[19]

On the evening of 6 December (1650 hrs), a flight of three Mirages led by Sqn Ldr Arif Manzoor successfully attacked Amritsar airfield. At about the same time, six F-86Fs (including two escorts) from No 26 Squadron, led by the OC, Wg Cdr Sharbat Changezi, attacked Srinagar airfield. “The runways at both airfields were slightly damaged but were quickly repaired,” according to the Indian official history.[20]

On morning of 9 December (0830 hrs), Wg Cdr Changezi led a large formation of four F-86F along with a similar number of escorts, for an attack on Srinagar airfield. The bombing caused, “six small craters on the runway; they were repaired by night-fall.”[21] No matter that the size of the holes failed to make an impression on the Indian historian, PAF had managed to keep the airfield out of operation for the whole day!

On the morning of 10 December (1045 hrs), a formation of six Mirage IIIE (including two escorts) led by Sqn Ldr Rao Akhtar, attacked Pathankot airfield. While the bombs were delivered accurately, Akhtar also got a chance to strafe at two Hunters lined up for take-off. The stream of bullets passed in between the Hunters which somehow survived the volley. “The Mirages made three craters on the runway at Pathankot but miraculously, two Hunters about to take-off were not hit,” notes the Indian history.[22] A more forthright account is given by Sqn Ldr Keith Lewis, a MiG-21 detachment commander at Pathankot, who was an eyewitness to the raid: “Regarding the attack itself, the runway was badly cratered, slightly off centre, about a 1000 yards up, and so was the parallel taxi track ... A very detailed inspection of the runway and taxi-track followed and, to the credit of the PAF Mirage formation, it must be stated for the record that they had taken out both the runway and the parallel taxi-track.” Lewis also states that “both the Hunter Mk 56 aircraft of No 27 Sqn were started up and taxied back to their dispersal area.”[23]

On the afternoon of 15 December (1230 hrs), four F-86F led by Wg Cdr Changazi attacked Srinagar airfield yet one more time. The Indian history notes: “At Srinagar one Vampire was hit on the ground inside a blast pen.”[24]

In the south, PAF also flew 12-odd day sorties against Uttarlai, Jaisalmer and Jamnagar, utilising the F-104 in strafing attacks. Only one such mission was successful on the morning of 11 December, when Wg Cdr Arif Iqbal and Sqn Ldr Amanullah came upon a pair of HF-24s lined up for take-off at Uttarlai, and these were duly strafed. Amanullah was able to destroy his target completely while Arif Iqbal’s claim was later learnt to have been a ‘damage.’

On the afternoon of 12 December, a similar strafing mission to Jamnagar turned luckless when a pair of F-104s was intercepted by two MiG-21FLs while exiting, after a failed attempt to locate the airfield in bad visibility. The wingman, Flt Lt Tariq Habib recalls that during the orbit, the F-104s had dangerously reduced their speed and the hapless leader, Wg Cdr Mervyn Middlecoat, was easily picked off by the pursuing MiGs. Unable to outmanoeuvre or outrun the nimble MiG-21, Middlecoat was shot down in a gun attack off the coast in the Gulf of Kutch.[25] Middlecoat ejected over the marshes not too far from the small coastal town of Sikka, but no trace of him was ever found.

Appraisal of the Offensive Counter-Air Campaign

The PAF flew a total of 288 offensive counter-air sorties, of which 158 were flown during the day and 130 were flown at night. 81 sorties (28% of the effort) were unsuccessful as the armament could not be delivered due to one of several reasons; these included inability to locate the target, armament delivery malfunction or interception by enemy fighters. Five aircraft were lost during the missions, two during the day and three at night, amounting to a campaign attrition rate of 1.7% which was considered within acceptable limits.

While the PAF had yet to go all-out pending the Army’s main offensive, its offensive counter-air campaign disrupted IAF’s operations to an adequate extent. At 10% of the total war effort, the scale of the offensive counter-air operations was optimal for the ‘softening up’ phase and was well orchestrated at the COC. While the results are nowhere close to those of a textbook campaign, primarily for want of a proper runway denial weapon, the PAF’s offensive resolve to take on a much larger enemy was clearly evident. The aircrew had also achieved sufficient proficiency to undertake the all-out phase of the campaign, but for the Army’s inability to unfold the much-vaunted offensive.


[1] The Gold Bird, Shah, Mansoor, Oxford University Press, Karachi, 2002.
[2] Three President’s and an Aide – Life Power and Politics, Khan, Arshad Sami, Pentagon Press, New Delhi, 2008
[3] Chapter 13, ‘The Western Sector,’ page 256.
[4] Wg Cdr Muhammad Yunis had the distinction of shooting down an IAF reconnaissance Canberra on a spying mission near Rawalpindi on 10 April 1959, while flying an F-86F; this was PAF’s first kill.
[5] Chapter 14, ‘South-Western Sector,’ page 286.
[6] Chapter 13, ‘The Western Sector,’ page 249.
[7] Chapter-X, ‘The IAF in the West,’ page 415.
[8] Chapter 13, ‘The Western Sector,’ page 271.
[9] Story of Pakistan Air Force – A Saga of Courage and Honour, page 451.
[10] Chapter-X, ‘The IAF in the West,’ page 424.
[11] Chapter-X, ‘The IAF in the West,’ page 426.
[12] The B-57 aircrew that flew the missions to Pathankot on the night of 6 December were: Mission at 0013 hrs – Sqn Ldr Feroz Khan (P) and Sqn Ldr Iftikhar Ghauri (N). Mission at 2317 hrs – Sqn Ldr Rais Rafi (P) and Flt Lt Wasif Bokhari (N).
[13] The Times of India, in a recent report (25 July 2010) on the reconstruction of Bhuj airfield after the major earthquake in Gujarat in 2001, recalls similar repair efforts following the destruction caused by PAF bombing three decades earlier. The newspaper quotes a 60-year old female labourer by the name of Hiru Bhudia of Madhapur village who had participated in the repair work during the war: “The airstrip in Bhuj was completely devastated by Pakistani bombers that dropped 14 napalm (?) bombs on the night of December 8, 1971. The airstrip needed to be reconstructed on a war footing, and for which, officials were not in a position to wait for long. They hurriedly took a decision to get the repair work done by locals. They contacted us and we responded to the crisis in an equally quick manner.”
[14] Of the 62 successful B-57 sorties, 40 were flown with 9x500-lb bombs each, 20 were flown with 9x500-lb and 4x1,000-lb bombs each, while two sorties could deliver only 7x1,000-lb bombs; the 13 successful T-33 sorties were flown with 2x500-lb bombs each; two successful C-130 sorties were flown with 35x500-lb and 45x500-lb bombs. All of this adds up to 410,000 lbs (186 metric tonnes) of ordnance delivered against IAF bases.
[15] This fact was disclosed to the author by retired Air Mshl Denzil Keelor, whom he met in Delhi in May 2008, while on a private visit. Keelor stated that he was convalescing at a military hospital in Amritsar following his own ejection from a MiG-21, after he was shot down by AAA in Lahore Sector. On the morning of 6th December 1971, Keelor noted that extraordinary arrangements were being made in an adjacent ward under supervision of security personnel. Shortly afterwards, two injured PAF bomber aircrew were admitted to the ward. One of them died within a few hours, while the other, who was in a coma, survived for a couple of weeks before succumbing to his injuries. Both were buried in Nizam-ud-din Auliya graveyard in Delhi. Keelor disclosed that both had been badly beaten up by the mob which had rushed at them after their parachute landing at Amritsar. It may be mentioned that Sqn Ldr Amjad Hussain, who had just become a POW after ejecting from an F-104, was given an opportunity to attend the funeral of one of the aircrew.
[16] Sqn Ldrs Ishfaq, Khusro and Christy were recently retired officers, recalled for duty from PIA.
[17] Chapter-X, ‘The IAF in the West,’ page 424.
[18] PAF intelligence sources have noted the ejection of a certain Flt Lt D R Natu over Amritsar around the time of the F-104 raid, with suspicion. Indian sources claim that Natu ejected due to AAA damage that occurred earlier during the mission.
[19] Chapter-X, ‘The IAF in the West,’ page 425.
[20] Chapter-X, ‘The IAF in the West,’ page 426.
[21] Chapter-X, ‘The IAF in the West,’ page 428.
[22] Chapter-X, ‘The IAF in the West,’ page 429.
[23] “Plain Tails from the IAF: The Pathankot Raid of Dec 10,” by Air Marshal K D K Lewis (Retd). It may be mentioned that the article centres on Lewis taking exception to the portrayal of Hunters being destroyed in a painting of the Pathankot raid by PAF’s official painter, S M A Hussaini.
[24] Chapter-X, ‘The IAF in the West,’ page 432.
[25] Wg Cdr Mervyn Middlecoat was shot down by Flt Lt Bharat Bhushan Soni of No 47 Sqn.


This article was published in 'Defence Journal', Aug-Sep 2011 issue.

28 April 2011

The Gujarat Beechcraft Incident - 1965 War

"It is a twin-engined, twin-tailed aircraft….with four side windows, probably an eight-seater….it is flying at 3,000 ft AMSL. Request further instructions.” Flg Off Qais M Hussain, who had been scrambled from Mauripur Station to check a suspicious radar contact south-west of Bhuj, was reporting to the Ground Controlled Interception (GCI) controller at Badin’s FPS-20 radar[1].

“Standby,” replied the GCI controller Flg Off Aziz A Khan, hesitantly, as he decided to consult the higher ups.

Qais, a rookie who had completed his conversion on F-86s from USA only four months earlier, belonged to No 18 Squadron and was part of a small detachment of pilots that was being rotated at Mauripur, while the rest of the squadron operated out of Sargodha. While on alert duty on 19 September, his F-86F pair was scrambled around 1545 hrs (PST). Qais, however, had to take off as a singleton since his leader, Flt Lt A I Bukhari, had aborted due to a starting problem.  Another standby aircraft, flown by Flt Lt A S Kazmi, took off after a delay of 6-7 minutes, but it never caught up with Qais and continued to hold over the border at 20,000 ft.

Initially, Qais had also been told to climb to 20,000 ft to conserve fuel, but was later directed to descend lower and try to spot the reported contact visually. Somewhere during the descent, Qais lost radio contact with Badin but luckily, Kazmi’s F-86 came in handy as a useful radio relay. Looking around intently, Qais caught a glint of bare metal in the afternoon sun. After having closed in and, having examined his quarry thoroughly, Qais passed his initial report to Badin via Kazmi. He then started orbiting over and around what was only later confirmed as a Beechcraft Model 18 commuter aircraft.

“When I saw this aircraft, I asked myself what was I to do with it,” recollects Qais. To his surprise, the Beechcraft pilot reacted to the interceptor’s presence by climbing up from its cruise altitude of 3,000 ft. Qais thought to himself that if shooting orders came, it would only make his job easy, compared to the trickier high-to-low shooting from stern, had the aircraft ducked down to low level.

“During the anxious wait of several minutes, I was wishing and hoping that I would be called back immediately, without firing any bullets,” recalls Qais pensively. However, the stark orders from Badin were relayed by Kazmi: “You are clear to shoot.” Adjusting himself behind the doomed Beechcraft, Qais fired a short burst from about 1,000 ft and saw a splinter fly off from the left wing. Speeding past the stricken aircraft, Qais readjusted for a second firing pass. Firing a long burst this time, he saw the right wing in flames. Moments later, the Beechcraft nosed over into a near vertical dive and exploded in a ball of fire near the village of Suthali, about half a mile from the coast (about 45 nautical miles WSW of Bhuj). Just then, Kazmi called out that Badin radar was reporting several aircraft – possibly Vampires from Jamnagar, it was thought – heading towards the scene of shooting.

Having flown a good 210 nm from home base and, been aloft for 30 minutes, the fuel state of the F-86 was low and precluded possibility of escape while hugging the ground. Qais was, however, fortunate to stumble onto a towering coastal cloud bank that he could hide behind, while climbing away. Reaching 15,000 ft over the border, Qais started a slow descent for Mauripur. His fuel tanks bone dry, Qais landed through a precautionary flame-out landing pattern.

The same evening it was learnt through All India Radio that the eight people on board the Beechcraft, including the Chief Minister of Gujarat State, Balwantrai Mehta, had been killed; also on board were the Chief Minister’s wife, Mrs Sarojben Mehta, three members of the Chief Minister’s personal staff and a press reporter from the daily Gujarat Samachar. The crew of two included an ex-IAF pilot, Jehangir M Engineer, one of IAF’s four famous Engineer brothers[2], along with the co-pilot D'Costa. Engineer was the chief pilot of Maharashtra State Government but was on loan to Gujarat. The aircraft had taken off from the Gujarat capital of Ahmedabad and was on its way to the small town of Mithapur that lay 200 nm WSW, at the mouth of the Gulf of Kutch. The aircraft had apparently drifted off-course considerably, for the crash site is almost 40 nm north of the intended destination.

An Indian inquiry into the incident submitted the facts four months later. According to the inquiry report, the IAF authorities at Bombay had refused to let the aircraft proceed on the flight. When the Gujarat government pressed for clearance, the IAF authorities agreed reluctantly, giving clearance for the pilot to proceed at his own risk.

The purpose of the risky visit to Mithapur remains unclear. One could speculate, though, that the Chief Minister may have sought to publicly demonstrate solidarity with his coastal constituency in the wake of Pakistan Navy’s earlier attack on Dwarka which, while tactically insignificant, was wholly morale-shattering. After all, the Chief Minister had, only earlier that morning, presided over a mass National Cadet Corps rally in Ahmedabad “to boost the country’s defence effort.”[3]

Regrettable as the news of civilian deaths were, no one at Headquarters No 2 Sector at Badin had feared that civilians would be on board an aircraft in the thick of the war zone. The Sector Commander, Wg Cdr Mehmood Hassan and the Officer Commanding of the Operations Wing, Sqn Ldr Abdul Moiz Shahzada had hastily surmised that the aircraft was proceeding on some sort of a reconnaissance or air transport mission. Shooting down of the aircraft was, thus, deemed an indisputable answer to the prevailing quandary. The niceties of territorial inviolability had obviously no room for debate, for this was clearly not a peace-time situation.

Both India and Pakistan had utilised civilian registered aircraft for transportation of military supplies, equipment or manpower and, for maritime reconnaissance during the 1965 War (as well as 1971 War). The inherent military potential of any aircraft was well understood and, was suitably exploited. The onus of safety of these platforms lay on the host country, as the lines between their civilian and military usage were blurred during hostilities. Except for United Nations or Red Cross / Red Crescent aircraft whose identity is unmistakably displayed, all other aircraft could be construed as liable to serving military objectives, not withstanding their civilian registration markings. Proper codification of aviation law to remove any doubts on the issue did not exist in the 1965 era and, in fact, was first made part of the Geneva Convention as late as 1977.

It would be worthwhile to study a portion of 'Protocol Additional to the Geneva Conventions’ of 12 August 1949, and 'Relating to the Protection of Victims of International Armed Conflicts (Protocol I) Article 52’ of 8 June 1977. Even a cursory reading reveals that total or partial destruction, capture or neutralisation of those ‘objects’ that can make effective contribution to military action by virtue of their nature, location, purpose or use, is defensible. The statute clarifies that while civilian ‘objects’ per se shall not be attacked, it clearly makes an exception ‘if these objects serve military objectives.’

Rather than attempting to seek cover of a later legislation through retroactive application, it would be instructive, purely from an academic standpoint, to see how the incident stands up to contemporary international legalities. It can be seen that the object under discussion namely, the Beechcraft aeroplane, by its nature, was capable of transporting military stores/personnel as well as performing land or maritime reconnaissance (visually at least); its location was also in an area contiguous to the land and maritime war zones. The actual purpose of the flight – which, in the event, turned out to be VIP movement – borders on the suspect when seen in the light of the other provisions mentioned heretofore, which unequivocally qualify the aircraft as ‘serving military objectives.’

Unfortunately, the safety of the aircraft stood compromised from the outset. Sadly, the loss of innocent lives has cast a shadow under which, more than anyone else, Qais has had to live for over four decades. He looks back ruefully, though he has no doubt that he was doing his duty.


[1] Badin’s FPS-20 radar was designated as the Master GCI Station for HQ No 2 (Air Defence) Sector which was co-located at Badin.
[2] ‘The Times of India’ News Service, Ahmedabad, Gujarat, 20 September, 1965.
[3] ‘Express’ News Service, Ahmedabad, Gujarat, 20 September, 1965.

Author's Notes:

1)  Based on his familiarity with the ‘scramble-identification-shooting’ loop, and the not infrequent pilot-controller miscommunication during interceptions especially on a faulty radio, the author is inclined to consider the intriguing possibility of a case of mistaken identity. In such a scenario, the staff at HQ No 2 Sector would have found Qais’ initial report broadly matching the description of a C-119 ‘Boxcar’ transport aircraft of the IAF, to the extent of being ‘twin-tailed, twin-engined, with four side windows.’ In all likelihood, no one knew what a civilian Beechcraft Model 18 looked like, whereas the unique C-119 military transport aircraft was a recognisable silhouette in Aircraft Recognition charts and manuals readily available in all Ops Rooms. The prompt shooting orders may have, thus, come straightforwardly, not withstanding the civilian registration number called out by Qais earlier.

2) In his recent letter (Aug 2011) to Mrs Farida Singh, the daughter of the downed pilot, Qais stated that on being spotted the Beechcraft pilot started "waggling his wings seeking mercy". This detail was not mentioned by Qais to the author when this article was first published in April 2011. In view of the apparent 'submission' by the Beechcraft, the possibility of shepherding the aircraft (through visual signals) for a forced landing at Mauripur could be debated. It has to be remembered, however, that for a young Flying Officer, this would have been an unthinkable violation of the clear shooting orders given by the HQ No 2 Sector. In any case, the Beechcraft would not have had enough fuel to make it to distant Mauripur. Searching for one of the disused airfields in the area for a forced landing,  would also not have been feasible due to the already low fuel state of both aircraft.

Acknowledgement is made to Air Cdre (R) Abdul Moiz Shahzada, Wg Cdr (R) Aziz A Khan and Flg Off (R) Qais Mazhar Hussain for their description of the incident. 


This article was published in 'Defence Journal', April 2011 issue.

21 February 2011

Air Defence in Northern Sector - 1971 War

With just four low level radars available in the northern air defence sector, there was no possibility of providing uninterrupted coverage along the border, including the battle areas. The large gaps could be easily exploited by tree-top hugging intruders for knocking out PAF bases and radar stations, before turning their attention to the battlefield. It was surmised by the PAF Air Staff that the few low level radars could be best utilised for providing cover to the bases, thus at least ensuring PAF’s viability for the all-important task of tactical air support. The only problem with this scheme, and a major one at that, was the rear location of radars which offered barely three minutes early warning; this was considered insufficient even for vectoring nearby standing CAPs. It was hoped that some early warning by MOUs would contribute gainfully, by adding to the reaction time.

Gp Capt Rehmat Khan, the Sector Commander, Sector Operations Centre (North) located at Sakesar, had a patchwork of reasonably modern sensors at his disposal, but far short of the optimum numbers required for an effective air defence ground environment. High level radar surveillance in the northern sector rested with a high-powered FPS-20 radar at Sakesar, while a Condor radar each at Chuhr Kana, Muridke and Tatepur near Multan, provided medium level cover. Low level cover rested with four AR-1 radars located at Rafiqui, Cherat, Kallar Kahar and Kirana. The hill-top locations of radars at the latter three locations were seen as a significant plus, due to an extension in the radar pick up range by as much as 50%. Major towns like Islamabad, Rawalpindi, Sialkot, Gujranwala, Lahore, Lyallpur and Multan, however, lay outside the low level radar cover.

Location of bases at Mianwali, Murid, Peshawar, Risalewala, Rafiqui and Sargodha served the air defence requirements over the battle areas reasonably well and provided sufficient redundancy. Day interceptors in the northern sector included 48 F-6, 32 F-86E, 32 F-86F and 23 Mirage IIIE/R/D. Of the latter, 17 Mirage IIIE sub-types also doubled as night interceptors. These had Cyrano II airborne radar, but it was practically useless in the look-down mode, being a simple pulse radar prone to ground clutter. It was, however, presumed that the Cyrano might be of some use in a ground controlled interception at night, if a less clutter prone low-to-high profile could be pulled off, somehow. Interceptors were equipped with AIM-9B Sidewinder missiles and cannon/guns for the air defence role.

The strategy of defending the bases, first and foremost, depended on being able to intercept the intruders before they released their weapons. With the inadequate early warning however, it seemed that PAF would have to be content with grabbing the ‘fleeing burglar’s loincloth,’ so to speak.

Intercepting the Intruders

The morning of 4 December promised action, as the IAF was expected to retaliate forcefully in response to PAF’s strikes against some of the Indian airfields, the previous evening and through the night. 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.[1] 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,” recalls 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 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 he 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.[2]

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.

Murid Base was particularly vulnerable to surprise attack from a north-easterly direction. Intruders from Pathankot could nestle against the Parmandal Range, before swinging in from Naushahra-Rajauri side in held-Kashmir. To counter this susceptibility, F-86Fs from No 15 Squadron were providing constant CAPs since first light. On the morning of 4 December at around 1030hrs, Flt Lt Mujahid Salik and Flg Off Sarfaraz Toor, who were on patrol, were directed by Kallar Kahar Radar to intercept a pair of Hunters heading towards the Base. By the time the F-86 pair collected itself for the interception, the Hunters were through with the raid and were egressing. The F-86s spotted one Hunter on the exit heading called out by the radar and Mujahid started to settle behind it. Toor, meanwhile, restively looked around for the second one which was being reported in the rear quarters. The F-86s had somehow ended up being sandwiched between the Hunters. Toor was lucky to spot the Hunter trying to catch up behind him, and instantly went into a tight break, blacking out in the process. The Hunter tried to hold a gun tracking solution for about 60 degrees before realising the futility of it all, and rolled out to join his wingman. Mujahid, in the meantime, had intently chased his quarry and managed to gun it down as it came up against a hill crest, about 24-nm east of Murid. The Hunters had made the cardinal mistake of exiting in line-astern after the attack, rather than quickly reforming in disciplined battle formation for visual cross cover. Flg Off Sudhir Tyagi, of Pathankot-based No 27 Squadron, had to pay with his life due to his leader’s solo flight, at a time when he (Tyagi) was falling into Mujahid’s clutches and needed support.

Rushing back to his parent base at Peshawar from Karachi, where he was running an official errand, Flt Lt Salim Baig Mirza reached his unit at daybreak of 4 December. It wasn’t long before an exhausted Baig and his mission leader, Flt Lt Khalid Razzak, found themselves strapped up in their F-86Fs for air defence alert duty.

After waiting in their cockpits for an excruciating three hours, the pair was scrambled and directed to fly in a south-easterly direction at 5,000 ft. Barely ten miles out of the airfield, ‘Killer Control’ surprised the interceptors with a report about an attack on the base by enemy Hunters. Rushing back at full speed, Baig spotted one Hunter just south of the base, and guided his leader towards it.

While Khalid dived to position behind the Hunter, Baig stayed higher looking for more; he soon saw another Hunter maneuvering to get behind his leader. Khalid had, by then, commenced firing his guns at the first Hunter. In a snap, Baig rolled over and swooped down to get behind the second one.

The dogfight had rapidly descended to a dangerously low height of about 100 ft, with four fighters flying in a very tight circle at a speed of around 400 kts. “The first Hunter that was being shot at by Khalid was somewhat out of range,” recalls Baig. “About a mile behind him was the second Hunter blazing away its four 30mm guns but the bullets were impacting the ground way short of the target, as I could make out from the small puffs of dust.” Baig, being the last one in the tail chase, had started firing a long burst at the second Hunter from about 3,000 ft. He was closing in fast, aiming to quickly finish it off before Khalid fell in harm’s way.

In the melee, Baig was continuously warning his leader about the position of the second Hunter which was rapidly closing in. Sensing the critical situation, Baig warned his leader to break off the attack which he did, just in time. “At the same instant, I saw a puff of thick black smoke appearing from the right wing root of the Hunter that was still in my gunsight,” remembers Baig. A few seconds later, the aircraft rolled over and crashed in a huge ball of fire. Its wreckage was found about five miles south-west of the base near Bara village. Flg Off K P Muralidharan had been unable to eject and went down with his aircraft.

The Hunters were able to inflict some damage to a maintenance hangar. However, the luckless pair had found a bevy of dummy aircraft on the tarmac too inviting, and had gone in for a second strafing attack; this resulted in grave consequences as it allowed the interceptors to catch up and position themselves for the kill.

While the F-86 pilots were excitedly focused on the kill, the lead Hunter managed to escape. It was later learnt that Sqn Ldr Bajpai was able to put down his bullet-riddled aircraft at Jammu airfield, only to wreck it completely after slamming into a truck at the end of the under-construction runway.

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.[3] 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 Shankar 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.

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 vectored Atta on to an intruder heading west, towards Mianwali. “The controller was able to position me three miles astern of the low flying target, but in a pitch dark night, there was no prospect of visual contact,” remembers Atta.

As the Salt Range loomed ahead, the target started climbing to avoid the hilly terrain. “Unexpectedly, this meant that the target was also easing out of ground clutter and there was a good probability that it would be painted by my radar,” recalls Atta. Unknown to him, the Cyrano radar had been in standby mode, as Atta 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 Moses Sasoon and navigator Flt Lt Ram Metharam Advani, belonging to the Agra-based Jet Bomber Conversion Unit, were killed on impact.[4]

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.

The attack by the Hunter pilots was not in vain, as they managed to pull off two strafing runs each. The FPS-20 surveillance radar and the FPS-6 height finder antennae were badly damaged, while considerable electronic equipment and cables were destroyed. The radar remained out of operation for three days, before spares were rushed in and repairs carried out.

Later that afternoon, a lone intrepid Hunter was able to sneak in for yet another successful attack on Sakesar radar, adding to the damage and destruction caused by the previous Hunter pair.[5] After the attack, however, 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, 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 Maneksha 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 along with two Sidewinders, decided to get rid of the bulky – and rather useless 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 Kumar 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.

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 at the straggler. 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[6] 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 profile 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.[7]

On one occasion an F-6 was completely outwitted by an Su-7 that it was trying to intercept. Flt Lt S S Malhotra of No 32 Squadron, was flying as a singleton on a photo recce mission over Risalewala on 13 December. Just after completing the photo run, he 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.

An Incredible Kill

The morning of 7th of December was quite hazy, particularly at lower altitudes where the dust of Punjab plains mingled with the moist, cold air, giving the sky a murky appearance. While the PAF was conserving its air effort in the early stages of war, IAF’s intensity of air operations was building up at a fast pace.

Flg Off Man Mohan Singh was ferrying a Gnat from Halwara, to beef up a detachment of No 2 Squadron at Amritsar where these aircraft were deployed to perform air defence duties. As Mohan was nearing home, the controller at Amritsar Radar asked him to delay his landing while a pair of Su-7s took off. After holding off for a few minutes, Mohan resumed a northerly heading for the Base.

Sqn Ldr Farooq Haider, a veteran of the ’65 War, was sitting as the duty controller in No 403 Radar Squadron which was located in the outskirts of Lahore. Watching the radar scope intently, he had picked up a blip as it approached Tarn Taran, south of Amritsar. With the adversary nearing its home Base, Farooq had to act fast. He commenced the interception with steady instructions on the radio.

“Your target now over Tarn Taran, heading 360; do not acknowledge.”

“Target 20 (degrees) right, five (miles), turn hard left 360, do not climb; do not acknowledge.”

“Target 12 o’clock, two (miles), go full bore; do not acknowledge.”

“Okay, target is one mile ahead …”

The IAF had been expecting PAF fighters to sneak in below radar cover. Thus, to be doubly sure about any undetected intruders, the IAF used a capability that it was well equipped for – eavesdropping into pilot-controller conversation. Listening in to what was going on, the IAF controller was completely dumbfounded at the development, for he had not yet picked up any blip on his scope. All of a sudden, he frantically shouted on the radio to announce the presence of interceptors in the Gnat’s rear quarters! It was no surprise, therefore, that the controller’s warning to Mohan sounded eerie, as if a spectre was being reported. With the interceptors’ distance rapidly reducing and shooting down of the Gnat almost a certainty, the controller gave a panic ‘break’ call. Mohan reacted as any fighter pilot would have done in that situation. He yanked back on the control column and threw in a very tight turn to shake off his pursuers.

Farooq noticed that the blip had disappeared from the radar screen shortly after manoeuvring had commenced. Normally, he would have enquired about the fate of the target from the interceptor pilots within moments of the shooting. This time, however, he had to be discrete. “Maintain radio silence and recover at low altitude,” he called out. Meanwhile, Farooq and his fellow controllers wondered if the vanished blip meant that the aircraft had landed at its Base?

India’s Official History of Indo-Pak War - 1971, published thirty years later, covers the air operations with a diary of action which includes important events like air raids, aerial victories and losses on both sides. A keen reader would notice acknowledgement of the loss of a Gnat on 7th December 1971 in which, “the pilot tried to take evasive action when warned of Pak aircraft in the vicinity. He lost control and crashed.”[8] The only inaccuracy with the account is that Pakistani aircraft were nowhere near!

Standing CAPs were a rare commodity due to excessive demands on PAF’s limited assets. Farooq had, therefore, reacted to the emergent situation in a most ingenuous way. He impulsively decided to fake an interception in the knowledge that his calls would be monitored. The thrill of playing a prank was better than getting frustrated at the sight of an enemy blip pacing away unscathed. In the event, Farooq’s trick resulted in a bargain of great value, which can be gleaned from the amazing fact that not a gallon of fuel was expended, nor was a single bullet fired. Arguably, it stands as the cheapest kill of air warfare.

A Classic Dogfight 

On the last day of the war, two F-86Es Sabres led by Flt Lt Maqsood Amir of PAF’s No 18 Squadron took off from Sargodha, for a routine patrol over the battle area. The winter haze had not quite cleared up even by mid-day, so Maqsood asked the radar controller for a loiter height of 5,000 ft instead of the usual 1,000 ft, for better visibility. With his wingman Flt Lt Taloot Mirza in tow, Maqsood set up orbit around Pasrur, which was on the western edge of the battle area.

As expected, the reaction was swift when two MiG-21s of No 45 Squadron scrambled from Amritsar, to intercept the Sabre CAP. Sneaking in at low level, the MiGs were out of PAF’s radar cover but their VHF radios[9] were under surveillance. The IAF pilot-controller conversation was a good enough clue for the PAF controller, Sqn Ldr Rab Nawaz, to assess exactly what was going on. Carefully monitoring the radio calls of the ‘rats’ (code-word for MiG-21), he instructed Maqsood to fly at combat speed and keep a good lookout. The moment the MiG leader, Sqn Ldr Shankar, called ‘contact’ with the bogies, Nawaz instantly warned the Sabre pair that the threat was in the vicinity and they had better clear their tails.

As Maqsood threw in a left hand turn to look around, he was astonished to see two MiG-21s diving down at the Sabres from 8 o’clock, high position. The MiGs had blown through the Sabre formation head-on, without having been observed. Subsequently, the MiGs got behind the Sabres through a low-to-high conversion.

Maqsood recalls being struck by the aircraft’s small delta wings and sleek, long fuselages; he also did not miss their desert camouflage, an oddity in the lush Punjab plains. The apparent toy model features of the MiGs, however, made a lethal transformation in front of Maqsood’s eyes when he saw a fiery streak shoot off from one of the aircraft!

With an adversary firing from the rear, the drill is to ‘break’ into it with maximum rate of turn, thus compounding the gun-tracking problem. Incredibly, Maqsood hesitated! Noticing that the MiG’s profile appeared somewhat frontal, he reckoned that enough lead was not being allowed. A good gun tracking solution would require the attacker to point ahead; this would consequently show more of the belly and lower wing surface to a defender. Concluding that he was out of harm’s way for the moment, Maqsood coolly settled for an energy-conserving hard turn. This would eventually make the MiGs hit a square corner as they ran out of turning room, he imagined.

What Maqsood did not know was that a K-13 missile had been launched and the flash that he had seen was not of cannon fire, really.[10] A missile launch would have required him to go for a maddening ‘break,’ leaving little energy for a fight back. Fortuitously, the hard turn had sufficed all the same; it not only defeated the early generation missile but also cramped the attackers for space.

Sensing an overshoot, Shankar eased up for a ‘yo-yo’ to give himself enough separation, before he swooped down again. A defender endowed with better acceleration could have escaped at this juncture, but knowing his Sabre’s limitations, Maqsood had to stay on and fight. Under the circumstances, a smart tactic was needed that could throw off the attackers. Maqsood picked the barrel roll from his repertoire. The comical-sounding manoeuvre was somewhat of a misnomer in the deadly world of air combat. While an essential of any aerobatics display, the barrel roll had turned the tables on an attacker in many a dogfight.

Basically, the roll involves a corkscrew flight path on the inside of an imaginary barrel. Since the aircraft flies in three dimensions during the process, the resultant forward motion is distributed or ‘vectored’ in the three planes. An unwary pursuer is thus not able to arrest his rapidly increasing rate of closure. This is exactly what happened to the two MiGs that zipped past, as Maqsood went through the complex motions of rolling, pitching and yawing, while ‘doing the barrel.’

Recovering to level flight again, Maqsood was in a bit of a quandary whether to fire his six 0.5” Browning guns or the Sidewinder missiles. For the latter he had to wait some seconds, till the MiGs had opened up to an optimum range of several thousand feet. Suddenly, the trailing MiG turned hard to the left, apparently having noticed the Sabre behind. Maqsood did not let go of the opportunity; he placed his gunsight over the target, and started firing. The bullets seemed to land square behind the canopy and after just four seconds of firing, the aircraft started to trail thick black smoke. Maqsood noticed something fly out of the aircraft before it rolled over and dived into the ground in a big ball of fire. Perhaps it was the ejection seat that had shot out of the burning aircraft, but Maqsood was more concerned about his No 2 who was not visible in the rear quarters.

Having stuck around through the arduous manoeuvring as wingman, Taloot found it too tempting to let go of the other MiG in front and started chasing it. As expected, the chase was futile but in the process he split up with Maqsood. Luckily, the two re-joined with the assistance of the radar controller, who was interrupting his instructions with a relay of the disconsolate MiG leader’s calls. “Shortie has ejected,” Nawaz heard Shankar tell Amritsar, as he kept his ear to the VHF monitor.

Flt Lt Tejwant Singh had ironically gone down to the Sabre, an aircraft that he had himself trained on during the friendship with some of the PAF pilots[11] during the course may also have been instructive in some ways, for to ‘know thy enemy’ is a familiar dictum of warfare. The superior performance of the MiG-21, versus the Sabre, was another factor of consequence in the dogfight. In the final analysis, however, it is the man behind the gun that makes the difference, as Maqsood demonstrated in this classic dogfight.

Damage at Bases

The PAF was able to inflict punishment on fleeing raiders only after they had attacked PAF bases and radar installations. For the most part, all raiders went through with weapons delivery. Some of the raids that caused significant damage or destruction on the bases are discussed here.

During an attack on Chaklala on 4 December, two Hunters from Pathankot-based No 20 Squadron damaged a salvaged C-130, along with some damage to the ATC building.[12] Next morning, two Hunters, again from No 20 Squadron, destroyed a UN Twin Otter and a US embassy Beech Queen Air commuter aircraft parked on the tarmac.[13]

On 4 December, two Hunters from No 20 Squadron attacked Murid and were able to destroy an F-86F and damage another, in a strafing attack.[14] Not having learnt a lesson from this attack, the base took the worst beating of the war on the morning of 8 December, when two Hunters from a four-ship formation, yet again from No 20 Squadron, were able to knock out two armed F-86Fs parked in the open. The ensuing inferno caused sympathetic detonation amongst several F-86s parked in hessian-covered pens, nearby. Three more F-86s were thus destroyed and two damaged. Many spare drop tanks were also destroyed.[15]

The forward airfield of Chander was successfully attacked at night by Canberras on several occasions. On the nights of 3/4, 4/5, 5/6 and 6/7 December, a Canberra each, cratered the runway regularly – and accurately – till it was rendered unfit for operations. The night raids were overlaid with day attacks by Su-7s. On the morning of 9 December, a pair of Su-7s delivered fragmentation bombs in the airfield area, rendering any operational activity, including runway repair, untenable. Luckily, the airfield only figured out as a turn-around facility for emergency recoveries, and its immobilisation did not upset PAF plans in any way.

In an attack on the midnight of 3/4 December, a Canberra cratered the fair weather strip adjacent to the main runway at Sargodha. Debris kicked on to the runway took a few hours to be cleared. On the night of 5 December, during an attack by a Canberra, Sargodha runway was cratered, and remained unusable for several hours. A second bomb dropped in the same run landed at an engineering facility, killing two officers who were at work. One of the vintage 3.7” guns of 52 Medium Air Defence Regiment was able to exact instant retribution, so it seemed, when a well-aimed shot hit the intruder. The Canberra struggled to stay aloft for a few minutes, but finally went down near Bhalwal, killing its crew of two.[16]

On the morning of 4 December, a four-ship formation of No 32 Squadron Su-7s operating out of Amritsar, struck Rafiqui Base. The rocket attack resulted in damage to an F-86E parked outside a pen, as also to a transiting B-57 that was being serviced on the tarmac. One dummy aircraft was also destroyed.[17] Early at dawn of 6 December, a Canberra was able to make two craters about half way down the runway, rendering it unusable for the next three-and-a-half days.

Blitz Unchecked

The IAF had a free hand in its interdiction campaign against the railway network, along with a few attacks against targets of strategic importance. Lack of low level radar cover meant that intruders came in completely unobserved and unmolested by interceptors. Shortage of AAA assets resulted in these target areas being unguarded, leaving the attackers with little to worry about during weapon delivery.

The railway network on Sialkot-Shahdara Section, Jhelum-Lahore Section, Lahore-Sahiwal Section, Shahdara-Lyallpur Section, Kasur-Arifwala Section, Mandi Sadiqganj-Samasatta Section and Bahawalpur-Lodhran Section, was attacked incessantly. Twenty-five railway stations on these sections were targeted, with Wazirabad and Kasur receiving as many as five visits each. In general, the railway sectors selected for attacks were mostly those along which the Indians expected, or were aware, that Pakistan Army reinforcements might materialise.

Sixteen trains were also attacked on these sections, while many track segments were damaged. Five of the attacked trains happened to be of ‘special military’ category. The damage incurred on these trains was, however, inconsequential. Neither was any Army movement impeded, nor were any vital supplies interdicted.

It was widely rumoured that enemy agents had been placed at sensitive places for passing timely information about movement of the trains to the IAF via clandestine transmitters. It was also apprehended that such agents might have been receiving information about military trains from sources planted in one of several government departments which had advance information about movement of trains. In the event, the widespread rumours about radio transmitters were unfounded. However, given the facility with which clandestine activities could be undertaken in the socio-culturally similar Punjab area, there are reasons to believe that information about the movement of trains was often available to the enemy. The large number of employees also makes the railway system particularly vulnerable to penetration by enemy intelligence, and the IAF seems to have exploited this weakness well.

Even if one were to avoid reading too much into the purported help from clandestine sources, it would be clearly seen that due to vulnerability of the railway system at large, the IAF felt free to attack it at leisure. Absence of interceptors and AAA only made the interdiction campaign uncomplicated and effortless.

In concert with its interdiction campaign against the railways, the IAF tried its hand at bombing some targets of economic value whose destruction could hamper the war-making potential, albeit over a long term.

On the morning of 6 December a flight of three Hunters from No 20 Squadron[18] attacked Attock Oil Refinery, located at the outer reaches of Rawalpindi. Two strafing runs by the Hunters set fire to several fuel tanks. The AAA defences were taken by surprise, but by the time the guns opened up, the damage had been done. The Hunters survived the AAA barrage, and with no interceptors on patrol, they made good their escape.

The next economic target taken was the power house of Mangla Dam. On the morning of 7 December, a four-ship Hunter formation, again from No 20 Squadron, carried out a rocket attack, but the results were inconclusive due to hung rockets with several members. Another three-ship raid was flown the same afternoon, and some damage was claimed. The dam was defended by AAA, but the attackers were able to catch them unawares by ingressing low. Lack of early warning also precluded the possibility of any interception.

IAF’s lackadaisical strategic bombing campaign in the northern sector did not go beyond the three-odd missions. Interdiction of the railway system was seen as a far more lucrative exercise, due to the complete absence of any sort of defences. Also, interdiction promised rapid results which were of consequence to the on-going land battles, whereas the strategic strikes required a long-term concerted campaign, and were antithetical to an envisaged short war. The IAF strategic bombing effort could, however, be seen as an attempt to further stretch the already thinned Pakistani air defences.

PAF Survives as ‘Force in Being’

For defence of the VAs and VPs in the northern sector, PAF flew a total of 1,417 sorties employing F-6, F-86E/F and Mirage IIIE; these included 1,317 day sorties and 100 night sorties. A total of eleven enemy aircraft were shot down by PAF fighters, all while egressing, after attacking PAF bases or radars.

It was apparent that IAF had changed its strategy of hitting PAF bases, as it turned out to be disruptive at best, and except for one case when Rafiqui was closed down for a considerable period, PAF operations continued apace. The losses incurred by the IAF during these strikes were morale-shattering, though its ability to generate the required flying effort remained unaffected.

Despite scarcity of AAA resources in the battlefield, the Army had whole-heartedly provided cover to all operational PAF bases in the northern sector. AAA proved to be a useful complement to the interceptors, and in a few cases, was able to get hold of the intruders in the terminal phase of the attack, after they had managed to sneak in unseen. Two aircraft were shot down by the guns at Rafiqui, while one was shot down at Sargodha.

The real success of AAA came about over the battlefield where 17 IAF aircraft were shot down in Chamb, Shakargarh, Lahore and Suleimanki Sectors. The role of the Army AAA in helping to maintain a favourable air situation, especially over the battlefield, is indeed commendable.

Defence of the country’s communications infrastructure and energy resources had been put on hold, as the order of priorities seemed to indicate. The looming concern was the do-or-die land battle, which required a totally fixated approach to tactical air support. For this purpose, the PAF managed to remain a ‘force in being’ while inflicting sufficient damage on the IAF during the latter's onslaught.


[1] The pilot of this Su-7 was the OC of No 222 Squadron, Wg Cdr Allan Albert da Costa.
[2] A warhead’s proximity detonation, unlike a direct hit, may not cause an explosion every time.
[3] 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.
[4] 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 to avoid false alarms at lower altitudes. It is likely that Sasoon had also kept it off.
[5] It is difficult to attribute the exact extent of damage/destruction at Sakesar to either of the two Hunter formations.
[6] The pilot belonged to the Tactics & Air Combat Development Establishment based at Ambala.
[7] 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.
[8] Chapter X – ‘The IAF in the West,’ page 427.
[9] The IAF used Very High Frequency (VHF) while the PAF used Ultra High Frequency (UHF) for radio communications.
[10] The IAF MiG-21s were usually configured with two K-13 missiles and a centre-line drop tank each, the latter replacing the optional 23mm belly gun pack.
[11] Flg Offrs M Arshad Choudhry and Salim Baig Mirza were Tejwant’s course-mates at Nellis AFB, USA. In a twist of fate, Baig was there to cheer up Tejwant when the latter was in custody as a POW in Rawalpindi. Maqsood Amir also briefly met his victim during the latter’s transit to the POW camp.
[12] This attack was led by Lt Arun Prakash (an IN pilot on depuation to the IAF), with Flg Off B C Karumbaya as his wingman.
[13] This attack was led by Sqn Ldr R N Bharadwaj, with Flt Lt Gahlaut as his wingman.
[14] This attack was led by Sqn Ldr A A D’Rozario, with Flg Off S Balasubramaniam as his wingman. Two other formation members missed the target and exited.
[15] This attack was led by Sqn Ldr R N Bharadwaj; other formation members included Flt Lt A L Deoskar, Flg Off B C Karumbaya and Flg Off Heble.
[16] The aircrew of the downed Canberra included Flt Lt S K Goswami (pilot) and Flt Lt S C Mahajan (navigator) of Agra-based No 5 Squadron.
[17] This attack was led by Sqn Ldr V K Bhatia; other formation members included Flt Lt A V Sathaye, Flt Lt V V Tambay and Flt Lt M S Grewal.
[18] This attack was led by Wg Cdr C V Parker; other formation members included Sqn Ldr K N Bajpai and Flg Off De Monte.