25 February 2018

An Indian Admiral and a Pakistani Air Commodore

My recently published book, In the Ring and on its Feet – PAF in the 1971 Indo-Pak War, was commented upon by a former Chief of Staff of the Indian Navy​ a few days ago in an article on a web portal ‘The Print’. Though Admiral Arun Prakash was the Chief of Naval Staff, he had a unique career, for he served as a fighter pilot flying Hunters during the 1971 War, while on deputation with the IAF.

A discussion took place between the two of us on the portal, which is reproduced here. All credit to the Admiral for a very civil and amicable interaction. I may mention that Admiral also had this to say about the book: “The book deserves warm praise for its lucid narrative as well as frank and interesting insights into the 1971 air war, provided by a knowledgeable and objective Pakistani ‘insider’.”

Admiral Arun Prakash’s Article

"Disregarding the counsel of wise men, from Herodotus to George Santayana, Indians have consistently ignored the importance of reading, writing and learning from history. So, when retired US Air Force Brigadier ‘Chuck’ Yeager, head of the US Military Assistance Advisory Group in Islamabad during the 1971 war, says in his autobiography that “the Pakistanis whipped the Indians’ asses in the sky… the Pakistanis scored a three-to-one kill ratio, knocking out 102 Russian-made Indian jets and losing 34 airplanes of their own…”, we are left fumbling for a response.

Other Western ‘experts’ have alleged that, in 1971, the Indian Air Force was supported by Tupolev-126 early-warning aircraft flown by Soviet crews, who supposedly jammed Pakistani radars and homed-in Indian aircraft.

Where does one seek authentic information about India’s contemporary military history?

The Ministry of Defence website mentions a History Division, but the output of this division is not displayed, and it seems to have gone into hibernation after a brief spell of activity. A Google search reveals copies of two typed documents, circa 1984, on the internet, titled ‘History of the 1965 War’ and ‘History of the 1971 War’ (HoW), neither of which is designated as ‘official history’.

 A chapter of the latter document, deals with the air war in the Western theatre, and opens with a comparison of the opposing air forces. The 1971 inventory of the IAF is assessed as 625 combat aircraft, while the PAF strength is estimated at about 275. After providing day-by-day accounts of air defence, counter-air close support and maritime air operations, the HoW compares aircraft losses on both sides, and attempts a cursory analysis of the air war.

The IAF is declared as having utilised its forces “four times as well as the PAF” and being “definitely on the way to victory” at the time of cease fire. Commending the PAF for having managed to survive in a war against an “enemy double its strength”, it uses a boxing metaphor, to add a (left-handed) complement: “By its refusal to close with its stronger enemy, it at least remained on its feet, and in the ring, when the bell sounded.”

This is the phrase that Pakistani Air Commodore M. Kaiser Tufail (Retd) has picked up for the title of his very recent book: “In the Ring and on its Feet” [Ferozsons (Pvt) Ltd, Lahore, 2017] about the PAF’s role in the 1971 Indo-Pak war. Commissioned in 1975, this former Pakistani fighter pilot is a historian and bold commentator on strategic affairs. Currently unavailable in India, the book may, prima facie, be accepted as authentic, because the author asserts that in two of his appointments, he was the “custodian of PAF’s war records”, which he was, officially, permitted to access in writing the book.

Tufail starts with an attempt to dispel the “ludicrous Indian fabrication about Pakistan having initiated the war”, and offers the thesis that since war was already in progress, the ineffective 3 December PAF pre-emptive attacks were merely “first strikes” meant to overburden the IAF’s retaliatory capability. Apart from this half-hearted attempt at obfuscation, the rest of Tufail’s narrative is refreshingly candid, free of hyperbole and – one hopes – reliable. Having served in an IAF fighter squadron during the 1971 war, I was fascinated by Tufail’s account, and share a few of his frank insights into wartime events in this article.

Tufail suggests that the wartime PAF Chief, Air Marshal Rahim Khan, was an inarticulate, short-tempered and lacklustre personality, who, at this crucial juncture, chose his two most important advisors – the ACAS (Operations) and the Deputy Chief – from the ranks of transport pilots! His problems were compounded by low service morale, due to the massacre of 30 airmen in East Pakistan and defections by Bengali PAF personnel.

As far as the two orders-of-battle are concerned, it is interesting to note that the HoW figures of 625 combat aircraft for the IAF and 273 for the PAF are pretty close to Tufail’s estimates of 640 and 290 respectively. A fact not commonly known, in 1971, was, that while the IAF’s work-horses, Sukhoi-7s, Hunters, Gnats, HF-24s, Mysteres and Vampires, were armed only with 30/20 mm guns, the opposition had the advantage of air-to-air missiles. While all PAF Western-origin fighters carried Sidewinders or R-530s, Yeager tells us: “One of my first jobs (in Pakistan) was to help them put US Sidewinders on their Chinese MiGs… I also worked with their squadrons and helped them develop combat tactics.”

Tufail provides a tabular account of both IAF and PAF aircraft losses, with pilots’ names, squadron numbers and (for PAF aircraft) tail numbers. To my mind, one particular statistic alone confirms Tufail’s objectivity. As the squadron diarist of IAF’s No.20 Squadron, I recall recording the result of a Hunter raid on PAF base Murid, on 8 December 1971, as “one transport, two fighters (probable) and vehicles destroyed on ground”. In his book, Tufail confirms that 20 Squadron actually destroyed five F-86 fighters in this mission – making it the most spectacular IAF raid of the war!

Particularly gratifying to read are Tufail’s reconstructions of many combat missions, which have remained shrouded in doubt and ambiguity for 47 years. Personally, I experienced a sense of closure after reading his accounts of the final heroic moments of 20 Squadron comrades Jal Mistry and K.P. Muralidharan, as well as fellow naval aviators Roy, Sirohi and Vijayan, shot down at sea. Tufail also nails the canard about Soviet Tupolev-126 support to IAF, and describes how it was the clever employment of IAF MiG-21s to act as ‘radio-relay posts’ that fooled the PAF.

Coming to the ‘final reckoning’, there is only a small difference between the figures given in the HoW and those provided by Tufail for IAF losses; both of which make nonsense of Yeager’s pompous declarations. According to the tabulated Pakistani account (giving names of Indian aircrew), the IAF lost 60 aircraft. The HoW records the IAF’s losses in action as 56 aircraft (43 in the west and 13 in the east).

However, a dichotomy surfaces when it comes to PAF losses. While Tufail lists the tail numbers of only 27 aircraft destroyed, the HoW mentions IAF claims of 75 PAF aircraft destroyed, but credits only 46 (27 in the west and 19 in the east).

Using ‘utilisation rate’ per aircraft and ‘attrition rate’ as a percentage of (only) the offensive missions flown by both air forces, the HoW declares that the IAF’s utilisation rate being almost double, and its attrition rate being half that of the PAF, “…had the war continued, the IAF would certainly have inflicted a decisive defeat on the PAF”.

Adopting a different approach, Tufail concludes that the overall ‘attrition rate’ (loss per 100 sorties) for each air force as well as aircraft losses, as percentage of both IAF and PAF inventories, are numerically equal. Thus, according to him, “…both air forces were on par… though the IAF flew many more ground-attack sorties in a vulnerable air and ground environment”.

He ends his narrative on a sanguine note, remarking that, “The PAF denied a much stronger IAF …the possibility of delivering a knock-out punch to it”.

Air Commodore Tufail’s book clearly demonstrates that there are at least two good reasons for writing war histories; lessons are learnt about the political sagacity underpinning employment of state military power, and militaries can test the validity of the Principles of War.

Sensible nations, therefore, ensure that history is not replaced by mythology. Like Kaiser Tufail, there is a whole new crop of young scholar-warriors emerging in India too, eager to record its rich military history.

But as long as our obdurate bureaucracy maintains the inexplicable ‘omerta’ vis-a-vis official records, this deplorable historical vacuum will persist." 

Comments by Air Cdre Kaiser Tufail

1.  I clearly conceded in the Preface that we lost the war, so I find the surrender picture out of place, though it may have been inserted by the publisher to rub it in.

2.  As to the initiator of the war, how can the Indian invasion of East Pakistan on 22nd November be denied, or is it that an invasion must have the ingredients of air strikes and armour assaults? I touched upon the much-flogged point that Indian writers regularly harp upon – PAF’s pre-emptive strikes. We were not pre-empting an Indian invasion (which had already taken place), so technically it was not a pre-emption per se. It was just opening up another front. Therefore, the comment about a “half-hearted attempt at obfuscation” is rather strong and unwarranted.

3.  As for your ‘cherry-picking’ of some adverse remarks about Air Mshl Rahim Khan, I would have appreciated if you had also included some of the following points:

“The PAF was led by Air Marshal Abdur Rahim Khan, an officer with a bearing as impressive as his credentials. Soon after his commission in 1944, Rahim saw action in World War II, when he flew Vultee Vengeance dive-bombers in RIAF’s No 7 Squadron while stationed in Burma. Interestingly, Air Marshal Rahim Khan’s IAF counterpart in 1971 was the former Squadron Commander of No 7 Squadron, Air Chief Marshal P C Lal. Later in the PAF, Rahim flew Hawker Tempest and Hawker Fury in No 9 Squadron. He started to move on the fast track in the PAF when, in 1951, he was selected to command No 11 Squadron, PAF’s first jet fighter Unit equipped with the challenging Supermarine Attacker. Rahim went on to command PAF Station Mauripur (later named Masroor), which was PAF’s largest Station in terms of assets, as well as physical area. He did his staff course at RAF Staff College in Andover, and later, his defence studies course at Imperial Defence College in London. Well qualified in air power and war studies, he went on to command the PAF Staff College in Karachi. His staff jobs at Air Headquarters included those of ACAS (Ops) and ACAS (Admin). As ACAS (Ops), he was at the forefront of planning and conducting air operations during the 1965 Indo-Pak War. The C-in-C, Air Marshal Nur Khan, who had been appointed just 45 days prior to that war, was completely out of touch with the PAF, having been on deputation to PIA for a long period of six years. Rahim not only assisted his boss competently, but gained useful experience in the conduct of operations that he was to put to good use in 1971.”

4. I never mentioned that Rahim Khan’s ‘problems were compounded by low service morale’, though I did say that, “Two incidents that occurred prior to the 1971 war – which are sure to have rankled Air Marshal Rahim and exacerbated his wrath – need to be seen in context of their subsequent impact on the mind-set of the C-in-C and his Air Staff.” I have, regrettably been misquoted.

5.  Your comment that, “all PAF Western-origin fighters carried Sidewinders or R-530s” needs to be tempered with a clarification that only about 75% of the Sabres carried Sidewinders, and there was only ONE sortie flown on the Mirage III with the useless R-530.

6.  About Chuck Yeager, all I have to say is that he was a big mouth and a braggart. If you have read his book, he makes a preposterous claim that he had exceptional vision, and could easily spot an aircraft as far as 50 miles ahead. Now, as for the bit where he states, “I also worked with their squadrons and helped them develop combat tactics,” it is utter balderdash. All he did was to fly a couple of sorties on the Sabre in Peshawar, due to his friendship with Air Mshl Rahim, both having a penchant for hunting and fine Scotch.

7.  Admiral’s Observation: “However, a dichotomy surfaces when it comes to PAF losses. While Tufail lists the tail numbers of only 27 aircraft destroyed, the HoW mentions IAF claims of 75 PAF aircraft destroyed, but credits only 46 (27 in the west and 19 in the east).” My Comment: I have given the tail numbers of 22 aircraft that the PAF lost in the West, while tail numbers of the five lost in East Pakistan were not available, as the squadron authorisation book, as well as individual pilot log books were left behind in Dacca. I am willing to challenge any Indian historian or military person to share with me details of lost PAF aircraft that number more than 27. In fact, if I were to obfuscate these losses, I would have easily covered up at least three Sabres in the Murid raid by IAF’s 20 Sqn that the IAF did not know about, or the F-6 aircraft shot down by Wg Cdr S S Malhotra over Lyallpur that the IAF was never sure about, or a Sabre which ran out of fuel and was lost while chasing IAF Hunters.

8.  Admiral’s Observation: “Using utilization rate per aircraft and attrition rate as a percentage of (only) the offensive missions flown by both air forces, the HoW declares that the IAF’s utilisation rate being almost double, and its attrition rate being half that of the PAF, …had the war continued, the IAF would certainly have inflicted a decisive defeat on the PAF”. My Comment: Why should HoW have cherry-picked only the offensive missions? Sir, EVERY mission is to be counted for determining the attrition rate, so let us be fair in conceding that the IAF and PAF had an EQUAL attrition rate at the end of the war. I have taken the number of sorties flown based on the ‘Official History of the 1971 Indo-Pak War’ by S N Prasad, which was ‘leaked’ to Times of India (by the government, of course) in 2000.

9.  Admiral’s Final Observation: “He ends his narrative on a sanguine note, remarking that, “The PAF denied a much stronger IAF …the possibility of delivering a knock-out punch to it”. My Comment: Yes sir, SANGUINE! Why not? To force a draw on an opponent two-and-a-half times bigger calls for a drink. Bottoms up, Admiral!

Some Clarifications by Admiral Arun Prakash

While this is not a ‘Jawabi Hamla’, I do owe you a few ‘clarifications' too:

1.  I would certainly not have used that particular picture, but media people will do as they please. 

2.  While 22nd November 1971 may be a cardinal date, whose technical/historical implications could be argued interminably, 26nd March 1971 is also considered significant in the Indian narrative vis-a-vis the succeeding chain of events. As adversaries in a war, we are, each, entitled to our own and respective perceptions and we should leave it at that. But as a historian, you may just like to take note of the firm Indian belief that the 3rd December PAF air raids (whether technically ‘pre-emptive’ or not), were the opening gambit of a formal war on the Western front - that had remained quiescent till then. I remember Indira Gandhi broadcasting on radio that night that we were at war.

3.  I do feel a twinge of regret that I may have caused you some embarrassment with my remarks about A/M Rahim Khan. Since I could not have reproduced the full text devoted to him, I did ‘cherry-pick’ your remarks on p. 40: “not given to articulation”, “... insipid enunciation of his plans for impending hostilities”, and “unduly quick-tempered”. I did not realize that my commentary would be read across the border, and hope that this will not harm the late Air Chief’s reputation in any way.

4.  The ‘low morale’ comment was my own deduction, and I did not attribute it to you.

5.  Your frank views about Chuck Yeager were enlightening! He just celebrated his 95th birthday, and I don't think we should pass them on to him!!

6. As far as statistics and conclusions are concerned, I do not have the data or background to offer authoritative comments. All I did was to cite SN Prasad, as well as your own account. Btw, Prasad’s work is also available on the Bharat Rakshak website.


Admiral Arun Prakash's picture credit: Wikipedia


This article was published in 'Defence Journal', Aug 2018 issue.

06 February 2018

Reliving the Past - Veterans Fly the F-16

A call from the Vice Chief of Air Staff asking me if I wanted to fly the F-16 got an immediate positive response, notwithstanding the fact that I had last flown the F-16 three decades ago. The stated objective was for a few retired veterans to assess the capabilities of the much modified fighter, as well as its young pilots, from a ‘then and now’ perspective – a sort of evaluation by independent auditors.  It seemed like a great idea coming from the Chief of Air Staff, and was certainly ‘out-of-the-box.’ 
Four of us veterans (an Air Marshal, two Air Vice Marshals, and me, an Air Commodore) were flown to an F-16 Base in a special executive jet.  Soon after a smart welcome on arrival, we were huddled into the auditorium for a crisp mission briefing by the Squadron Commander of No 9 Squadron, Wg Cdr Yasir Shafiq.  The brief was rich in techno-jargon and fancy terms we had never heard before while flying the no-frills Block-15 version.  It was quite apparent that the tactics and employment methods had transformed significantly after the Mid-Life Upgrade (MLU) on the F-16s. We were to be introduced to Beyond Visual Range (BVR) intercepts, as well as Stand-off Laser Guided Bombing (dummy attacks) with the help of the Sniper Advanced Targeting Pod. Some flying time was also reserved for us to throw around the aircraft, and assess for ourselves the workings of our aging sinew and muscle.

Some time was spent struggling into our old flying coveralls that we had brought along, though the anti-G suits and helmets were new, as our old ones were either unserviceable, or could not fit over our none-too-slender appendages. When we were all garbed up, we felt an inexplicable transformation that made us feel like the coolest hot rods, no matter that we were all well-established sexagenarians.  

Cockpit procedures and strapping up seemed routine, except for the almost arthritic inability to twist around and select the oxygen switch at the extreme rear of the right hand panel. Taxiing out in pairs, we lined up and did the engine run up checks. With the Squadron Commander in the lead, the first F-16 rolled for take-off, with us as No 2 following 10 seconds later.  Thoroughly excited as the five stages of the afterburner cut in an unbroken sequence, I was slammed against the seat as the aircraft roared away, with Sqn Ldr Sami at the controls in the front seat. As a special favour, the Squadron Commander had allowed us a rocket trajectory take-off, perhaps recalling my penchant for such astronautics from previous years. Exhilaration knew no bounds as we zoomed up to our exercise altitude, and split up to start an interception. 
Instead of the single Radar Electro-Optical scope of the older version, the MLU aircraft has two Multi-Function Displays that can show radar and navigation-map data. The display was hard to interpret without proper ground schooling, as it had all kinds of target data available. Radar information from AWACs, ground radars and other formation members can be shared through data link, providing the pilot with a complete three-dimensional all-around coverage or the ‘God’s eye view.’ Situational awareness of pilots has never been better, but requires exceptional abilities to interpret the plethora of symbols and numbers usefully. Those skills were evident as Sami gave me a running commentary of the target (leader’s aircraft), as we ran through the intercept geometry. Used to shooting aircraft in visual ranges, I was amazed to learn that the fight was over not long after the aircraft appeared on the radar scope!  It had been ‘knocked’ out by a simulated BVR missile far beyond the eyes could see. The fire control computer was constantly providing information on the shrinking and expanding ‘dynamic launch zone’ as the target tried to out-turn the missile, which of course, was a futile effort.  If somehow, an enemy aircraft were to sneak into visual ranges, the radar-coupled helmet-mounted sight would require the pilot to just look at the target and press the missile launch button.  Instead of having to manoeuvre the aircraft like old times, one ‘dirty look’ by the pilot can do the needful.  The 20 mm Vulcan cannon remains a backup weapon and can discharge a fusillade at a ripping rate of 100 rounds per second.  I was doubly convinced that coming out alive after a hostile encounter with the MLU F-16 would be a miracle, so this is a beast best avoided by any adversary.

Demonstration of a dummy attack against a ground target with the Sniper electro-optical pod was the next item on the agenda. The Sniper pod allows aircrews to detect, identify and engage targets outside the range of most enemy air defences. It also allows engagements beyond jet noise range for counter-insurgency operations.

The pod incorporates a high definition Forward Looking Infra-Red (FLIR) seeker, as well as visible-light HDTV, laser spot tracker, laser marker, video data link, and a digital data recorder. The pod’s FLIR allows observation and tracking through smoke and haze, and in low light or no light conditions. The CCD camera supports the same operations in visible light for most daylight conditions.
It being a hazy day, FLIR mode was selected, and a target was identified and immediately tracked. Zooming in from far-off ranges helped resolve the target down to fine details that were unimaginable with the older ATLIS pod, that we had flown in the eighties. More importantly, the standoff range from the target has improved considerably, and targeting can be done safely from further off. The video of the target can be shared by formation members or army ground liaison staff in real time through data link. Sensor fusion is the key to this lethal game, and this could not have been more evident during the slick attack sequence we went through.
Time came for throwing the aircraft around, so the leader of the formation announced some mild tail chase. Not ready for the sudden onset of Gs, I strained my neck, which is a not an uncommon problem afflicting those who have stayed away from the F-16 for a while. The flight controls are driven by the same old right hand electric joystick, but the functions of the buttons on the stick (and throttle) have increased manifold. The facility and confidence with which Sami was handling the aircraft and its sensors was a marvel, and bespoke of his experience on the type that was past the 1,500 hours mark.
Landings were uneventful, and we taxied back to the aircraft shelters with ground crew eager to welcome us back after a unique experience. Soon afterwards, media teams emerged with their video cameras and mikes for short interviews regarding our experience. Here is what the veterans had to say:
Air Marshal Qazi Javed: “Fantastic! After 25 years, when you sit in an F-16, it is absolutely fantastic. The number of sensors these aircraft have is unbelievable; the situation awareness they provide is out of this world. I wish in our times, we had one-tenth of what we saw today. I wish the PAF good luck. Everyone is doing a fantastic job.”
Air Vice Marshal Hamid Khawaja: “It was a great experience. I returned after 20 years, which is a long time. The things I have seen today are very encouraging. The aircraft that I flew today has been modified so much – so much gadgetry – it makes you very happy to see that. I was very glad to see the pilots who are very comfortable with the aircraft. The level of experience of the younger pilots is very good too.”
Air Vice Marshal Faaiz Amir: “It reinforces my belief in the quality of today’s air force … more so the quality of pilots, although there is great improvement in the equipment as well. I was very pleased to see the competency of the pilots during the air-to-air exercise that we flew today. The technicians too are maintaining a very high standard of maintenance, and the aircraft are in very good shape. Godspeed to the Pakistan Air Force.”
Air Commodore Kaiser Tufail: “I was flying the F-16 after 30 years, and the last I flew any fighter was in 2004. It was a wonderful experience and I really enjoyed it. This aircraft is absolutely different from what we flew three decades ago. It is a completely changed aircraft, full of avionics, full of gadgetry. However, the best part I liked was the professionalism of the pilots. Everyone is very dedicated. I think everything has transformed. It is a very powerful punch-packed air force. I am very impressed.”

This article was published in 'Defence Journal' Oct 2018 issue.