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 25 NAUTICAL MILES. 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

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