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.



I can recall the story of Flt Lt Javed Iqbal (P) and Flt G M Malik (N) since you narrated it personally when we met in Lahore in June. It was saddening to know that they suffered a tragic end in Indian soil.
Before reading this article, I never knew that our B57 aircrafts played a vital role to secure honor of PAF in 1971. Our success rate could have been better if armament performed as per expectations. The dud bombs of PAF had lessened damage to IAF which was sad part of the effort put by our soldiers.
72% success rate out of 288 counter air sorties against India was pretty impressive. I salute the zeal and devotion of PAF officers who took the risk and proved their mark. May Allah bless Pak Armed Forces! Aamin

Shahid Saeed said...

It's a pleasure to read you, as always.

Anonymous said...

thanks for the write up.

Just wondering abt effectiveness of the PAF air effort on the opening days. The airfields were bombed at dusk and and damage mostly repaired by morning. IAF did not anyway have any substantial night flying capabilities in 1971... so were they really hampered by airfield bombings even if the bombs landed on target. Your comments !!

Munir said...

It is a joy to read the facts. Nothing more and nothing less.

Kind regards,

Anonymous said...

Awesome read.


Anonymous said...

Assalamoalaikum Sir,
I'm deeply impressed with the article and wonder if you can do an analysis of today's Order of Battle....

Big Fan here

John Doe said...

Always exciting to read your articles, sir! You have really set the gold standard in Air battle history writing.

Anonymous said...


|TopGun| said...

Excellent content as usual!