The India-Pakistan Air War of 1965
Air Marshal Vinod Patney(Retd) ·       

The book does not claim to be the official history of the India-Pakistan air war of 1965. Neither the Indian Air Force (IAF) nor the Government of India funded the project in any way. The book is a labour of love by two authors who have an undying interest in aviation and war in the air. Samir Chopra, one or the authors, is the son of late Sqn Ldr PC Chopra, an active participant in the air war and the recipient of the Vir Chakra. There have been many books written about the 1965 war, but this book strikes new ground by describing the war in the air in some detail. A short history of the fledgling years of the IAF is included and serves as an appetizer and a fond reminder of years long gone by. Also included is the background to the war and the general conduct of operations that helps to put the air war in proper perspective.

The dog fights and the conduct of combat missions are described well and with obvious enthusiasm. The authors faithfully encapsulate what transpires at Air Force bases and squadrons and between members of a formation on a combat mission. Human interest stories embellish the book and make it eminently readable. Perforce, combat missions are of short duration, represent a voyage into uncertain territory and, too often, result in casualties and fatalities. Such happenings have to be taken in stride by friends and colleagues. The authors have captured the sentiments that prevail. The book follows the chronology of the war and day by day events are recounted. As the air war is aircrew centric, and the missions comprise small number of aircraft, the names of the crew are almost invariably mentioned. This makes for a more personalized account that adds flesh and blood to the skeleton of what transpired. Interestingly, a large number of active participants whose names are mentioned rose to senior positions in the IAF. The young pilots of 1965 became Air Chiefs, Vice Chiefs, Air Marshals and Air Vice Marshals. Arguably, the proportion of those that rose to high ranks is probably the greatest for any service in any war. The then Chief of Air Staff, Air Marshal Arjan Singh, was promoted to Air Chief Marshal rank soon after the war and recently to the rank of Marshal of the Indian Air Force.

The authors have also included information derived from Pakistani and other sources. Hence, an engagement as described by the Indians is compared with what the Pakistani pilots or authorities have to say. A better picture emerges although, as is to be expected, there are significant differences in terms of what transpired, claims and counter claims. Claims of kills in war are often exaggerated. The same obtains for air to ground strikes. It is unlikely that the results of strikes on both sides were so effective as to warrant the frequent use of hyperboles in the book.

The diary of the downed B 57 pilot, Siddiqui, clearly showed that the PAF was on alert since March 1965, and training in earnest started as early as April 1965. This is yet another instance of the perfidy of the Pakistanis; they were planning an attack in Kashmir whilst negotiating peace in Kutch. Such occurrences have been repeated since. The Pakistan plan was also more studied and offensive in concept. Yet it is a moot point whether Operational Gibraltar, the surreptitious move of forces into Kashmir, could ever have succeeded. Historians will probably call it a major miscalculation. Be that as it may, their aircraft like the B 57 and Sabre were also battle tested whilst our aircraft had never been used in actual operations. On our part, apparently little planning was done in the belief that war was unlikely. That was an error. Also, there was little jointmanship on display and no clear cut concept of operations. Time and again pertinent information was not passed to the IAF or the IAF kept in the dark about Army plans. As a result the conduct of operations was less than optimum. The system of seeking air support was ineffective. Again, it appears inexplicable that extensive counter air missions were not launched against airfields in then East Pakistan, that the air defences in the desert sector were inadequate, that no defence of J&k was catered for, and to top it all, there was an announcement made on All India Radio regarding a practice air raid alert in Barrackpore that inevitably attracted an actual raid. All these blemishes and limitations and more are graphically depicted in the book. This adds to the credibility of the work.

The authors themselves admit that the full story is yet to be told. For instance, whereas the Pakistani war aim was clearly to settle the Kashmir issue, what was our overall plan? Was it to merely obstruct Pakistani designs, or fight a battle of attrition to weaken Pakistan, or much more serious, we did not have a well thought out plan but operated or reacted in adhoc fashion. Also, why did we accept a ceasefire when we were better placed and the initial Pakistani advantage had worn thin? At the tactical level, why did we not mount counter air missions to begin with? There are many positives as well. The 1965 war was the first occasion where the full ambit of IAF capability was operationally tested. The readiness was good as shown by the fact that four Vampire aircraft were airborne for a mission within one hour of the Defence Minister's clearance. The war also showed how quickly the best made plans get unstuck in war and the IAF displayed both ingenuity and initiative in good measure. For instance, when counter air operations by day proved too costly, night attacks by Canberra aircraft were resorted to and, to protect our own aircraft from enemy air strikes by night, our aircraft were moved to rear bases for the night. All this required planning and, more importantly, the will to get things done. All the aircraft fleets in our inventory operated beyond expectations but it was the Gnat, dubbed the 'Sabre Killer', that was the 'find'of the 1965 war.

There were many lessons to learn from the war. Our Intelligence was sorely inadequate and without effective and usable intelligence, we could at best react to enemy actions and were often surprised. Good intelligence has greatly aided war making since ancient times but we were not so fortunate. Again, reliability of our equipment was less than what was desired. There were frequent unserviceabilities of aircraft, equipment, communications, weapon systems etc. Furthermore, a cardinal requirement for air operations is security of the air bases. Our Air Defence capability was wanting and was the primary cause of our losing as many as 35 aircraft on the ground. Air Defence involves much more than capable aircraft and well trained pilots. Moreover, a more proactive and offensive approach tailored to meet stipulated war objectives would have led to greater successes. Air Power is an offensive arm and should be so used. A number of our aircraft suffered hits from enemy ack ack guns and small arms, and an audit on whether we could have used the available air effort differently, so that the losses were minimized but the results were similar or better, will be worthwhile. Attrition is always a major factor to consider; we have to have adequate strength of aircraft not only till the end of the war but till replacements are received and operationalized. However, it must be said that in spite of the many limitations and shortcomings, the availability of few aids and many cases of bad luck, the spirit of the combatants in the air or on the ground never faltered. Comrades were lost or injured but professionalism was never sacrificed. A 'tradition' was born that has to be maintained by succeeding generation of air warriors in the IAF.

Much has changed since 1965.Yet, in spite of newer and more capable weapon systems including nuclear weapons, much has remained the same. Jointmanship, planning for operations, formulation of a clear concept of operations etc are issues that still require attention. Hence, a revisit to what transpired in 1965 can only have beneficial effects. For this, the authors have rendered yeoman service. The book makes no pretensions to being a reference book but it is worthy of appreciation. One small criticism that can be made is that the writings should have been accompanied by maps of relevant areas. Nevertheless, the book will evoke fond nostalgia amongst those that participated in the war; it represents needed knowledge for the professional practitioners of air power; and for the lay reader it is an interesting description of an air war that took place 40 years ago. One can only hope that the authors will soon publish their account of the air actions during the 1971 war and the Kargil conflict.