When the going gets rough
IWAS JUST getting down to reading the morning’s top headliner, “India Strikes Across LOC”, when one of my most dynamic, gogetter commanders-in-chief of yesteryears (also a double VrC to boot), with a mischievous penchant for pulling a fast one, called in, “to encash the one I owed him!” Before I could counter this preposterous claim, he continued smoothly,”Sir, I need an article from you for my Air Force Day issue of INDIA Strategic!” Ha, ha, old, no, rather the ever-green Jimmy, was at his tricks again!
“India Strikes Across LOC” had in fact immediately flashed a thought: “Things are getting rough, from our side, at last!” Jimmy Bhatia was in luck. With some of the finest and toughest air warriors getting set to celebrate their 84th Anniversary in a week and a day, and a looming very real possibility of their honed skills being called upon, after a gap of some 18 years, to quieten a pip-squeaking trouble-maker to our West, a comparative review of special traits of our respective air warriors was surely in order, even if the study is considered somewhat eccentric!
OVERCONFIDENCE - PAF’S ACHILLES HEEL
PROPENSITY FOR FOOLING THEMSELVES Psywar is a useful tool to crack the confidence of the enemy and bolster one’s own, by hyping one’s capabilities by making fallacious claims of successes on one hand, and belittling prowess of the adversary. But it is a double-edged weapon: if a canard is blown apart, the intended effect is reversed and the result far more devastating on the initiator. Pak’s propaganda machine is always kept well-oiled, but used and cracked open far too often to continue to be an effective tool against us.
GENESIS OF OVERCONFIDENCE
In the days gone by, PAF was bursting with overconfidence: their pilots were made to feel ten feet tall and the IAF’s were portrayed as “Lilliputians”. This mindset was inevitable given their close association and training with the US Air Force who excel in projecting a macho image of themselves and belittling of their adversaries. They were equipped with the Korean war-fame Sabre and the bi-sonic Starfighter. Starfighter was then a US front-line air defence fighter sporting the Gatling gun, with an astonishing rate of fire of 6,000 rounds per minute, and carrying the then considered “undodgeable” Sidewinder air-to-air missile. A perfect recipe for bloating up egos! Our humiliating routing, at the hands of the Chinese in 1962, left no doubt with PAF, if there was any, that the IAF would be easy pickings in the air. Despite the 1965 experience to the contrary, the cockiness remained.
A PERSONAL EXPERIENCE AT CLOSE QUARTERS
At the dawn of the ‘70s decade, “Tango” Tirlochan Singh and I found ourselves as IAF’s first two weapons and tactics instructors (WTIs) (QFIs had been on deputation to flying training schools for years) in a Iraqi Air Force MiG-21 squadron based at Baghdad. At that time three PAF pilots were running the Iraqi AF Fighter Leader School (FLS) at Habbaniya; they had been gloating over PAF’s early successes of 1965 strikes at Pathankot and Kalaikunda, but conveniently missing out on
the later reversal of their fortunes; Tango and I distinctly sensed that the Iraqis were clearly out to make a comparison!
Without wanting to sound boastful, I can say with conviction we made our mark early. A comprehensive training syllabus had been drawn up, which the Iraqi squadron commander considered too ambitious/advanced, until we “Flew-the-Talk”. The result was that we duo were split and I proceeded to another MiG-21 squadron based at Habbaniya. With both squadrons giving positive reports of benefit from the Indian WTIs, Iraqi Air HQ formed an Operational Training Unit, with an augmented aircraft strength, at Baghdad. The only hitch was that the FLS was also moved to Baghdad to time-share our assets, albeit to a limited extent.
The PAF pilots chose to ignore us initially to the point of not responding to/ acknowledging cheery greetings from us! I had an enormously hard time once, holding back my laughter at a visiting PAF wing commander’s put-on swagger and falsetto American accent. But it was our Iraqi colleagues who let out the suppressed guffaws after he departed! As the approaching war clouds of 1971 became darker, the morale of the 30-strong IAF contingent was sky-rocketing, given the upbeat morale of our friends back home; on the other hand, the three PAF pilots, their cockiness having long left them, were looking increasingly morose.
Despite unanimous request from the IAF contingent to be recalled home for the inevitable hot conflict, we were directed to continue with our tasks at hand. As the situation got critical back home, the PAF pilots remained hardly visible; they were recalled when war was finally declared.
With the departure of the Pakistanis, Iraqi Air HQ requisitioned the services of Tango to continue their FLS training. They were in fact contemplating complete replacement of PAF assistance by Indians; but there were political constraints. Two months after the war, the PAF trio was back at FLS and its commander had to reluctantly allow Tango to return to the MiG-21 OCU.
A couple of months further on, having already exceeded our contracted tenure of two years by several months, Tango and I were soon to be back home. To make his farewell calls, Tango popped over to the FLS; hearing of his presence in the unit, the PAF team leader, a squadron leader came over to bid him, “Happy Landings and a successful career”! C’est la vie! (that’s life). A tail-piece to this story gives it a poignant touch: In 1989, as an air commodore, I found myself back in Iraq as a member of the National Defence College study team. We were at a briefing at the Iraqi Air HQ, when I was requested to present myself at the air chief’s office. As I stepped into the chief’s office, before I could offer my salutation, the chief rose from his seat, saluted, greeting, “Ahlan wa Sahlan, saidi!” (Welcome sir). The chief, an air vice marshal, was my pupil nearly 20 years earlier, as Mulazhim (lieutenant) Mizahim Hassan! It was a delightful reunion.
The delightful shocks continued throughout the week-long tour; I discovered that the Iraqi air defence commander, also an air vice marshal, was Tango’s pupil. The commandant of the air war college, commanders of the Fighter Leader School and Air Base Moascar Rashid (Baghdad) all turned out to be pupils of Tango and self!
From the moment I had landed at Baghdad I had been wanting to meet our fellow instructors, George and Safa. It was only on the last day of our tour that I managed to meet both. The common refrain in conversation with erstwhile colleagues and pupils alike was the unfortunate termination of IAF’s deputations to the Iraqi AF sometime in the ‘80s - all considered that partnership as the most beneficial to them; they all were of the opinion that the PAF had only an ulterior motive of getting to fly aircraft that were also on the inventory of the IAF; there was no real commitment on their part to imparting instruction and guidance as they would to their own pilots - a distinct departure from the ethos of the IAF.
IAF’s FORTE - INNOVATIVE APPLICATION OF AIRPOWER
Indian Air Force (IAF) has not consistently enjoyed the benefit of having aircraft, other combat systems and support infrastructure of the desired level; even more constraining, has been the shortage in strength necessary to deter our inimical neighbour to the West from having foolishly adventurous visions of bettering India in a conflict; such a pipe-dream evolved readily in the early ‘60s as they received the best of American equipment and training. Our own short-falls in weapon-systems capabilities and numbers have been offset by well-trained cockpit-crew; but more tellingly, by an unique rearing-to-go dashing spirit that is at its best when the chips are down.
1965 - INDIA’S “WOUNDED” AIR WARRIORS REVERSE THE TIDE
Recent research has clearly established that in 1965, Indian intelligence had absolutely no prior knowledge of either Operation Gibraltar or of Operation Grand Slam; we were caught flat- footed. There was imminent danger of Pathankot-Jammu road being severed, of J&K getting physically isolated from the rest of the country. Given the ravined/rutted/stony local terrain on Indian side of the Chamb-Jaurian Sector, it was well nigh impossible for our army to stop the Pakistani armour. IAF stepped in with a cold-start; though the fragile, vintage Vampire was no match for the “Korean-fame” Sabre, it saved the day by having kept the Pak armour under pressure until the tankbusting Mystere stepped in and literally slammed to a still, the “Grand” plans of Pakistan.
Can one imagine the under-powered, groundtarget attacking Mystere downing a Starfighter, the much-toted supersonic top US air defence aircraft of that era? Well, that’s exactly what it did, that too when it was critically crippled. So what was the winning factor? The indomitable Indian air warrior spirit!
Similarly, the diminutive home-made Gnat, whose aerial close-combat successes later earned it the menacing sobriquet of “Sabre-slayer”, was beset with a host of recurring technical problems: a runaway trim that made aircraft-control near impossible; gun-stoppage at the crucial moment of downing an adversary, allowed many a Sabre, with the Gnat’s gunsight pipper, dead-centre on it, live another day. Despite the very limited combat fuel-reserve available on the Gnat and the ever-present worrisome concern of gun-stoppage/control malfunction, their pilots were quietly confident that their flying and fighting skills could fully exploit the Gnat’s agility and its low visibility profile to their advantage to down the Sabre and to out-manoeuvre the Sidewinder AAM of the Starfighter, giving top-cover to the Sabres .
1971 - INDIA’S FINEST HOUR THROUGH INNOVATIVE OPS
In 1971 Indian armed forces did not buckle to political pressure to commence hostilities until they had prepared themselves fully for forcing a decisive victory. The negligible effectiveness of the air-to-air missile in 1965 had clearly indicated that our gun-less MiG-21s would be impotent in air combat if this deficiency was not rectified. In record time, with most co-operative support from the Russians, a slap-on gun-pack was designed and produced in adequate numbers to meet our requirement. This changed the very character of these faithful aircraft, giving them a definitive edge over the adversary’s Starfighters, Mirage IIIs, MiG-19s and Sabres; with the missile-gun combination and our rearing-to-go pilots manning them, not only did they get the better of all these PAF aircraft, except the Mirage III, and that only because it decided to live up to its name and stayed out of sight!
With the MiG-21s forming the largest fleet of the IAF, there was no way they could be restricted to the air defence role only. Despite their inherent design unsuitability for any role but air defence, the adaptive IAF pilots overcame the design limitations to use them most effectively in the ground-attack role; MiG-21s were used for runway-busting, interdiction, close- support and yes, Presidential palace dereliction, which had the Pakistanis buckle under suddenly to give way to the formation of Bangladesh!
One of the strangest operations that
totally baffled the PAF, were the night low level attacks over PAF bases by MiG-21s and Su-7s. With nothing but a not-very-reliable gyro-compass, memorised check-points, identified by dimly seen rail-tracks, roads and waterways, crossed at accurately calculated and maintained timings, these intrepid pilots created havoc by showing up like bats out of hell! Besides the physical damage they caused, their harassment had as much, if not more, debilitating effect on the PAF.
Operating singly, they stretched their aircraft’s endurance to the limit to extract maximum range, hopped across high tension electric cables, maintained absolute radio silence, until they neared their base of recovery after mission completion. No question of expecting recovery assistance from the base as low altitude made two- way communication between the two impossible. Having fuel for only a straight-in approach and landing, and with air bases maintaining absolute black-out, a method had to be devised to get the runway lights coming on, unfailingly, at the required time! So, another MiG21, dubbed “Sparrow”, perched above to establish a communication link between the recovering aircraft and the recovering base. On receiving a coded request for runway lights from the home-coming attacker, Sparrow directed the base to switch on the runway lights. With hearts in their mouth and a prayer on their lips, the physically and mentally exhausted pilots had no time to even give a sigh of relief on sighting the runway lights - they had to land and duck into aircraft shelters before a counter-attack ensued and the runway lights went off.
Ingenuity, iron-clad aerial discipline, nerves of steel, ultimate professionalism, couched in nonchalance of routine-at-the-office attitude - the hallmark of cool innovativeness - that’s IAF in business!
The PAF was so flummoxed by these attacks that they thought the Russians had given the IAF some super-duper aircraft to do the impossible!!
INNOVATIVE OPERATIONS BY TRANSPORT AIRCRAFT AND HELICOPTERS
This penchant and genius for innovativeness is by no means a preserve of the IAF fighter fleet; transport aircraft and helicopters in fact have to be so, on a routine basis. The tasks, both military and civil, that come their way, often have no precedence and as such there may not be previously designed operating procedures; hence they have to be devised in doublequick time. Their current operations in hostile terrain and weather conditions, often with non-existent aids, stretching aircraft to the limits of their operating envelopes, sometimes, beyond, requires every trait that the IAF imbibes in its air warriors.
A daring feat, by the lumbering 4-engined An-12s of the ‘60s-’70s era, during the ‘71 war is worth recounting here. Intelligence had reported assembly of Pakistani armour and dumping of ammunition in the planted forest of Changa Manga, situated between Lahore and Kasur. As it spelt sinister designs, there was need to neutralise it earliest. Fighter attacks were unlikely to achieve the desired results as the armour was expected to be widely dispersed and the forest offered excellent camouflage. Area bombing was the need of the hour. A brain-wave of an idea had Wg Cdr Vashisht, commanding an An-12 squadron, planning a carpet bombing attack with An-12 aircraft. The finalised plan had six An-12s carrying 20x500 pounds bombs each, delivering their ordnance at extreme low level within a space of 15 minutes. Only the darkness of night offered any sort of security against a target expected to be heavily protected against aerial attacks. Dire consequences were in the offing on two counts: either a glitched operation or an effective response from Pak air defence. Neither happened, the first because IAF air warriors lived up to the faith placed in them; and the second, because the Pak air defence was caught totally off guard. Subsequent intelligence reports affirmed a highly successful attack causing extensive loss of Pak armour and ordnance.
1999 - OP SAFED SAGAR - A TESTIMONIAL TO IAF’S AIR WARRIOR CODE
Military history’s highest altitude air-to-ground attacks during Operation Vijay (Kargil War), also saw the IAF reach the pinnacles of adaptability, innovativeness and courage. IAF’s air attacks on Pakistani troops in occupation of our posts along the Line of Control (LOC), in support of army’s assaults to repossess them, were code-named Op Safed Sagar (White Ocean), alluding to their snow-bound condition.
Army’s appreciation of the situation had them put
in a demand for air support by armed helicopters. IAF, on the other hand, taking stock of the ranges rising steeply from the Dras-Kargil Valley; the land denuded of vegetation; the clear atmosphere offering visibility in excess of 10 km; rarified atmosphere placing severe penalties on the power available to the helicopter, hence requiring it to attack targets from above and not below, where they could hope to stay concealed; approaching the targets at leisurely speed of 220-240 kmph would give the defenders ample time to acquire, aim and fire their ground-to-air infrared missiles, so to say, at leisure; the entire scenario was stacked heavily against the use of helicopters. So, the IAF recommended fighter attacks in lieu. IAF’s rationale and persuasive powers proved inadequate and the army stuck to its guns. Realising that an impasse had been reached, the IAF reluctantly relented, but with a non-negotiable proviso: helicopters would be used in conjunction with fighters!
When advised that aerial attacks on the LOC positions, which runs West-to-East would result in transgression of the LOC before or after the attacks as our preferred directions of attack would be Northto-South or vice versa, the prime minister expressed deep concern; it must be our endeavour to remain on our side of the LOC, he directed. Knowing the terrain well and being able to visualise how we could adhere to PM’s direction, yet be able to carry out the attacks, albeit with some acceptable penalties to efficacy of attacks, I could accept this condition without hesitation. While conveying this stipulation to Western Air Command, a proviso was interjected: in the event of any air threat developing from across the LOC, it was to be addressed without regard to the sanctity of the LOC. It is to the credit of Western Air Command and the skills of our air warriors that there was never any come back from command - that’s professional adaptability!
The fighters also had to overcome several challenges, not all of which were appreciated immediately. Hitherto, the highest altitude at which our fighter pilots had engaged ground targets was 10,000 feet; the lowest target obtaining in the area of OP SAFED SAGAR was above 14,000, the highest rising above 17,000 feet! Commencement of attacks would be from 18-25,000 feet. Targets so small and undefined, that under normal circumstance, use of any form of airpower would have been ludicrous! But given the predicament of our assaulting infantry, Economy of Effort was certainly not the principle of war to be quoted here. Even if our ordnance could not land effectively enough on target to neutralise it, its effect would be enough to shock and benumb the wits of those holding it, allowing our infantry to take advantage to move forward.
Although there was no suo moto intelligence report of presence of infrared ground-to-air missiles, Air HQ had directed, in its operational order to Western Air Command, that self-protection flares are mandatory on all aircraft participating in the operation. It was also stipulated that fighter attacks were to precede the helicopters, creating a shock-effect just before the latter follow up. Standard anti- infrared missile tactics were to be adopted during and after the attack. To ensure surprise, there would be only first-run-attacks (FRA) (meaning no loitering over target).
The first day’s air attacks went through well, giving confidence, but also possibly a sense of invulnerability. On the second day, one of the pilots, Flight Lieutenant Nichiketa, failed to acquire the target in his FRA, and in contravention of specified procedure, made two more passes, because the second pass also failed in target acquisition. With a sense of failure and frustration, he approached the target closer than he ought to have and fired his rockets in a salvo; rarified atmosphere, heavy fumes from multiple rockets, a perfect recipe for engine surge, followed by a flame- out; that’s exactly what happened. Despite his preoccupation with fulfilling the task given to him, he had the presence of mind to transmit his predicament before he ejected. In one sense, Nichiketa’s focus on mission accomplishment could be lauded; for under grave circumstance, pilots are required to throw caution to wind, but ensure mission objective is achieved at any cost; but that day, that was not the case, and adherence to briefing would have saved a pilot and an aircraft.
levels and their design limitations. It’s a game-changing asset of the IAF, which has tipped the balance in our favour, time and time again! Notwithstanding IAF’s unprecedented current top-drawer assets, innovativeness will always be called upon to counter unforeseen challenges or circumstance. Young brains, straining at the reins for a freer hand for their genius to flourish, must be encouraged, albeit under watchful supervision.
A METAMORPHIC TRANSFORMATION OF THE IAF
ENHANCED STATUS - TACTICAL TO STRATEGIC The current qualitative states of the IAF’s combat as well support aircraft are truly amazing, a far cry from the standards obtained barely a quarter of a century ago. The mighty Sukhois have doubled inherent ranges of operation which could be further enhanced by aerial fueltoppings before and after mission completion. 30-60 minutes’ duration was the sortie norm in my time, barely 15 years ago; today it could run to several hours. Load carrying capabilities have nearly quadrupled; an assortment of munitions can be carried simultaneously, in air- domination, infrastructure- annihilation or in hybrid multi- role avatars! Airborne radar ranges have increased exponentially and their vulnerability to countermeasures minimised. Active and passive self-protection devices are integrated into every fleet. The vastly enhanced radii of action and potent firepower on target, have without doubt, allowed the IAF to transform its status from purely tactical to region-strategic.
NIGHT ATTACK CAPABILITIES
Given the full night-adapted cockpits, night-vision glasses, and of course the super-accurate navigation systems, with multiple redundancy, IAF fighters and helicopters now have a 24 hours high fidelity conventional and special operations capability.
STRATEGIC AND SPECIAL OPERATIONS AIRLIFT CAPABILITY
Induction of the giant C-17s and the updated specialoperations C-130Js have given an exponential fillip to the capabilities of IAF’s transport fleet. Strategic movement of military forces and their stealthy induction into forward areas of operation are no more pipe-dreams, they are realities in being. These capabilities have been proved beyond doubt in disaster management/assistance missions over the last couple of years.
AIR DEFENCE INTEGRATED GROUND ENVIRONMENT WITH EYES IN THE SKY
IAF’s home air defence has long been suspect because of its below par ground environment, particularly at low level. There were huge gaps in radar cover at low level and worrisome uncovered corridors at medium level; the superior cover at high altitudes hardly mattered, given the nature of operations of the previous decades. The infirmities were compounded by the stand-alone operation of our radars, an
inefficient land communication system, jammable air-to-ground/air-to-air voice communication systems. These debilitating shortfalls have been largely removed: radars, as well as sector operations centres, commands’ and Air HQ operations have been totally integrated and composite air situation pictures are available; operations may be totally managed centrally or delegated to lower formations/centres.
The biggest boost to IAF’s air defence management has been the acquisition and integration of the AWACS into the air defence network. Whether at extreme low level or at high level, a stealthy intrusion would be very a difficult proposition to our adversaries. On the other hand, our offensive missions would be offered radar cover as well as direction deep into hostile territory. Mission accomplishment would be highly enhanced by effectively reducing vulnerability to jamming and/ or radar-homing hostile missiles, by maintaining complete airborne radar silence or skillfully shifting use of forward-looking radars from aircraft-to-aircraft within the mission force. There is no doubt the present bunch of air warriors will “cook up” a whole bunch of tricks, as has been the wont of IAF’s air warriors through the various operations in the years gone by POLITICAL COMPREHENSION AND RESPONSE TO IAF NEEDS, ESSENTIAL Given IAF’s past performances when the chips were down and its present state-of-the-art holdings, we may remain confident that it will deliver again in an armed conflict, if required to do so. It may continue to extract full benefits of its holdings, but it will be impossible for it to meet its projected challenges, particularly in a two-fronts contingency, with the yawning shortfalls in its authorised holdings and a niggardly logistics support.
The IAF is authorised to hold 42 fighter squadrons. IAF vision 2020, a document submitted by me to the government in the year 2000, projected comprehensively IAF’s force level requirements to face the anticipated threats to national security 20 years later; it defined numbers of combat squadrons, force-multipliers, transport squadrons, helicopter units, ground-to-air air defence missiles.
The total number of combat squadrons added up to 50, role-wise broken down to 16 multi-role (Su-30/ Mirage 2000 class), 18 strike, 16 air defence, 3 tac/ strat recce, 2 electronic warfare. Leave alone upping authorisation, government apathy has brought down the actual effective squadron strength to below 30.
IAF had tabled a demand for 126 multi-role, medium range, combat aircraft in the Mirage 2000 class. I was personally in favour of acquiring the most updated version of M 2000, as it had proved outstanding, both operationally and in its frontline availability record. An attempt was made to make MoD understand that having created an elaborate infrastructure for maintenance of airframe, engine, radar, ordnance and electronic systems, it would be foolish to have anything less than 10 squadrons. Bureaucratic lethargy in follow up had the French manufacturers dismantle their Mirage production lines, as they moved on to marketing their latest ware - the Rafale.
Had MoD acted upon IAF’s recommendation, the present sorry state of fleet depletion would not have occurred; the exchequer would have been saved a whole heap of money; but most importantly we could have prevented the current pip-squeaks from our West, as well as belligerence from the North! It is important for civilians, political and bureaucratic, to appreciate that responsible nations do not start gearing up their forces when security gets threatened; they gear up to prevent threats emerging, or if they do, have an existing capability to counter them.
Should anyone in MoD or the office of the NSA happen to come upon this article during their casual leafing through the heaps of journals lying in their offices, my advice, if they care to listen, get doublequick on to providing the required logistics flow to get aircraft operationally grounded on to the flight-line without further delay!
Hoping against hopelessness, if anyone should have the ear of our dynamic and brilliant Prime Minister, please do request him to use his powerful influence, as well as his persuasive charm, with his French counterpart to loan us fly-away Rafales from their reserves or their squadrons until ours start coming off the production line - it’s the best way to build a mutually beneficial strategic partnership.
Get doublequick on to providing the required logistics aircraft operationally grounded on further delay!
Difficult times lie ahead for India in the days to come. India cannot afford to rely on its vastly improved diplomatic skills to isolate Pakistan and thus prevent it or its sponsored terrorists from acting irresponsibly. Show of strength and resolve, as displayed recently, would be necessary again and again, with the real possibility of a bigger flare up. Pakistani egos are big and they have been bruised, avenging put-downs is in their DNA. Army’s reprisal forays across the LOC were shallow in nature; deeper ground attacks could jeopardise the safety of own troops, hence we may have to opt for air attacks.
We may stay confident that IAF has the weapon systems, the required skills and the resolve to deliver deep reprisal attacks as well as counter the bravado of PAF in possible aerial encounters, for these tough air warrior like it best, when THE GOING GETS ROUGH….!!!
A Mystere IV-A takes off: Indo-Pak War 1965
A Mirage 2000 dropping a clutch of “iron bombs” over a high altitude mountain target in the Himalayas, in the Kargil conflict of 1999
Gnats under camouflage nets at a forward base in Punjab: Indo-Pak War 1965
An-12s were used in an innovative area bombing role during the 1971 Indo-Pak War
An Indian Air Force Su-30 MKI