The Weekend Leader - How India's Canberras crushed Pakistan's Air Force in 1971

How India's Canberras crushed Pakistan's Air Force in 1971




What the 1971 war showed to India and the world is how critical air power will play in a conventional conflict, says retired Air Vice Marshal Kapil Kak who participated in the war fought by India to liberate Bangladesh.

In 1971 war, he was on Canberra deep strike aircraft and carried out missions of night bombing attacks on Pakistan Air Force airfields, radars and enemy tank concentrations.

Speaking to IANS, Kak recounted the experience of war with all the pride and honour and also gave piece of advice to the current leadership to make the Indian Army formidable. This is what he said.

"It was demonstrated by the fact that under the leadership of a very cerebral Air Chief Marshal Pratap Lal, Indian Air Force (IAF) executed a strategy to enable the Army to hold ground in the west and run an air campaign in the east, which virtually obliterated the Pakistani Air Force combat power from that area.

"This was done by establishing air dominance in 72 hours of the start of the conflict. It is this air dominance which enabled the Army and the Navy to undertake operations in the eastern sector unhindered by the Pakistani air power which the Indian Air Force managed to virtually reduce to a mere smithering.

"The second point is that, Army's operations were severely constrained by the topography and geography of East Pakistan which is a land of rivers. As you know, there are so many rivers crisscrossing, up and down, east, west, north and south, that are the attackers nightmare.

"IAF sorted this out first by opening a line of advance to Dhaka across Meghna River by a handful of MI-4 helicopters actually enabling a division size of force. MI-4 is a small helicopter, but they lifted an air division of a fully grounded Army personnel across Meghna river. Once it was across then, they just had to march to Dhaka.

"The second line of advance which was made possible by air power, of the employment of nearly 50 odd transport aircraft, whatever we could put in there, enabled a Para brigade to be dropped at a place called Tangail across the Brahmaputra river. That brigade could not cross Brahmaputra, therefore, it had to be flown across to get close to Dhaka and drop nearly a thousand paratroopers who pulled up another line of advance.

"So in short, the IAF was able to facilitate if not actually play a crucial role in seizing Dhaka. Dhaka was not envisaged at the time the conflict began, but when IAF was able to do these two daring operations, it helped the Army choose Dhaka as its objective and actually develop their thrust along Meghna and across the Brahmaputra and then converging in Dhaka.

"IAF also employed coercive, very daring and intimidating attacks by MIG 21 on the Governor's house at Dhaka. On December 14, the rocket attack was carried out by MIG 21s and the Governor had to actually get under the desk fearing death.

"They had to flee to the neighbouring Intercontinental hotel and 48 hours later they surrendered in Dhaka. So, this is the third air operation which helped in the eastern sector. So the air offensive in eastern sector is regarded as the 'finest hour' of the Indian Air Force because it made the fall of Dhaka possible.

"IAF also helped the 'Mukhi Bahini' with a light aircraft which is called 'kilo flight' which was operated and maintained by pilots and technicians who had defected from the Pakistan Air Force. They undertook missions. Mind you, this is just a small 'baby flight' kind of thing, but it conducted a lot of missions during the war and formed the nucleus of what was later to become Bangladesh Air Force.

"In the western sector, strategic air offensives were achieved and these included deep strike missions on air bases, radars, communication lines, logistic supply chains, Karachi Oil Refinery and Mangala Hydro Electric Power Plant.

"This unhinged Pakistani armed forces. IAF strikes on Karachi petroleum storage had a very severe and debilitating effect on Pakistani forces. That was a morale shattering kind of attack. Joint operations were also undertaken with the army in closure support, introduction, search and strike, reconnaissance, whether they were on offensive or defensive mode, so that they remain free from any interference by the enemy or Pakistani Air Force.

"Everyone knows about the battle of Longewala, made famous by the Hindi film 'Border'. There, four hunters played havoc through an advancing armour column which was heading for Jaisalmer via the army post of Longewala to face a strong force of the Indian Army and so, 40 tanks were destroyed and armour thrust of Pakistan was defeated.

"At that time, we had a very serious situation in the Chamb sector where Pakistan was developing an armour offensive into the line of communications to Jammu and Kashmir.

"Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw told Pratap Lal that every available aircraft should be dispatched to Chamb else Jammu and Kashmir will go. And, these were attacks on large scale tank formations.

"In an innovative experiment, transport aircraft were extensively deployed in bombing against the wide range of targets, be it communication, tank confrontations, artillery. This was done 24x7 throughout the war.

"The IAF played a key role in establishing total air dominance in the east and the surrender of the Pak Army in Dhaka and also the strategic strikes and joint operations with the Army and the Navy in the western sector, again contributed to winning the war.

"It was the linchpin of all joint operations in that conflict under the able leadership of Pratap Lal and of course two leaders -- admiral Nanda and General Sam Manekshaw from the Army under the overarching, fearless, bold and I dare say, grand strategic orientation of late Prime Minister Indira Gandhi.

"She moved the pieces on the chess board whether it was intelligence agencies, Army, Navy, Air Force, science and technology establishment and ministries involved to show we were able to liberate an independent country called Bangladesh," Kak said.

"Looking back on the victory, I would have been happier if we were able to do a little more defence modernization to be in the kind of position we were in 1971 against Pakistan. We also have an additional factor now of having armed forces which are modernized and strong enough to withstand a combined Pakistan-China two front conflict situation."

"Whether it happens or doesn't happen, is not for us to judge. But, you see the intention of our adversaries. We have seen very strong capabilities developed by China and Pakistan.

So, firstly we should sufficiently modernize our armed forces. Even now it is not too late. We should be indigenously oriented and capabilities have caught up with the requirements of the defence and they are in a far better position now in the indigenization than 15-20 years ago. My point is, we were ahead of the situation in 1971, because that was the trend of warfare at that time.

"We know that warfare has undergone a huge change, we have a fourth generation warfare, cyber conflicts, employment of cyber attack to target adversaries' critical infrastructure, space, which has been added as great force multiplier in today's conflict.

"Last but not the least, I think in 1971, a united India rallied behind armed forces which did a valiant job. In recent years, I have noticed that on a-day-today basis, the introduction of factors like apprehensions in the minds of some elements of the society, some assertiveness on other elements, and a kind of polarization of society and nation along communal lines, these trends are extremely worrisome.

"Because no nation is strong until it is internally coherent. A country fighting a war is hugely dependent on its ability to take everyone along, whatever be the affiliation. Community, religious, cultural groups all have to be together as per the dictates of the Constitution of India, which was the case in 1971. Unless we address the situation, we will remain weakened to face another conflict of this kind."

Retired Air Vice Marshal Kapil Kak, is also a distinguished fellow at the Centre for Air Power Study. He was awarded Vishisht Seva Medal in 1981. -IANS

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