Clearing the air

The IAF was capable in 1962,even if not fully exploited

Written by Arjun Subramaniam | Published: October 20, 2012 2:25:16 am

The IAF was capable in 1962,even if not fully exploited

In what appears to be a quasi-official response,the nationalist Chinese daily,Global Times,reacted predictably to recent remarks made by Air Chief Marshal N.A.K. Browne about the employment of air power in the 1962 war. However,certain facts need to be contested as they convey the wrong image of the Indian Air Force (IAF) of those times.

Contrary to what the report says,the IAF in 1962 did not merely consist of “British WWII Spitfire turbo propeller aircraft” and “second-hand” Vampire aircraft. It also had around 300 Mystere,Hunter and Gnat jets that were far superior to the MiGs —15,17 and 19 — that China had. In an excellent article written for Strategic Analysis,entitled “The 1962 India-China War and Kargil 1999: Restrictions on the use of Air Power”,R. Sukumaran,a distinguished fighter pilot in the IAF and a researcher with the Institute for Defence Studies and Analysis at the time,argued that the absence of a broader understanding of air power within the politico-military intelligence establishment in India,and not a capability gap,resulted in the decision not to use air power.

The Global Times incorrectly assumes that the Vampire was the main Indian fighter aircraft of those days and goes on to highlight that Vampire aircraft had been trounced by Chinese volunteers as early as the Korean War. The report ignores the absence of any corresponding People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) capability for close air support missions to support the Chinese advance in both Ladakh and the NEFA sectors.

As for the IAF re-supply drops to forward troops being sub-optimal,it must be understood that just as the use of offensive air power in Kargil at altitudes in excess of 13,000 feet was a historical first for the IAF,re-supply drops at 14,000 feet and above had only been attempted by the IAF since November 1961,in support of the Forward Policy. In fact,Air Marshal C.K.S. Raje (retd) set a world record for the highest landing and take-off at Daulat Beg Oldi Advance Landing Ground on July 23,1962,in a CH-47 Packet transport aircraft,which was the mainstay of IAF transport operations in the 1962 war. The feat also highlighted the competence and commitment of the IAF to support the Indian army in making up for the lack of a logistics lifeline in Ladakh and the NEFA.

IAF Dakotas,Packets,Otters and the recently inducted Bell G-47 helicopter carried out hundreds of sorties in support of besieged garrisons and troops. In that context,even the “40 per cent” success rate mentioned by the Global Times report can be considered a significant achievement,given that hardly any Chinese transport aircraft or helicopters were seen in the area,even for casualty evacuation missions.

Asher Lee,a noted historian on air power,says in the 1963 edition of Brassey’s Naval Annual that,contrary to our own intelligence reports,China had no MiG-21s; they were experiencing serious aviation fuel problems and had unsuccessfully employed air power in clashes against Taiwan in the preceding five years,using the large and lumbering IL-28 bombers. The issue of employing offensive air power,both in Ladakh and the NEFA,was extensively discussed and while the high-altitude jungle terrain of the Northeast is said to have been an operational impediment,no such apprehension was expressed about Ladakh.

In the final analysis,an all-round lack of understanding of the capabilities of air power,and a perceived fear of escalation,should it be employed,led to it not being exploited. After the Kargil experience,which did not lead to any escalation when India employed offensive air power,significant progress in air-land synergies has been made in India. This will ensure that 1962 is never repeated as far as the use of air power in high-altitude terrains is concerned.

The writer is a serving Air Vice Marshal of the Indian Air Force. Views are personal

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