1971 war: How IAF’s air superiority helped in the early fall of Dhaka

In the Bangladesh liberation war, the Indian Air Force had added more than a significant value in driving the operational outcome

Air Marshal Anil Chopra December 13, 2021 07:59:42 IST
1971 war: How IAF’s air superiority helped in the early fall of Dhaka

Indian Air Force jets during the 1971 War.

Fifty years after the India-Pakistan war of 1971, it is time to recollect the great military campaign and reflect on the lessons and changes that have helped make India a stronger power. The 13-day war began with the anticipated Pakistan Air Force (PAF) pre-emptive strike on 3 December, 1971. Code-named “Operation Chengiz Khan”, the PAF targeted 11 Indian Air Force (IAF) airbases and other installations.

This also paved the way for India’s formal entry into the war for East Pakistan’s independence, and ultimately, creation of Bangladesh. The war ended with the surrender of Pakistan’s Eastern Command in Dhaka on 16 December, 1971. Over 93,000 Pakistani personnel were taken prisoner. The IAF engaged in every facet of air operations, and air power was a very significant contributor to the historic victory.

The planning phase

The objectives defined by the Chief of the Army Staff (COAS) were to gain as much ground in the east as possible, and create conditions for early establishment of the possible state of Bangladesh. In the west, the target was to prevent Pakistani forces from making any gains. The IAF prioritisation was air defence of homeland first, counter-air bombing to pin PAF down next, support to the army and the navy next, and any other operations. Western (WAC) and Eastern Air Commands (EAC) looked after their sectors, and the Central Air Command (CAC) was tasked for all bombing and transport operations, and support to the Navy.

PAF and Bengali technicians

After East Pakistan declared independence on 26 March, 1971, the Pakistan Army responded with a heavy hand, blatantly killing local civilians, and supporting arson and rape by pro-Pakistani Islamist militias, in one of the worst genocides. Bengali freedom fighters formed “The Mukti Bahini”, a guerrilla resistance movement. Pakistani atrocities resulted in thousands being killed, and also led to nearly 10 million refugees flooding into the eastern states of India. Facing a mounting humanitarian and economic crisis, India started actively aiding the Mukti Bahini.

PAF was initially reluctant to strike its own people in East Pakistan on moral grounds, and had assured Bengali PAF staff of their personal safety, but the Pakistan Army regarded this as treason. Under pressure from the Pakistan Army, PAF began attacking the liberation forces. India had banned over-flights to Pakistani aircraft as early as 20 January, 1971, making it difficult for reinforcements from West Pakistan, which had to detour to take the much longer route through Sri Lanka. PAF operational effectiveness had suffered considerably because most Bengali pilots and technicians, almost 50 percent of PAF personnel in East Pakistan, had been grounded during the political unrest since March 1971. PAF flew nearly 100 sorties in support of the ground forces between October and 3 December.

Air balance in the East

At the commencement of war, IAF in the east consisted of thirteen fighter-bomber squadrons, three MiG 21, four Hawker Hunter, three Folland Gnat, one Sukhoi Su-7, and two Canberra squadrons. There were three C-47 Dakota squadrons, two Antonov An 12, one DHC-4 Caribou, one DHC-3 Otter and one C-119 Packet squadron based at Jorhat, Guwahati, Barrackpore and Dum Dum. There were three flights each of Mi-4 and Alouette III helicopters. PAF had just 16 Canadair F-86 Sabres, two T-33 Trainer, and eight helicopters.

Pre-war air action

The IAF had begun flying reconnaissance flights over East Pakistan as early as June, 1971. The IAF also helped the Mukti Bahini organise a formation of light aircraft (called Kilo flight) which were manned and serviced by Bengali pilots and technicians who had defected from the PAF. The Kilo flight had launched attacks on targets in Bangladesh on 3 December, 1971, before the actual commencement of the Indo-Pak war, and the flight flew several missions through the war. PAF was supporting Pakistan Army by carrying out strikes against India supported Mukti Bahani close to the border. A detachment of four Folland Gnats were positioned at Dum Dum (Kolkata Airport) on interception duties.


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On 22 November the PAF Sabres intruded into India while carrying out repeat missions against Mukti Bahani. The four Sabres were engaged by four Gnats. Two Sabres were shot down and a third severely damaged. All Gnats returned safely. It was a fair duel, 4 vs. 4. The first round in this air Battle over Boyra had clearly gone in favour of IAF. PAF was thus already down to 14 operational fighters by December 1971. After this incident the Pakistan President declared a national emergency on 23 November, 1971. He announced, “Pakistan would be at war with India in the next 10 days.” It actually happened that way.

The IAF had also made plans to counter any Chinese incursions into Indian Territory in the eastern Himalayas, but the Chinese remained militarily inactive in 1971. There was also threat of air intervention from US aircraft carrier Enterprise when US Seventh Fleet sailed into the Bay of Bengal. IAF was fully prepared and that deterred the Americans. Also Indo-Soviet Treaty of Peace, Friendship and Cooperation signed in August 1971 specified mutual strategic cooperation. The treaty was a result of increasing Pakistani ties with China and the United States. It played an important role in deterring China and the US.

Air action in the East

The IAF commenced operations in the eastern sector from 4 December, 1971. On 6 December, four MiG-21s of No. 28 Squadron, flying from Guwahati, led by Wing Commander BK Bishnoi and bombed Tejgaon airstrip with 500 kg bombs, scoring several hits on the runway. The MiGs also rocketed Kurmitola runway. Tejgaon was bombed again on 7 December, and throughout the war to prevent repairs. By 7 December, Tejgaon airport near Dhaka had been put out of operation, thus grounding the PAF in East Pakistan. IAF achieved total air dominance.

The war also saw many air combat engagements. The hunters and Gnats out flew the PAF F-86 Sabres in the east. Finally Pakistan decided to withdraw their pilots and flew them out via Burma (now Myanmar) by 10 December. IAF’s air superiority gave freedom for action to both the Army and Navy. The Indian Army could then make a lightning dash towards Dhaka.

Major joint operations

Air dominance also allowed daring joint operations like the Tangail Airdrop and Meghna heli-lift. Lt Gen Sagat Singh, leading the Tezpur based IV Corps, was a brilliant commander. The IAF had deputed the very professional Group Captain Chandan Singh (later Air Vice Marshal), Station Commander Jorhat to evolve joint plans with IV Corps. Chandan Singh was a very good organiser with plenty of initiative and drive. Two brilliant ideas of the Tangail Airdrop and the Meghna river crossing were conceived between them. The ideas were bold and daring, but fraught with risks and dangers. The moves had to go unopposed, or at the worst, face minimal opposition from the Pakistani side.

Meghna Heli bridge

By 8 December, troops of the 57 Mountain Division and the IV Corps had already achieved their initial objectives of occupying the territory leading up to the Meghna River. A Pakistani Division had consolidated around the only bridge atAshuganj Bridge to stop Indian advance. Meghna Heli Bridge codenamed 'Operation Cactus Lilly' was an aerial operation that took place on 9 December, when the IAF airlifted troops of the IV Corps of the Indian Army and Mukti Bahini fighters across the river by passing Pakistani positions. Through the night of 9 December, the IAF air-lifted the entire 311 Brigade. Over the next 36 hours, over 110 sorties were flown. The Mi-4, which normally carried 14 troops, carried as many as 23 on board. Dhaka now lay undefended for IV Corps to take.

The Tangail drop

The Tangail airdrop was a successful battalion-size Para Commandos (India) operation mounted on 11 December, 1971, by the 2nd Battalion (Special Operations) (2 PARA) of the Indian Army's Parachute Regiment along with IAF. The main objective of the operation was the capture of Poongli Bridge on the Jamuna River and cut off the Pakistan Army retreating to defend Dacca. IAF marshalled 50 transport aircraft (22 Dakotas, 22 Packets, six An 12s, and two Caribous). Gnats gave the fighter escort. Only one An 12 was hit and damaged by ground fire. They air-dropped 700 troops near Tangail about 15 km north of Dhaka. Dhaka now could only be defended by troops within the city.

PAF dilemma in the East

PAF was conscious that the IAF considerably outnumbered it. Also, the IAF had the qualitative edge in aircraft and technology. Pakistani planners had assumed the PAF will be neutralised within 24 hours of IAF launching combat operations in the east. PAF also lacked the service facilities for sustaining prolonged air operations. Pakistan had neglected the East Pakistani defences since independence. Pakistan thus had poor ground-based radar and AD weapons cover.

The Governor House Attack

On 14 December four MiG 21s and four Hunters attacked the Dhaka Governor House with rockets, ripping the massive roof off the main hall and turning the building into a smoldering wreck. The East Pakistan Governor was so shocked after the incident that he resigned on the spot, hastening the surrender. Lieutenant General Shamsher ‘Shammi’ Mehta, a Major in 1971 and part of the leading element of PT-76 tanks that got to Dacca, called the bombing ‘a game changer in the fall of Dacca. He considered the IAF’s bombing campaign around Dacca as a ‘victory of the mind over matter.’ 

Summary of air action in the East

The IAF lost 19 aircraft in East Pakistan, three in air combat, six to accidents and the rest to ack-ack. Five PAF Sabres were shot down by IAF aircraft. Since IAF was flying much larger offensive missions, as such was bound to suffer some losses. Most IAF losses during the war were from the intense anti-aircraft fire. PAF Air HQs had issued orders to blow up all the remaining aircraft in the East, but the local commander decided to only destroy the ammunition stocks and sabotaged the electric and hydraulic systems of the aircraft.

After the war, Tezgaon airport was made operational by 25 December, 1971. The Kilo flight relocated to Tezgaon. The newly formed Bangladesh Air Force lacked trained personnel and for some time the base was administered by an IAF officer. Eight Sabres, one T-33, three Alouette, and one DHC-3 Otter were made fit for service by March 1972 by Bangladesh Air Force. One of the most important factors for the quick liberation of Bangladesh was the total air supremacy in the east, and the excellent co-ordination between the Indian Army, Air Force, Navy, and the Mukti Bahini.

Air campaign in the West

With a losing battle in the East, President and Martial Law Administrator, Yahya Khan chose to try to protect Pakistan's integrity using Ayub Khan's strategy: “The defence of East Pakistan lies in the West.” He said this was to be the “final war”. The Pakistan Army had created a myth of invincibility, and propagated obsessive hostility towards India, with total disregard for ground reality. It was unfortunate for them, and the country, that the masses believed their propaganda. The Pakistan military strategy was based on winning an overwhelming, decisive victory over Indian forces in the Western Front so as to have bargaining power for losses in the east.

As a part of the Pakistani grand design, the PAF launched pre-emptive strikes on the IAF forward air bases, radar installations, railway stations, Indian armour concentrations, and some other targets on the evening of 3 December, 1971. Codenamed “Operation Chengiz Khan”, the air strikes began the war in the West. The IAF struck back that night. The Canberras flew 23 sorties, and bombed eight Western Pakistani airbases, inflicting heavy damage to Sargodha and Masroor airbases.

Next morning onwards IAF’s counter-air response was swift, and all-encompassing, aimed at causing as much attrition as possible during the opening stages of the war while ensuring that IAF’s own losses did not spiral out of control. IAF carried out attacks on PAF bases at Sargodha, Shorkot Road, Peshawar, Chaklala, Murid, Chander, Chak Jhumra, Risalewala, Masroor, Drigh Road and, the radar stations at Lahore, Sakesar and Badin. Within days, India was able to achieve air superiority in the west.

PAF had 12 combat squadrons in the west consisting of F-104 Star Fighters, Sabres, Mirage-IIIs, MiG-19s and B-57s. In addition, it had received one squadron worth of F-104s from Jordan and 35 Sabres (approximately three squadrons worth) from Saudi Arabia and Iran. IAF’s fighter squadrons in the West included 5 MiG-21 or Type 77, 5 Gnat, 5 Su-7 or S-22, 3 Hunter, 2 HF-24 Marut and 2 Mystere IVA plus a small specialised unit TACDE.

The bomber force comprising four Canberra squadrons including the Jet Bomber Conversion Unit (JBCU) and the sole Canberra Photo Reconnaissance (PR) Squadron were centrally located to cover both fronts, on an as required basis.

After the not so successful pre-emptive strike, the PAF adopted a defensive stance in response to the IAF’s heavy retaliation. This lack of further PAF retaliation has been attributed to the deliberate decision of the PAF to cut its losses, as it had already incurred huge losses in the conflict in the east. The IAF continued with day and night attacks against airfields and radar, interdiction missions, and close-support attacks by fighter jets. There were night attacks against airfields and strategic targets by Canberras and An-12s. Number of sorties flown by the PAF decreased day-by-day. On 8 December, 1971, IAF Hunters of 20 Squadron at Pathankot attacked PAF airbase at Murid and destroyed five F-86 aircraft on the ground.

The IAF attacked Pakistan deep in their territory. Targets were airfields, Karachi harbour, Sui gas plant, Attock Oil refinery, Mangla hydro-electric power plant. IAF concentration was on Interdiction missions, to disrupt Pakistani communications, the destruction of logistics nodes and fuel and ammunition dumps. IAF destroyed 50 arms-laden trains. It also targeted Pak Army ground force bridge-heads and concentrations to thwart any offensive action.

A very important air action in the Western desert, four Hunters of the OCU, operating from Jaisalmer air base, destroyed an entire Pakistani armoured regiment in the “Battle of Longewala”, thus stopping a major armour thrust into the desert. IAF aircraft played a great role in supporting the Indian Army ground battles in most sectors.

The IAF support to the army in Chhamb was crucial. Pakistan Army had planned a massive Armour thrust in Fazilka and Suleimanke headwork areas. Indian defences were overwhelmed by Pakistani forces. IAF stepped in. Over 300 sorties were flown per day. The IAF targeted Pakistan Armour, fuel and ammunition dumps, and communication lines in Fort Abbas, Bhawalnagar and Haveli general area. Mysteres destroyed a train carrying 50 tanks between Okara and Montgomery. Clearly, the IAF made the difference.

IAF’s air strikes on Karachi airfield and installations had a serious demoralising effect. IAF also outclassed the PAF in air combat engagements. The PAF aircraft that survived IAF onslaught took refuge at Iranian air bases or in concrete blast pens, refusing to offer a fight.

Major air combats

The Gnats had high success in air combat. NirmalJit Singh Sekhon single-handedly engaged six PAF Sabres and shot two before being shot himself. He was the first and only Param Vir Chakra awardee of IAF. Hunter aircraft flew mostly ground attack missions, but they successfully shot many Sabres in air combat. The MiG-21s got a chance for the first time to engage their famous old opponent, the F-104 Starfighter, in air combat. In all four recorded dog fights, the IAF MiG-21s outclassed them. The HF 24s were used mostly in strike roles, yet also got one air-to-air kill against a-86 Sabre.

Canberra and An-12 bombing missions

Canberras were at Gorakhpur, Agra and Pune, and were used for bombing from the first night itself, and they bombed every sector of Pakistan. Bombing attack over Karachi on 9 December was coordinated with the Navy’s attack on harbour. Four Canberras each attacked the oil installations and Karachi airfield. Canberras of 106 Squadron were engaged in strategic reconnaissance. The famous pictures of crisscross of Pakistani tank tracks in Longewala were photographic evidence of the desperation of Pakistani tanks trying to escape the hunters firing at them, a picture taken from a Canberra. The Canberra bomber force was recognised by the award of two Maha Vir Chakra (MVC) awards and 11 Vir Chakra (VrC) awards.  Separately the sole Canberra PR squadron also received one MVC and four VrCs.

Using the An-12s armed with 12x500 lb. bombs for night bombing was innovative. They were used to target the Changa Manga Forest, which had had a massive POL dump, over artillery positions near Kahuta, and in the Poonch area to cause landslides and virtually ended the battle of Poonch. Two Mirages tried to chase them, but all six returned safely. They were also used to attack Division HQs at Fort Abbas, and Bahawalpur. They also bombed the Sui gas plant. The bombing of Skardu by An 12s on the last day of war was staged from Chandigarh. Out of the 36 bombs dropped on Skardu, 28 fell on the runway.

Game-changing helicopter employment

The IAF’s Mi-4s played a game-changing role in the east flying Indian Army troops across innumerable waterways. The battle in the east was very fluid, and IAF and Army field commanders took decisions on their own. The Alouette III units also supported casualty evacuation, communication and reconnaissance flights. Some Mi-4s and Alouette Ills were equipped as gunships. Alouette IIIs were also used for airborne FAC roles. Just in the east, the total flying by helicopters from 3-17 December was 2,404 sorties, lifting 185.7 tons of load, moving 5,945 troops and 1,179 casualties.

Air Chief PC Lal: The visionary leader

Air Chief Marshal PC Lal was at the helm of affairs as the air cChief. He had earlier been the Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief, Western Air Command, and later the Vice Chief during the 1965 war. He had prepared the IAF very well based on the lessons of 1965. How he saw and orchestrated the air war in 1971 is very well documented in his personal memoir My Years with the IAF.

India had thwarted all designs of Pakistan and had comprehensively defeated them, he wrote. Lal felt that gains in both the 1965 war (Haji Pir) and 1971 (93,000 Prisoners) were handed back and termed it as lack of Indian strategic firmness and excessive use of “good faith”.

 Air power best employed in offensive role

Immediately after World War II, both the US and the Soviet Union realised that one who controls the aerospace, controls the planet. China also took the cue early enough and began investing in air and space capabilities, initially with Soviet help. Today they are pushing ahead. Air power continues to be employed best in an offensive role. Air power offers strategic flexibility in terms of ability to quickly reconfigure for different kinds of missions. The overarching air operations give capability to project power at far distances without risking their own mother land.

Air power offers the political leadership strategic choices and alternatives for sustainable and easily scalable levels. Air Campaigns can be executed against different target systems simultaneously. Air Power has inherent capability to provide both kinetic and non-kinetic options with pinpoint accuracy. Air Power can directly influence outcomes and action of the surface forces. Air Power has the ability to simultaneously produce physical as well as psychological shock.

50 years later

Undoubtedly, over the years the capabilities of air assets have greatly enhanced, and their employment changed significantly. Air combat engagements still remain relevant even in the Beyond Visual Range (BVR) environment as was seen in the PAF-IAF engagement of February 2019.

Air launched cruise missiles and stand-off delivery with PGMs have brought a new dimension to surface attack. Offensive and defensive air operations supported by long-range missiles, Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) and in-flight refueling, have increased capability and combat engagement ranges. With significant increase in platforms, including unmanned ones, and long-range surface-to-air missiles (SAM) the challenge of air space management has become more complex.

The inherent strength of air power is both its flexibility and ability to act autonomously. It must be used offensively to hit much deeper. Air power continues to influence and support the surface battle in a big way. The missile-armed attack helicopter is a powerful platform for interdiction and close contact support.

Much more capable air and space platforms greatly support the Intelligence Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) functions, and enhance command and control functions. Space is a great enabler for all networked operations, and for targeting. The capability to hit maritime targets at very long range in some ways gives advantage to shore-based aircraft. Strategic air mobility not only gives global reach but can quickly mobilise forces across theatres. They are a great national asset for Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief (HADR). Clearly, there still is some level of conventional war under the nuclear overhang, as has been seen in operations in Kargil, Balakot and also showdown in Galwan.

As per official records, the IAF flew 1,978 fighter sorties in the East and about 4,000 in the West, against PAF’s 30 and 2,840 respectively. Averaging nearly 450 sorties per day. The IAF lost 42 aircraft, but in the process shot 86 PAF aircraft. A large percentage of IAF aircraft on strike missions were damaged by ground fire. Unlike 1965, Pakistanis lacked aggression, and most attacks were inaccurate and seemed insufficiently planned. There was a lack of determination, and reflected poorly on morale and training. A lot of technicians were Bengalis and that brought in maintenance issues.

In 1971, the IAF had added more than a significant value in driving the operational outcome. The war ended with the birth of a nation. It was also the largest surrender of a force after World War II. Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery had said during WWII, “If we lose the war in the air, we lose the war and lose it quickly.” Clearly air superiority of the IAF in the Eastern Sector greatly imparted the momentum to the land battle and led to the eventual fall of Dhaka.

The writer is a retired Indian Air Force officer. Views expressed are personal.

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