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.