22nd October 1962 in Ambala started as a typical north Indian morning. Overnight drizzles followed by a low overcast. Very little chance of any meaningful flying activity surely, but the morning had to start with the customary ‘Met Briefing’. Ambala was at that time a very busy fighter station. With Seven (Battle Axes) and Twenty Seven (Flaming Arrows) squadrons flying Hunter Mark56 and Twenty Three (Panthers) and Two (Arrows) flying Gnat Mk 1, the skies above Ambala were full of aircraft through the morning hours on most days when the weather permitted such activity. The base was being commanded by Group Captain CG Deveshar, our old CI from Hakimpet days
After the Station Met Officer had done his bit on the podium, the Station Commander took his place and faced us. This was a bit unusual as Groupie Deveshar did not normally use the morning met briefing to address the officers. However, what he had to tell us that morning was important and sombre. The news from the India China border was not good. Fierce fighting had broken out in both eastern and western sectors and our boys were not doing too well.
It was a strange sort of morning. Here we were, with news that our boys on the frontiers of India were in distress. It was clear that they needed support. It was also clear that we had got into a scrap without having prepared ourselves properly. Almost three years down the line after the attack on our post at Longju, we were still hoping that the Chinese would just go away from ‘our’ territory if we asked them to do so politely. In the meanwhile precious little preparation on our side was evident.
The bulk of our fighter forces were concentrated in the North West facing Pakistan. At the field level we were very fuzzy about the perception of threat from China. From 1947 onwards, all thoughts about defence – particularly Air Defence – had been related to Pakistan. We did use our air force in the Indo-Pakistani war of 1948 reasonably widely. The massive airlift of troops into Srinagar immediately on the state’s accession was only the first step. The use of air power in the Jammu sector as the battle proceeded is a scantily recorded story of a brilliant use of airpower of that time. Offensive air power, air logistic support and even unconventional use of airpower such as the use of Dakota aircraft in the bombing role were tried out. Throughout 1948, air operations in J&K expanded and contributed significantly in turning the tide of the war. Then came the UN sponsored ceasefire on 1 Jan 49, and with it a freeze on the use of offensive air power in that area. NEFA (as Arunachal Pradesh was known in those days) was a strategically neglected area. The terrain was difficult, the weather hazardous, and infra-structure non existent. Presence of the Army was minuscule and air support of even that small presence was difficult due to inadequacy of assets. For the whole decade 1949 to 1959, we in the Indian Air Force did not expend any effort to build offensive air capability for use in the Himalayas. I was too young in the Service at that time. I was commissioned only in 1953. I therefore cannot speak with any direct personal knowledge. However, I have the impression that not only did we not practice the use of offensive air power in the hills, we did not even think about it consciously. China was a ‘friend’ against the bulk of the ‘western world’ had ganged up at the UN and we had taken up cudgels against this ‘injustice’ unasked and undaunted. Considering hostility from the Chinese was ‘unthinkable’. The question of devising strategy for defence against the ‘friendly Chinese’ just did not arise. Our ‘friends’ however showed no inclination of finalizing and settling the alignment of our common border to our north. Differences in interpretation of where the border lay existed. For a long time we made no attempt to man our border. We had somehow imagined that the other side of the border would be similarly unmanned or the Chinese would be as fuzzy about the alignment of the border as we were. Slowly, as we manned the border in NEFA as well as in Aksai Chin and Uttar Pradesh, we came face to face with Chinese presence in those areas.
Pinpricks started early. Incidents occurred at Barahoti in UP in 1954, At Damzang and Nilang in 1955, at Shipki La in 1956, and in Lohit Frontier Division of NEFA in 1958. By then, in the Aksai Chin area of J&K the Chinese had built the Sinkiang-Tibet road passing through Indian Territory. One of the two scouting parties sent by the Indian Army to ascertain the existence of this road in 1958 was captured by the Chinese. Ultimately in January 1959 the Chinese came out in the open and claimed huge chunks of Indian land as theirs. Matters soured quickly. In August 59 there was a flare-up at Longju followed by the Kong Ka Pass incident in October 59. Both these were serious incidents with a number of Indian lives lost.
Mr VK Krishna Menon had been our Minister for Defence since 1957. His tenure in that post was tempestuous. Sharp, eccentric, acerbic, arrogant and impatient, the top brass of the three services found it hard to work with him. At the same time, he was decisive, contemptuous of others opinions and a blue eyed boy of the Prime Minister. In the field of defence under his care, though things happened fast, he had no feed back of the results of his dictatorial directions. No one could talk to him with a frank dissenting view. This situation encouraged sycophancy and eroded the integrity of the command structure of the three services. At the same time, a lot of good work was also being done. Modernization of the services, particularly of the Air Force was pushed through. Hunters, Mysteres, Canberras and Gnats were purchased. The cadre strength of the Air Force was increased. The Ordnance Factories were strengthened and their production capacity was improved. The development of the HF24 Marut was supported. Lot of works Services were authorised and there was a huge push to provide permanent living accommodation for men and officers. Unfortunately, in a move indicative of his ignorance of the detailed functioning of the Army, he mobilized the Army in the Western and Northern front to build these quarters by troop labour under Project Amar that disrupted the training of these troops for war over a long period of time. At the field level there was a lot of grudging dissent, but as I have stated before, VKK had closed all routes for feed back. He perhaps did not even realize what damage he was causing.
VKK had inherited a ministry that was blinkered by our foreign policy and was blind to the evil intent and actions of China. During his tenure, the Chinese intentions became patently clear through the confirmation of the building of the Aksai Chin road through our land and the incidents of Longju and Kon Ka Pass. His reaction to these in the form of the infamous ‘Forward Policy’ was incomprehensible to the rank and file. I have no idea if the top brass managed to tell him that what was being done was stupid and against all tenants of military operations. Did VKK ever listen to the top Brass? Between August 1959 (Longju) and October 1962 when the Chinese attacks began, there was no visible plan or preparation against such an eventuality at least form the Air Force.
I had joined the Battle axe in May 1962. I had returned to the fighter world after a gap of seven long years in the training command. My primary concern at that stage was to re-learn fighter flying. In these seven years, arrival of new aircraft, radar, tactics and procedures had made my previous experience totally obsolete. Using hydraulic powered controls, sitting strapped to ejection seats, operating at forty or forty-five thousand feet above sea level, these were all new experiences for me. I had to catch up and catch up fast. With the uncertainties of 1962, I was not finding the process of jumping back into fighter flying easy. From May till October (When Baba Katre arrived to take over the squadron as a Wing Commander), even my conversion to Hunter did not really get off the ground. After his arrival I started flying the new aircraft regularly. By then the Chinese were already on us.
Not withstanding my lowly flying position of being ‘Operational Under Training’ (OPS U/T) my age seniority and general service position caused me to think about the way we were going about training for a war that seemed imminent. The stridency of warlike activity on the borders had brought in no change to our operational training pattern. At Ambala the two Gnat squadrons were passing through a technically challenging period. The Gnat fleet had not settled down. Every once in a while the whole fleet had to be grounded for some check or another. In short, for the year 1962, the two Gnat squadrons that existed could not be considered as operational. The Hunter fleet was well settled. Two of the Hunter squadrons were based at Ambala. Our emphasis was in air defence role and we spent a large chunk of our training time in air combat practice in various combinations such as ones v one, two v one, two v two and four v two. Unfortunately all this practice was done at medium and high altitude and only as unmixed combat, i.e. only as Hunter against Hunter. In this effort, our focus was naturally centred on enhancing only individual ability. We never questioned who we were practicing against. We did not question which enemy we were likely to meet at 45000 feet that would offer us a chance for aerial combat. In 1962 our radar cover was very poor. When we practiced interceptions under radar control, we invariably had a docile cooperative target. The state of our communication was so poor that setting up an air battle between two different radar controllers controlling two different sets of aircraft was almost impossible at the station level. In any case, the ability of the obsolete or obsolescent P-15 and P-18 radars we used at that time were patchy. Frankly, we (the fighter jocks) did not believe that our radar could actually detect a hostile intruder and control us effectively to intercept it. Subconsciously therefore we believed that the only effective sensors for air defence were our eyes. We practiced air combat within visual range at a safe height and felt very happy bragging about our skills and our kills in these very unrealistic combat practices over glasses of beer at the bar. There was no shortage of bravado, but regretfully, there was utter lack of introspective planning. Strangely it seems that we were also unaware of our faulty perspective; we never questioned why we were doing what was being done and we never questioned why we were not preparing ourselves for our obvious tasks.
We were a little better prepared in our ground attack role. From early 1950s we had made it a practice to push every fighter squadron through a yearly visit to Jamnagar where the instructors of the Armament Training Wing conducted an intensive course of ground attack theory and practical skills using the current set of armament available to us at that time. Firing of cannons (20mm for Vampire and Toofani / 30mm for other fighters of western origin) and unguided rockets (3 inch British, T-10 French or 68mm NATO rounds) and practice bombing in shallow and steep glide with small practice bombs were our usual pattern of training. In our areas of deployment, we practiced low level intrusions and pull-up attacks without actually expending any armament. On very rare occasions, some of the flight commanders actually trained their pilots to expend real ammunition at the end of simulated intrusions and pull-up attacks over firing ranges at Tilpat or Sidhwan Khas, but that was an exception rather than a rule. Extensive bird activity made practice of low level strike risky over the Northern Plains for most of the hours of the day for most of the year. In any case, dust haze in summer, low clouds in monsoon and mist/fog/haze in winter months took away many days each year from any meaningful low level strike training. We, the young fighter pilots on line therefore learned to draw our satisfaction for the odd ‘pin’ that we hit with a rocket or a bomb or the success we achieved in hitting a ten foot by ten foot piece of white canvas erected over the firing range as our gun target.
All in all, in 1962, we at the front line did not know what we were required to do against the Chinese because we had never considered them to be an ‘enemy’. We had not trained for the task and had not even discussed possible tactics to be used. At the leadership level within the Service we did not know what we would want to do if we were given a free hand by the government. We also did not know what our capabilities were because we had never thought of such a fight let alone devising strategies for such a fight. The government never seriously sought our opinion and we know now that at least one opinion against use of offensive airpower was given out to the Government from the Air HQ. We also know now that the Chinese were in no position to pose a serious threat to our forces or our cities from the air. In hind sight it also seems probable that use of offensive air power in the Ladakh sector could have altered the outcome decisively. On the ground in the east we were in a mess. It was however impossible for the Chinese to supply and sustain an army of occupation in NEFA for any length of time. It is not out of the goodness of their hear that they declared an unilateral ceasefire. It is clear that the government of the day had failed the country. What troubles me is to make up my mind even in hind sight and admit, if only to myself, that we as the armed forces also failed the country. Did we? That is my puzzled uncertainty.