Why wasn’t the Indian Air Force (IAF) used against the advancing Chinese in the 1962 war? For over 50 years, strategic thinkers, military historians and amateur hacks have postulated various theories either justifying or decrying the decision by India not to employ air power in the month-long war with China fought in the shadow of the Himalaya. Very few could however proffer a cogent explanation. Half a century later, we may now have the first detailed, reasoned and fact-based account about what exactly transpired in those tumultuous days of the war and the build up before that.
Air Marshal Bharat Kumar, an air veteran of 1959 vintage has come up with an extremely well-researched book Unknown & Unsung: Indian Air Force in Sino-Indian War of 1962 which should put at rest the 50-year old speculation over the puzzling decision not to press India’s combat air power in the conflict. Through meticulous research, backed by internal documents accessed from Air HQs, from US and UK archives and other relevant correspondence of the time, Air Marshal Bharat Kumar has served up a fascinating account that unveils hitherto unknown facets of the IAF’s contribution to the 1962 war and conclusively demolishes various myths built up over the past five decades.
First, he effectively demonstrates the laudable role played by the IAF’s transport fleet, both fixed wing and helicopters before and during the 1962 war. Several unconventional and sometimes downright suicidal methods were adopted by air warriors to support the land forces in the downright hostile and inhospitable terrain.
For instance, most of us are familiar with the heroic battle fought by the Kumaonis at Rezang La, but it is hardly known how brave pilots of AN-12 loaded AMX 13 light tanks to be airlifted to Chushul which had a makeshift airstrip. The tanks fitted in the aircraft alright but the weight of the tank damaged the floor of the aircraft in the first attempt. Local juggad came to the rescue but the all-up weight of the aircraft far exceeded the permissible limits for takeoff.
The Captain then decided to reduce the all-up weight to permissible limits by offloading most of fuel even though it meant he would barely have fuel to make the Chandigarh-Chushul- Chandigarh run that too after keeping the engine running at Chushul as the tank was to be offloaded! This meant there would be no cushion available in case of any diversion necessitated by the treacherous weather. The only alternative would have been a crash! Despite the risk, two AMX 13 tanks and their troops were airlifted to Chushul giving the Army the much needed back up during the battle of Chushul.
In NEFA (now Arunachal Pradesh) too it is not common knowledge that 10-12 Otter aircraft (with a seating capacity of 10) switched an entire brigade laterally in less than 72 hours. Air dropping supplies to NEFA and Ladakh was also done beyond the IAF’s existing capability.
But the most interesting part of the book for me is the part where Air Marshal Bharat Kumar reveals different events, views and inputs that led Prime Minister Nehru and Defence Minister Krishna Menon not to employ combat air power. He has used a mix of personal interviews with people like Air Marshal HC Dewan (who was Group Capt in 1962 and Director of Operations in the Air HQ), official history, personal notes and declassified papers in US and UK to broaden our understanding of that inexplicable decision. In the chapter: Why No Indian Combat Air Power? The Guilty Men of 1962 , Air Marshal Bharat Kumar has analysed in great detail the usual reasons cited so far for NOT deploying combat air power. They are:
- US Ambassador JK Galbraith’s advice against use of air power
- The Army’s opposition
- Lack of Army/Air Force joint planning
- Failure of the Joint Intelligence organisation
- Air Marshal Dewan’s note
- Role of then Air Chief AM Engineer
- Role of Intelligence Bureau
- Role of Bureaucracy
- Failure of higher defence organisation
- Jawaharlal Nehru’s own decisions
The last line in this chapter, “Deciding not to use the Air Force was an act of not only shooting oneself but, in addition, going into the fight with one’s arms tied behind one’s back. There were just too many odds against India,” sums up the despair felt by many military and strategic thinkers.
The lesson from that mistake in 1962 is self-evident: Air combat power is the most potent weapon in any conflict and must be used at an appropriate time. As the current air chief, Air Chief Marshal NAK Browne said last October: “These are open and glaring lessons we should have imbibed. I can assure you there will be no such limitation. The IAF will play a leading role in not just against that or any other sector but anywhere whenever the need arises.”
The book is a product of a thorough, painstaking research, has some excellent maps and many rare photographs. It chronicles many unknown exploits of air warriors, hitherto unknown. The Centre for Airpower Studies and the author deserve appreciation of all students of military history. At 880 rupees the book’s price may seem a little steep but for those of us who want to understand the past, to make sense of the future, this is a small price to pay.
The reviewer is the Strategic Affairs Editor of the NDTV