November 30, 2020
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View From Pakistan

The Debt Owed

From Pakistani point of view, the PAF’s bomber pilots remain the unsung heroes of the 1965 war. They saved their nation from certain destruction.

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The Debt Owed

In my last piece, I analysed how Pakistan’s foray into Indian Kashmir in August 1965 spun out of control and turned into an all-out war with India on Sept 6. I drew on an interview with Air Commodore (retired) Sajad Haider. This column concludes that conversation.

Haider’s squadron, Number 19 based in Peshawar, earned five gallantry awards during the war. It flew over 630 operational missions and destroyed 15 Indian Air Force (IAF) aircraft on the ground. Among the PAF squadrons, Number 19 also destroyed the highest number of Indian tanks and armoured vehicles.

Of course, many other PAF squadrons excelled during the war. And no student of air combat can forget the kills scored by Squadron Leader M.M. Alam, the subcontinent’s only ace.

How did the PAF achieve air superiority over the much larger IAF? I put this question to Haider and he said that the PAF enjoyed superior leadership at the top. Air Marshal Asghar Khan, the first Pakistani air chief, had fashioned it into a fine fighting machine.

By early June 1965, the PAF was ready for war. Every tactical squadron “had rehearsed its war role to perfection”. The new air chief, Air Marshal Nur Khan, put the PAF on red alert as he flew over Kashmir on Sept 1. The PAF had honed its pilots to a point where “excellence became a habit and not just an option”. Haider says that the combat proficiency of the PAF pilots was borne out during training exercises in the US and Germany. Some USAF commanders felt that PAF pilots were superior to Israeli Air Force pilots.

Haider says, “We lived, talked, ate and slept with our missions. Professional excellence was also displayed by air defence controllers, maintenance crews and logistic personnel.”

The IAF high command did not have a proper war plan. And its Achilles’ heel was the airfield attack mission. Haider argues that IAF pilots tended to conduct ad hoc operations and did not display the will to achieve their mission objectives since they “were always in a hurry to attack swiftly without aiming accurately”. He faults the IAF high command for abandoning missions for inexplicable reasons and showing a lack of initiative and drive. However, he adds, that the IAF pilots were not lacking in courage.

As an example, he cites the situation that existed when dawn broke on Sept 7. The IAF was poised to launch a series of retaliatory air raids but it woke up to find the “thunder and flash of bombs raining down on the runways from PAF’s B-57 bombers. Several of the IAF raids were delayed till the all-clear sirens were sounded”. But he adds that the operation was also a tribute to the IAF fighter pilots who took the risk of rolling down runways knowing that they were smeared with shrapnel.

Haider says that contrary to the popular impression in Pakistan, the IAF had many good flyers. A pilot flying a subsonic Dassault Mystere IV fighter shot down a Mach 2 Lockheed F-104 aircraft over Sargodha. Two of the very best PAF pilots, Squadron Leader Sarfraz Rafiqui and Flight Lieutenant Yunus, were shot down over the IAF base in Halwara by relatively junior pilots flying the Hawker Hunter Mk. 56.

Years later, Haider had an opportunity to compare notes with his counterparts in the IAF. This took place in England with a MiG-21 pilot in 1970 and later in 2007 via email with an air marshal who had commanded a squadron during the war.

Haider says, “Both were eye witnesses to the PAF attack on Pathankot on the 6th where we destroyed 11 aircraft and damaged two. As acknowledged on, the IAF thought it was a devastating strike.”

The North American F-86F Sabre aircraft with six half-inch calibre Browning machine guns mounted in the nose was the mainstay of the PAF. But in 1965 this aircraft which had blasted Chinese and North Korean MiG 15s during the Korean War was showing its age. Nevertheless, Haider says the Sabre performed “magnificently in all roles even though it was inferior in power and speed to the IAF Hunters”.

The PAF inventory also included a squadron of F-104 Starfighters. With its missile-like fuselage and small trapezoidal wings, the Starfighter was called the pride of the PAF. I asked Haider whether that aircraft lived up to its reputation. Haider said no, even though that squadron had the best PAF pilots. The reason was that the Starfighter “was unsuited to the tactical environment of the region. It was a high-level interceptor designed to neutralise Soviet strategic bombers in altitudes above 40,000 feet.”

Even then, the Starfighter was feared by the IAF and Haider opines that it could have been used with “devastating effect against exiting enemy aircraft, low on fuel, deep into our territory and running for life. But over-cautious commanders prevented that from happening”.

Similarly, the Starfighter’s pilots were prohibited from making strafing runs against parked IAF aircraft “because there had been one accident where the pilot crashed for insufficient pullout speed”. He says that the pilots should have been better trained in making low-altitude attacks using the Starfighter’s formidable 20 mm Vulcan Gatling gun which fired 6,000 rounds per minute.

The B-57B light bomber was used by the PAF to carry out high-risk strikes against several IAF airfields. But the extensive damage caused by these raids only came out in 2005, notes Haider, when two Indian writers (Mohan and Chopra) published their account of the air war based on interviews with IAF veterans. The PAF’s bomber pilots remain the unsung heroes of the war.

As one looks back 44 years, it is clear that no one has displayed the right stuff as clearly as those few men who valiantly flew their war-birds emblazoned with the “star-and-crescent on green”. They saved their nation from certain destruction.

The debt owed by Pakistanis to the PAF is no less than the debt owed by Britons to the RAF. Winston Churchill’s words come to mind: “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few. All hearts go out to the fighter pilots whose brilliant actions we see with our own eyes day after day.”

Ahmad Faruqui  is the author of Rethinking the National Security of Pakistan.

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