DEFENCE NOTES

THE FIGHTER GAP

Sqn Ldr (Retd) SHUAIB ALAM KHAN gives a gripping account of the facts, hitherto largely undisclosed, that has led to the present situation with respect to fighter aircraft in Pakistan

Has the PAF performed well? There has been no critical appraisal. The PAF like the other services must have made mistakes or even blunders but these have not been debated. Truth is stranger than fiction. The PAF except for a very short period in '65, performed well below the required. It is a relatively small force, the support that it can provide to the Army and Navy must be its main role. Has the PAF provided such assistance? Why not? Because the PAFs role remains a debate. It should assist the Army and the Navy and not fight its own war. The three services must fight the same war and not their own separate battles. To enforce this should the Air Force be placed under command of the Army and Navy?

For the last few years there is a debate on buying a very expensive weapons system for the Air Force because of the 'FIGHTER GAP, is this system to be used to defend the fighter establishment, defend Pakistan or just another gimmick for the kick backs! Quoting from the 'News April 13, 1998 ̉The most lucrative contract discovered was a $ 4 billion deal to buy 32 Mirage jets from the French company Dassault. The documents, which include letters from Dassault executives, indicate an agreement was reached to pay 5% 'remuneration about $200 million to Marleton Business, a BVI company controlled by Zardari. In a report published in the 'Hindu on 21st January 1998, the Air Chief said Islamabad needed to carefully evaluate how to 'address this (Indian) threat. According to him, India had as many as 232 'hi-tech aircraft as opposed to the 32 F-16s of the Pakistan Air Force. He said since the role of the PAF was a 'pivotal one, Pakistan must 'do something as the Air Force was losing some seven to eight aircraft every year on account of 'phasing out and partly because of attrition. The growing technological disparity between the Pakistan and Indian Air Forces has now assumed 'acute proportions, Air Chief Marshal Parvaiz Mehdi Qureshi of the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) has said. Referring to the addition of sophisticated aircraft to the Indian Air Force and the inability of the PAF to come up with a matching response, Air Marshal Mehdi Qureshi said: 'If this widening technological disparity between India and Pakistan is not plugged or narrowed down within the next 36 to 48 months, it would pose a direct threat to national security. Is this the 'Fighter Gap? Or is it more than this?

I plan to describe several unrelated incidents to show that a 'Fighter Gap exists. This 'Fighter Gap does not relate to technology and numerical disparity, but to the organization, employment and training. The incidents relate to the period, 1947 - 1971 in the employment of the Air Force in combat and discuss the causes, the resulting situation, and with hindsight suggest perhaps what should have been done.

In 1947 and 1948 the IAF provided direct support to the Indian Army, bombed Murree, attacked the Kohala bridge several times and an unarmed PAF transport. The PAF role in Kashmir was transport support, and despite IAF fighter activity it continued air transport operations but limited them to moonlit nights. Our fighters remained employed on 'watch and ward in the NWFP, quoting from the 'Story of the PAF-- 'an unarmed Fury, while engaged in leaflet dropping over a hostile area, was fired upon with a light machine gun. The aircraft sustained some damage but the pilot landed safely at Miranshah, where he quickly took another Fury, this one bristling with weapons, and went back to even the score --.. in an another sequence, '-. Exemplary punitive action-the RPAF--flew 139 sorties in which 72 bombs, 108 rockets and 4600 rounds of 20 mm ammo were expended. The 500-lb high explosive bombs proved useful against mountain hideouts and mud houses - this employment was termed as heaven on earth - 'Was a dream base in many respects- far enough from Peshawar to be free of daily nagging by supervisory authority, a detachment could really let its hair down and dispense with all those nuisances which were collectively labelled bullshit -.

The PAF was also a circus outfit and it performed many air displays, always very good ones. Should we not have flown air combat, strike and ground support missions in Kashmir instead of 'watch and ward and air displays?

As soon as the US Aid started flowing the PAF assets increased to 12 F104 interceptors, 104 F86 fighter bombers, 26 B57 bombers, 6 C130 cargo, some RT/ T33 recce / jet trainers and some T37 trainer aircraft. We also had two very high altitude RB 57F recce, 4 SA 16 amphibious long range maritime search and rescue aircraft and helicopters. By 1959/60 the PAF was fully trained and competent in the use of its aircraft. In 1959 the last, all PAF exercise 'JANUS was held. Little or no training was conducted with the Army and Navy. We did train with the USAF, RAF, Turkish and Iranian Air Forces who visited Pakistan regularly. Watch and ward continued in Dir, Bajaur, Kalat and the downing of an IAF Photo Recce (PR) Canberra were added to the PAFs battle honors.

I was posted to Air HQ Plans Directorate in the summer of 1964. This meant about half an hours work a week. Others had less. I was comparatively over worked, but who is complaining. Air HQ was a great place, we had endless samosa and tea sessions, visits to the library and calling on friends. Those were the good old days. 1964 slipped into 1965 and one Monday morning we learnt through the 'rumor channel that the Pakistan Army was being deployed against the Indians in the Rann of Kutch. To make matters worse the C-in-C was in Bangkok attending a SEATO meeting and would be away until Sunday. To further compound the issue we had three war plans, war against India, war against Afghanistan and the third war against both India and Afghanistan. The alert phase was also- 'total, either you were at peace or on full alert. The war plans had no provision for limited action. Finally at about mid-day, orders came through that we were to update and revise all existing plans, meetings were held and work started in earnest which continued until the 'top secret typists were exhausted. There was a great demand for security, since the previous Director Plans had been court-martialed, and some of the officers summarily retired. The day would start at 0730 and continue until 2200 or 2300 hours. On Wednesday evening the Assistant Chief Air Staff (Operations) (ACAS(O)), Director Operations and the Director Plans met us to check progress, at the end of the meeting the ACAS(O) remarked that he did not understand why the Indians had not attacked us yet. There was silence, since no one else said anything, I ventured to say that the Indians were waiting for us to complete our war plans. The meeting came to an abrupt end, and no one disagreed with me!

On Saturday, our revision was complete, we were as ready as could be expected, and the Director Operations took the responsibility and placed the Air Force on alert. The C-in-C returned in the night, called us to work and reversed all the orders. He took one other action -- spoke to his counterpart in India offering that he would not use the PAF if Air Marshal Arjun Singh did not use the IAF! Arjun Singh flew one of his PR Canberras, took photographs of US Aid supplied equipment, when these were seen by the Americans, military aid to Pakistan was stopped!

The fighting in the Rann of Kutch finished, the matter was referred to The Hague and Lal Bahdur Shastri vowed that the next bout would be on a battlefield of their choosing. We did learn some lessons from this--the alert was phased and we prepared for contingencies. These plans permitted flexible response without going into full-scale war. Besides, ammunition and stores had moved despite the reversal of the alert actions.

In July, the C-in-C PAF and Managing Director PIA exchanged positions and AVM Nur Khan assumed command of the PAF. The usual presentations were made. At Plans Directorate we were discussing the returning of stores and ammunition back to their depots. On Monday morning in late July the ACAS(O) returned from Pindi to report that the Army was to engage in a 'do in Kashmir. Since no further details were available, the C-in-C flew up to Pindi to find out for himself. The Army Chief informed him that 'Gibralter Force was to be launched into Kashmir which would create insurrection in the occupied valley leading to its secession to Pakistan. He said that details were with the 12 Div Commander in Murree. Nur Khan flew to Murree in a helicopter and met the operation commander. After the briefing the Air Chief asked whether any air effort was required, the answer was that the entire plan was prepared without any requirements of air support!

On his return from Murree Nur Khan lost no time in calling in Operations and Plans directorates and ordered that plans be drawn up based on the following premise 'IN VIEW OF THE PAKISTAN ARMY INITIATIVES IN KASHMIR AND IF THESE WERE SUCCESSFUL THE INDIAN ARMY WOULD ATTACK ACROSS THE INTERNATIONAL BORDER.

Recall of stores and ammunition was forgotten and working hours again were extended to 'until the days target was achieved. While this was underway only plans and operations directorates discussed war, what we expected and the comparison of our orders of battle was endless. Watching changes on the Indian side, their moves usually involved squadrons. When a single F86 was released from 102 Maintenance Unit, Operations Directorate would call a meeting with plans at Astt. Dir level who would recommend that the aircraft be placed at Sargodha. Then the Deputy Directors would meet and recommend that the aircraft be sent to Sargodha, the Directors would repeat the exercise and place their recommendations with the ACAS(O), who would go to the Chief and get his blessings to send the F86 to Sargodha. This was serious business!

Towards the middle of August '65, the Army sent an SOS that the 'Gibralter Force was in trouble and required immediate air drops of food and ammunition. It was decided that a C130 carry out a night drop. The Air Chief, Base Commander Chaklala and the OC 35 Wing were a part of this crew. The weather was terrible, rain, low clouds, yet the mission flew and satisfactory results were achieved.

Air Force 'Forward Headquarters were activated on 30th August and I joined 7 Squadron. On 1st September the army attacked in Chamb, no air effort was requested or planned, but the C-in-C Air was over the battle field in an L 19, to see the complete rout of the Indian forces, he placed Sargodha on high alert. In the afternoon, flights of Indian Vampires started attacking Pakistani troops, the army requested help and 4 Vampires were shot down. The Indian air action stopped as suddenly as it had started. Still no planned tactical air support was requested! The army stopped four kilometers short of Akhnur!

Were Asghar Khan and Musa on speaking terms? Will we have a one sided story now? Why did Asghar Khan speak to Arjun Singh? Was Asghar Khan under orders to speak or was it initiative on his part? Did he speak? This is contained in John Frickers book 'Battle for Pakistan and in the 'Story of the PAF and also reported in the press without contradiction by Asghar Khan.

So it is a fact that Asghar Khan did speak to Arjun Singh. Did he do so because he was directed or whether it was initiative on his part- if the former is a fact then he should have committed 'hara kiri, if the latter is true then he should have been court-martialled, for 'cowardice in the face of the enemy and shot.

Was this the only problem? Asghar Khan claimed that there was no effort to spare for the Army as such the Army doctrine of not to include the PAF in the preparation plans. Asghar Khans policy was dictated by : 'It is true that the PAFs primary role, in essence, is to assist the Army in every possible way to achieve its objectives. But in order to be able to do this the PAF must first achieve a high degree of air superiority over the land battle areas, and it must be equipped to do this effectively. The Army seldom understood or recognised this precondition.

The Air Force according to the war plan attacked the IAF forward bases on the opening day of the war in West Pakistan. Air action in East Pakistan was delayed to the second day since a dusk strike was anticipated. The plan included a single F104 conducting a 'recce over Halwara, followed by F86s, attacking 'guns only Halwara, Adampur, Pathankot and the various forward radars in the north, with T33s in the south, followed by all available B57s after sunset.

After attacking the Indians on the 6th, the Air Force expected retaliation by the IAF on the 7th. No effort was made to launch dawn strikes instead the PAF requested the Army to launch paratroopers against the IAF forward bases on the night 6/7th . Three companies of SSG were launched.

The decision to launch the Special Service Group (SSG) was taken late on the 6th; they left without maps, proper briefing and worst of all with no planning or preparation! The results were disastrous, only a handful returned, most of them were captured or killed. Then every PAF base in Pakistan experienced Indian commando attacks and in their defence thousands of rounds of small arms ammunition was expended at imaginary commandos and the SSG were summoned to save Sargodha!

The operational statistics for 1965 are as under:

  Sorties %Effort
Air Defence 1303 55%
Army / Navy 647 27%
Day Strike 100 4%
Night Strike 165 7%
Photo/Recce 148 6%

On the opening day of the '71 war, I had just returned from Jaisalmir, on entering the crew-room, I saw Gp.Capt. Rashid Rehman and Captain Bhombul the Director Naval Operations. They said that they had sighted an Indian convoy at about 1800 hours from a PIA Fokker, consisting of two merchant men escorted by six warships. Their position was 150 nautical miles south of Karachi, steaming south-east at about 15 knots. The OC Wing joined us and we found that 7 serviceable B57s were available and after modification of the weapons load to include parachute flares and rockets we could strike this convoy several times before dawn and before it could gain the security of friendly air cover. With this information plotted on a chart we moved to the base ops-room and briefed the Base Commander recommending that we attack the convoy or set up a standing patrol of a single B57 about 70/80 nautical miles from Karachi, outside Indian radar/fighter air cover and wait for the Indian Navy. The Base Commander spoke to the Air Chief who said 'LET THE NAVY FIGHT ITS OWN BATTLES!

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