The Indian Air Force was officially established on 8 October 1932.Its first ac flight came into being on 01 Apr
1933. It possessed a strength of six RAF-trained officers and 19 Havai Sepoys (literally, air soldiers). The
aircraft inventory comprised of four Westland Wapiti IIA army co-operation biplanes at Drigh Road as the "A" Flight nucleus of the
planned No.1 (Army Co- operation) Squadron.
|IAF Wapiti II co-operation biplane of "A" Flight, |
No. 1 Squadron flying over New Delhi in the mid thirties
Cutting its teeth
Four-and-a-half years later, "A" Flight was in action for the first time from Miranshah, in North Waziristan, to support
Indian Army operations against insurgent Bhittani tribesmen. Meanwhile, in April 1936, a "B" Flight had also been formed on
the vintage Wapiti. But, it was not until June 1938 that a "C" Flight was raised to bring No. 1 Squadron ostensibly to
full strength, and this remained the sole IAF formation when World War II began, although personnel strength had by now risen
to 16 officers and 662 men.
Problems concerning the defence of India were reassessed in 1939 by the Chatfield Committee. It proposed the re-equipment
of RAF (Royal Air Force) squadrons based in lndia but did not make any suggestions for the accelerating the then painfully
slow growth of IAF except for a scheme to raise five flights on a voluntary basis to assist in the defence of the principal ports.
An IAF Volunteer Reserve was thus authorised, although equipping of the proposed Coastal Defence Flights (CDFs) was somewhat
inhibited by aircraft availability. Nevertheless, five such flights were established with No. 1 at Madras, No. 2 at Bombay,
No. 3 at Calcutta, No. 4 at Karachi and No. 5 at Cochin. No. 6 was later formed at
Vizagapatanam. Built up around a nucleus of regular IAF and RAF personnel, these flights
were issued with both ex-RAF Wapitis and those relinquished by No. 1 Squadron IAF after its conversion to the Hawker Hart.
In the event, within a year, the squadron was to revert back to the Wapiti because of spares shortages, the aged
Westland biplanes being supplemented by a flight of Audaxes.
At the end of March 1941, Nos. 1 and 3 CDFs gave up their Wapitis which were requisitioned to equip No. 2 Squadron raised at
Peshawar in the following month, and were instead issued with Armstrong Whitworth Atalanta transports, used
to patrol the Sunderbans delta area south of Calcutta. No. 2 CDF had meanwhile
received requisitioned D.H. 89 Dragon Rapides for convoy and coastal patrol, while No. 5 CDF took on strength a
single D.H. 86 which it used to patrol the west of Cape Camorin and the Malabar Coast.
Meanwhile the creation of a training structure in India became imperative and RAF flying instructors were assigned to flying clubs
to instruct IAF Volunteer Reserve cadets on Tiger Moths.364 pupils were to receive elementary flying training at seven clubs in
British India and two in various princely States by the end of 1941. Some comparative modernity was infused in August 1941, when
No. 1 Squadron began conversion to the Westland Lysander at Drigh Road, the Unit being presented with a full establishment of 12
Lysanders at Peshawar by the Bombay War Gifts Fund in the following November. No. 2 Squadron had converted from the Wapiti to the
Audax in September 1941 and, on 1 October No. 3 Squadron, similarly Audax-equipped, was raised at Peshawar.
|Line up of IAF Aircraft types at|
the start of world war II
The IAF VR was now inducted into the regular IAF, the individual flights initially retaining their coastal defence status, but
with Japan's entry into the war in December, No. 4 Flight, with four Wapitis and two Audaxes, was despatched to Burma to operate
from Moulmein. Unfortunately, four of the flight's six aircraft were promptly lost to Japanese bombing and, late in January 1942,
No. 4 Flight gave place in Moulmein to No. 3 Flight which had meanwhile re-equipped with four ex-RAF Blenheim ls. For a month,
these Blenheims were to provide almost the sole air cover for ships arriving at Rangoon harbour.
War In Burma
On 1 February, No.1 Squadron arrived in Burma with its Lysanders, flying tactical recce missions from Toungoo before transferring
to Mingaladon with a flight deployed at Lashio. I A F personnel were soon hanging pairs of 250-lb. bombs on each of their Lysanders
and with these, flew low-level unescorted missions against the principal Japanese air bases at Mae-Haungsaun, Cheingmai and Chiangrai
in Thailand. However, the Japanese advance was relentless and with the final evacuation of Burma, No.1 Squadron personnel were flown
to India, where at Risalpur in June 1942, the unit began conversion to the Hurricane IIB fighter. No.2 Squadron had also equipped with
Lysanders by the end of 1941, being confined to anti-invasion exercises until, in September 1942, it emulated the IAF's premier unit by converting to Hurricanes. The third IAF unit to operate the Lysander was No.4 Squadron, formed with four aircraft on 16 February 1942. This squadron was to continue to operate the Westland aircraft until it, too was re-equipped with the Hurricane in June 1943. Six months earlier, No.6 Squadron was raised with personnel from Nos 1 and 2 flights, being Hurricane-equipped from the outset. Between March and December 1942, 10 aircrew schools were opened in India, and the first Harvard Is and IIs were delivered to No. 1 Flying Training School at Ambala, this school having been established to provide basic and advanced training for IAF pilots over a four-and-half month course. By the end of that year, however,or a decade after the IAF's creation and three years into World War II, the Service could muster just five squadrons. The coastal defence flights had now been disbanded and most personnel of Nos.3 and 6 Flights were combined with regular IAF personnel to form No. 7 Squadron which was equipped with the
U:S. - built Vengeance 1 dive bomber in mid-February 1943. No. 8 Squadron was raised meanwhile, on 1 December 1942, absorbing the
remaining coastal defence flight personnel, and also issued with the Vengeance, to achieve operational status on 25June 1943.
The Vengeance suffered numerous defects and teething
troubles, necessitating temporary withdrawal from the two IAF squadrons, but the problems were eventually mitigated if not eradicated,
and No. 8 Sqn flew its first operational Vengeance sorties against Japanese targets from Double Moorings, Chittagong, on 15 December
1943, No. 7 Squadron, which had flown its Vengeances on some missions against dissident tribesmen in North Waziristan, started
operations in the Arakan from an airstrip at Uderbund, near Kumbigram, where it arrived on 12 March 1944, the two squadrons
converting to Vengeance IIIs during the course of operations and both flying with considerable distinction.No. 7 Squadron discarded
its dive bombers in favour of Hurricane IIs for the tactical-reconnaissance role in November 1944, No. 8 Squadron becoming the first
to convert onto the Spitfire VIII during the previous month and commencing operations on 3 January 1945 in the Kangaw area.
Both Nos 9 and 10 Squadrons were raised on Hurricanes in the early months of 1944, and thus, by the end of the year, the
operational element of the IAF had risen to nine squadrons, with Nos. 1,2,3,4,6,7,9 and 10 on Hurricanes and No.8 on Spitfires.
Five of the Hurricane-equipped squadrons played a major role in the Arakan offensive which began in December 1944, disrupting
the enemy's lines of communication and constantly harrying the Japanese forces until victory was achieved with the re-occupation
of Rangoon on 3 May 1945. In that month, No. 4 Squadron became the second IAF Spitfire unit when it re-equipped with the Mk VIII
version of this fighter, and No. 9 followed suit to complete conversion byJuly, by which time No. 10 had begun conversion, and the
Hurricane, backbone of the IAF combat element for much of the war, was rapidly phased out.
During the war years, the steady expansion of the IAF had placed all emphasis on army co-operation and tactical reconnaissance; it had continued to fly ageing equipment such as the Hurricane when such aircraft as the Thunderbolt and Mosquito were being inducted in large numbers by other Allied forces in the theatre and it had, in consequence, suffered a sense of equipment inferiority. Nevertheless, assigned the least glamorous of tasks and flying obsolescent equipment, the Service established traditions of courage and efficiency second to none; its personnel had been awarded 22 Distinguished Flying Crosses and a host of other decorations, and in recognition of its achievements, the Service had been honoured by bestowal of the prefix "Royal" on its title in March 1945.
Independence and partition
Squadron commanders of the Indian Air Force during the closing year of the Second World War
The stimulus provided by the Second World War had raised RIAF personnel strength to 28,500 including some 1,600 officers, by the time hostilities terminated. In August 1945, No. 4 Squadron was designated a component unit of the British Commonwealth Occupation Forces in Japan, exchanging its Spitfire Vllls for Mk XlVs in October and arriving in Japan aboard HMS vengence on 23 April 1946. Meanwhile, from late 1945, the remaining Hurricane-equipped RIAF fighter squadrons converted to the Spitfire at Kohat, Samungli and Risalpur and by mid-1946 the entire RIAF fighter force was Spitfire-equipped. The year 1946 also saw the establishment of the first RIAF transport unit, No.12 Squadron which had first been raised on Spitfires at Kohat in December 1945 and received C-47 Dakotas in Panagarh in late 1946. A decision had also been taken to re-equip the fighter squadrons with the Tempest II, and implementation of this decision began during the autumn of 1946, No. 3 Squadron at Kolar becoming the first to re-equip, followed by No.10 Squadron later in 1946.
Personnel strength had meanwhile been virtually halved to some 14,000 officers and men in the post-war rundown, but the British authorities had made their own assessment of India's post-war defence needs. As of October 1946, they envisaged expansion of the existing ten RIAF squadrons into a balanced force of twenty fighter, bomber and transport squadrons. Owing to the rapidly changing political situation, however, definitive decisions concerning Indian defence were, in the event, to be left to the emerging Government of Independent India. No. 4 Squadron converted to the Tempest 11 upon its return to India from Japan and Nos.7 and 8 Squadrons also relinquished their Spitfires for the more efficacious Tempest fighter during the summer of 1947. Nos. 1 and 9 Squadrons, too, received Tempest lls at this time, but on 15 August 1947, and with the division of both India and its armed forces, these units stood down and their equipment was transferred to the newly created Royal Pakistan Air Force. Thus, the principal components of the RIAF at partition were Nos. 3,4,7,8 and 10 Squadrons with Tempest us, No. 2 Squadron with Spitfires and No. 12 Squadron with C-47s, plus No. 1 Air Observation Flight, the establishment of which with AOP Auster 4s, 5s, and 6s, coincided with independence. No. 6 Squadron, which had been in process of converting from Spitfires to C-47s at Drigh Road, had been stood down and its transports transferred to Pakistan.
The RIAF had lost many permanent bases and other establishments as a result of the division of the country, but
was to have virtually no breathing space in which to recover from the surgery that had accompanied partition before the
Service was to find itself once more firing its guns in earnest. On 27 October 1947, No.12 Sqn was to initiate the
remarkable feat of air-lifting the Ist Sikhs from Palam onto the rough and dusty Srinagar airstrip without planning
or reconnaissance as the initial Indian response to the sizeable insurgent forces that were pouring across the border
into Jammu and Kashmir. On 30 October, the first Spitfires from the Advanced Flying School at Ambala reached Srinagar and
were soon engaged in strafing the raiders beyond Pattan. Within a week, the Tempests of No. 7 Squadron were playing a decisive
role in the battle of Shelatang which halted the forward momentum of the insurgents.
The fighting was to continue for 15 months, with heavy RIAF involvement throughout, a ceasefire eventually coming into
force on 1 January 1949, but despite being continuously on an operational footing throughout this period, the reorganisation
and modernisation of the Service continued unabated. The Combined Services Headquarters had meanwhile been separated for
command purposes and Air Headquarters established in New Delhi. This included the Operational and
Training Commands, No. 1 Operational Group having been formed to supervise all RIAF units and their support elements engaged
in the campaign in Jammu and Kashmir.
Heavy bombers and jet fighters
C- 47 Dakota
No. 2 Squadron had re-equipped with Spitfire XVllls in the interim, and No. 9 Squadron re-raised on this type; No. 101 Photo Reconnaissance Flight was formed in January 1948 on Spitfire PR Mk. XlXs, this unit being destined to achieve full squadron status in April 1950. To make up attrition suffered in the Kashmir operations, a further batch of Tempest IIs was procured from the UK in December 1948. The same year witnessed various equipment changes, one of which was to have a profound effect on the composition of the RIAF. The Service, wishing to establish a heavy bombing element, contracted with HAL to "re-construct" a force of B-24 Liberators from the mouldering remains of nearly 100 ex USAF bombers of this type at the immense Care and Maintenance Unit Depot at Kanpur.
Despite the scepticism on the part of the US and British advisers concerning the feasibility of the scheme, the first half-dozen HAL-reconditioned B-24s were ready by November 1948 and, on the 17th of that month, No. 5 Squadron was formed with these heavy bombers. Later, in early 1950, No. 6 Squadron was to re-form at Poona also with B-24s, while No.16 Squadron was to be established to provide back-up training on the type. To supplement the Tiger Moths, Prentice basic trainers were delivered to the RIAF during the course of 1948, eventually to see service at Jodhpur, Tambaram and Ambala, but truly epoch making in so far as the Service was concerned, was the arrival in India on 4 November 1948 of three Vampire F.Mk.3 jet fighters. These were the precursors of more than 400 Vampires of various types that were procured by the Service over the following years. The achievement of operational status on the Vampire FBMk.52 by No. 7 Squadron in the following year was to give the RIAF the distinction of becoming the first Asian air arm to operate jets.
Consolidated-Vultee B-24 Liberator
heavy bomber of No.5 Squadron ("Tuskers") over the Deccan
plateau in the early 1950s.
In January 1950, India became a Republic within the British Commonwealth and the Indian Air Force dropped its "Royal" prefix. At this time, it possessed six fighter squadrons of Spitfires, Vampires and Tempests, operating from Kanpur, Poona, Ambala and Palam, one B-24 bomber squadron, one C-47 Dakota transport squadron, one AOP flight, a communications squadron at Palam and a growing training organisation. Training adhered closely to the pattern established by the RAF, most instructors having graduated from the CFS in the UK and in addition to No.1. Flying Training School at Hyderabad with Tiger Moths and Harvards and No. 2 FTS atJodhpur with Prentices and Harvards, there were IAF colleges at Begumpet, Coimbatore andJodhpur.Licence manufacture of the de Havilland Vampire had been initiated by HAL which, after building a batch from imported major assemblies, went on to manufacture a further 250. In addition, 60 Vampire T Mk. 55s were to be built of which 10 were assembled from imported kits. Nos.2,3 and 8 Squadrons followed No.7 Squadron on the Vampire, but, extraordinarily, 1951 also saw the formation of the last piston-engined fighter combat unit when No. 14 Squadron was raised on the Spitfire Mk. XVIII. Vampire NF Mk. 54 two-seat night fighters were obtained in May 1953 to re-equip No. 10. Sqn at Palam, thus endowing night-intercept capability upon the IAF for the first time. At this time, relations between India and Pakistan were again steadily deteriorating and the IAF, its combat strength virtually unchanged since partition in 1947, was scarcely ready for any full-scale conflict. Plans were accordingly framed for major expansion during the period 1953-57, and the Government began to seek non-traditional and alternative sources of combat aircraft procurement.
Selection of the Dassault Ouragan fighter from France at this time reflected the decision to initiate diversification of supply sources. The first four of over 100 Ouragans, or Toofanis as they were to become known in the IAF, reached Palam from France on 24 October 1953, and this type re-equipped Nos.8, 3 and 4 Squadrons in that order. The Toofanis were eventually to be passed on to newly-raised units Nos. 29 and 47 Squadrons, with the re-equipment in 1957 of Nos. 3 and 8 Squadrons with the Mystere IVA from the same Gallic stable.
Re-equipment of the combat units necessarily assumed an overriding priority in view of the growth of what were seen as threats to India's integrity, but expansion of airlift capability was also vital. A second transport squadron, No. 11, had been formed on C-47 Dakotas in September 1951, and considerable enhancement of the Service's logistic support capacity was heralded by procurement of 26 Fairchild C-119G Packets from the United States which reached India by the end of 1954. Rapidly to assume the status of an airlift backbone, the C- 119Gs were issued to No. 12 Squadron, which, for some years, operated them in concert with the C-47s, the older transports eventually passing to a newly-raised unit, No. 43 Squadron. A second batch of 29 C- 119Gs was obtained in July 1960, and the transport fleet was further augmented by another 24 C-119Gs in May 1963 under US emergency military aid.
Both the establishment of a Maintenance Command and resurrection of the Auxiliary Air Force took place in 1955, two units of
the latter being formed as Nos. 51 and 52 Squadrons at New Delhi and Bombay. A third AAF unit, No. 53 Sqn, was raised at Madras
in the following year, and four more added over the next two years, Nos. 54 (Allahabad), 55 (Calcutta), 56 (Bhubaneshwar) and
57 (Chandigarh) Squadrons. The AAF squadrons were equipped with the HAL-designed HT-2 trainer - officially introduced into service
on 10 January 1955 - and the Harvard, although Vampire FB Mk. 52s were added in 1959.
Expansion and modernisation Particularly significant in IAF was the year 1957, which witnessed true beginnings of the major re-equipment
programme that was to raise the Service fully to world standards. Deliveries began of 110 Dassault Mystere IVAs, carrying the service
into the realms of transonic flight for the first time, and both Hawker Hunters and English Electric Canberras began to enter the
IAF inventory. A new No. 1 Squadron was raised on the Mystere, the existing Vampire-equipped No. 1 Squadron being redesignated as
No. 27 Squadron; No. 5 Squadron re-equipped with the Canberra B(l) Mk. 58, and, at the year's end, No. 7 Squadron began conversion
to the Hunter FMk.56. It was perhaps appropriate that the year which saw commencement of an immense infusion of modern hardware
should also witness the end of the IAF's piston-engined fighter epoch: No. 14 Squadron, the last firstline piston-engined fighter unit, flew in its Spitfire Mk. XVllls to Halwara in preparation for re-equipment with the Vampire.
|North American T-6G Texans (Harvards) of|
No.2 Air Force Academy at Jodhpur
The IAF's energies were now taxed heavily with implementation of an expansion programme aimed at raising the Service from a 15-squadron force to no fewer than 33 squadrons over an extremely short span of years: a Herculean task when performed simultaneously with sweeping equipment changes. Several new squadrons, such as Nos. 15, 17, 20, 24, 27 and 45, were raised on Vampire FB Mk. 52s as interim equipment; Canberra B(l) Mk. 58s had equipped two additional squadrons, Nos. 16 and 35 by 1959, No. 106 Squadron having equipped with Canberra PR Mk. 57s and by the end of the 1961, six squadrons (Nos.7, 14, 17, 20, 27 and 37) were equipped with the Hunter. Growth was not restricted to the combat elements for, in parallel, the IAF's transport force was enlarged to six squadrons, three with C-47s (Nos. 11, 43 and 49), two with C-119Gs (Nos. 12 and 19) and one with DHC-3 Otters (No.41).
The early sixties were accompanied by the IAF's induction of yet more new aircraft types, the most interesting of these arguably being the Folland Gnat lightweight fighter. With its startling agility, the Gnat proffered outstanding cost effectiveness and during the mid-fifties a licence agreement was concluded for its manufacture by HAL following delivery of 23 complete aircraft and 20 sets of components by the parent company. The first IAF unit, No. 23 Squadron, converted from the Vampire FB Mk. 52 to the Gnat in March 1960. No. 2 Squadron re-equipped with the Gnat at Ambala early in 1962, and No.9 Squadron soon followed suit.
Canberras in the Congo
An unusual commitment of the IAF was to support United Nations operations on the Congo (now Zaire) in 1961-62. Following an appeal by the U.N. for both troops and combat aircraft to restore law and order and keep peace, six Canberra B(1) 58s of No.5 Squadron were flown from Agra to Central Africa. Operating from Leopoldville and Kamina, the Canberras soon destroyed the rebel air force, raided Katangan targets and generally provided the U.N. ground forces with its only long-range air support force.
Soviet transports and helicopters
Further procurement source diversification had been signified late in 1960 when, as a result of the increasing frequency of clashes with Chinese forces on the Sino-lndian Himalayan border and the need that these revealed for yet further increase in airlift capability, together with a requirement for medium helicopters suitable for high-altitude operation, orders were placed in the Soviet Union for eight Antonov An- 12B and 24 IL-yushin 11- 14 transport aircraft plus 10 Mi-4 helicopters. The first An-12B arrived in India on 1 March 1961, No. 44 Squadron being formed on this type, the 11-14s that followed equipping another newly-raised squadron, No. 42. A follow-on order for a further eight An-12Bs was placed early in 1962, the IAF finally beginning to build up a really credible heavy airlift capability which was to be immensely enhanced with the arrival of a further 25 An-12Bs under a loan agreement signed in July 1963, a second squadron, No.25, meanwhile being formed on this type.
The Mi-4 helicopter was to have as profound an effect on IAF capability as did the An-12B. Prior to the phase-in on this Soviet type, the Service had but a handful of ageing Sikorsky S-55s, plus a number of small Bell 47Gs, and with the delivery of Mi-4s, major expansion of the IAF rotorcraft inventory began. No.109 Helicopter Unit was formed with the first Mi-4s and following an order for further 16 Mi-4s in early 1962, other helicopter units were formed in North-East India, successive orders in 1963-64 and 1966 eventually bringing the total number of Mi-4s procured to 120.
Conflict with China
The real test of IAF airlift capability came in October 1962, when open warfare erupted on the Sino-lndian border.
During the period 20 October to 20 November, pressure on the Service's transport and helicopter units were intense, troops
and supplies having to be flown to the support of the border posts virtually around the clock and at extreme altitudes.
The helicopters had to constantly run the gauntlet of Chinese small arms and anti-aircraft fire, while operating to.the
tricky helipads in the mountains. Many notable feats were performed by the IAF during this conflict, including the
operation of C-119Gs from airstrips 17,000 ft (5180m) above sea level in the Karakoram Himalayas, and the air-lifting
by An-12Bs of two troops of AMX-13 light tanks to Chushul, in Ladakh, where the small airstrip was 15,000 ft (4570m) above sea level.
The state of emergency declared as a result of the Sino-lndian fighting resulted in disbandment of the Auxillary Air Force and
absorption of its personnel and equipment by the regular IAF. An emergency training scheme was instituted in which the services of
five flying clubs at Madras, Kanpur, New Delhi, Nagpur and Patiala were enlisted, more than 1,000 cadets receiving primary flying
instruction with these clubs by the end of 1964. Furthermore, Vampire FBMk.52s "mothballed" since 1961, were restored to service
as the equipment of newly-raised squadrons.
|One of the IAF's first Mi-4 helicopters evacuating |
tribals from a helipad in the erstwhile
frontier Agency (NEFA) in 1962.
The IAF was expanding rapidly, its personnel strength of 28,000 officers and men at the time of the Sino-lndian conflict
increasing by some two-thirds by the end of 1964, but the manpower requirements of the 33-squadron force had still to be
implemented fully when the scheme was overtaken by even more ambitious expansion to a 45-squadron force which was sanctioned
by the Government in October 1962, this calling for the raising of IAF personnel strength to some 100,000 by the early seventies.
Together with the arrival of successive batches of An- 12Bs from the Soviet Union and a third batch of C- 119Gs from the USA, the IAF began to receive the Canadian DHC-4 Caribou, two being presented to the Service by the Canadian Government as assistance in wake of the Sino-lndian conflict and 16 more being ordered, with deliveries commencing in September 1963, resulting in the establishment of No.33 Squadron.
An epoch-making decision was taken in August 1962 which was to profoundly alter the complexion and strength of the Indian Air Force into the decades ahead. The Government of India signed protocols with the Soviet Union for the very first supply of combat aircraft and missiles for the Indian Air Force. The purchase of 12 MiG-21 fighters from the Soviet Union - the IAF's first combat aircraft of non-western origin - and for Soviet technical assistance in setting up production facilities for the fighter in India was followed by the procurement of SA-2 (Dvina) surface-to-air missiles. Re-equipment and expansion of the IAF was now being pursued in parallel with major changes in the operational infrastructure. Prior to the Sino-lndian conflict, the IAF had been geared to provide defence against attack from the West only, but appreciation of the vulnerability of the entire Northern and Eastern border had called for profound rethinking of the operational infrastructure.
It was now patently apparent that, for a country of the immensity of India, a system of purely functional Commands was impracticable and that, to cater for all potential-threats, operational command would in future, have to be exercised on a regional basis. Thus the Indian periphery was divided into three for purposes of operational control, the Western, Central and Eastern Air Commands eventually emerging. However, in order to maintain uniform standards in training and maintenance, the Training and Maintenance Commands were to remain functional.
War in the Sub continent
Tension between India and Pakistan had steadily escalated over the years, culminating on 1 September 1965 in a massive attack in the Chhamb sector by Pakistani forces. Possessing the initiative in having chosen the time and place to strike and enjoying overwhelming numerical superiority in the sector in both armour and troops, Pakistan posed a grave threat to Indian forces on the ground and so, in response to urgent requests for air strikes against Pakistani armour advancing in the Chhamb-Jaurian sector, Vampire FBMk.52s of No. 45 Squadron, at the time undergoing operational training at a forward base, mounted their first sorties at 1745 hours on the first day of the conflict, and on their heels came the Mysteres of Nos.3 and 31 Squadrons operating from Pathankot. The Pakistani armoured thrust was staggered. IAF Gnats proved their mettle in shooting down PAF Sabres in this sector, the first of aerial victories being notched by Nos. 23 and 9 Squadrons. Rapidly escalating, full scale warfare broke out on 6 September all along the international border between West Pakistan and India.
|Mystere IVA of No. 1 Squadron ("Tigers") being armed with 30 mm cannon rounds
at a forward air base during September 1965.
||Cine gun camera shots showing a PAF Sabre being shot down in combat by an IAF
Gnat in September 1965.|
In the days that followed, IAF Canberras raided the major PAF bases at Sargodha and Chaklala at night, flying 200 counter air and interdiction missions against these and other Pakistani bases, including those at Akwal, Peshawar, Kohat, ChakJhumra and Risalwala. The virtuosity of the Hunters was fully demonstrated, Nos. 7, 20 and 27 Squadrons being employed in counter-air as well as interdiction and close air support missions in the West while Hunters of No. 14 Squadron battled with Sabres of the PAF No. 14 squadron raiding the IAF base at Kalaikunda in the East. The Mysteres were employed primarily in the ground attack role in which they proved extremely effective, with their swaths of 5 5 mm rockets most effective against armoured vehicles. Perhaps the most outstanding operational success was enjoyed by the Gnat, the three squadrons of which provided the air defence mainstay by flying CAPs over most operational IAF bases as well as fulfilling escort missions. Indeed, such was its success particularly against the F-86, that it was to earn the appellation of "Sabre Slayer". The September conflict was the first full-scale war in which the post-independence IAF was involved and the Service learned many lessons as a result. Post mortem examination revealed some requirements, the pace of expansion being slowed while lessons were digested. It was realised that too much emphasis had been placed on quantity at some cost in quality in order to cater for the dictates of the very high tempo IAF expansion embarked upon following the Sino-Indian War. This had necessitated cutting the duration of training courses to maximise personnel output and there was evidence that this could have some adverse effect on operational efficiency.. Emphasis was now reversed in that quality once more took precedence over quanitity and training underwent major reorganization in consequence.
Consolidation and modernisation
There could, of course, be no abatement in equipment modernisation. While the Indo-Pakistan conflict had underlined the vital importance of the state or readiness of the men flying and servicing the aircraft, their training and motivation, the efficacy of their equipment was of equal concern. When the September 1965 hostilities began, the MiG-21 had still to achieve operational status. No. 28 Squadron had been formed on the MiG-21 clear-weather day intercept model but was still very much a trials unit then flying localised CAPs. Early acquisition of MiG-21s of a later and more potent version was considered essential to accelerate re-equipment of squadrons still flying such patently obsolete types as the Vampire FBMk.52. Thus sufficient numbers of the improved MiG-21FL (Type 77 in IAF parlance) were imported in flyaway condition to initiate the programme, and these, together with others imported in CKD form for HAL assembly, were to be sufficient for the re-equipment of nine squadrons during the period 1966-69.
Owing to the success enjoyed by the Gnat during the conflict, plans for its early-1966 phase-out by HAL were halted and production was fully reinstated, to result in a further four Gnat squadrons (Nos 15, 21, 22 and 24) being formed during 1966-68. Delay in availability of the HAL-designed HF-24 Marut for the ground attack fighter mission led, in 1966, to the IAF evaluating and the Government purchasing the Sukhoi Su-7BM, deliveries of which from the Soviet Union were to commence in March 1968, with No.26 Squadron being the first of a half-dozen squadrons that were to operate the type. Within three years of the Indo-Pakistan conflict, the IAF, which had achieved equal status with the Army on 15 January 1966, possessed in excess of 70,000 personnel and was nearing its 45-squadron goal. Its composition in the autumn of 1968 included 23 fighter category squadrons, three tactical bomber squadrons, a maritime patrol squadron (with ex-Air India L. 1049G Super Constellations), 11 transport squadrons, four AOP squadrons, a number of helicopter units and a few SAM squadrons.
Numerically predominating in the fighter inventory was the Gnat, equipping eight squadrons; six squadrons were equipped with the Hunter, a further four on the MiG-21FL and two on the Mystere IVA. Two squadrons fulfilled the photo-recce fighter role with adapted Vampire T Mk. 55s and one squadron was operating the HF-24 Marut. The bombing element comprised three squadrons equipped with the Canberra; the maritime reconnaissance unit, No. 6 Sqn, had finally relinquished its Liberators late in 1967, and was operating adapted L- 1049G Super Constellations. The airlift component consisted of two squadrons with An- 12Bs, three with C- 119Gs, three with C-47s, two with Otters and one each with 11-14s and Caribous while one squadron was in process of converting from the C-47 to the HS. 748. The AOP squadrons operated a mix of Auster AOP-9s and HAL-designed HAOP-27 Krishaks, and the Helicopter Units, which were not formed into separate squadrons, were equipped with the Mi-4 and the Alouette 111 (Chetak). As the sixties translated to the seventies, the IAF consolidated its expansion plans, attaining its 45-squadron goal. Obsolescent equipment was steadily withdrawn to be succeeded by increasing numbers of HF-24s, MiG-21FLs and SU-7BMs and in March 1971, planning began on the creation of an extensive Air Defence Ground Environment System (ADGES), the emphasis initially being placed on strengthening surveillance of the Sino-lndian border. Flying training was rationalised and expanded and, inJanuary 1971, the Air Force Academy at Dundigal (near Hyderabad) was inaugurated.
The War of December 1971
The professional standards, capability and flexibility of the much expanded Service were soon to be put to the acid test. From early 1971, as the political situation on the sub-continent deteriorated, the IAF was alerted to the possibility of another armed conflict. For some weeks in November, both Indian and Pakistan governments protested violations of national airspace along the western border, but aerial conflict between the respective air arms began in earnest on 22 November, preceding full-scale warfare between India and Pakistan by 12 days. At 1449 hours, four Pakistani Sabres strafed Indian and Mukti Bahini positions in the Chowgacha Mor area, and 10 minutes later, while engaged on a third strafing run, the Sabres were intercepted by four Gnats from No. 22 Sqn, a detachment of which was operating from Dum Dum Airport, Calcutta. During the ensuing melee, three of the Sabres were shot down, all Gnats returning to base unscathed. The first blood of a new Indo-Pakistan air war had been drawn. Other encounters were to follow over the next 10 days, within both Indian and Pakistani airspace, before full-scale war began on 3 December. Pre-emptive strikes were launched by the Pakistan Air Force against IAF bases at Srinagar, Amritsar and Pathankot, followed by attacks on Ambala, Agra, Jodhpur, Uttarlai, Avantipur, Faridkot, Halwara and Sirsa. Apart from IAF bases, the PAF attacked railway stations, Indian armour concentrations and other targets. In response and during the ensuing two weeks, the IAF carried out some 4,000 sorties in the West from major and forward bases in Jammu, Kashmir, Punjab and Rajasthan, while, in the East, a further 1,978 sorties were flown.
PAF hangar at Dacca airfield after
attack by the IAF, Dec 71
The IAF strikes the enemy's rail communication
in West Pakistan, Dec 71
Throughout the conflict, in which Indian strategy was to maintain basically defensive postures on the western and northern fronts whilst placing emphasis on a lightning campaign in the east, the IAF established a highly credible serviceability rate which exceeded 80 per cent. Mission emphasis throughout was on interdiction. In the West the IAF's primary tasks were disruption of enemy communications, the destruction of fuel and ammunition reserves, and the prevention of any ground force concentrations so that no major offensive could be mounted against India while Indian forces were primarily engaged in the East. On the Eastern front, the Indian forces launched a sophisticated campaign which included rapid-moving infantry and armour advancing from three directions, airborne and heliborne assaults, missile bombardments from ships and an amphibious landing, the IAF's task being primarily direct support of the ground forces. In a classic air action in the Western desert, four Hunters of the OCU, detachment at Jaisalmer destroyed an entire armoured regiment at Longewala, literally stopping the enemy offensive in its tracks.
The IAF had good reason for satisfaction with its showing during the December 1971 conflict. Although Pakistan had initiated the war with pre-emptive air strikes against major forward air bases, the IAF rapidly gained the initiative and had thereafter dominated the skies over both fronts. Admittedly, there had to be war losses but the IAF flew many more sorties than its opponent with interdiction missions predominating, and the bulk of the Service's attrition was the result of intensive anti-aircraft fire; in aerial combat, the IAF proved its superiority in no uncertain manner. First round had gone to the Gnats, again, but its later compatriots, the MiG-21s, were to shortly demonstrate the superiority of this supersonic fighter, flown by professionals. Six squadrons of MiG-21FLs were part of the IAF's order-of battle, participating in operations both in the Eastern and Western Sectors. Three MiG-21 squadrons, operating from Gauhati and Tezpur,took part in counter-air, escort and close air support tasks during the blitzkrieg action in Bangladesh. That the MiG-21 was highly effective in short range, precision attacks was amply demonstrated during the attacks with 500 kg bombs on the PAF's air bases at Tezgaon and Kurmitola, while pin point 57 mm rocket attacks were carried out against key command centres in the capital Dacca itself.
It was in the Western theatre that the MiG-21 was employed in its primary task, that of air defence, escort and interception. Deployed at all the major air bases, from Pathankot in the north to Jamnagar in the South Western area, the MiG-21FLs mounted hundreds of combat air patrol sorties over Vital Points (VP) and Vital Areas (VA), flew escort missions for bombers and strike fighters and were continuously scrambled to intercept hostile intruders. The MiG-21 finally met its original adversary, the F- 104 Starfighter, in air combat over the Subcontinent during the December 1971 conflict and in all four recorded cases of classic dog fights, the MiG-21s outclassed and out fought the F- 104s. The first aerial victory was on 12 December 1971, when MiG-21FLs of No. 47 Squadron shot down a PAF F-104 over the Gulf of Kutch and this was followed by three more victories in quick succession on 17 December, when MiG-21FLs of No. 29 Squadron escorting HF-24 Maruts, shot down intercepting F-104s near Uttarlai in the Rajsthan desert in gun-missile encounters, while a third F-104, on an intruding mission, was shot down by another MiG 21FL of No.29 Squadron.
Mig 21 pair
The December 1971 war also meant the gaining of India's highest award for gallantry to the IAF. Flying Officer Nirmal Jit Singh Sekhon, flying Gnats with No. 18 Squadron from Srinagar, was posthumously awarded the Param Vir Chakra. Notwithstanding the successful campaign of December 1971 which created both history and geography, the Indian Air Force had lessons to draw from subsequent analyses of the conflict, although for the most part, these lessons dictated refinement rather than any fundamental change.
A mature and modern force
Aircraft Systems Testing Establishment (ASTE) the Tactics & Air Combat Development Establishment, (TACDE), the 'College of Air Combat' and other specialist establiments continued to mature. Work on the ADGES was resumed in 1974-75 and plans for the qualitative upgrading of the entire Air Force were continually refined. The IAF handed over its Super Constellations to the Navy in 1975. The early seventies saw force levels being consolidated, and training in new weapons-systems and evolution of new tactics being honed.
By the mid '70s, the IAF was clearly in need of urgent re-equipment decisions and various requirements, better known by their acronyms DPSA, TASA, METAC and HETAC, were pursued and decisions were forthcoming at last. The period, the IAF was to benefit from a crest in the eighties, the period 1978-88 witnessing a major modernisation programme which replaced most of the earlier generation and obsolete equipment with spanking new aircraft types and weapon systems. No less than twenty new aircraft types and sub-types entered the IAF's service over these years, including various strike fighters, third-generation supersonic interceptors, tri-sonic reconnaissance aircraft, strategic heavy lift transports, medium tactical transports, light transport aircraft, heavy lift and medium-assault helicopters, basic trainers, surface-to-air missiles and an array of sophisticated weaponry propelling the IAF, or Bharatiya Vayu Sena, into one of the world's better equipped air arms.
First off the mark was selection of the Jaguar strike fighter, to meet the IAF's urgent Deep Penetration Strike Aircraft (DPSA) requirement, to replace the Canberra and Hunter still soldiering on in this exacting role. After many years of evaluation and negotiation, the Anglo-French fighter was contracted for, an interim batch of ex-RAF Jaguars being accepted to re-equip No. 14 Squadron. IAF pilots and technicians received conversion training with the RAF and British Aerospace in Lossiemouth, Coltishall and Warton before ferrying the first Jaguars to India in July 1979. These were followed by a batch of U.K. built Jaguars to re-equip No. 5 Squadron even as simultaneously, HAL prepared for production of the aircraft, its powerplants, avionics and accessories in India. By the mid-80s, the Jaguar was in service with Nos. 5, 14, 16 and 27 Squadrons while a flight of No.6 Squadron was equipped with the Maritime Jaguar carrying the new generation Sea Eagle anti-ship sea-skimming missile. The Jaguar strike fighter was equipped also with Magic air-to-air missiles on unique overwing pylons, featured advanced nay-attack systems and able to carry formidable warload till the far ends of the sub-continent.
Meanwhile, in 1976, the "third generation" MiG-21bis, considered the definitive variant of the classic tailed-delta fighter design, was to follow-on the "M" sub-type, as a multi-role air superiority/ground attack version. The MiG-21bis assumed the prime air defence mantle and sufficient numbers were acquired in 1976-77 to equip three squadrons (Nos. 15, 21 and 23) formerly operating the Gnat light fighter. With some 580 MiG-21s delivered by HAL and nearly 250 MiG-21s (including the two-seat operational trainers) imported as "fly aways", the type remained an immense asset for the Indian Air Force for over a quarter century. The quantity vs. quality dilemma inevitably faced by most of the world's air forces as a consequence of spiralling costs was mitigated for the IAF by the large scale availability of the MiG-21, which type will surely go down as one of aviation history's all-time classics.
The next requirement to be met was for a Tactical Air Strike Aircraft (TASA). With the various development programmes to enhance the operational performance of the HF-24 Marut by HAL abandoned for one reason or the other, the Government of India concluded an agreement with the Soviet Union for the MiG-23 variable-sweep fighter. Four squadrons, then flying the HF-24 and Sukhoi Su-7 were re-equipped with the MiG-23BN and induction into IAF service of this swing-wing fighter. Nos. 10 and 220 Squadrons were shortly operational on the new type and Nos. 31 and 221 followed to add a considerable measure of potency to the offensive air support formations of the IAF. The dedicated strike derivative, selected for licence production by HAL, was the MiG-27M which shared the overall configuration of the BN but was optimised for low-level, high-speed performance. The last Sukhoi Su-7 Squadron (No.222) became the first MiG-27M unit and the Ajeet light fighter squadrons were gradually re-equipped with the MiG-27ML, No.9 being followed by Nos.18,22 and lately, No.2.
Induction of the new generation F-16 fighter by the PAF in 1981-82 was a "dejavu" type situation for India and in order to counter such a challenge, the Government contracted for the MiG-23MF air superiority version of the swing-wing fighter, equipped with beyond-visual range missiles, and two new squadrons (Nos. 223 and 224) were formed on the type in 1982. However, these were considered only an interim solution and, in the absence of suitable, known, Soviet equivalents, India turned to Western sources for an advanced technology interceptor. In 1982, a contract was finalised with France for the Mirage 2000 delta-wing, fly-by-wire fighter, with high agility and a formidable radar/missile combination. IAF pilots and technicians had converted to the Mirage 2000 at Mont de Marsan and ferried the fighters from France in the summer of 1985. Two squadrons (Nos. 1 and 7) were re-equipped with the new French fighter in 1985-86 and the Indian Air Force employed this multi-role advanced technology fighter to good effect in a number of actions within the next few years.
Not too long afterwards, the Indian Air Force was, to be pleasantly surprised when its test pilots were invited to evaluate the Soviet Union's latest, still-under-wraps, air superiority fighter, vaguely known to the public as the Fulcrum. Officially designated the MiG-29, the IAF team was obviously delighted by the new generation fighter's performance and handling qualities, described as "truly outstanding". Two years were to pass, however, before the Governments of India and the Soviet Union formalised an agreement for supply of the MiG-29, integrated with contemporary pulse doppler radar and new weapon systems.