Note: This article is based on various reports and interviews by military historians and veterans on Indo-China war, sources are available on the internet.
The Indo-China war of 1962 went down in the pages of history as a failure of our defence preparedness. The war which broke out in October 1962 in the areas of NEFA (Arunachal Pradesh) and Ladakh, saw the Indian side overpowered by the Chinese. The war saw our army to be outnumbered by the ratio of 3:1 (for one Indian soldier there were three Chinese soldiers), it clearly shows the Chinese preparedness for the war. Although there was many reasons of India’s defeat in the war, but most of the military veterans and historians considered that not using of IAF during the war was one of the major mistakes done by India.
Though IAF had performed a major role during the Indo-China war, but its role was limited to non-combat elements like providing logistical support to army, providing them rations etc. Today in this article we will dig into the reasons due to which the IAF was not used as a combat elements during the war. So, let’s start…
First let us discuss, why using of Air Force could had been decisive in 1962..
The Himalayan Mountains And The Tibetan Plateau
The Himalayan mountains, act as a natural boundary between India and China from centuries. It has a long history in protecting Indian territory from any external aggression like right from Mangol invasion to cold winds from Serbia, the Himalayan mountains have always stood firm on its ground.
Chinese had militarily occupied Tibet in 1959 and they lack in infrastructure there. Non-availability of proper air bases and air strips was one of their major weakness. Launching an air strike from height of 15,000 feet’s without availability of proper infrastructure combined with the Himalayan boundary protecting India, using of air force was not a good option for China.
Whereas India had proper infrastructure to launch any offensive air operations towards China. We had proper operational air bases in forward areas like Guwahati, Tezpur, and Daulat Beg Oldie (DBO). We were in better position in terms of infrastructure and forward air bases. Tactically, Indian side had better advantage in using of its Air Force for any offensive operations.
Indian Air Force Superiority
The Chinese air force in 1962 mainly had squadrons of Soviet-built Mig-15, Mig-17, few Mig-19 and some IL-28 bombers. The combat-range of these aircrafts were 800-850 kilometers. Low-combat range of aircrafts and non-availability of proper air infrastructure near the border areas, was not a favorable option for them to use their air power. The mountainous terrain of Tibet, also reduces the payload carrying capacity of the aircrafts limiting warhead carrying capacity of aircrafts.
Also the era of 1960’s was a period of uncertainty for China, the Chinese air force had deployed their aircrafts over Korean borders as they were facing a tough stance from Americans and their allies. Their aggression with Taiwan during 1960’s around Taiwan strait, they were on the brink of war with Taiwan (supported by America). Thus, most of their aircrafts were engaged in these two fronts i.e. at Korean borders and Taiwan Strait.
Whereas, India in 1962 had 22 combat squadrons, 500+ aircrafts. Indian squadrons had Hunter fighter-aircrafts and Canberra bombers. The Canberras in 1960’s was one of the best bombers available that time. Its ability to carry operations in high altitude with huge payload carrying capacity makes it best in the world during that time. It was also the first aircraft to cover transatlantic journey. IAF had also French-built, Dassault Mystere and Dassault Ouragon (known as Toofani in IAF) fighter-bomber in service that time. The diversification of aircrafts of Indian Air Force was very crucial as China had only Soviet built aircrafts, its ability could had been anticipated by India, but IAF diversification of aircrafts would had made harder for China to anticipate its technology.
Also, India had forward air-bases in border areas and its all aircraft were available to use in combat unlike China. Using of IAF air power in 1962, could had cut-off the supply lines and logistical arrangements of China and had easily destroyed their border establishment also it would had neutralized their military success, which would had been a decisive factor during the Indo-China war.
Now let’s discuss the reasons due to which the IAF had not participated during 1962 war…..
Reasons Of Not Participation Of IAF
Lack of Government’s Will
The Indian government had formalised the concept of “Hindi-Chini bhai-bhai”, lesser known with the fact that the Chinese had some evil intension. Chinese aggressive policy led to forcefully occupation of Tibet and they didn’t face any backlash from Indian government which had increased their morale in doing wrong with India.
During initial built-up for war by Chinese, Indian government firstly was not acknowledging that the Chinese are doing so and then even during the war the government had not responded to the Chinese aggression to its fullest.
And same course of things happened during the Indo-China war , the government was not ready to use Indian Air Force in combat role because the government had a notion that using of IAF would lead to war in new domain and could also result in bombing of Indian cities like Guwahati, Kolkata etc. by the Chinese Air Force. But a known fact is that “Smart nations prosecute war to achieve set goals and prepare for the eventuality of any kind of escalations”.
The government was reluctant to take use of Indian Air Force since starting of the war, it can be understood by the fact that the government had formed a “China-Council” in September 1962 with aim to evaluate threat and formulate the strategy and tactics to counter China, the Council include political leaders, bureaucrats and military leaders but didn’t include then Chief of Air Staff (CAS), as government thought IAF role will be of no use in the war.
And another fact was that, the government didn’t even consult the IAF in formulating war strategies and didn’t have faith on their capabilities and during the later stage of war, the Indian government even written a letter to then US President John F Kennedy for support of US Air Force during the war.
The winning factor in any war is directly linked to the intelligence inputs received by defence forces, it led them to undertake proactive military actions on enemies line of defence, defence establishment and their deployments. Those intelligence inputs are received by intelligence agency of a country.
Till 1968, India had only one intelligence agency i.e. Intelligence Bureau or IB. IB role was to provide both internal intelligence inputs and foreign intelligence inputs, due to large working domain its ability to gather foreign inputs was not up to the mark of India’s need. Its intelligence failure had led defence forces to make inefficient and ineffective plan against our adversary.
During 1962 war IB, which lacks in proper inputs, overestimated the capability of Chinese air force and its air defence systems and concluded that Chinese bombers will bomb Indian cities like Guwahati, Kolkata etc. in response to IAF’s combat use. IB assumed that Chinese have proper air infrastructure in Tibet and can easily counter IAF’s response.
But during later stages of the Indo-China war, the IAF flew many reconnaissance missions in forward areas of NEFA (Arunachal Pradesh) and Ladakh and some of its sorties were even 300 feet above Chinese concentrations and no damage was inflicted to IAF aircrafts, which proved Chinese anti-aircraft systems to be only a hype, showing poor level of Chinese capabilities. And also Chinese operational air infrastructure in Tibet was also a hype.
In final analysis we can conclude that, use of combat air power would have turn the tables on China and the Indo-China war could well had been a debacle for China. Because IAF could carry far more bomb load than the Chinese air force over targets in battlefield. could had easily attacked the city of Lhasa, Kunming and Chengdu and other cities of China, by using its forward air bases. Had more modern and more capable aircraft compared to Chinese.
IAF infrastructure, though not optimum, was far better than the Chinese air force. IAF could have attacked the Chinese airfields and rendered them totally unusable. Thus winning the command of air over contested area.
The Chinese air force was deployed in east China to counter major threat from Taiwan and USAF in Japan and Korea, Philippines etc..
Chinese were inside Indian territories and were getting continuous arms, ammunition and logistical supplies across the Indian borders, IAF could have easily cut off their supply lines, giving opportunity to land forces to move forward and neutralize their attack.