Every year, September 6 is celebrated as the Air Force day. On this day in 1965, the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) faced its first ever stern test of capability and resilience against a committed offensive of the Indian air Force, and came out successful in thwarting enemy attempts to dominate the war. The script for the remaining days of the war was written on this day and thereafter enacted with exactly similar results – the PAF coming out on top defending well against the Indian Air Force (IAF).
That was the essence of the 1965 war – it was fought as a defensive war by both the air forces of both countries. They did not possess enough capability for a meaningful offensive. Hence, the engagements, howsoever offensively executed — as they should have been — contributed to the effort.
There has been good work in recent years on both sides of the border in analysing and deducing results for each engagement and for each claim of a kill. Myths have been demystified and substance given to fables. This work has mostly been voluntary and must be acknowledged for the assiduous interest of the gentlemen involved on both sides. The detail has helped reconstruct events that normally become fuzzy in a rapidly changing combat scenario making exact enactment difficult. The mere fact that each engagement takes place under a life-and-death eventuality makes it humanly impossible to put into sequence hundreds of minor most movements of the engaged elements. Sometimes, as many as 20 to 25 aircraft in a congested airspace vie to kill the other only to be challenged soon after with another totally new situation.
In terms of strategy though, it was still a defensive war on both sides. Their weapon systems, the best being the Hunter for the IAF and the Sabre for the PAF, were typically, the evolutionary and modernised mutation of the Second World War (WW II) fighters which still centred on close-in dog fights and used the machine gun to down an adversary. The WW II had ended 20 years back and had been followed by the Korean War. The control of air, of which the air superiority is a shade of definition, has remained a key of air warfare for decades, but its applicability has needed to be refined if nothing else for the amount of effort required to garner a semblance of superiority.
Offence was a specialised task and needed specialised equipment; both sides boasted of some post WW II bombers, but for their immense vulnerability to opposing fighters would mostly be employed at night. That, in turn, induced serious errors in accuracy.
Offensive missions in the 1965 war essentially revolved around an airfield attack – an offensive action directly feeding to the objective of air superiority. With its two main missions then, air superiority and tactical support to the army, the PAF and IAF were relegated to being tactical air forces. Their only sense of independent employment was restricted to the flair and independence in their application against each other in the air. Original thought, other than pertaining to air combat, offensive action or its mutation as initiative in employment leading the adversary in the decision loop were still far into the future. In 1971 war, other than the fact that the equipment changed, the essence still remained the same; the two air forces vied for effectiveness as tactical air forces only.
In the rest of the world, the doctrinal debates still revolved around the aspect of control of the air. More specifically, after the Vietnam War, a debate ensued whether or not depending only on a missile was sufficient or was a machine-gun needed as well. The other contributing connotation to the debate were the less-than-satisfactory air combat skills among the American pilots since they were now required to engage from a distance with a missile obviating close combat. This debate saw the introduction of the F-16 in 1976 as the most revolutionary design with unmatched agility, where the platform had the capacity to perform beyond what was understood to be the human threshold. Technology multiplied in quick time to use the capacity enabled by these fourth-generation aircraft.
Thematic campaign designs were replaced with parallel application possibilities; it became possible to engage in numerous missions on a parallel track, and innovation and employment of assets became the order of the day. The way the war had been fought till then changed remarkably. There had to be a new way of fighting air wars and employing the air force. Employment of assets evolved into an employment of force. Those who missed the point were relegated to the bins of irrelevance and hopelessly lagged behind in this new game of combat. Operational intellect became the lynchpin of commanding, controlling and employing forces. Those who didn’t possess the intellectual capacity to comprehend the change stood embarrassingly exposed. They were practically archaic in thought.
The change took its time coming into the PAF. There were certain mutations that would enhance the manner of targeting, but with little diversity and innovation, and still very much within the confines of a tactical support role. Defence and war colleges were heavily skewed in favour of land warfare strategy as the dominant strategy, and most air force participants studiously kept following the tradition. John Warden, 20th century strategist in air warfare, had already designed new thoughts on employment and had practically fought the First Gulf War (1991) under such a doctrine. In the PAF, though, it was in 1998 that the then Air Chief ACM Pervaiz Mehdi began talking about breaking the bind of tactical support role and proffered thought and the ability to use air power in diverse application concurrently to contribute to the national war effort.
This had more to do with using air power as an offensive tool. Offence as the most natural attribute and the enabling option of modern air power needed to find place and expression in doctrines crying for change. The first practical manifestation of the need for this change emerged during the time of ACM Mushaf Ali Mir, who invigorated the offensive spirit in campaign planning which saw minds working overtime in the PAF to introduce employment diversity.
The point that the PAF really began to change to a 21st century air force was, however, during the tenure of ACM Kaleem Saadat. Not only was there doctrinal evolution, the air force was designed and equipped to the needs of the new century as indeed the dictates of future conflict and modern warfare. Practical application of force employment was tested and tried as per revised doctrinal dictates in major exercises. Thankfully, development programmes have continued unabated since then.
The 1965 war may have been a simple affair compared to modern wars, but its combatants were endowed with three great attributes: outstanding skill, a commitment to excellence, and a remarkable sense of self-confidence and self-assurance. Perhaps, it shall have to be in these areas that we will need to restore the great steadied but assuring sense of confidence amongst our personnel. This shall only be possible if they continue to retain faith in the PAF as a system. Professionalism, merit and integrity are the key parameters of enabling and restoring such faith, while nepotism, cronyism and favouritism eat at the core of the great ethos that has been the preserve of this great air force.
Competent leadership shall always remain the key to having a great air force. Personal examples in all essential attributes will need to be put in place including integrity and honesty in decision making. Incompetence breeds insecurity; and insecurity desperately seeks reassurance. That is where the devastating ills of cronyism and nepotism begin to find root. PAF — then and now Monday, September 07, 2009. Shahzad Chaudhry. The writer is a retired air vice marshal. Email: email@example.com