New Delhi: The 1962 Sino-Indian war is remembered by most Indians as one of the darkest moments in India’s history. Relations between India and China had begun to deteriorate in late 1950s after a series of confidence-building measures including the signing of the Panchsheel Agreement and India’s gesture of recognising Tibet as part of the People’s Republic of China (PRC).
Exile of the Dalai Lama to India triggered a series of mishaps between the two nation states that culminated in the 1962 War in which the Indian side was ‘belittled’ by the Chinese might (at least on paper). The debate as to whether to call it China’s India war or India’s China war is just one of the several puzzles that require greater understanding for a satisfactory explanation.
The non-use of combat air power continues to be a subject of curiosity for the academics and the practitioners alike. The question of whether the outcome of the war would have been any different and tilted more in favour of India if it was used cannot be answered agreeably either.
Perceptions and Misperceptions
The mistakes committed by the then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and his coterie of advisers are well-documented. First, they underestimated the ability of China to launch a major offensive. Second, they over-rated the capacity of the Indian Army to handle the situation. The Indian establishment’s over-estimation of China’s air power capabilities was boosted by the American Ambassador to India who was also quite apprehensive about India’s lack of proper and effective air defence structure.
Any escalatory act had to be prevented and the use of the Indian Air Force (IAF) in the eastern sector (North Eastern Frontier Agency/Arunachal Pradesh) was regarded as one such act. This resulted in a fundamentally flawed strategy that left the Indian Army vulnerable to the onslaught of the Chinese Army.
On the contrary, the US White House Intelligence reports blatantly reveal the inadequacies of the Indian Army due to its inherent weakness in the area of logistics, thus predicting an Indian loss if only the Army was used in the war. Interestingly, Nehru is also believed to have not taken the Air Force into account while preparing the nation for a full-fledged war. In short, both the political and the military establishments fell short of exploring alternatives in case the situation went out of hand.
Once the Chinese struck, the Indian side was wary of using combat air power based on the inference that China had over 2,600 combat aircraft. However, experts have remained divided on the capabilities of China at that point of time as according to some, China would have found it difficult to operate from airfields in Tibet due to limitations of payload and fuel supplies as these airfields are located at high latitudes (average of 10,000 feet).
The anxiety over likely Chinese bombing of Indian cities had persisted ever since the so-called ‘city-busting’ carried out on India’s eastern coast by the Japanese during the Second World War in which cities like Chennai and Calcutta were hit.
J. N. Dixit’s account discloses several gaps in the Indian decision-making system. Recommendations put forth by various experts that India should consider air strikes against the Chinese forces all along the Indo-Tibetan border as the Chinese logistical arrangements and supply lines were too stretched in Tibet were thwarted by the establishment on the grounds that they were not military experts. They argued vehemently for the use of combat air power as there was probability of very little damage.
At a time when India clearly had an edge over China in terms of air power, it was pure ineptitude and naivety that had caused such a major military blunder that cost the lives of thousands of soldiers.
Military Planning in Disarray
Another downside that has been brought to light to some extent is the lack of coordination between the Indian Army and the Indian Air Force. Non-existence of army organisation for close air support and fear of disruption of air drop campaign also played a crucial role in forcing the top brass to refrain from using combat air power. The potential of interdiction was undermined and the only mission that the Army was interested in according to some reports, that is close air support was not recommended by the IAF.
It believed purportedly that close air support would not be useful in the high Himalayas. Some other reports suggest that the Army was absolutely against the idea of use of air power, not even in terms of close air support. Very clearly, there was a lack of will to obstruct the Chinese advance. The Army was accused of fighting the war without a plan and the Air Force was not kept in the loop of decision-making for putting up a strong defence against a Chinese attack.
Some records disclose that while the Indian establishment remained sceptical about the potential of the IAF till the end of the war, it showed no reluctance in requesting the then US President John F. Kennedy for F-104 Star Fighters and B-47 Bombers. Air Commodore Jasjit Singh (Retd) categorically states that the IAF was ready to take on the combat role.
In fact, the IAF was fairly confident after undertaking photographic reconnaissance missions through Canberras during the conflict period in Aksai Chin, Tawang, Se la and Walong. No damage was inflicted by the Chinese on them. The then Chief of General Staff, B. M. Kaul was also lambasted for his disinclination to consult the IAF or use combat air power when the chips were down. In addition, V. K. Krishna Menon was ‘lynched’ by the whole country for mishandling the war so poorly and for destroying the higher defence machinery of the country.
His inability to even coordinate meetings of the Chiefs of Staff Committee before or during the war will go down in the history of Indian military planning as one of the biggest lows. Shockingly, the ad hoc “China Council” formed by the Prime Minister in 1962 to assess the threat posed by China, to formulate a strategy to tackle this threat and come up with credible tactics to implement this strategy did not include the Chief of Air Staff.
The Forgotten Heroics of the Indian Air Force
‘Logistics requirements’ is one area in which the Air Force has always played the leading role, whether it is in the northern sector or the eastern sector. It is an acknowledged fact that dependence of the Army on air supply for deployment and maintenance was extremely high as the road communications were dismal.
The Border Roads Organisation was established in 1959 and it was only after that road building in the Himalayas had begun. Therefore, most of the requirements of the ground forces stationed along the border had to be met by the Air Force.
In fact, the Army was in need of nearly 44,000 tons by the end of 1962 while the actual total capacity was only 21,600 tons. An incident that talks volumes about the efforts of the Indian Air Force is the one in which three AMX light tanks were airlifted from Chandigarh to Chushul airfield (that came under attack by the Chinese Army) even though the weight far exceeded the permissible levels and this timely action saved Chushul.
Despite shortages of aircraft and aerial delivery equipment, the IAF lived up to the expectations. The role played by the transport force and the small band of helicopters has often been ignored by historians. The use of air power was directed at undertaking air maintenance and the surge in demand was nearly three to five times the usual amount.
At the same time, there have also been reports that allege that 80 per cent of the drop could not be retrieved owing to various loopholes in the system including inadequate dropping zones and dropping equipment as well as the lack of understanding required to distinguish between different dropped items and even porters to transport the dropped air load to the Army posts.
One another reason why the IAF could not be used in offensive action in the east was vulnerable runways that exist in the region. There have been instances in which the runways have even sunk and the deployment of combat aircraft (at least six Squadrons would have been required) would have been difficult.
The Future Seen as a Continuum of the Past
The final nail in the coffin was indeed China’s declaration of a ceasefire unilaterally and even withdrawal from the territory that they invaded and continue to claim to this day. This was unacceptable to Nehru. This essentially implies that if the two countries go to war again in the future, it will be a fresh war for the ‘territory’.
The 1962 War did great degree of damage to the Indian psyche, especially that of the military and the polity. It would be an exaggeration to state that there will be another war between the two emerging nations. However, to rule out such a possibility completely can lead India to the same situation in which it was caught sixty years ago when the Chinese advanced into the Indian Territory inadvertently.
And in the future wars, use of air power is imminent. China is increasingly showing its assertiveness in the global arena and has managed to surpass India by miles in a majority of spheres; plus China has particularly shown its assertiveness in relation to India evidenced by various instances including provision of stapled visas to applicants from Jammu and Kashmir and opposition to Indian oil and gas exploration activities in the South China Sea. It has indicated time and again its desire to become a global superpower.
Any power that is on its way to claim superiority over the rest is bound to face stumbling blocks. This holds true especially in the case of China that faces immense challenges socially, economically, politically and environmentally. The easiest way that nation states resort to in order to negate those vulnerabilities is to use force and India being a longstanding, credible enemy in the neighbouring region could be one of the first targets.
Unfortunately, the IAF combat force level has reduced by nearly 25 per cent since 1962 and this could prove to be disastrous considering the fact that the military capabilities of China have increased multi-fold and matching that is expected to be extremely demanding. “Command of the air” has been emphasised by the Chinese as one of the most important requirements for winning wars and this is exactly what India too has to emulate.
(The author is a Research Associate with the Centre for Air Power Studies.)