When the IAF Altered The Course of South Asia’s History One Afternoon, 48 Years Ago
Almost five decades since the Indo-Pakistan war, in the wee hours of Tuesday, 12 Indian Force Mirage-2000 jets crossed the Line of Control (LoC) and destroyed terror camps of Pakistan-based Jaish-e-Mohammed in Balakot.
An air strike in East Pakistan during the 1971 (Image : Indian Defence Review)
At 2:49 pm, November 22, four Pakistani sabres attacked Indian and Mukti Bahini positions at Chowgacha Mor in modern day Bangladesh. This preceded the full-scale warfare between India and Pakistan by 12 days and marked an Indo-Pakistan air war, where the Indian Air Force proved tactically crucial.
Ten minutes after the Pakistani sabres attacked, they were intercepted by four Indian Air Force Gnats – a detachment that had been operating from Dum Dum Airport in Kolkata. The ensuing melee saw the three Sabres being shot down, says the Indian Air Force. This marked the first blood in the Indo-Pakistan air war, before full scale conflict would start on December 3.
“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,” said an IAF official, adding that during the next two weeks 4000-odd sorties in the West from major forward bases in Jammu, Kashmir, Punjab and Rajasthan were carried out, alongside a total 1,978 sorties flown along the eastern border.
Air Vice Marshal Kapil Kak (Retd) a former Additional Director of Centre for Air Power Studies in New Delhi, wrote in 2012 that this was that “rare moment in India’s history when it took the military initiative and achieved success” and described the Indian Air Force’s role as an “early clincher (for) achieving air dominance through mastery of the skies over East Pakistan in just two days.”
This, Kak argued, “created the much-desired operational space for the five-division strong land force to advance from three directions, bypassing Pakistani fortifications, heading for ferries, crossings and bridges in the rear to secure choke points, unhindered by the Pakistan Air Force.”
The IAF was primarily looking to disrupt enemy communications in the western border, through the destruction of fuel and ammunition reserves, while seeking to prevent any ground force concentrations to ensure that a major offensive couldn’t be mounted against India.
In the eastern front, the Indian Air Force was looking to launch a campaign, “involving 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,” said an official.
Throughout, the air dominance proved crucial. “Air dominance ensured enforcement of a naval blockade and a successful amphibious assault at Cox’s Bazaar. Paradropping the battalion-group at Tangail effectively altered the military arithmetic,” added Kak.
Sylhet was captured through a heliborne operation, with local support from the Mukti Bahini while 12 small Mi4 helicopters ferried a brigade strong forces across the 2-km wide Meghna river, he added.
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