A critical look at the 1965 operations

Air Chief Marshal P C Lal at the National Security Lecture 1973 at the USI.


Early in 1965, Pakistan attacked us in Kutch, in Western India. The attack caught the armed forces unawares. The Army took the field without any prior planning or preparation. Its reaction was fast but there was no joint Army-Air Force plan, and all that the Air Force could do was to provide logistic support with light aircraft. The possibility of tactical support was considered after the fighting began. It was then realised that our bases were so far from the battle zone that our aircraft would have to operate at extreme range with reduced weapon loads while Pakistani aircraft could dominate the entire combat area from bases close by. Given time, we could also have improvised an airfield or two In or near Kutch, but the fighting ended before that. The incident was soon defused but, apparently, not before It had encouraged Pakistan in the belief that the time had come to settle the Kashmir dispute by force of arms.

Then In August and September 1965 came the second Kashmir War. It began with skirmishes in the valley by so-called freedom fighters, in reality agents of Pakistan. These were followed, towards the end of August, by an all-out attack by Pakistani armour in the Chamb area of Jammu province, with the obvious objective of cutting the Jammu-Srinagar highway. Our Army, working under the restrictions of the Cease Fire agreement, was lightly equipped in that sector and though it fought valiantly, its AMX tanks were no match for the more .powerful Pakistani Pattons. While there was some hope of the Army holding the Pakistani.attack on its own, there was no talk of bringing the Air Force Into the conflict. But on 1st September, with the Pakistanis pressing forward from Jaurian, General Chaudhuri, the Army Chief, was compelled to ask for air support.

There had been no prior joint planning for such an eventuality. Air Marshal Arjan Singh, the Air Chief, had on his own alerted the air bases in the Punjab. When the call came, a force of fighter bombers from Pathankot mounted a strike on the Pakistanis within minutes of being ordered to do so. It was a touch-and-go affair, because the demand for air support came late in the afternoon and the strike had to be mounted in an area with which our pilots were not familiar. With only a few minutes of daylight left, they could have missed the battle zone or attacked the wrong targets. Fortunately they did neither and so helped to bring the Pakistani force to a halt.

At this point, it is interesting to consider in somewhat greater detail why there was no prior planning.of Army -Air operations even though, as General Chaudhari said In his 1971 National Security Lecture, he expected the Pakistanis to attack In Kashmir after the Kutch Incident. Basically, I think. It was because he and his commanders.were wedded to the idea that military operations were principally an Army affair and that the other services could only operate on the fringe, as it were, with an occasional bonus from the Air Force. This was compounded by a big-brother attitude towards the Air Force which led to its being treated with a certain amount of indulgence but prevented it being accepted as a vital and equal partner in war. Matters were further complicated by the belief that If the Indian Air Force took part In the fighting then the Pakistani Air Force would do likewise, thus Increasing the likelihood of a general war between the two countries instead of a localised conflict in J & K. There was a good deal of truth in this, of course, but this was a possibility from which there was no escape. Indeed, this was a possibility that could not be ignored for Pakistan had already been warned that any attack on Jammu and Kashmir would be treated as an attack on India. With a political direction as clear as that on the record, it was incumbent on the Chiefs of Staff to have their plans ready for such a contingency. The fact that they did not is indicative of the thinking at the time.

The events In the Chamb-Jaurlan sector leading to the call for air support took matters out of the Army's hands. At that stage the Government had to decide whether to enlarge the area of conflict, and it did so without hesitation. That, indeed, appeared to be the only way to divert Pakistani forces from the vulnerable Jammu-Srinagar highway, the loss of which would have jeopardised the defence of the Valley. With the decision to fight Pakistan outside J & K, the Army had to move up forces from peace time stations, some from the Deccan and further south, and formulate an operational plan at short notice.

During the five days that elapsed between the Government decision and the date set for Implementing it, there was some discussion of how the Army and the Air Force should operate. On the Army side, the notion persisted that it would fight on its own, with the Air Force providing an occasional bonus; and in the Air Force, where I was Vice-Chief, we thought of fighting mainly an air war against the PAF and what we considered to be strategic targets, assigning relatively low priority to support the Army. Separate plans were hastily drawn up by each Service with no Joint consultation worth the name. And again, no tasks were envisaged for the Navy.

Please note that In 1965, the higher defence organisation was functioning and the Chiefs of Staff Committee met regularly under the chairmanship of General Chaudhuri. Officers In positions of authority had read and studied and taught the procedures for inter-service co- operation. It was not realised, however, that even when the general drill is known, each particular task still requires a great deal of preparatory work, that the persons taking part need to be trained for It, that supporting facilities have to be arranged for In advance, and this has to be done for every contingency that can be envisaged. Flexibility in battle Is gained only through long and arduous preparation.

That we discovered when we entered Pakistan. Soon the Army found that it could not fight entirely on its own, for the PAF was constantly harassing It. The Army needed air defence and tactical support but no detailed arrangements-had been made for either. The Air Force was willing to help and it did all it could but in the absence of joint plans, large gaps remained in the air cover in the combat zone. Neither did the air operations, through which we hoped to immobilize the PAF and reduce Pakistan's ability to make war, achieve much for we had no well thought out target system for the purpose. Having had some responsibility for all this, I must confess that the air war became a somewhat hit- and-miss affair, that depended heavily on finding targets of opportunity for its success. The aircrew performed magnificently, doing all that was expected of them and more; had there been a coherent joint war plan, we would have derived much fuller benefit from their courage and sacrifice.

Our advance Into Pakistan caught the Pakistani forces by surprise. I Imagine they had not thought the Indian Government and Armed Forces capable of swift decisions and speedy action. The initial successes of our Army were soon checked by stiff resistance, a notable feature of which was the close co-operation between the Pakistani Army and Air Force. The two of them had obviously done their homework well. for our jawans reported that the PAF were quick to appear whenever the Pakistani ground forces were In difficulties, and gave them most effective support. This was the more remarkable because unlike our set-up. In which all three Service Chiefs and their Headquarters were based at Delhi, the Pakistani Air Chief was located at Peshawar, the Army Chief at Islamabad, near Rawalpindi, and the Naval Chief at Karachi. The fact that their forces managed to work well together speaks well for their mutual understanding, which is more Important than physical proximity. Furthermore, since Pakistan had been the one to start the fighting In J & K, it Is to be presumed that Its Service Chiefs had given some thought to the possibility of a more widespread conflict and prepared for It accordingly.

Despite Its preparations, however, Pakistan failed to make any inroads In J & K and just about held its own elsewhere. We advanced up to the Ichhogil canal. West Pakistan's first line of defence, and towards Slalkot. Pakistani forces came into Indian territory around Gadra Road in Rajasthan. Except for a single PAF attack on an Indian Air Force base near Calcutta, there was no fighting In the east. Our Navy had no operational tasks but suffered a sea-borne attack at Dwarka In the west. The. fighting was brought to a halt by 22nd September, the Army having been engaged In combat for nearly a month and a half and the Air Force for 22 days. At the turn of the year came the Tashkent agreement, negotiated by our then Prime Minister, the late Mr Lal Bahadur Shastri.

In retrospect, it is clear that the 1965 war was successful as a defensive action, for it managed to preserve the status quo In Kashmir, but the operations In the Punjab and Rajasthan were Inconclusive. We failed to make a real dent In Pakistan's forces, both on the ground and in the air. The Navy being far removed from Kashmir took no part In the fighting.

With the benefit of hindsight, we can now see what part the higher defence organisation played in the 1965 war. Frankly, I do not think It made any significant contribution. I say this after careful thought, knowing that one of our distinguished Army Chiefs, General J N Chaudhuri, was then Chairman of the Chiefs of Staff Committee. Even at the risk of his displeasure, I must say that he failed to get the organisation working as It should have done. The General himself admits as much, without meaning to. In the published version of the National Security lectures that he delivered in this institution In 1971. He said In those lectures that he saw the Kutch incident as a prelude to an attack by Pakistan in Jammu. and Kashmir, and he therefore began the Army's preparations well in advance. He omits to mention that the Air Force and the Navy were kept in the dark about this. He goes on to say that he often discussed the threat with the Defence Minister and the Prime Minister and that, once in a while, he took the Air Chief along with him. The impression conveyed Is that he looked upon the Impending conflict as an Army affair, in which the use of the Air Force would be Incidental. To my mind, this reflects an attitude long prevalent in the Army, and only recently dissipated, to the effect that Its larger size and greater age gave It a commanding superiority over the other services and Invested It with the sole right to decide how wars should be fought. I may be reading too much Into a single statement, but to me It is axiomatic that effective co-operation between the Services can grow only out of mutual trust and full understanding of each others capabilities and limitations. I think that was lacking In 1965.

In any case, the Air Force and Navy, not having been alerted about the possibility of another war over Kashmir, no inter-service contingency plans were drawn up, nor was any course of action agreed upon with the Air Force in the event of Its being called out to support the Army. This mental block against consultation and joint planning continued right through the phase of guerrilla activity and was only partly removed when Pakistani armour threatened to cut the Jammu-Srinagar highway. It was at that critical stage, on 1st September 1965, that the Air Force was asked for air support, which It gave at short notice. Complaints from our forward troops about the limited extent of air cover in the war that followed were well-founded, for in the absence of precise plans the Air Force had simply maintained Its normal forces at its bases in the Punjab and In (Jammu and Kashmir. To do Its job properly, some redeployment of squadrons and of logistic and communication facilities should have been effected before the commencement of hostilities. Had the joint planners been able to do their work In advance, I am certain more positive results would have been achieved In 1965. However, apart from preserving the status quo in Kashmir, the 1965 war was valuable for the many practical lessons it taught us In the conduct of operations from the highest level to combat in the field. In the years that followed these lessons were absorbed and applied.