Countering the Pakistan Air Force in 1965: Role of AD Artillery

A recent article published in the Indian Defence Review (read here), while comparing the performance of Indian and Pakistan Air Force highlights the  better performance of Indian Air Force (IAF) in providing close air support (CAS) to the Army vis a vis support given by Pakistan Air Force to its Army. While the article focuses on close air support only, it does raise a couple of related questions – how well did IAF perform against its Pakistani rival and if it outperformed PAF, did it do so on its own or did the Air Defence Artillery play any role in it? 

A number of articles and books have been written on India Pakistan Air War of 1965 and how IAF bested its rival in almost all spheres of air warfare. Missing from all these analyses is the role of Indian Air Defence (AD) Artillery and how it helped counter PAF. But can the performance of  IAF and AD Artillery be compared? Chalk and cheese most of the analysts would say and scoff at the idea of such a comparison but then the role and performance of AD Artillery needs to be factored in while evaluating the air war and how the PAF was countered. One important method is to analyse the attrition suffered by PAF and then evaluate the performance of AD Artillery in. 

However, a factor that need to be borne in mind while evaluating the performance is that AD Artillery is bound to its location and is largely static. It cannot go to seek an enemy aircraft to destroy. It can only engage the hostile aircraft in its area or responsibility and that too within its effective range. This constraint underscores the overall performance of AD Artillery and should not be lost sight of. Even so, the numbers tell a very interesting tale.

During the 22-day war, IAF lost a total of 71 aircraft while Pakistan lost 43 (see details here). Of the 71, 36 were lost on ground during PAF raids, 14 in air to PAF and 11 to AD Artillery. Comparably, PAF lost 43 aircraft of which 18 were lost to IAF and 25 were shot down by Indian AD Artillery. Even so, it is iterated by the author that ‘IAF defeated PAF in 1965 war’. On of the reasons that is used to support the claim is the low attrition rate suffered by IAF as compared to PAF.

At the author remarks, ‘Of course IAF lost more number of aircrafts, a result of its larger number of offensive sorties over enemy territory, but its attrition rate was lesser than that of the PAF’s’ (emphasis added).

Given that the PAF flew a total 2,364 sorties according to its official history during the 1965 War, it suffered an attrition rate of 1.8189 aircraft lost per hundred sorties flown during the war, that is, an attrition rate of 1.82 per cent. Comparably, according to the official history of the 1965 war, IAF flew 3,937 sorties in the Western Sector alone and about 4,100 sorties in all. Given the total losses as 71, it suffered an attrition of 1.73 per cent. Marginally better than PAF. What is generally discussed is a revised loss of 59 aircraft to get an attrition rate of 1.5 per cent or to discount the losses on ground to come to a figure of 24 aircraft lost in the air thus bringing down the attrition rate to 0.6096 per cent.

Comparing with these figures, it does look better for IAF that it lost only 0.6 aircraft in air for every 100 sorties it flew as compared to loss of 1.8 aircraft in air by PAF for every 100 sorties. These comparisons overlook one crucial factor mentioned earlier- role of AD Artillery in carrying out this attrition.

Wreckage of a F-86

If PAF losses are analysed, it lost 18 aircraft in air to IAF actions and 25 to AD Artillery. In simple terms, AD Artillery was responsible for 58 percent of the PAF’s losses. In other words, PAF suffered an attrition of over 1 per cent due to Indian AD Artillery actions. Take away this loss and PAF lost only 18 aircraft to IAF during 22 days of war. 

The aim of highlighting this is not to belittle the commendable performance of IAF but only to bring forth a simple fact- Indian AD Artillery played a vital role in countering the PAF and if numbers are discussed, as good as IAF if not better.

Going into some details about these losses. PAF lost 34 F-86 Sabres during the war. Of these, 15 were shot down by IAF and 19 by AD Artillery.  If the daily ‘tally’ as per the Official History is considered, AD Artillery shot down 21 Sabres. Further, AD Artillery shot down four B-57 while IAF shot down none. It was only against F-104 Starfighters that IAF has a better record as they shot down one while AD Artillery could not shoot down any. 

A couple of related points. Firstly, CAS. As the original reference was to the performance of the two air forces in providing CAS and it will be worthwhile looking at role of AD Artillery in influencing the air forces’ performance. PAF flew a total of 647 CAS sorties during the war. The authoritative work by Kenneth P Werrell, “Archie to SAM: A Short Operational History of Ground-Based Air Defense” mentions that 58 PAF aircraft were hit by ground fire during these CAS missions  thus underlining the effectiveness of Indian AD Artillery. Another account mentions that 90 percent of the PAF aircraft attacking targets in and around Amritsar were hit by AD guns and damaged. Overall, PAF flew 813 close support and strike sorties during which it lost 9 aircraft in the Tactical Battle Area and 16 aircraft over Air Force installations and bases (airfields and radars). This implies an attrition rate of over 3 percent to AD Artillery alone. If one were to analyse further, a total of 16 PAF were shot down by Indian AD Artillery during 267 strike sorties by PAF that translates into an attrition rate of almost 6 percent. It would thus be naïve to assume that the AD Artillery had no role to play in deterring PAF and its effectiveness did not influence the conduct of CAS and/or strike missions by PAF. 

Comparably IAF carried out 1,372 sorties by its fighter bombers and lost 8 aircraft to Pak AD Artillery i.e. an attrition of only 0.5 percent. A largely ineffective ground air defence that was not able to deter IAF during the strike missions would have similarly been an important factor influencing the conduct of IAF’s close support missions.

Secondly, acknowledgement of ‘Kills’ by AD Artillery. Both air forces underplayed the losses to AD Artillery to the extent that ‘technical failure’ was the reason given for the loss even when it was obvious that loss was due to a hit by AD gun(s). 

PAF carried out strikes on a number of Indian air bases on 6 September as part of War Plan No 6. As part of these strikes, Jamnagar airfield was raided by 6 B-57’s six times during the night during which a B-57 was shot down by Indian AD Artillery deployed on the airbase. The official History maintains that probably an ack ack gun shot it downwhile PAF accounts for long maintained that the aircraft was not shot down but was lost due to bad weather and pilot error. A Pakistani account read here) of the loss of the B-57 mentions

One such lone bomber flown by squadron leaders Shabbir Alam Siddiqui and Alam Qureshi, the navigator was doing its third mission  in less than 9 hours. As an overfatigued crew descended lower on the pinpoint its target, the bomber hit the ground and exploded

It was only decades later in 2011 that Pakistan acknowledged that the aircraft was shot down by AA fire. An article in leading Pakistani newspaper recounted the incident as follows (read here):

Shortly before dawn on September 7, 1965, after dropping two bombs it was in circuit to drop the remaining load when it was hit by anti-aircraft (AA) fire and crashed. The pilot and navigator were killed on impact and buried in nearby fields.

Going back further in time, Pakistan Air Force lost a F-86 Sabre much before the start of the monsoon war when a Sabre crashed off the coast of Karachi on 19 April 1965. During the stand-off in Kutch, Pakistan had moved its  No 17 Squadron PAF, from Mauripur to Badin. Flying Officer Waleed Ehsanul Karim was one of the two pilots undertaking a two ship mission in support of Pakistan Army when they were engaged by Indian AAA, hitting Karim’s aircraft. He managed to bring his Sabre back to Badin where it was patched up, however during the sorties later in the day, the stricken aircraft developed engine trouble and plunged into the Arabian sea about 10–15 miles off the south coast of Karachi. The immediate cause of the crash was given as ‘engine failure’ but was it attributed to the damage inflicted in the morning by AD guns. The incident has been described by Martin Bowman in his book ‘Cold War Jet Combat: Air-to-Air Jet Fighter Operations, 1950–1972’ but unsurprisingly does not find mention in any  Indian narratives except one. 

Though most of the Indian losses to Pak AD have been acknowledged per se, occasionally the losses were attributed to ‘technical failure’ or ‘accidents’ as in the case of Squadron Leader Jasbeer Singh (read here) who was detailed as the leader of a strike mission against a high-powered Pakistani radar unit near the Gujranwala airfield on 7 September 1965. The loss is describes as as an accident with ‘aircraft hitting ground’ whereas the citation for Vir Chakara describes the incident as follows:

he pressed home his attack and inflicted severe damage on the radar Station. In his final attack, when he had to approach the target very low, his aircraft was hit by ground fire (emphasis added) and was seen crashing near the target.

Such classification was probably done to show a lower loss rate to enemy AD Artillery and thus ‘manage’ the attrition rate within acceptable limits. A similar trend of downplaying AD Artillery’s contribution can be noticed in award of gallantry medals.

Havildar Potha Raju

A 40mm L/60 detachment under  Haviladr Perumal C shot down a F-86 at Akhnoor Bridge on 3 September 1965, the same day as the first aerial kill by IAF. This was followed by a shooting down of a second F-86 on 5 September by Havildat Pothu Raja at Tawi Bridge. Both of them were awarded the Vir Chakra. The shooting down of 23 more aircraft by AD Artillery followed but except for one (Naik Madlai Muthu at Kalaikunda on 7 September 1965), none of the gunners were awarded the Vir Chakra and these gunners have largely remained unknown and unrecognised – unlike the better known 13 IAF pilots who had ‘Sabre Kills’ during the war. While the gallantry acts by IAF pilots and AD gunners cannot be equated or treated at par but overlooking the contribution of AD gunners does seem unfair.

The common practice appears to blank out the role of AD Artillery in countering and defeating the PAF. Sadly, the AD gunners have for long remained the unsung heroes of this war and it is time their contribution is acknowledged and they are given their place in the sun.