Did IAF win 1971 war? Pak scholar says no. Ex-Indian Navy chief says debate with facts

Indian Navy Sea Hawk aircraft during 1971 Indo-Pakistani war
Indian Navy Sea Hawk aircraft during 1971 Indo-Pakistani war | Commons

India’s bureaucracy is responsible for the vacuum in military history. But there’s a new crop of young scholar-warriors eager to fill this gap.

Disregarding the counsel of wise men, from Herodotus to George Santayana, Indians have consistently ignored the importance of reading, writing and learning from history. So, when retired US Air Force Brigadier ‘Chuck’ Yeager, head of the US Military Assistance Advisory Group in Islamabad during the 1971 war, says in his autobiography that “the Pakistanis whipped the Indians’ asses in the sky… the Pakistanis scored a three-to-one kill ratio, knocking out 102 Russian-made Indian jets and losing 34 airplanes of their own…”, we are left fumbling for a response.

Other Western ‘experts’ have alleged that, in 1971, the Indian Air Force was supported by Tupolev-126 early-warning aircraft flown by Soviet crews, who supposedly jammed Pakistani radars and homed-in Indian aircraft.

Where does one seek authentic information about India’s contemporary military history?

The Ministry of Defence website mentions a History Division, but the output of this division is not displayed, and it seems to have gone into hibernation after a brief spell of activity. A Google search reveals copies of two typed documents, circa 1984, on the internet, titled ‘History of the 1965 War’ and ‘History of the 1971 War’ (HoW), neither of which is designated as ‘official history’.

A chapter of the latter document, deals with the air war in the Western theatre, and opens with a comparison of the opposing air forces. The 1971 inventory of the IAF is assessed as 625 combat aircraft, while the PAF strength is estimated at about 275. After providing day-by-day accounts of air defence, counter-air close support and maritime air operations, the HoW compares aircraft losses on both sides, and attempts a cursory analysis of the air war.

The IAF is declared as having utilised its forces “four times as well as the PAF” and being “definitely on the way to victory” at the time of cease fire. Commending the PAF for having managed to survive in a war against an “enemy double its strength”, it uses a boxing metaphor, to add a (left-handed) complement: “By its refusal to close with its stronger enemy, it at least remained on its feet, and in the ring, when the bell sounded.”

This is the phrase that Pakistani Air Commodore M. Kaiser Tufail (Retd) has picked up for the title of his very recent book: “In the Ring and on its Feet” [Ferozsons (Pvt) Ltd, Lahore, 2017] about the PAF’s role in the 1971 Indo-Pak war. Commissioned in 1975, this former Pakistani fighter pilot is a historian and bold commentator on strategic affairs. Currently unavailable in India, the book may, prima facie, be accepted as authentic, because the author asserts that in two of his appointments, he was the “custodian of PAF’s war records”, which he was, officially, permitted to access in writing the book.

Tufail starts with an attempt to dispel the “ludicrous Indian fabrication about Pakistan having initiated the war”, and offers the thesis that since war was already in progress, the ineffective 3 December PAF pre-emptive attacks were merely “first strikes” meant to overburden the IAF’s retaliatory capability. Apart from this half-hearted attempt at obfuscation, the rest of Tufail’s narrative is refreshingly candid, free of hyperbole and – one hopes – reliable. Having served in an IAF fighter squadron during the 1971 war, I was fascinated by Tufail’s account, and share a few of his frank insights into wartime events in this article.

Tufail suggests that the wartime PAF Chief, Air Marshal Rahim Khan, was an inarticulate, short-tempered and lacklustre personality, who, at this crucial juncture, chose his two most important advisors – the ACAS (Operations) and the Deputy Chief – from the ranks of transport pilots! His problems were compounded by low service morale, due to the massacre of 30 airmen in East Pakistan and defections by Bengali PAF personnel.

As far as the two orders-of-battle are concerned, it is interesting to note that the HoW figures of 625 combat aircraft for the IAF and 273 for the PAF are pretty close to Tufail’s estimates of 640 and 290 respectively. A fact not commonly known, in 1971, was, that while the IAF’s work-horses, Sukhoi-7s, Hunters, Gnats, HF-24s, Mysteres and Vampires, were armed only with 30/20 mm guns, the opposition had the advantage of air-to-air missiles. While all PAF Western-origin fighters carried Sidewinders or R-530s, Yeager tells us: “One of my first jobs (in Pakistan) was to help them put US Sidewinders on their Chinese MiGs… I also worked with their squadrons and helped them develop combat tactics.”

Tufail provides a tabular account of both IAF and PAF aircraft losses, with pilots’ names, squadron numbers and (for PAF aircraft) tail numbers. To my mind, one particular statistic alone confirms Tufail’s objectivity. As the squadron diarist of IAF’s No.20 Squadron, I recall recording the result of a Hunter raid on PAF base Murid, on 8 December 1971, as “one transport, two fighters (probable) and vehicles destroyed on ground”. In his book, Tufail confirms that 20 Squadron actually destroyed five F-86 fighters in this mission – making it the most spectacular IAF raid of the war!

Particularly gratifying to read are Tufail’s reconstructions of many combat missions, which have remained shrouded in doubt and ambiguity for 47 years. Personally, I experienced a sense of closure after reading his accounts of the final heroic moments of 20 Squadron comrades Jal Mistry and K.P. Muralidharan, as well as fellow naval aviators Roy, Sirohi and Vijayan, shot down at sea. Tufail also nails the canard about Soviet Tupolev-126 support to IAF, and describes how it was the clever employment of IAF MiG-21s to act as ‘radio-relay posts’ that fooled the PAF.

Coming to the ‘final reckoning’, there is only a small difference between the figures given in the HoW and those provided by Tufail for IAF losses; both of which make nonsense of Yeager’s pompous declarations. According to the tabulated Pakistani account (giving names of Indian aircrew), the IAF lost 60 aircraft. The HoW records the IAF’s losses in action as 56 aircraft (43 in the west and 13 in the east).

However, a dichotomy surfaces when it comes to PAF losses. While Tufail lists the tail numbers of only 27 aircraft destroyed, the HoW mentions IAF claims of 75 PAF aircraft destroyed, but credits only 46 (27 in the west and 19 in the east).

Using ‘utilisation rate’ per aircraft and ‘attrition rate’ as a percentage of (only) the offensive missions flown by both air forces, the HoW declares that the IAF’s utilisation rate being almost double, and its attrition rate being half that of the PAF, “…had the war continued, the IAF would certainly have inflicted a decisive defeat on the PAF”.

Adopting a different approach, Tufail concludes that the overall ‘attrition rate’ (loss per 100 sorties) for each air force as well as aircraft losses, as percentage of both IAF and PAF inventories, are numerically equal. Thus, according to him, “…both air forces were on par… though the IAF flew many more ground-attack sorties in a vulnerable air and ground environment”.

He ends his narrative on a sanguine note, remarking that, “The PAF denied a much stronger IAF …the possibility of delivering a knock-out punch to it”.

Air Commodore Tufail’s book clearly demonstrates that there are at least two good reasons for writing war histories; lessons are learnt about the political sagacity underpinning employment of state military power, and militaries can test the validity of the Principles of War.

Sensible nations, therefore, ensure that history is not replaced by mythology. Like Kaiser Tufail, there is a whole new crop of young scholar-warriors emerging in India too, eager to record its rich military history.

But as long as our obdurate bureaucracy maintains the inexplicable ‘omerta’ vis-a-vis official records, this deplorable historical vacuum will persist.

Admiral Arun Prakash (Retd) is a former Chief of the Naval Staff.

Also read an exchange between Admiral Arun Prakash (Retd) and Pakistani Air Commodore M. Kaiser Tufail here. The exchange followed the publishing of this article.


  1. Good comment. India’s neta-Babus dislike History because they might then have to face the truth and learn. For example by expurgating “inequality under law” from India’s Social Engineering and Minority pampering Constitution and laws.

    India has very little idea of either air power or naval power and has, therefore, never had a strategy beyond “making do” with what we have like a poor cousin rather than arming and training to purpose which would actually be more economical and deliver more power at less cost. They do believe they understand the Army because they seem to resemble to Police with whom every Neta-Babu has reason to be very familiar, and so create polices to turn the Army into another corrupt, incompetent Government Department of Scarecrows good for RD and funeral Parades in the hope of frightening away the neighbours.

    Military strategy demands the ability of adequate force to be present wherever threats emerge in quick time with minimal cost and investment.

    For example, ACM PC Lal, then a Group Captain was the Technical Advisor on a trip to the US with Jabberlal and Pimp Menon. The US had aircraft parked around the base at Texas and the trio were taken on a circle around the base and asked which lot would India like to buy. Lal wanted to inspect every aircraft first. Jabber and Pimp were aghast and in the inerests of “diplomacy” over ruled Lal and picked a bunch of Dakotas (rather like Maun Mohan Singh and the Faux Art Salesman Honest Antony buying C-130s). An honourable King’s Commissioned Officer by spine and training, Lal resigned. Thanks to his family connections (DCM Bharath Ram and Charath Ram) Lal was brought back via HAL. And luckily for him, my uncle died of Leukemia a week before he could take over as Air Chief so, Lal made it by the skin of his teeth. He deserved it.

    In 1962 Nehru grounded the Air force on US advise and my Dad’s eldest brother’s (Air Commodore R. Sitaram) career came to an end because of his vigorously championing the commitment of Air Power against China. In 1965 my Dad’s second eldest brother (Air Marshal Rajaram DFC) (then AOC in C Western Command) was sacked by Shastri for smashing Pakistan’s reserves (both men and materials) at Peshawar by surprise and bringing the war to a quick and abrupt conclusion. Peshawar was almost out of range for the bombers and there were no long range fighters to provide escort, so he called for volunteers when the met report was favourable. He did not inform Air HQ or MoD of the plan as this would have immediately leaked to Pakistan and doomed the mission. (He was reinstated by Indira Gandhi). After the Peshawar bombing the then Chief of Air Staff (ACM Arjun Singh) was summoned and admonished by Shastri. The exact words used were “Aisa kabhi nahi hona tha”, to which the COAS replied “Phir kabhi naheen ho saktha hai” as the element of surprise was not replicatable. I heard this tale from FM Manekshaw and this was corroborated by Air Commodore Sitaram. (The Air Marshal had passed on from Leukemia a few days before he could take over as COAS long before I got to hear this story) Air Marshal Rajaram, DFC, was given a Padma Bhushan along side Vijayanthimala with Indira Gandhi, as Prime Minister, in attendance at Rashtrapathi Bhavan. He was always embarassed by the Padma Bhushan which pulled an Air Officer down to the level of politicians and entertainers.
    I have maintained since the 1970s, for example, that India does not need Aircraft Carriers. It is a doctrine and expense entirely unsuited to India’s military requirements and is simply a “me too” method resulting from the absence of original and purpose made, fit for purpose strategic and tactical thinking on India’s part. What India needs is several nuclear armed nuclear submarines for deterrence, and tiny bases all over the Lakshadweep, Minicoy and Andamans among which attack submarines, helicopters, multi-role fighters, missiles, reconnaissance come depth charge/torpedo amphibian aircraft, long range torpedo boats, and long range light destroyers can be deployed, moved around and concentrated at will. Backed up with a strong Coast Guard and a distributed fast destroyer and attack submarine home fleet..

    • Please mind your language while referring to a former Prime Minister and a Defence Minister. It is the acquisition by IAF during that period that paid dividends in 1965 and 1971. As far as 1962 is concerned, military leadership is as responsible for the debacle as the political leadership. We had everything to give a good response to the Chinese, but we failed militarily and politically.

  2. Flying officer K.P.Muralidharan MIA heroic and gallantry exhibited in 1971 and also eloquently praised by enemy pilot wing comdr Salim Mirza Baig bilatedly is in vain.The IAF recommended bilatedly Maha Vir Chakra three times but the UPA govt in 2010,2012 2014 didn’t consider.They say it is time bar for bravery.It is so absurd and radicouls to a patriotic soldier who sacrificed his life for his mother land.Repeated letter to the President,Prime minister Narendra modi Defence minister in this NDA govt is in vain.They are not interested to give the award posthumously as recommended by the IAF.How can youngster will join the Defence force if the govt attitudes towards our brave soldiers.They are not bothered of the lives lots by the soldiers.Omly we can see crocodile tears rolling.IAF is. Convinced the heroic air battle took over Peshwar air base by Fg.offr K.P.MuralidharanMIA of 20 lightning sqn.It is shame ,shame,shame by the govt of india Hope the new Defence minister will look into this matter and revoke the bad decision taken.The people of this country is hoping for a good news to hear.

  3. I believe that Admiral Arun Prakash has been balanced in his analysis. Luckily the Sidewinder AAM may not have been as effective as Brig Yeager imagined. The point is there are lessons to be learnt from every war especially the ones you fought. We need to put it on record and in public domain. Lessons from military history simply cannot be ignored by either the Govt, the citizen or the soldier.

  4. Very well written sir!!
    As an Indian, It’s so difficult to find any material that tells us about our own wars or as to how war on our side progressed or the glory that our defence forces brought or the hard lessons we learnt. On the other hand the tales of yom-kippur war, falklands etc are so readily available.
    Why not ask our own armed forces scholars to release authentic books that can be available to any military history enthusiast in the country!

    • Please read ‘India’s Wars: A Military History 1947-1971 by me with comments from Admiral Arun Prakash in it. He mentored me through the book.

  5. Though war is the least wanted event in any country’s history, accurate events serve in telling the true facts of the events. Hats off to the author on being candid.

  6. The important fact was that PAF was completely destroyed in the Eastern Sector very early on and the IAF could bomb at will. This was a major advantage for the Indian Army and Mukti Bahini in bringing about the surrender. Naval Aircraft only had ground fire to contend with at Cox’s Bazar and elsewhere. IAF really needs upgradation for MiG 21. Even second hand aircraft should be looked at. Gripen or F16.

  7. Being proud participant in both wars ,I am pained to go through the narrative by former. CNS .I was based at a strategic base in Punjab in 1965 , I concede we suffered considerable damage during night operations by enemy aircraft mission . but later we had rather mediocre threat or hostility until the ceasefire .In 1971 war , I am proud to recount the martyred sacrifice of Flt Lt Konde of my hunter squadron on first day of hostilities in the eastern theatre . Much to chagrin , Tufail’s account is projected as more authentic and realistic at the cost realities . Agreed , war fought fiercely has to have repercussions on both sides ; but to declare that we did not win is an outrageous and insulting to veterans least being impartial judgement . Yes none wants to accept the follies and shortcomings but objective chronology sans glorification of one group vis-a-vis another will clear the historical clouds .

  8. When can we expect to get a factual account of all battles fought by India post independence. All that we have at hand is those boring hagiographic and self exculpatory manuals from our senior defense personnel.

  9. If the air power of Pakistan was as good as claimed, what explains its absence to counter air attacks by IAF hunters on its tanks at Longewala. There was virtually no air support to the pakistani tank regiment which was being decimated at will by IAF.

    It can be said with fair amount of certainity that PAF was a crippled force within a few days after the war began on 3rd Dec 1971, their capability notwithstanding.


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