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DEEP-FOCUS

Updated December 16th, 2023 at 17:16 IST

How IAF's Hunters altered the course of the 1971 War by dominating skies and seizing enemy airfields

The IAF's mission was to neutralize the PAF's F-86 Sabre squadron, deploying ten squadrons to secure air control.

Reported by: Yuvraj Tyagi
Edited by: Yuvraj Tyagi
IAF Ops 71
The IAF's mission was to neutralize the PAF's F-86 Sabre squadron, deploying ten squadrons to secure air control. | Image: Indian Air Force

A war brewing

In a historic feat not witnessed since World War II, the Indian Air Force (IAF) achieved air supremacy over Pakistan within two days during the 1971 war, marking a pivotal moment in military aviation. Defying international pressure, India launched a decisive war on December 4, 1971, with a strategic focus on East Pakistan. The IAF, in pursuit of air dominance, activated civil fields at Dum Dum, Panagarh, and Agartala to cover the vast expanse separating East and West Pakistan.

The IAF's objective was clear: gain air control by D+2 and neutralize the lone squadron of Pakistan Air Force's (PAF) F-86 Sabre fighter jets stationed in East Pakistan. Despite intelligence suggesting a larger PAF deployment, the IAF deployed ten squadrons to secure air superiority. 

Air Combat Tactics

The PAF's primary operational airbase in East Pakistan was Tejgaon, near Dhaka, with only 16 F-86 Sabres. The IAF's initial raids struggled to inflict significant damage on the grounded Sabres. However, air combat efforts were more successful, with five Sabres claimed downed. The IAF's Hunters emerged as stars, shooting down three Sabres on the first day. 

Starting December 4, the IAF executed airfield attacks using Hunters and Sukhoi S-7s, escorted by MiG-21 supersonic fighters. A total of 109 sorties were conducted, successfully cratering East Pakistan's runways. The 14 Squadron's diary noted the commanding officer, Wing Commander Sundaresan, lost his Sabre during the strikes.

The PAF's tactic of relocating Sabres to different bases when under threat necessitated a strategic shift. Airfield attacks became the focus, with Hunters and Sukhoi S-7s aiming to destroy infrastructure. Despite limited success in destroying grounded Sabres, the airfield attacks effectively cratered runways, disrupting PAF's air operations. 

Jessore: Turning point in air operations

On December 7, following the Indian Army's capture of Jessore, the 14 Squadron played a pivotal role. Wing Commander Sundaresan led four Hunters, dropping Napalm for the first time in IAF history on Pakistan Army gun positions near Jessore. The unique capabilities of Hunter squadrons in dealing with Napalm proved crucial. 

The Indian Army's engineers swiftly repaired Jessore's runway, providing a forward airfield. The 14 Squadron seized the opportunity to operate from the former enemy airfield, landing on December 14, marking a historic first. Despite a mishap with one aircraft catching fire, the successful operation showcased the IAF's prowess.

The entry in the 14 Squadron's Diary acknowledged the significant role played by the squadron in the war. The diary noted that the Commanding Officer of the unit, Wing Commander Sundaresan, got his Sabre killed during Day 1 of the strikes on December 4, 1971. 

The Indian Army's capture of Jessore presented the Eastern Air Command with a strategically located airfield that could be operationalized with minimal effort. Air Marshal Dewan flew by helicopter from Calcutta to Jessore, where a ground party carried out quick runway repairs. The airfield had an operational advantage as it would give Indian fighter jets more loiter time over Dacca and other targets. 

Sustained air and land offensive

As Pakistan's defenses crumbled, the Hunters conducted strikes against the retreating Pakistan Army, contributing to the Indian forces' sustained air and land offensive. By December 15, with Pakistan discussing surrender terms, the Hunters intensified close air support for the Indian Army near Khulna. The 1971 war affirmed the IAF's pivotal role, providing ground support without the hindrance of enemy air resistance.

The significance of the IAF's contribution in the final offensive was not only limited to air superiority but also extended to providing critical support to ground forces. The diary entry on December 7 reads, "No attacks on Tezgaon as UN Aircraft were evacuating foreigners. Eight Hunters of No. 14 Sqn later attacked Tejgaon runways with 1000 lb bombs after the UN aircraft take-off." 

Legacy of the 1971 War

The 1971 war stands as one of the Indian Air Force's finest hours, allowing the Indian Army to operate without the constant threat of enemy air forces. The swift and effective air operations contributed significantly to India's victory, emphasizing the IAF's crucial role in military campaigns. Air Vice Marshal Tiwary aptly captures the significance, stating, “For once, the Indian Army operated under similar air conditions as the US Army since World War II, without worrying about the enemy air force.”

As the 7th fleet of the US Navy sailed into the Bay of Bengal to support Pakistan forces, the Hunters of the 14 Squadron carried out strikes against the retreating Pakistan Army. And on December 14, it landed at the Pakistan Air Force base at Jessore, "a historical first." 

The Squadron personnel visited Jessore town to buy souvenirs, and the "populous was thrilled to meet the IAF personnel." On December 21st, the 8 Hunters of the Fighting Fourteen took off from Jessore for their home base in Kalaikunda. The war showcased not only the IAF's air prowess but also its adaptability and strategic thinking. 

The 1971 war marked a turning point in military history, and the IAF's triumph remains a testament to the courage, skill, and strategic acumen of the Indian armed forces. The legacy of this historic victory continues to inspire generations within the IAF and stands as a beacon of excellence in military aviation. 

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