Here’s Why the Indian Air Force Wasn’t Used in the 1962 Sino-Indian War

Amidst all the blunders committed by the Indian political leadership before and during the 1962 war, the one that most baffles people is why the Indian Air Force wasn’t used despite that fact that its employment could have changed the course of the war in India’s favour.

Indian intelligence made assessments about the strength of the PLAAF (People’s Liberation Army Air Force) and the possible consequences if India and China were to get involved in an air battle.

Certain intelligence reports were with the Eastern Command in Lucknow in March 1960 that mentioned about China having a group of airfields north of Lhasa in Tibet. It said that these airfields could handle PLAAF’s heaviest bombers, which definitely a matter of concern for India. The report also talked about additional airstrips in the region from where Chinese fighter jets could take off as part of an offensive against India.

The IB made further terrifying assessments, one of which was that PLAAF bombers operating from bases in Tibet, Yunnan and Sinkiang could even reach Madras as the IAF didn’t have enough night interceptors. The IB said that Chinese MiG-17s and 19s and even their newly acquired MiG-21s would destroy Indian Canberra bombers as the Chinese jets had night capabilities. The IB’s most horrifying prediction was that as India and China go to war, Pakistan would initiate an attack in Kashmir. This dissuaded India from using the IAF. But the unfortunate part was that these assessments of the IB were taken at face value and blindly accepted all the across the board. Now let’s see why the IB was wrong in what it said.

The PLAAF had no advanced runways to operate from in Tibet, and surely not any low-altitude ones from where PLAAF jets could take off with full payloads. China had successfully persuaded Russia into not selling any MiG-21s to India, but the fact remains that unlike what the IB predicted, even the Chinese didn’t have any MiG-21s. Also, even though the IAF was numerically inferior to the PLAAF, the IAF had some very capable fighter jets like the Hawker Hunter and the Gnat which were among the most modern subsonic aircrafts at the time. India also had the French Ouragan and the Mystere based in the Western Sector from where Ladakh was within comfortable range. The IAF with its Ouragans, Vampires and Hunters was capable of hitting targets in the Eastern sector.

As is now, even then the IAF had the advantage of taking off from bases in the plains with full loads unlike the PLAAF which would have to operate with restricted payloads as its jets would have to take off from high-altitude air bases in Tibet. Unlike the IB’s ‘fear-mongering’ the PLAAF would have in reality found it hard to even reach Gorakhpur.

Exposure of the weaknesses of the PLAAF wasn’t over. In March 1962, a lieutenant of the PLAAF defected to the USA. He had requested for asylum in India but India had denied, though the IB got hold of some of the important information that he had to tell the Americans. He said that even though the Chinese had over 2,000 aircrafts, it could use only a fraction of those in Tibet against India. He went on to say that let alone Tibet and Sinkiang, China found it tough to even operate its aircrafts in China because Soviet aid had dried off!

Clearly, the IAF was at an advantage to the PLAAF and this was known to the Indian military and political leadership before the war began but whether the IB deliberately mislead the government into not employing the IAFis another mystery.

This isn’t where the story ends. It may appear that Nehru was misled, but he wasn’t against use air power. You read it correctly. But, he was against using Indian air power. On 19 November, a secret letter was drafted on behalf of Nehru to the President of the United States John Kennedy requesting him for the intervention of the US and UK air forces! Nehru literally pleaded him for the intervention of the USAF and RAF to ‘save’ India’s Eastern sector from the Chinese. He even listed to the President what exactly did he need in terms of number and aircraft.  What’s more is that he didn’t even consult the air chief before laying out his demands!

Source and credit – ‘1962: The War That Wasn’t’ by Shiv Kunal Verma

Vinayak Jain