Arjan Singh was the only officer of the Indian Air Force to be promoted to the five-star rank equivalent to a Field Marshal. Air Marshal Singh led the Indian Air Force in the 1965 war with Pakistan which he says was prematurely terminated on intervention by the United Nations. Had it gone on for a few more days, India’s victory would have been decisive.
Born in Punjab town of Lyallpur (now Faisalabad, Pakistan), Singh was chief of the Air Staff from August 1, 1964, to July 15, 1969, and was awarded the Padma Vibhushan in 1965.
Now 96-years-old, Air Marshal Arjan Singh revisits the 1965 India-Pakistan war in an email interview with IANS saying that the IAF, though initially surprised by the attack, gained air superiority over Pakistan in three days which crippled their air force.
Q. Do you feel the Indian Air Force was able to outsmart the Pakistan Air Force in the 1965 War?
A. When the Pakistan Air Force attacked our bases in Pathankot and Kalaikunda, we suffered initial reverses. However, the Indian Air Force was given a go-ahead by then defence minister Yaswantrao Chavan, our great Maratha Leader, to launch the air attack. We were able to recover the operational balance quickly and later achieved complete air superiority over them within three days. The aircraft from Pathankot, Ambala and Adampur were able to strike at all the major air bases in Pakistan like Sargodha, Peshawar, Kohat and so on. The air attacks were planned in such a manner that our aircraft would fly over Kashmir valley which provided us covers against the radar detection in Pakistan.
We were able to destroy the major supply lines and vital installations in almost all Pakistani cities. Pakistan does not have much width and according to our information they moved their aircraft to safer location in Afghanistan in a place called Zahidan.
Q. Both India and Pakistan claim victory in the war. Why do you think we won?
A. For political reasons, Pakistan claims victory in the 1965 war. In my opinion, the war ended in a kind of stalemate. We were in a position of strength. Had the war continued for a few more days, we would have gained a decisive victory. I advised then prime minister Lal Bahadur Shastri not to agree for ceasefire. But I think he was under pressure from the United Nations and some countries. Shastri was not really a weak man at all. He was a tough man and clear in his decision making. He was in fact a man of peace and never wanted the population of either country to suffer because of the war. He gave only one direction - try not to hit the civilian population.
Q. Do you feel the war was a turning point in establishing the air force as an entity that could ably back the ground forces?
A. The Indian Air Force was actively involved during the Second World War. I was commanding No.1 Squadron at Imphal where it was involved in the Burma operations with the Japanese. Later in 1948, IAF also actively supported the ground forces in Kashmir. We did not fight at all in 1962. But I must tell you - three months before the 1965 war, I spoke to Shastri and advised him to use IAF in any future war. We were given a decisive go ahead by the leadership in 1965 and IAF performed exceptionally well. IAF was able to do much damage in Pakistan.
Q. Would it be correct to say that the 1965 War saw aircraft of IAF and PAF engage in combat for the first time? Back then, how did you compare India’s preparedness with Pakistan?
A. Pakistan had qualitatively and technologically superior aircraft like Sabres and Starfighters. We had Gnats, Hunters, Mysteres and Vampires. Pakistan had massive American support. They had the latest radars which gave them much coverage and therefore the edge. I think they became overconfident that IAF will not be used in the war as happened in the 1962 India-China War. From the time IAF was pressed into action, the operational balance started shifting towards our side. This shows that IAF was operationally ready for any misadventure by the enemy.
Q. As far as the IAF is concerned, what were the areas where we excelled? At the same time, what were the areas we didn’t do as well as you had expected? Where did we fail and why?
A. In a war, the aggressor will always have an initial advantage. Pakistan attacked us and we suffered initial losses. We regained the operational balance quickly. Pakistanis are good fighters. But here we were fighting for our country against an aggressor. Our pilots fought with valour and courage and instilled fear among the enemy.
In hindsight, I feel I should not have used the Vampires in the war as they were slow to maneouvre and were generally vulnerable. After the war, we started the modernisation of our Air Force by recommending the purchase of modern aircraft and radars.
Q. For someone who was at the helm of affairs, what were your anxious moments during the war?
A. I was neither anxious nor nervous during 1965. I was confident of our ability and operational preparedness. During the peace time, we are trained to fight. I had actively seen operations during the Second World War. We were 21 pilots who had gone to Imphal to fight against the Japanese Air Force and only five returned. I was there for one year and that experience matured me immensely.
Q. How do you recall your interactions with political leaders during war time? Were there any points of disagreement between the IAF and the political leadership and how was it resolved?
A. I must tell you that Pakistan tried to cut off Jammu and Kashmir through an armoured-cum-infantry attack on the Akhnoor Sector. Gen JN Chaudhari came to my office in Vayu Bhawan and told me that unless the IAF steps in, it would be difficult to stop the Pakistanis in the Chamb-Jaurian sector. I told him that with IAF involvement, the conflict will escalate to a full-fledged war. We went to the then defence minister Chavan who asked me if IAF was ready. I promptly said yes. In the next minute, he gave a decision to go ahead to launch the strikes. This decisive leadership in 1965 was very important in achieving an operational edge with Pakistan.
Q. Do you feel there are chances of India going to war with Pakistan again? If that happens, are we better prepared than Pakistan?
A. The tensions with Pakistan will continue and I don’t see any solution to the problem. The proxy war in Kashmir is not doing any good to the relations between us. The recent ceasefire violations where some of our troops were killed is not acceptable at all. Beheading of soldiers is not an act done by any civilized army. The world knows that the Pakistan sponsored terrorists are infiltrating through the LoC (Line of Control) to create trouble for us.