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Air Force History

The Indian Air Force (IAF) has come a long way from its modest beginning to become one of the finest air forces in the world, renowned for its professionalism and competence. The Royal Indian Air Force had its origins in the recommendation of the Skeene Committee in 1926. Six years later the Indian Legislature passed the Indian Air Force Act. The IAF came into being on October 8, 1932, and the first flight was formed in 1933. At that time, there were only six officers - five pilots and one equipment officer apart from 19 Havai Sepoys (air soldiers) and its aircraft inventory comprised four Westland Wapiti biplanes at Drigh Road (now in Pakistan).

The outbreak of second world war resulted in the expansion of IAF. By the end of 1941, the IAF had three squadrons and five coastal defence flights. The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour brought the war to India's doorstep and in December 1942, the IAF was inducted into Burma for the first Burma Campaign. In recognition of the services rendered by the Indian Air Force during the war, the service was bestowed with the prefix "Royal" on 12 March 1945 and was then known as the Royal Indian Air Force (RIAF). In 1946 it consisted of 8 fighter and 2 transport squadrons with modern aircraft.

On the division of the country into the two Dominions of India and Pakistan, the Dominion of India ieceived 7 fighter squadrons and 1 transport squadron as its share. The principal components of RIAF at the time of partition in 1947 were Nos 3,4,7,8 and 10 Squadrons with Tempest II, No 2 Squadron with Spitfires, and No 12 Squadron with C-47s and No 1 Air Observation Flight. The RIAF lost many permanent bases and other establishments as a result of the division of the country. It had virtually no breathing space to recover from the surgery that had accompanied the partition. Tribal raiders-clothed, fed and armed by Pakistani military commanders-raided Kashmir in October 1947. On October 26, the same year, the Maharaja of Kashmir signed the Instrument of Accession as per the requirements of the partition process and asked for military help. The next day, RIAF flew to Srinagar carrying the first contingent of the Indian Army in three DC-3 Dakotas of 12 Squadron. A couple of days later, the Spitfires from Ambala reached Srinagar and were soon engaged in strafing the raiders beyond Pattan. Within a week, the Tempests of No 7 Squadron were playing a decisive role in the battle of Shelatang and had halted the movement of the insurgents. The fighting continued for 15 months and the RIAF was involved throughout the operations.

In January 1950, India became a Republic within the British Commonwealth and the Indian Air Force dropped its "Royal" prefix. At this time, it possessed six fighter squadrons of Spitfires, Vampires and Tempests operating from Kanpur, Poona, Ambala and Palam, one B-24 bomber squadron, one C-47 Dakota transport squadron, one AOP flight, a communication squadron at Palam and a growing training organisation.

The real test of IAF's airlift capability came in October 1962 when an open warfare erupted on the Sino-Indian border. During the period, October 20-November 20, pressure on the transport and helicopter units was intense, troops and supplies having to be flown to the support of the border posts virtually round-the-clock and at high altitudes. The helicopters had to constantly run the gauntlet of Chinese small arms and anti-aircraft fire, while operating on tricky helipads in the mountains. Many notable feats were performed by the IAF during this conflict, including the operation of C-119 Gs from airstrips 17,000 ft AMSL in the Karakoram Himalayas and the airlifting by AN-12Bs of two troops of AMX-13 light tanks to Chushul, in Ladakh, where the small airstrip was 15,000 ft AMSL.

An unusual task given to the IAF was to support United Nations in Congo (now Zaire) in 1961-62 for dealing with the Katanga rebellion. Following an appeal by the UN troops to restore law and order in Congo six Canberra B(1) 58s of No 5 Squadron were flown from Agra to Central Africa. Operating from Leopoldville and Kamina, the Canberras soon destroyed the rebel Air Force, raided Katangan targets and provided the UN ground forces with its only long-range air support force.

On September 1, 1965 Pakistan launched a massive attack in the Chhamb sector. In response to the urgent requests for air strikes against Pakistani armour advancing in the Chhamb-Jaurian sector, IAF fighters went into action. Vampires of No 45 Squadron undergoing operational training at a forward base, mounted their first sorties at 1745 hrs on the first day of the conflict and on their heels came the Mystere of Nos 3 and 31 Squadrons operating from Pathankot. IAF Gnats proved their mettle in shooting down several PAF F-6 Sabres in this sector, the first aerial victories being notched up by Nos 23 and 9 Squadrons. Full-scale war broke out on September 6 all along the international border between West Pakistan and India. Pakistan attempted a pre-emptive strike on the same day, attacking IAF bases at Adampur, Halwara, Pathankot, Srinagar, Jamnagar and Kalaikunda. On the following day, IAF retaliated with air raids and shot down a PAF star fighter in air combat in Sargodha. The IAF provided close air support to the Indian Army in the famous battle of 'Assal Uttar' in Khemkaran sector. In this battle, the thrust of Pakistani Armoured Division was beaten back. The IAF also interdicted Pakistan's railway network, successfully hitting at the Pakistani forces as well as their stores of necessary war-material and also their lines of communication and supply by blowing up trains carrying these goods. With the assistance of IAF, India's ground forces advanced to the outskirts of Lahore. A cease-fire was shortly declared.

As the political situation in the sub-continent deteriorated, the load of 10 million Bangladeshi refugees in India was too much for a weak Indian economy. The IAF was alerted to the possibility of another armed conflict. For some weeks in November, both Indian and Pakistan governments protested violations of national airspace along the western border, but aerial conflict between the respective air arms began in earnest on 22 November, preceding full-scale warfare between India and Pakistan by 12 days. At 1449 hours, four Pakistani Sabres strafed Indian and Mukti Bahini positions in the Chowgacha Mor area, and 10 minutes later, while engaged on a third strafing run, the Sabres were intercepted by four Gnats from No. 22 Sqn, a detachment of which was operating from Dum Dum Airport, Calcutta. During the ensuing melee, three of the Sabres were shot down, all Gnats returning to base unscathed. The first blood of a new Indo-Pakistan air war had been drawn. Other encounters were to follow over the next 10 days, within both Indian and Pakistani airspace, before full-scale war began on 3 December.

On December 3, 1971, pre-emptive strikes were launched by the Pakistani Air Force against IAF bases at Srinagar, Amritsar and Pathankot followed by attacks on Ambala, Agra, Jodhpur, Uttarlai, Awantipur, Faridkot, Halwara and Sirsa. In response to these strikes, the IAF carried out some 4000 sorties in the west from major and forward bases in Jammu, Kashmir, Punjab and Rajasthan while, in the east, a further 1978 sorties were flown. It was in the western theatre that the MiG-21 was employed in Pathankot in the north to Jamnagar in the southwestern area. The MiG-21 mounted combat air patrol missions over vital points and vital areas, flew escort missions for bombers and strike-fighters and was continuously scrambled to intercept hostile intruders. The first aerial victory was on December 12, 1971, when MiG-21s of No 47 Squadron shot down a PAF F-104 over the Gulf of Kutch. This was followed by three more victories in quick succession on December 17 when MiG-21s of No 29 Squadron escorting Maruts, shot down intercepting F-104s near Uttarlai in Rajasthan desert in gun-missile encounters while a third F-104, on an intruding mission, was shot down by another MiG-21 of No 29 Squadron. This singular contribution by IAF resulted in a decisive victory for India that resulted in the birth of an independent state of Bangladesh with the unconditional surrender of 90,000 soldiers of Pakistan's armed forces.

By the mid '70s, the IAF was clearly in need of urgent re-equipment decisions and various requirements, better known by their acronyms DPSA, TASA, METAC and HETAC, were pursued and decisions were forthcoming at last. The period, the IAF was to benefit from a crest in the eighties, the period 1978-88 witnessing a major modernisation programme which replaced most of the earlier generation and obsolete equipment with spanking new aircraft types and weapon systems. No less than twenty new aircraft types and sub-types entered the IAF's service over these years, including various strike fighters, third-generation supersonic interceptors, tri-sonic reconnaissance aircraft, strategic heavy lift transports, medium tactical transports, light transport aircraft, heavy lift and medium-assault helicopters, basic trainers, surface-to-air missiles and an array of sophisticated weaponry.

The IAF has been strenuously involved in many other major operations that have extended the capacity of its transport and helicopter fleet. With the support of the Indian Army and para-military forces in Northern Ladakh, IAF launched operation Meghadoot to control the heights predominating the Siachen glacier. The IL-76, AN-32, Mi-17 IV and Chetak/Cheetah helicopters of the IAF still continue with their untiring zeal ferrying men and material to the dizzy heights under the most inhospitable conditions.

To support the mission of the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) in northern and eastern Sri Lanka, IAF launched operation Pawan which lasted almost some thirty months. Some 70,000 sorties were flown by the IAF's transport and helicopter fleet to and within Sri Lanka without a single aircraft lost or mission aborted.

In November 1988, in response to the Maldives government's appeal for military help against a mercenary invasion, IAF launched operation Cactus to airlift a parachute battalion group from Agra to Maldives. IL-76 aircraft of No 44 Squadron landed at Hulule with in short time. The Indian paratroopers secured the airfield and restored the government's rule at Male within hours. IAF Mirage-2000 and AN-32 aircraft also supported the operation.

The IAF took part in the UN peace- keeping duties in Somalia in 1993-94 and once again in Sierra Leone in 2000-2001 sending its helicopters including Mi-8, Mi-17 and Mi-25s.

Operation Safed Sagar, as the air operation in the Kargil area was called, was indeed a milestone in the history of military aviation. This was the first time that air power was employed in such an environment. Fighters as well as armed helicopters carried out many hundreds of sorties against the armed intruders who had infiltrated into the Indian territory. The use of air power in this theatre was instrumental in accelerating the end of the conflict to India's advantage. IAF's air strikes against enemy supply camps and other targets yielded rich dividends. A noteworthy fact is that there was not a single operation on ground that was not preceded by air strikes, each and every action was a result of coordinated planning between 15 Corps and AOC, J&K. The enemy was kept off the back of the Indian Army. In the area of interdiction of enemy supplies, the successful and incessant attacks on the enemy's logistic machines, over the weeks, culminated in a serious degradation of the enemy's ability to sustain them.

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