Indian Air Force (IAF) chief of staff NAK Browne, speaking just before the IAF’s 80th anniversary, made the rather astounding claim that if India had used “offensive airpower” during the China War of 1962, that “would have changed” the war’s course and averted India’s humiliating defeat.
The Nehru government however restricted the IAF\\\’s role to merely providing transportation support to the Indian Army in the belief that use of airpower would have been an "escalatory" step which would provoke China into bombing Indian cities.
In hindsight, Air Chief Marshal Browne said, India should learn “open and glaring lessons” from history, and contrasted India’s use of offensive airpower at Kargil, which brought the conflict to a rapid conclusion.
A similar view was expressed by Air Vice Marshal AK Tewary in 2006 in an Indian Defence Review article, in which he quoted Lt Gen BM Kaul, the army commander in todays’s Arunachal Pradesh, as saying “we made a great mistake in not employing our Air Force in a close support role…”
The crucial assumption here is that there was a relatively smaller asymmetry between the Indian and Chinese air forces, and the IAF’s deployment would have reduced the overwhelming superiority that China enjoyed in the balance of the land forces.
These judgments may belatedly provide some comfort to Indian military leaders. But they are speculative and based on the “what if” question, or what social scientists call counterfactuals. It’s hard to prove or disprove counterfactuals conclusively. But one can assess their plausibility by considering their context and the facts known at the relevant point of time.
On these criteria, it appears highly unlikely and even implausible that the use of airpower would have changed the India-China military balance in a major way. China’s airpower was, or believed to be, far superior to India’s, with a 3:1 asymmetry in the total number of planes. The asymmetry was even greater 5:1 in respect of fighters.
Using the IAF in offensive operations would have invited large-scale retaliation, including bombing of Indian cities, with extremely high civilian casualties. India would have very little defence against such an offensive. Besides, no amount of airpower could have helped its Army overcome the fundamental disadvantages it suffered. Its soldiers were severely under-prepared for battle—ill-clad and ill-shod for the cold weather, poorly armed, and for the most part, poorly led too. Their advances were repulsed within the first fortnight, both in the Northeast and the Western sector.
Indian Army units could not have held out for long in the harsh Himalayan conditions. It is only in Chushul in Ladakh and in Walong in the Northeast that they put up resistance. But India’s great hope, the 12,000-strong 4th Division, simply disintegrated after an attack on a patrol party by 800 Chinese troops. Lt Gen Kaul reported ill and ignominiously fled the field. On November 19, army chief PN Thapar was relieved of his charge. The next day, China unilaterally declared a ceasefire.
It’s hard to see how the IAF, which didn’t then have a command close to Arunachal Pradesh, could have significantly altered the war’s outcome. The overall strategic balance and the appalling quality of India’s military and civil leadership would have prevented a better outcome.
It was later revealed that with mounting Sino-Soviet tensions, the USSR refused to supply spares for the warplanes transferred to China, thus effectively grounding much of its air force. But this wasn’t known in 1962 to Indian leaders, who depended primarily on the CIA for such intelligence, which the agency didn’t have. But that doesn’t give more credibility to Air Chief Marshal Browne’s claims.
At any rate, having militarily humbled India, the Chinese voluntarily vacated the posts which they could have continued to occupy, and withdrew to positions 20 km behind the Line of Actual Control, positions going back to November 1959. They didn’t take prisoners of war although they could have easily done so. The Chinese could have marched all the way to Kolkata without meeting much resistance. But having made their point, they stopped well short of the border.
In fact, the People’s Liberation Army treated the surrendered Indian officers courteously and flew down some of the unfit ones close to the border. Why, in some instances, its soldiers even oiled and polished the firearms seized from Indian soldiers before returning them!
This doesn’t argue that the Chinese were or are noble-spirited angels, but only that the primary purpose of their 1962 operation was to repulse India’s ill-conceived “forward policy”, of evicting them from disputed areas without seriously negotiating the border issue.
This was in keeping with the delusion harboured by many Indian leaders that they could inflict a military defeat on China. Gen Kaul had declared that “a few rounds fired at the Chinese would cause them to run away.” The then home minister Lal Bahadur Shastri announced that if China didn’t vacate the disputed areas, India would eject it from them just as easily it had thrown Portugal out of Goa.
As India’s rout became imminent, Jawaharlal Nehru panicked and begged the US for military help and air cover not just in “our fight for survival”, but “the survival of freedom and independence in this sub-continent and rest of Asia”. He wrote two desperate letters to President Kennedy within a few hours’ interval on November 19, which remained classified in the US until recently. They expose the depths to which Indian leaders’ morale had sunk.
Confirming the IAF’s weakness, Nehru wrote: “We have repeatedly felt the need of using air arm in support of our land forces, but have been unable to do so as in the present state of our air and radar equipment we have no defence against retaliatory action ….” But Nehru added: “Any air action to be taken against the Chinese beyond the limits of our country … will be taken by IAF planes manned by Indian personnel.” To attack Chinese air bases, Nehru wanted “two squadrons” of B-47 bombers, for which Indian pilots and technicians would be trained in the US. “We are confident that your great country will in this hour of our trial help us…”
Arms poured in from the US, and also Britain and Israel. US ambassador JK Galbraith also recommended that “elements of the Seventh Fleet be sent into the Bay of Bengal”. Thus the aircraft carrier Enterprise arrived as a mark of solidarity with India. This manoeuvre, which India didn’t protest against, was repeated during the Bangladesh war, when it was seen as a menacing gesture.
The 1962 war isn’t even a distant memory in Beijing. But it continues to rankle in India although it claimed far fewer casualties than the Indian Peace-Keeping Force operation in Sri Lanka in the 1980s. This is largely because it’s tied up with a much greater failure than a military one on India’s part—namely, refusal to discuss the boundary question with China while asserting British colonial claims to territory along an undemarcated border.
India demanded that the Chinese accept the McMahon Line (negotiated by the British in 1914 with Tibet, but which China never accepted) in the Northeast, and the Johnson map in the West, both part of the British policy of extending the reach of its colonial domination. As the Congress party recognised in the 1930s, the policy was “traditionally guided by considerations more of holding India in subjection than of protecting her borders”, and “India as a self-governing country can have nothing to fear from her neighbouring states…”
However, the rulers of independent India contradictorily saw themselves as heirs of the colonial state. For many of them, India\\\’s boundaries became sacred and holy: inalienable parts of the motherland. They claimed, citing the Upanishads and the Mahabharata, that the McMahon Line coincided with India’s borders as they had existed for two thousand years, in which “the striving of the Indian spirit was directed towards these Himalayan fastnesses”.
They repeatedly spurned Chinese proposals for talks. In 1960, they rejected in Zhou Enlai’s offer, following a new boundary agreement accepting the McMahon Line where it abutted on Burma, of a similar agreement with India, in exchange for India’s acceptance that Aksai Chin in the West belonged to China. This would have been eminently practical because Aksai Chin matters to China, but not India, to whom Arunachal is important.
After 1959, both sides progressively hardened their positions. Nehru came under domestic pressure to demonstrate “firmness”. The “forward policy” and the 1962 debacle followed. To cover that up, strident chauvinism was drummed up through the media, text-books and semi-official accounts. The government has still not published the Henderson-Brooks Report analysing the military defeat, thus adding to the nationalist chauvinism.
The real lessons to be drawn from all this is that India must open negotiations with China and settle the border dispute along pragmatic lines. The way forward lies in honourable reconciliation and talks on the Chinese-proposed “package deal”, not hubristic claims about how India could have won the war or can still avenge its defeat.
(First published in the Kashmir Times)