Shastriji told me to ensure that civilians on the other side were not attacked. He was a simple and nice human being. He was a man of peace.
Small battles between India and Pakistan had been going on in Kashmir ever since they started sending raiders dressed in plain clothes. The real war of 1965 started only after Pakistan, under Operation Grand Slam, tried to cut off Jammu and Kashmir through an armoured-cum-infantry attack on the Akhnoor sector.
Soon after, General J.N. Chaudhuri, then Army chief, returned from Srinagar and came to meet me in Vayu Bhawan. He told me that unless the Indian Air Force got involved, it would be difficult to stop the Pakistanis in the Chamb-Jaurian sector.
After that, he and I went to meet defence minister Y.B. Chavan, who asked me if the Indian Air Force was ready for war. Yes, I said, but also warned him that, because of the attacks in the dark, my pilots might hit their own troops and tanks and the government should be ready to accept that.
Chavan gave us the go-ahead and that is how the war started. Had Pakistan not attacked Chamb-Jaurian sector to capture the Akhnoor bridge, there would have been no war.
I don’t remember exactly, but I think we started the attacks with 22 aircraft, including Gnats, Hunters, Mysteres and Vampires. We used the Pathankot airfield, from where we could fly into Pakistan in a few minutes, using to our advantage the mountains of Jammu and Kashmir.
With massive American aid and support, Pakistan had a qualitatively superior force that included modern fighters such as F-86 Sabres and F-104 Starfighters. The Indian Air Force had Mysteres, Vampires, Ouragans, Hunters, and Gnats in its inventory. We were fighting against all odds as they had air-to-air missiles and we just had a few Russian MiGs that were not used much in the war.
In hindsight, I regret that we used the Vampires—they were slow and I realise that it was a mistake. The Pakistanis, on the other hand, had the Sabres, Starfighters and the advanced Miracle radar.
Before moving ahead, I would like to tell you that, when I went to the US along with Chavan, the Americans offered us a second-rate fighter aircraft called the F-5. I outrightly rejected the offer and the defence minister backed me. The F-5 was no match for the Pakistani Sabres. After that, they offered us another aircraft, which was even worse, and we did not accept any of them.
In the war, we attacked from the Pathankot and Halwara airbases—we would fly very low and hide in the mountains in the Pir Panjal range and attack them. To protect their aircraft, the Pakistanis started sending them to the Zahedan airbase in Iran.
In my opinion, in an aerial war, it is the first two days that matter. After that, the whole game is about action and reaction. In 1965, the Sabres and the Starfighters were considered to be qualitatively superior, but the Gnats were no less. The achievements of the Keelor brothers (Denzil and Trevor), in shooting down the Sabres from their Gnats, had instilled fear in the Pakistanis.
The only major damage the Pakistanis could inflict was at the Pathankot airbase where we lost some of our aircraft. In spite of the initial reverses in Pathankot, we recovered operational balance. The IAF's commendable performance was not only because of the mistakes on the part of the Pakistan air force, but also because of the individual initiative, brilliance and courage of the IAF personnel.
After that, the only attack that Pakistan could manage was on Ambala, where it hit a church while trying to damage the runway. Runways were never important targets for me, as they could be repaired and used within one hour of damage. After that, whenever the Sabres tried to attack the Halwara airbase, they were shot down by our people.
During the war, Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri gave me only one direction—ensure that the civilians on the other side were not attacked. He was a very simple and nice human being. He was a man of peace. I was also against targeting civilians.
We were a big air force and had the option of falling back to Hindon, Agra or bases in the northeast. Pakistan did not have that option.
In my opinion, the war ended in a stalemate. But, as it progressed, we were in an advantageous position. The IAF had lost only 8.5 per cent of its resources while the PAF is estimated to have lost 43 of its 186 aircraft.
When the talk about ceasefire started, I had advised Shastriji, who was under enormous international pressure, against accepting it. On the other hand, Pakistan was losing its aircraft at a fast rate and was keen on accepting the ceasefire. However, because of international pressure and other considerations, India agreed to the ceasefire.
Arjan Singh is Marshal of the Indian Air Force.
AS TOLD TO AJIT KUMAR DUBEY