March 26, 1971, brought a new twist to the hostilities that had persisted between India and Pakistan since achieving mutual independence in 1947. On that day East Pakistan declared its independence from the latter as Bangladesh, immediately sparking a war between its guerrilla army and Pakistani armed forces—primarily three army divisions and the 20 Canadair Sabre fighters of the Pakistan Air Force’s No. 14 Squadron.

That India was aiding the rebels became manifest on November 22, when three Sabres strafing enemy positions were engaged by four Folland Gnats of the Indian Air Force’s No. 24 Squadron, resulting in two downed Sabres. The next day Pakistan declared a state of emergency.

On November 30 Pakistani President Yahya Khan met with Chief of Army Staff Gen. Abdul Hamid Khan and Chief of General Staff Lt. Gen. Abdur Rahim Khan to work out their nation’s best—or perhaps least regrettable—recourse. Drawing from the pre-emptive strategy Israel had used to achieve air superiority in the 1967 Six-Day War, Operation Chengiz Khan called for pre-emptive strikes against nearly a dozen forward Indian air bases.

After neutralizing the IAF, the PAF would support a ground offensive aimed at seizing as much territory as possible. The PAF would launch its attacks at 5:45 p.m. on a Friday, the Muslim sabbath, to coincide with shift changes at the IAF control centers. Having learned from the 1967 Israeli strikes, the IAF had dispersed its aircraft in concrete shelters and camouflaged its command centers, fuel depots and ammo dumps. Thus PAF pilots were to focus instead on taking out air defense radars and bombing runways.

Around 5:45 p.m. on December 3 PAF Sabres struck the base at Pathankot, and Dassault Mirage IIIEPs attacked Amritsar. Within minutes Sabres hit Srinagar. Through 10:30 p.m. three waves of Pakistani aircraft also targeted Ambala, Agra, Awantipur, Bhuj, Bikaner, Faridkot, Halwara, Jaisalmer, Jodhpur, Sirsa, Sarsawa and Uttarlai, as well as railway stations and armored vehicle concentrations.

The most damage was done at Amritsar, where Pakistani jets cratered the first 1,000 feet of runway and hit a radar site. At Sirsa Martin B-57B Canberras scattered bombs with time-delayed fuzes, which detonated at intervals all that night. At Faridkot a PAF fighter destroyed a parked light aircraft. Within 45 minutes of the first strikes Pakistani troops crossed the border into Jammu.

All PAF aircraft returned to base. Regardless, the Pakistanis’ results fell far short of what the Israelis had achieved, partly because the Indians kept most of their air assets farther back, and partly because the PAF only committed 30 percent of its aircraft to the operation.

By the next morning India had mobilized forces for the yet-to-be-declared war and repaired virtually all the damaged runways, enabling it to hurl its 1,025 warplanes against Pakistan’s 280. Over the next 13 days aerial combat raged over the opposing bases and embattled armies. The ultimate outcome was the one Yahya Khan had hoped to avert—defeat in both Pakistans and independence for Bangladesh.

Lessons:

Repeat recent military history at your own peril. Given the Royal Air Force origins of both subcontinental air arms, it was wishful thinking for the PAF to expect the IAF in 1971 to be as unaware and unprepared as the Egyptian air force had been in 1967.

Fight to win or don’t fight. Having resolved to launch pre-emptive air strikes, Khan hedged his bets by committing only 30 percent of his aircraft.

Runways are hard to eliminate. By the morning after the raid India had restored its runways, as well as its control centers and radar installations. 

 MH

This article appeared in the November 2021 issue of Military History magazine. For more stories, subscribe here and visit us on Facebook: