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The India-Pakistan Air War of 1965

by P.V.S. Jagan Mohan and Samir Chopr, Manohar, New Delhi, India, 2005, $34.

This is an unusually well-done book on a subject that has been almost completely overlooked in the American press. Apart from a very few magazine articles (including Jon Guttman’s “Pakistan’s Sabre Ace” in the September 1998 issue of Aviation History), almost nothing has been written about a conflict that has important implications for today’s world.

Kashmir was the flashpoint for the short but bloody India-Pakistan war of 1965, and it remains so today, with a horrifying difference. Both India and Pakistan now have nuclear weapons, and there is little doubt in anyone’s mind that they would use them in the event of another conflict. Perhaps even more important from the American point of view is that another India-Pakistan conflict would almost certainly result in Pakistani nuclear weapons falling into the hands of terrorists.

The air war between the two countries, once united as a part of Great Britain’s Imperial India, was conducted by highly trained, motivated pilots flying modern equipment. Many of the senior pilots, including the respective commanders of the two opposing air forces, had flown together in the Royal Indian Air Force and had been friends. The authors have interviewed many of the participants, and in doing so have greatly enlivened their story with personal accounts. These form the heart and soul of the book, with their fascinating mixture of Eastern and Western fighter pilot slang.

While neither author is a pilot, their liking for airplanes is reflected in the excellent descriptions of jet fighters that have long since departed the combat arena. They use the personal narrative of the pilots who flew them to impart the real flavor of the time. One of the most interesting aircraft was the Folland Gnat, a tiny, highly sensitive light fighter that proved itself in combat—and was descended via the design group from H.P. Folland’s famous S.E.5 of World War I. Another fascinating comparison is made between the English Electric Canberras supplied to the Indian Air Force and the Martinbuilt Canberras supplied to the Pakistani Air Force. While the two planes had comparable performance, the Pakistani version had the great advantage of tandem seating and ejection seats for both crew members—a feature sadly lacking in the Indian version.

The authors give a brief account of the history of the Indian Air Force, which became the Royal Indian Air Force in 1945, and was thus the sire of both the present Indian and Pakistani air arms.

After independence came to the two countries in 1947, both had difficulties in creating a modern air force. India chose to spend money on new hardware as a political statement, although it failed to back up the new hardware with adequate spares and maintenance. Pakistan labored along with inadequate equipment until it became a part of the South-East Asian Treaty Organization (SEATO) in 1954, and became the beneficiary of a large-scale reequipment by the United States. The Pakistani Air Force received a substantial number of North American F-86s, along with a handful of Lockheed F-104s.

India maintained an Anglo-French connection by purchasing de Havilland Vampires, Dassault Ouragans and Mystères, Hawker Hunters, Folland Gnats and other aircraft. It tried to meet the threat of the Pakistani F-104s by acquiring MiG-21s in 1962.

The reader is walked through the incidents that led to the 1965 war and then plunged into the sharp but relatively brief conflict that took place in September of that year. The authors do a very evenhanded job in describing the combat via personal accounts. They conclude with an excellent series of appendices.

This book is highly recommended, especially for the aviation history collector who thought he had everything.


Originally published in the March 2006 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe, click here