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PAF s' Specials
Air Defence in Southern Sector - 1971 War

by Air Cdre (Retd) Kaiser Tufail

No 32 Fighter Ground Attack Wing at Masroor was a large composite Unit, half of whose assets had been moved to the northern bases. What remained of the fighter units included No 19 Squadron with a healthy count of 26 F-86E/F [1]. No 9 Squadron moved in from Sargodha on 6 December with 7 F-104As, after completing a few strikes against forward radars in Indian Punjab. A much belated but welcome reinforcement of the air defence assets were ten Royal Jordanian Air Force F-104As that arrived in two batches, starting 13 December. A small 19-Squadron detachment of four F-86Es was positioned at the forward base of Talhar (located 100-nm east of Masroor) as the first tier of defence against raids emanating from the eastern direction, besides providing a quick-reaction force for the defence of the high-powered radar at nearby Badin.

In case of Masroor being knocked out, the runways at Drigh Road Base and Karachi Airport were well-suited for emergency recoveries, though full-scale operations could not be supported at these locations due to scanty logistics support.

Between Masroor and the next northern base of Rafiqui lay a gap of at least 350-nm without fighter cover, through which traversed Pakistan’s vital north-south railway link running as close as 25-nm from the border. Elements of Pakistan Army’s No 18 Division, which were poised for an ill-planned offensive, also lay at the mercy of the IAF as no PAF aircraft were based anywhere close.

As in the rest of the country, control of the air was essentially based on air defence missions that relied upon non-existent or suspect early warning and, disruptive night airfield strikes, with uncertain results. Base Commander Masroor, Air Cdre Nazir Latif and OC No 32 Fighter Ground Attack Wing, Gp Capt Wiqar Azim had their hands full to juggle the limited assets for the seemingly endless tasks.

Just like his colleagues at Masroor, Gp Capt Anwar Shamim, the Sector Commander, Sector Operations Centre (South) located at its war-time site at Korangi [2], was confronted with a problem of inadequate assets, particularly low level radars and night interceptors. High level radar surveillance cover in the southern air defence sector rested upon a FPS-20 radar at Badin and a P-35 radar (ex-Dacca) [3] at Malir. Another P-35 radar, which was moved from Malir to Jacobabad mid-way in the war, became operational only when the war ended. A decrepit, fifties-vintage Type-21 radar was located near Khanpur; it was scrapped soon after the war, but may well have served a useful purpose of keeping the enemy guessing, as it spewed out queer waveforms at odd hours!

Low level cover was provided by a Civil Aviation ASR-4 approach radar at Karachi Airport and an AR-1 radar at Pir Patho. The latter location was supposed to cover the south-eastern approaches, but was an unfavourable compromise due to constraints of terrain, logistics and security. As a consequence, direct flight tracks from Jamnagar to Masroor remained on the fringes of the radar footprint, and could be easily bypassed by flying a dog-leg and hugging the coast [4]. Practically thus, low level early warning in the whole southern sector rested on the reports by Mobile Observer Units (MOUs). Given the inherently tardy chain of reporting, as well as delays in correlation of these reports with own flight plans, the reaction by interceptors was often hopelessly delayed.

A sad reflection of this state of affairs was the shooting down of an F-86E, one of a pair which had just scrambled from Talhar and, was too late to intercept an incoming raid of three Hunters on 13 December. One of the Hunters was able to lunge on to the vulnerable F-86E as it was turning out of traffic [5]. Flg Off Nasim Baig did not survive the gun attack and his aircraft crashed near the airfield perimeter.

An unsavoury surprise came on the morning of 17 December, the last day of the war, when two Uttarlai-based MiG-21FLs escorting a flight of four HF-24s on a morning army support mission, bounced a pair of patrolling F-104s near Naya Chor. After a head-to-head blow through, both pairs turned for each other. Flt Samad Changezi, the F-104 wingman, apparently having spotted the pair earlier, split from the formation and manoeuvred to get behind the lead MiG-21. He had to close in to gun range as no missiles were being carried – an inexplicable error by the mission planners. [6] In the meantime the MiG-21 wingman, Flt Lt Arun Datta, was able to close in behind Changezi’s F-104 and fire a missile which missed its target. The F-104 leader, Flt Lt Rashid Bhatti, warned Changezi to disengage and exit as he had been fired at, but the warning was disregarded in the heat of combat. That inattention earned Changezi a fatal penalty, when a second K-13 missile slammed into his aircraft with an explosion that left no chance of ejection. [7] A squirming Bhatti thought of chasing Datta’s MiG-21 but, being low on fuel and unsuitably armed, he wisely decided against any more recklessness.

Typically, Canberra night raids were launched from Pune (some staged through Jamnagar) and Hunter daylight raids from Jamnagar, against Masroor or Karachi Harbour. These were flown in a ‘high-low-high’ profile, with the high legs flown in own territory to conserve fuel. Thus, early warning of a raid was usually available through the long range high level radars, but sooner the raiders descended to low level, the prospects of successful interception diminished exponentially. Even the F-104, whose AN/ASG-14T1 airborne radar promised a 20-nm search range in the look-up mode, was no help at low level, due to the inability of its first-generation simple pulse radar to sift through ground clutter. On a few occasions when the ground radar did manage to put the interceptor behind the target – even though after weapons release – the Canberra’s Orange Putter tail warning radar kicked off an alarm, resulting in evasive manoeuvring and a clean getaway.

The PAF was utterly fortunate that, despite serious air defence shortcomings in the southern sector, Masroor runway remained operational throughout the war. Nonetheless, on 4 December, a B-57 and two F-86Es that were being serviced, were damaged in a dusk-time strafing attack by three Hunters. Canberras also carried out incessant stream raids during the first three nights, but the main runway was damaged only once, on the night of 4/5 December. As a safety precaution, a flight of four B-57s was moved to Drigh Road Base for the next two days [8]. On the night of 5/6 December, one valuable ELINT RB-57 was destroyed and one T-33 damaged by Canberras, in what may have been a chance hit on a maintenance hangar at Masroor.

The runway at Jacobabad was hit on the morning of 4 December resulting in a single crater. The ATC towers at Hyderabad and Nawabshah were damaged during morning raids the same day. On the night of 10 December, Nawabshah runway was cratered in two places following an attack by Canberras.

On the evening of 4 December, a pair of IAF fighters struck Badin radar after slipping through, unseen. The aerial head and vital components of the FPS-6 height finder were destroyed, along with extensive damage to the power house and fuel stores. The radar was recovered, with degraded performance, after a day.

After 6 December, IAF discontinued airfield strikes in earnest following substantial aircraft losses in the north and, switched its focus to interdiction of communications networks and wrecking of energy resources. A more equable appraisal by the IAF could have taken into account the gross weakness of PAF’s air defences in the southern sector and, it could have persisted in its counter-air campaign without let or much hindrance. The rewards that Indian Army’s Southern Command could have indirectly reaped on the ground – by not allowing PAF to be viable over the battlefield in Thar – would have been considerable.

Due to the lack of low level radar cover as well as absence of fighters in the Upper Sind area, PAF found itself completely helpless against IAF’s interdiction campaign which targeted the railway network on Landhi-Khanpur Section and, between Mirpur Khas-Naya Chor Section. Lack of AAA defences over important nodes of the network made matters worse. Nine railway stations on these sections were repeatedly targeted, with particular emphasis on the important junctions of Mirpur Khas and Rohri; the latter was attacked as many as five times. Even the An-12 transport aircraft was mustered for a massive barrage of eight tons of bombs against the latter railway station, on one occasion. Nineteen trains, including two 'special military' type, were also attacked on the above-mentioned sections, while several track segments between Reti and Khanpur were damaged. Besides the general purpose of degrading the country’s rail infrastructure on an enduring basis, IAF’s interdiction campaign in the south was more specifically meant to choke off reinforcements of men and material to the struggling 18 Division in Naya Chor. That a Pak Army relief brigade and much-needed ammunition and other supplies were still able to arrive by train, in time to staunch the onslaught of the Indian 11 Division, clearly shows that IAF’s interdiction effort in the south fell short of what was desired. It was also some solace for the PAF, much discomfited as it was, in the given situation.

IAF sporadically continued its strategic air offensive in the south against a few select energy resources, including oil storage tanks at Keamari Terminal in Karachi and the natural gas facility at Sui. Commencing with an audacious morning attack on 4 December, a flight of four Hunters [9] rocketed and strafed the sprawling storage farms at Keamari that housed about 100 tanks. The licks of flame spread to adjacent tanks and in minutes, turned into a huge inferno that continued to burn for days. Regrettably, the PAF fighters as well as the Pak Navy AAA were unable to react as there had been no warning of the attack, the Hunters having approached low from the seaward side to avoid the MOUs. While the psychological impact of the raging firestorm was devastating, the strategic reserves of POL remained largely unscathed. Not withstanding the Indian bluster about lighting the ‘biggest fires in Asia’, only five storage tanks had burnt, causing a loss of about 15,000 tons of various oils [10].

On 14 December around mid-day, a flight of four Hunters struck the country’s major natural gas facility at Sui with rockets. The attack portended the ominous direction the war was taking as the IAF operated with impunity, unchallenged from Keamari to Sui.

For the defence of VAs and VPs in the southern sector, PAF flew a total of 253 sorties employing F-86E/F and F-104; these included 167 day sorties and a measly 23 night sorties from Masroor, while Talhar generated 63 day sorties. Additionally, 43 CAP sorties were flown over the battle areas in Thar and Kutch. Neither ingressing nor egressing enemy aircraft could be shot down by an interceptor, in what turned out to be an almost futile air defence effort in the south. The Army AAA, however, had a fair amount of success in being able to down five enemy aircraft during the vulnerable attack phase [11].

Given the air defence assets whose quantity as well as quality left a lot to be desired, there were very few tactical tricks that could be pulled out of the proverbial hat. Air Defence in the southern sector was, thus, a hopeless cause.

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[1] 12 F-86F were attached to the squadron three months prior to the war.
[2] The headquarters, which was earlier located at Badin, was moved to Korangi at the outbreak of war.
[3] This radar was retrieved from Kurmitola near Dacca in October 1971, leaving East Pakistan with no high level radar cover.
[4] The locations of all radars are believed to have been compromised by defecting Bengali personnel long before the war started.
[5] The F-86E was shot down by Flt Lt Farokh Jahangir Mehta of the Jamnagar-based Hunter OCU.
[6] It was decided to use the RJAF aircraft for night air defence without missiles (ie, gun only), making the wingtips available for carriage of drop tanks instead of carrying them under wings, which increased the drag by about 45%. The rationale was that with the limited effort available, staying in the air for a longer duration was a better pay-off in terms of deterrence, rather than carrying out futile night interceptions in the absence of an effective low level GCI radar or a worthwhile AI radar. It so happened that Bhatti’s pair, which had deployed at Drigh Road a day earlier as a back-up to Masroor, was to return to its parent base as the war in the East had come to an abrupt end. Just before ferrying the aircraft back, the pair was asked to fly an ill-conceived ‘show of presence’ CAP between Mirpurkhas-Naya Chor. That is how an improperly armed pair ended up in a close dogfight that was not quite the F-104's forte.
[7] The downed aircraft was RJAF F-104 serial number 56-787.
[8] While other aircraft could operate from the undamaged portion, the fully-laden B-57s needed a much longer runway for take-off.
[9] The raid was led by Wg Cdr Donald Conquest, OC of the Hunter OCU at Jamnagar.
[10] Mr M Niaz, who was the Sales Development Engineer of ESSO in 1971, led the team that put out the fires. He states that out of the five tanks that were destroyed, three belonging to Dawood Petroleum Ltd contained fuel oil, one belonging to ESSO contained light diesel oil and one belonging to Pakistan Refinery Ltd contained crude oil. A subsequent hit by a Styx missile fired by an IN Osa missile boat on the night of 8/9 December, destroyed one more tank containing crude oil.
[11] AAA shot down the following aircraft in the Southern Sector:
- 1xHF-24 flown by Flt Lt P V Apte, KIA, Naya Chor, 4 December.
- 1xHF-24 flown by Flt Lt J L Bhargava, POW, Naya Chor, 5 December.
- 1xCanberra flown by Flt Lt S C Sandal (pilot) and Flt Lt K S Nanda (navigator), both KIA, Masroor, night 4/5 December.
- 1xHF-24 flown by Sqn Ldr A V Kamat, POW, Hyderabad, 9 December.
- 1xMiG-21 flown by Wg Cdr H S Gill, KIA, Badin, 13 December.

 
 
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