Revisting 1962, with ifs and buts

Many years ago, Air Marshal B.D. Jayal (Retd), former Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief, South Western Air Command, one of the most thoughtful airmen around, recalled how he and his mates of 1 Squadron sat in their transonic Mystere IVA fighter-bombers lined up on the Tezpur airfield in Assam, their frustration mounting by the minute, awaiting the order to take off against the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) that never came. Jayal’s experience came to mind when reading Air Chief Marshal N.A.K. Browne’s comment on the 50th anniversary of the 1962 war that but for the non-use of Indian Air Force (IAF) India might not have lost. It is an arguable thesis.
Had the IAF been ordered into action, the advance of PLA across the Thag La Ridge would have been hindered but not halted. Indian planes would have fought unopposed in the air, leaving the pilots to concentrate on releasing the on-board ordnance at the right moment in their dives, but only until the Chinese interceptors and bombers arrived on the scene. Air intelligence passed on by the British to the Indian government had indicated no active Chinese air activity in Tibet, and indeed very few serviceable air strips — no more than three or four on the entire plateau. But the IAF aircraft would have had to contend, especially in the East, with steep mountainsides, and the bomb drops very likely would have missed their targets, most of the time. It wouldn’t have helped that the targets were mainly infantry columns, foot soldiers making up the “rifle and millet corps” comprising the PLA at the time. For reasons of terrain, the IAF aircraft might have been more effective in the West in the Aksai Chin, where the relatively gentler mountain topography would have permitted sustained strafing runs to negate swamping PLA infantry tactics.

The outcome of the war, in other words, may not have been very different even with the IAF in full cry. But this assumes Mao Zedong, who had invested his personal political capital in “teaching India a lesson”, would have desisted from deploying the PLA Air Force (PLAAF) once it became clear that affording the IAF a free run could cost him success. In that situation, the IAF would have had to deal with the more numerous Chinese MiG-15s as against the fewer, but more advanced, Hawker Hunter and the Mysteres — MiG-17 equivalent — in its own employ. One cannot be too sure how that face-off would have turned out, considering the Chinese Air Force had greater, and more recent, operational experience of flying against the US Air Force and carrier-borne US Navy aircraft in the Korean War (1950-53).

This to say that the result of using the IAF might not have been all that clear-cut as Browne suggests, even with the other advantage Indian pilots had of taking to the air, fully fuelled and loaded, unlike their Chinese rivals who, because of the thin air of the Tibet plateau would have compromised on ammunition (for on-board 23mm canons on MiG-15s) and quantum of fuel. The only way India could have secured a distinct tactical advantage is, if in the first hours of the Chinese invasion, New Delhi had sanctioned IAF bombing runs on the PLA staging areas in Tibet with the Canberra medium-bombers, 70-80 of which aircraft were in the Indian inventory by then. That would have had a devastating effect of taking out pre-positioned stores for the planned invasion. It would have demoralised the PLA troops going into battle but also, most definitely, have brought the PLAAF in and the region would have witnessed a major air war. The IAF Canberra medium-bombers would have outshone the Chinese Illyushin-48s, and the Indian Hawker Hunters — one of the finest fighter aircraft of its generation — and Mysteres might have had the better of the Chinese MiG-15s, the first of the swept-wing fighters that had given the American F-86 Sabres a run for their money in Korea. But one cannot be certain. It is an interesting scenario to game to determine the “what might have-beens”.

Even better, though, would be to game the exact situation, but update the gaming parameters by incorporating the latest aircraft in the two air forces and the rival border infrastructures. The question in 1962, however, as in all conflicts the Indian military has been involved in since, remains the same — the infirm political will of the Indian government. On the Chinese side was Mao, a stalwart military leader of repute and resolve. On this side was Jawaharlal Nehru with, and this is not widely known, a keen military sense — his take on the Indian Army progress or the lack thereof during the 1947-48 Kashmir operations are incisive, but non-existent will. He was collaterally unnerved by the prospect of Indian air action broadening the war, perhaps, inviting retaliatory Chinese bombing raids on Calcutta, which the then chief minister of West Bengal, B.C. Roy, warned would lead to the end of the Congress Party rule in that state come the next state elections.

Update the scenario and we have Hu Jintao in China — not as bloody-minded as Mao for sure but no shrinking violet either when it comes to using force.  Political commissar, Hu, dealt ruthlessly with the helpless Tibetans in their benighted country under Chinese military occupation since 1949. And in New Delhi, we have Manmohan Singh who, as a senior official in the National Security Council secretariat told me, believes it is good for the country to possess hard power — latest guns, ships and combat aircraft — but not to use it. If conventional military capability, too, is to be reduced to the same unusable deterrent status as India’s nuclear weapons, then it will face the same dilemma — what happens if it fails to deter? The conventional military, fortunately, can be fielded; it just needs a bit of prime ministerial spine. Indian nuclear armaments, in contrast, have no such fallback position what with over-zealous adherence to the “no first use” principle and Indian government officials and military Chiefs of Staff iterating the self-defeating view that these are not weapons for war fighting, reducing what little credibility they have.

[Published Oct 11, 2012 in the ‘Asian Age’ at and the ‘Deccan Chronicle’ at ]

About Bharat Karnad

Senior Fellow in National Security Studies at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi, he was Member of the (1st) National Security Advisory Board and the Nuclear Doctrine-drafting Group, and author, among other books of, 'Nuclear Weapons and Indian Security: The Realist Foundations of Strategy', 'India's Nuclear Policy' and most recently, 'Why India is Not a Great Power (Yet)'. Educated at the University of California (undergrad and grad), he was Visiting Scholar at Princeton University, University of Pennsylvania, the Shanghai Institutes of International Studies, and Henry L. Stimson Center, Washington, DC.
This entry was posted in Asian geopolitics, China, China military, civil-military relations, Geopolitics, India's China Policy, India's strategic thinking and policy, Indian Air Force, Indian Army, Indian Politics, Military Acquisitions, Nuclear Policy & Strategy, Nuclear Weapons. Bookmark the permalink.

27 Responses to Revisting 1962, with ifs and buts

  1. Kfir says:

    Coolie Indian power elite at work:

    Spot MMS!

  2. Shaurya says:

    A question has to be asked. Why will PRC risk war? Mao had a clear goal in 1962 – To secure the road to Xinjiang in Aksai Chin. It was a strategic road, worth fighting for, in PRC’s view. To justify a war in today or next few decades between two large neighbors who both have acquired enough muscle to do some serious damage to each other, the risk/reward ratio would have to worth it. From PRC’s perspective they are sitting pretty in control of Tibet and the rest of the border region is not worth it – provided GoI does not change its position on Tibet or the Tibetan region undergoes serious turmoil that is difficult to control. IOW: Do not see a favorable risk/reward ratio for China. Something Deng Xiaoping learnt in 1987.

    • Mao already had the Xinjiang Highway passing through Aksai Chin by 1962; that was not the reason. It was bringing Nehru and India down a peg or two in which aim he succeeded. Otherwise agree entirely. But to rule out all military hostilities would be foolish. The Chinese have always excelled at exploiting opportunities, which position India too should secure, for instance, should Tibet burst into flames post-the present Dalai Lama — as likely to happen as not.

    • Kfir says:

      @Shaurya: WRT your statements – “…..and the rest of the border region is not worth it …..” and “IOW: Do not see a favorable risk/reward ratio for China.”- are you sure? Are you fully aware what’s at stake?

  3. Kfir says:

    Two of some of the most thought provoking articles I’ve read concerning the use (or non-use) of air power in 1962:

  4. satyaki says:

    Bharat Sir,

    Should’nt the strategic community also engage/educate emerging political elements like Arvind Kejriwal and his group ? Or is this character already a die hard “internationalist” ? His support to the Kudankulam protestors leads to my suspecting that his movement may be tied to vested interests that want to prevent our emergence as a military power capable of credible deterrence. Is is this sinister or are such elements just naive (which means they could be corrected later) ?

    • Agree, it should, especially if IAC shows strength in coming elections and becomes a genuine player. Koodankulum is aproblem in more than the obvious NGOs making problem sort of way. But I don’t see it necessarily seguing into anti-Indian N-arsenal positions.

      • satyaki says:

        Isn’t the Koodankulam protest instigated by the obvious outside forces ? they all probably target the N-arsenal by similar “political action” if they succeed here. Also worrying is the stand Congress might take on N-arsenal once MMS is gone. Will it turn anti-N-arsenal in case one of the dynasty directly sit on the P.M chair ? The current iteration of the dynasty does seem close to these NGO types. moreover they may try to transplant EU type values so far as questions on national sovereignty are concerned. Are such fears well founded ?

      • You may have it right, about the Gandhi scion having EU value leanings, etc. It may be moderated, however, by the imperatives of Indian politics!


  5. satyaki says:

    So, can we be sure that these imperatives will ensure that we continue to build up our N-arsenal even in the event of a Gandhi scion being PM ? Still, the slow infiltration of EU values into our establishment is a worry. Better to be like Russia/China as opposed to the EU.

    • Who can say?


      • satyaki says:

        basically, the question is whether we will continue as we are doing now, or whether we may unilaterally disarm thnx to a Gandhi scion…this is the main worry

      • India has often been victimized by its own pacifist (Mahatma) Gandhian rhetoric and self-proclaimed status as hewersof morality. It hasn’t been difficult for the West to turn this around to say, hey, India give theleadon disarmament,liveup to your own professed beliefs!!


  6. satyaki says:

    So far, despite western lectures, we have refused to unilaterally disarm. Under MMS, for instance, there is a creeping build-up leading up to the point where we will deploy Agni-5’s at least (though they may not have the courage to take things one step further to their logocal conclusion by testing). Probably this is because the INC also has establishment types that would resist any change that is outright anti-national (MMS himself may be of this kind).

    The question of interest is whether this would continue even with a Gandhi scion in the pm’s post. The worrying factors are their closeness to NGO types and the fact that they are likely to harbour EU values. Will our bureaucratic inertia prevent something as radically anti-national as nuclear disarmament ?

  7. satyaki says:

    Bharat Sir,

    You have often said that around now, our arsenal is close to 200 warheads. In that case, are’nt we probably a bigger nuclear weapon power than the U.K now ? …Are we likely to double this in the 2020-2025 time frame ? This would put us ahead of France. How large will Pakistan’s stockpile probably be by then ?

    Regarding China, what is your estimate of the size of China’s arsenal. The “non-proliferation ayatollahs” who credit Pak with 90-110 warheads and India with 80-100 place China at 240. If our reality is around 200 warheads, and they are underestimating China by a similar fraction, China’s stockpile might be at least 500-600 warheads. China at just 240 warheads or so (after being at it for nearly 50 years) is very hard to believe.

    • What I said in my last book, ‘India’s Nuclear Policy’ is that as first stage, the credible minimum deterrent is being topped at 200 warheads/weapons. Whether we have already reached this figure, I can’t say. But various sources put the Indian nuclear force strength as between 100 and 150 ws/ws. India can havebigger arsenals than the relatively puny British and French N-inventories — there’s more than enough fissmatbut that’ll require an express GOI decision and that you cannot expect from MMS.


  8. satyaki says:

    This 200 number is what GoI intends to achieve at the end of the first stage, then. Do Agni-4 and Agni-5 also form part of this first stage build-up or is that the next phase. When are we likely to finish this first stage ?

    Regarding fissmat, is there indeed enough Weapons grade fissmat for a deterrent larger than that of France ? Or is the availability of fissmat due to Reactor grade fissmat being usable as well ? Also, is the necessary fissmat for a greater than france arsenal already separated ? “Non-proliferation ayatollahs” claim just 500-600 kg of WGPu….

    • A-4s/A-5s in 1st stage, yes. On fissmat, the real Q is: Is DAE running the 8 INDUs at full tilt on low burnup?

      • satyaki says:

        Your book suggests that INDUs have been used at low burnup in the past decade for fissmat production. Whether at full tilt or not, one would not know. Still, if anythign near 8 INDUs have been used at even half tilt, this would give much more fissmat than just CIRUS+Dhruva….Hope DAE runs 8 INDUs at full tilt and hope Pakistan continues to obstruct FMCT.

  9. Vikas Jadhav says:

    Sir I want ask
    How much of national income India spends on its armed forces or security ?
    What is share of Indian Air force in that

  10. Rohan says:

    I’ll note that just a year earlier, in December 1961, the same Indian political leadership had authorized the use of extensive air strikes against the Portuguese who had no air force and no air defence either. The very same Canberras that paralyzed the Portuguese administration in Goa could have done the same to the Chinese in Tibet.
    Nehru was simply afraid to escalate the war into the air, and was willing to sacrifice the lives of men on the ground to placate that fear.

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