The violation of Pakistani air space by Indian jets recently has given everyone a lot to be excited about. Everyone from every walk of life has had an opinion about it. Still it was when I saw a senior corporate lawyer suddenly transform into a TV expert on international law and its application to military aviation that I decided enough is enough, I need to jump in. After all, in the past I had pursued with some amount of seriousness the dream of joining the ranks of the Pakistan Air Force before I abandoned it for education abroad. Every now and then the PAF Warrior asleep somewhere deep inside yawns and tries to rise up from deep slumber. These are his ramblings.
There is no Pakistani worth his salt who is not proud of our Air Force--perhaps one of the few institutions that have truly lived up to the finest aspirations of the new nation that was founded in 1947. It is a truly merit-based institution that has served the nation with the devotion and integrity that is becoming of a truly professional fighting force. As was true of the whole country in 1947, RPAF too faced scarce supplies and, at partition, a deliberate kick in the pants from the Indians, who had choked the engines of RPAF planes with sugar. It also survived the great ego battle of two Englishmen, the commander in chief of Pakistan's Army, General Gracey, and the Air Chief, Air Vice Marshal R L Atcherley, with the former holding the view that the RPAF's only conceivable role would be to act more or less as the aviation wing of the Pakistan Army--i.e, air support to ground operations. Thankfully, the view of Air Vice Marshal Atcherley prevailed and the PAF became arguably the most efficient fighting arm of our state.
In 1965, the PAF was able to retain air superiority over India by retaining the element of surprise and scaring the living daylights out of Indian pilots by strategic use of the dozen F-104 Star Fighters in aid of the F-86 Sabres. In 1971, the war that was lost politically and on the ground, the PAF still came out on top with more than three times the number of kills than its Indian rivals. In his autobiography, renowned American pilot Chuck Yeager, the then attaché to Pakistan, wrote, "PAF is second to none… the air war lasted two weeks and the Pakistanis scored a three-to-one kill ratio, knocking out 102 Russian-made Indian jets and losing thirty four airplanes of their own… they were really good aggressive dogfighters and proficient in gunnery and air combat tactics. I was damned impressed. Those guys just lived and breathed flying." Despite the numerical disadvantage, the PAF managed to keep up with the IAF over the first four decades since Pakistan's inception through superior pilot training, as well as aircrafts which had qualitative edge over Indian planes. This prompted another American, Lt Gen Charles Horner, the architect of the air segment of the Gulf War, to declare that "Pakistan has one of the best most combat ready air forces in the world… For the Indian war planners, the Pakistan Air Force is their worst fear. Pakistani pilots are respected throughout the world…because they know how to fly and fight."
Today, however, one fears that the disparity between the PAF and the IAF technologically has grown so large that fighter pilot skills might not be enough to bridge it. Much of this has to do with the false sense of security that our nuclear arsenal gives. Somewhere along the line, the policymakers started neglecting the one institution that has proven itself in battle.
This brings us back to the recent violation of Pakistan's air space by Indian jets and the PAF's response, which has generated a lot of media interest in the PAF. While our president played down the violation as a mere technical mistake in the interest peace, The New York Times and other US media pointed out why this was not a plausible explanation. For one thing, it was not a single violation but two which took place 100 miles apart. It might even have been a dry run to see how fast the PAF responds to a ground strike within Pakistani territory. The very fact that the IAF planes could violate our air space once and then repeat it, without being shot down, means that the PAF no longer has the technological edge or air superiority that it once had. While our media played on the theme of PAF jets scaring IAF jets away, the truth is that with the Su-30s and the Mirage 2000s and their beyond-visual-range Astra missiles, an Indian pilot today doesn't need to be adept at dogfight or gunnery to blow our planes out of the sky. Therefore, it was really India's way of telling Pakistan what was possible.
One of our journalists, clearly a fellow armchair warrior, quoted some unnamed source as saying that the PAF was a defensive air force and therefore a prolonged conflict would be to its advantage. This does not make sense--in fact, if the conflict prolongs, PAF will lose its skies in less than 10 days. Indeed, the PAF's entire war strategy rests on an offensive strike at the heart of India's Western Air Command--as was the case in 1965--thereby disabling a great number of Indian aircrafts on the ground to establish air supremacy. The bitter truth is that the PAF only has about three dozen truly world class fighter planes--the F-16 Fighting Falcon--and from them, only a few are the latest block 52 fighters. The rest are ageing aircrafts acquired between 20 and 25 years ago and are not an even a match for the Su-30s and are outnumbered by the MiG 29s. After the F-16s, we have Mirage IIIs and Mirage Vs. The earliest of these were received more than 37 years ago. The later models--Mirage Vs--are more capable and the PAF has through its rebuild factory in Kamra managed to keep these planes in good flying condition, by cannibalising a great number of them for spares. Pakistan also relies heavily on F-7Ps, the Chinese version of the Soviet MiG-21, which India uses as its most dispensable plane. The JF-17--rumoured to now have a production cost of $17 million per unit--is still years away from becoming the PAF's mainstay. There are other planes, including a solitary surviving squadron of the MiG-19, or F-6 as it is called, its A-5 variant ground attack air craft, FT-5 (a variant of MiG-17), the jet trainer K-8 and the Super Mushak, but these would be of little consequence in a full-blown conflict. Pitting against these planes is a wide range of aircrafts, including, but not limited to, Su-30s, Mirage-2000s, MiG-29s, MiG-27s, MiG-23s and MiG-21s which makes the IAF a formidable nemesis even in the hands of mediocre or below-average pilots.
PAF war planners and strategists must take into account the poignant lessons of history. In many ways, the strategy lag to technological advancement threatens us more. To hark back to military history, in many ways, the PAF's situation is analogous to the army of Virginia in the American Civil War. Like that army, the PAF is also highly motivated, disciplined, skilled and led by fine leaders. It must be remembered that, after all, no one ever accused General Robert E Lee or Stonewall Jackson of being poor generals either. Indeed, both these gentlemen rank higher as military generals and are more celebrated than almost all of the generals of the North. In comparison, the army of the North had a ragtag lot who were no match for the army of the South in battle. And yet they managed to win the Civil War, primarily because the North had the advantage of the Industrial Revolution, a growing economy and, above all, a healthy ignorance of skills that had long become obsolete in warfare. Thus, Lee led his fine Southern army to virtual suicide at the Battle of Gettysburg where the great general's inability to come out of the American revolutionary war tactics led to the deaths of more than 50,000 soldiers in three days. It was the failure of Lee and his generals to fully appreciate the implications of a more accurate musket in this form of warfare. Similarly, the modern air combat, I suspect, will be fought beyond visual range and through sophisticated weaponry--the impact of which will be tremendous. I hope our war planners and leaders are students of history.
The writer is an Islamabad-based lawyer. Email: yasser.hamdani@gmail. com