Arjan Singh was the only officer of the Indian Air Force to be promoted to the five-star rank equivalent to a Field Marshal. Air Marshal Singh led the Indian Air Force in the 1965 war with Pakistan. Born in Punjab town of Lyallpur (now Faisalabad, Pakistan), Singh was chief of the Air Staff from August 1, 1964, to July 15, 1969, and was awarded the Padma Vibhushan in 1965.
Now 96-years-old, Air Marshal Arjan Singh revisits the 1965 India-Pakistan war which he says was prematurely terminated on intervention by the United Nations. Had it gone on for a few more days, India’s victory would have been decisive. When the Pakistan Air Force attacked our bases in Pathankot and Kalaikunda, we suffered initial reverses, though initially surprised by the attack the Indian Air Force was given a go-ahead by then defence minister Yaswantrao Chavan. We were able to recover the operational balance quickly and later achieved complete air superiority over them within three days which crippled their air force.
The Indian Air Force was able to outsmart the Pakistan Air Force when the aircraft from Pathankot, Ambala and Adampur were able to strike at all the major air bases in Pakistan like Sargodha, Peshawar, Kohat and so on. The air attacks were planned in such a manner that our aircraft would fly over Kashmir valley which provided us covers against the radar detection in Pakistan. We were able to destroy the major supply lines and vital installations in almost all Pakistani cities.
The 1965 War saw aircraft of IAF and PAF engage in combat for the first time where Pakistan had qualitatively and technologically superior aircraft like Sabres and Starfighters. We had Gnats, Hunters, Mysteres and Vampires. Pakistan had massive American support. They had the latest radars which gave them much coverage and therefore the edge. Pakistan does not have much width and according to our information they moved their aircraft to safer location in Afghanistan in a place called Zahidan.
I think they became overconfident that IAF will not be used in the war as happened in the 1962 India-China War. From the time IAF was pressed into action, the operational balance started shifting towards our side. This shows that IAF was operationally ready for any misadventure by the enemy.
The war was a turning point in establishing the air force as an entity that could ably back the ground forces as we did not fight at all in 1962, three months before the 1965 war, I spoke to then prime minister Lal Bahadur Shastri and advised him to use IAF in any future war. We were given a decisive go ahead by the leadership in 1965 and IAF performed exceptionally well. IAF was able to do much damage in Pakistan.
Both India and Pakistan claim victory in the war but in my opinion had the war continued for a few more days, we would have gained a decisive victory. We were in a position of strength but the war ended in a kind of stalemate. I advised then prime minister Lal Bahadur Shastri not to agree for ceasefire. He was not really a weak man at all, was a tough man and clear in his decision making. He was in fact a man of peace and never wanted the population of either country to suffer because of the war. He gave only one direction – try not to hit the civilian population. But I think he was under pressure from the United Nations and some countries. For political reasons, Pakistan claims victory in the 1965 war.
I must tell you that Pakistan tried to cut off Jammu and Kashmir through an armoured-cum-infantry attack on the Akhnoor Sector. Gen JN Chaudhari came to my office in Vayu Bhawan and told me that unless the IAF steps in, it would be difficult to stop the Pakistanis in the Chamb-Jaurian sector. I told him that with IAF involvement, the conflict will escalate to a full-fledged war. We went to the then defence minister Chavan who asked me if IAF was ready. I promptly said yes. In the next minute, he gave a decision to go ahead to launch the strikes. This decisive leadership in 1965 was very important in achieving an operational edge with Pakistan.
As far as the IAF is concerned the areas where we excelled, Pakistan attacked us and we suffered initial losses but we regained the operational balance quickly. In hindsight, I feel I should not have used the Vampires in the war as they were slow to manoeuvre and were generally vulnerable. After the war, we started the modernisation of our Air Force by recommending the purchase of modern aircraft and radars. In a war, the aggressor will always have an initial advantage and Pakistanis are good fighters. But here we were fighting for our country against an aggressor. I was neither anxious nor nervous during 1965. I was confident of our ability and operational preparedness. During the peace time, we are trained to fight. Our pilots fought with valour and courage and instilled fear among the enemy.
There are chances of India going to war with Pakistan and if that happens again the tensions with Pakistan will continue and I don’t see any solution to the problem. The proxy war in Kashmir is not doing any good to the relations between us. The recent ceasefire violations where some of our troops were killed are not acceptable at all. Beheading of soldiers is not an act done by any civilized army. The world knows that the Pakistan sponsored terrorists are infiltrating through the LoC (Line of Control) to create trouble for us.