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Pakistan Air Force’s Mastery Of The Skies

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Ahmed Faruqui writes about Pakistan Air Force’s air combats against the air forces of India, Israel and the Soviet Union and how the PAF interacted with adversarial air forces during these encounters. 

The incident at Balakot in February this year in which a JF-17 of the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) shot down an Indian Air Force (IAF) MiG-21 which had intruded into Pakistani airspace proved yet again the combat superiority of the PAF.

Since 1965, the PAF has been involved in air combat against the air forces of India, Israel and the Soviet Union. Several insights emerge from observing how the PAF interacted with adversarial air forces during these encounters.

In 1965, the PAF took on a numerically much larger adversary. As the war began, there were 141 fixed-wing combat aircraft in the PAF inventory and 500 in the IAF inventory. The PAF was outnumbered by a factor of 3.5:1. Undeterred and undaunted, the PAF provided ground support to troops on the ground, defended the skies of Pakistan against intruding IAF fighters, and sent its bombers into India.

In late August, F-86F Sabre jets of the PAF provided significant ground support to the Pakistan army in the Chamb sector of Kashmir. On September 6, and the following days, these jets  provided indispensable support to the ground forces in the Battles for Lahore and Sialkot.

They were particularly lethal in their missions against the 15th Indian division around Lahore and the 14th Infantry division that was en route to the Battle of Sialkot. The PAF destroyed 149 Indian tanks, more than 600 heavy vehicles, and 60 artillery pieces.

The Indian army, learning from the close air-ground coordination on the Pakistani side during the 1965 war, was to achieve similar coordination in the war of 1971 against Pakistan on the western border.

IAF bases along the border and as far deep as Agra were hit hard by B-57B bombers of the PAF. It is estimated that the IAF lost 75 combat aircraft during the war, and the PAF lost 19 PAF aircraft.

Of these losses, the IAF lost 22 in air combat as compared with the eight aircraft lost by the PAF in air combat.  These figures were confirmed by the US Military Assistance Advisory Group. The PAF flew virtually its entire air strength over a victory parade to refute Indian claims that they had destroyed more than a hundred Pakistani aircraft.

India eventually admitted the loss of 75 aircraft.

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Squadron Leader M. M. Alam of the PAF achieved spectacular success in the skies over Sargodha, becoming the first ace in the PAF by downing five Indian Hunters. Typifying the fighting spirit that pervaded Pakistan in 1965, he recalls that “we were fighting with a passion founded on faith, against a people who were trying to destroy our way of life; we have a faith in God extending through everyone in Pakistan and a belief that He takes care of us. To feel that my life is in the hands of God leaves me with nothing to fear.”

In 1971, the PAF achieved a three-to-one kill ratio against the IAF.  In the Eastern theatre, the 14th Squadron of the PAF, outnumbered ten to one, shot down eight IAF aircraft for the loss of three Sabres in the air and two on the ground. Gen. Chuck Yeager, who was then posted in Islamabad as the US Military Advisor, reports that the Pakistanis knocked out 102 IAF jets for a cost of 34 of their own.

He says that the PAF pilots were “really good, aggressive dogfighters and proficient in gunnery and air-combat tactics. I was damned impressed. These guys just lived and breathed flying.” 

This superior performance was also in evidence throughout the Soviet-Afghan war in the 1980’s. Soviet fighter jets would come across the border into Pakistan, chasing mujahideen fighters. Beginning in January 1983, the US sold F-16As to the PAF to counter this menace. Initially, the rules of engagement did not permit shoot downs. In 1986, these were changed, and during the next two years, PAF F-16As scored 10 confirmed kills without losing a single plane to the Soviets.

One of the little known facts about the PAF is its role in the Arab-Israeli wars. In both wars, the PAF volunteered its fighter pilots to fly missions against the Israeli Air Force. They shot down three Israeli warplanes in the 1967 war and one in the 1973 war.

According to USAF Lt.-Gen. Horner, who commanded the allied air forces in the Gulf War of 1991, the PAF is “one of the best, most combat-ready air forces in the world…For Indian war planners, [it] is their worst fear.”

Former Israeli Air Force commander, Maj.-Gen. Ezer Weizman, is reported to have remarked after meeting Air Marshal Nur Khan, air chief during the 1965 war, that he found Nur Khan to be a formidable fellow and was glad that Nur Khan was a Pakistani and not an Egyptian.

What are the reasons for the sustained success of the PAF? In a recent interview, retired Air Commodore Sajad Haider shed some light on that question. He said the PAF benefited from having outstanding leaders at the helm from the very beginning. He specifically cited the visionary leadership and inspiration provided by Air Marshals Asghar Khan and Nur Khan.

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He also said the PAF has set a very high bar for its fighter pilots and created training schools to make sure that its pilots know excelled in their duties. In his opinion, the training provided by the best aviation school in Pakistan is on par with the US Navy’s Top Gun school.

Of course, the painful reality is that air superiority alone is not sufficient to ensure victory in war. This has been stated by both Air Marshals Asghar Khan and Nur Khan.

In 1965, despite the PAF’s overwhelming superiority over the IAF, the war ended in a stalemate. The status of Kashmir did not change. In 1971, Pakistan lost not only the war but also its majority province in the east.

The Arabs lost both the wars of 1967 and in 1973. In 1967 the Egyptian Air Force was decimated on the ground on the first day by the Israeli’s, ensuring the defeat of the Egyptian army. It was in no position to deal with the Israeli blitzkrieg without air cover.

The PAF tried to do the same to the IAF on the 3rd of December, 1971 but the attack had been anticipated and the IAF had dispersed its aircraft.

The war against the Soviets in the 1980s was won largely because of the successful use of guerilla tactics against conventional forces.

While the PAF is a very impressive force, history has shown that Pakistan cannot defeat India with air power alone.

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