On 20 August 1971, before noon, PAF Pilot Officer Rashid Minhas was getting ready to take off in a T-33 jet trainer in Karachi, Pakistan. His second solo flight in that type of aircraft. It was at the height of the civil war in East Pakistan. The civil war started when the military junta in Pakistan, goaded by a selfish Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, refused to accept the results of the December 1970 elections and denied the transfer of power to the Awami League- the party that had gained majority during the general elections.
Minhas was taxiing toward the runway when a Bengali instructor pilot, Flight Lieutenant Matiur Rahman, signaled him to stop and then climbed into the instructor’s seat. The jet took off and Rahman turned towards India. Minhas radioed PAF Base Masroor with the message that he was being hijacked. The air controller requested that he resend his message and he confirmed the hijacking. Later investigation showed that Rahman intended to defect to India along with the jet trainer.
Read more: 1971 – The Naval War
Understanding the matter better
In the air, Minhas struggled physically to wrest control from Rahman; both men tried to overpower the other through the mechanically linked flight controls. Some 32 miles (51 km) from the Indian border, the jet crashed near Thatta. Both men were killed. Minhas was posthumously awarded Pakistan’s top military honor, the Nishan-eHaider, and became the youngest man and the only member of the Pakistan Air Force to win the award.
Similarly, Rahman was honored by Bangladesh with their highest military award, the Bir Sreshtho. Minhas’s Pakistan military citation for the Nishan-e-Haider states that he forced the aircraft to crash to prevent Rahman from taking the jet to India.
The PAF’s attack capability in 1971 consisted of exactly 16 B-57s and 20 Mirage IIIEP. The latter were trained and utilized for air superiority. The PAF workhorse, as in 1965, was the F-86 Sabre of which there were 6 squadrons. Besides, there were 3 squadrons of F-6(MiG19) and a squadron of F-104 interceptors. The Sabre was a sub-sonic multi-role fighter aircraft that was used for interception, ground attack, and bombing. F-6 was primarily a sub-sonic ground attack aircraft.
Read more: 1971 War – Washing Hands
It has been mentioned earlier that in November 1971 Bhutto, General Gul Hasan, and Air Marshal Rahim Khan were sent by General Yahya Khan to Beijing to seek Chinese help for the war that was looming large on the horizon. While in Beijing, these three conspired to wash their hands of a united Pakistan and choreograph the defeat of the Pakistan Army to bring Bhutto into Power. In his book, “Three Presidents and an Aide”, ambassador Sami Khan reveals besides the details of the conspiracy hatched in Beijing, the inside story of the phony preemptive airstrikes on IAF airfields that started the war.
In December 1971, the PAF had a total of 14 squadrons out of which one squadron was located in East Pakistan. IAF, on the other hand, had 36 squadrons of which 10 squadrons were located in the East and the remaining 26 squadrons in the West. The ratio of combat air power in the East was 10:1 in favor of India. In the West, it was 2:1 in India’s favor.
Operation Chengiz Khan
Chengiz Khan was the code name assigned to the preemptive strikes carried out by the PAF on the forward airbases and radar installations of the IAF on the evening of 3 December 1971. The air strikes were a parody of Operation Focus – the 5 May 1967 Israeli pre-emptive air strikes in which Israel destroyed the Egyptian, Syrian, and Jordanian air forces. Operation Chengiz Khan, on the contrary, was planned to fail. It aligned with the conspiracy hatched by Bhutto, Gul Hasan, and Rahim Khan to let East Pakistan secede and facilitate Bhutto’s accession to whatever would remain of United Pakistan. The PAF air strikes marked the formal initiation of hostilities of the 1971 War between India and Pakistan. The operation targeted 11 of India’s airfields and also included artillery strikes on Indian positions in IHK.
Keeping in line with the aim of not causing any meaningful damage to IAF, the PAF air strikes were ineffectual and failed to inflict any material damage to the IAF airfields, only cratering the runways at Amritsar and destroying a radar station. The PAF reportedly lost four aircraft during the raids.
Read more: 1971 War: A military or a political defeat?
The air war in the East was brief but intense
The IAFs Eastern Command flew 1978 sorties from December 3 to 15, of which 1178, or about 80 per day, were in direct support of the ground forces. India had ten squadrons in the East, and the result could be nothing short of the destruction of the tiny PAF contingent, which to give it credit, kept flying till its three airfields were knocked out.
The PAF’s strategy in the West mirrored Army’s strategy of conserving its assets for the decisive phase when the IAF would shift its almost eight squadrons from the East (The PAF, according to Fricker, claimed 28 IAF aircraft in the East), and, in tandem with the Army, launch the final offensive against West Pakistan.
That never happened because, as soon as the Indian Army achieved complete control over East Pakistan, Indira Gandhi, pressed by the Soviet Union, agreed to a cease-fire in the West. The grand design was to create Bangladesh. The fate of West Pakistan was postponed for another day. When some of her cabinet members opposed the ceasefire, Indira started shouting at them. She had to follow the instructions of the Soviet leaders because it was the Soviet Union that facilitated India in dismembering Pakistan. A truncated Pakistan was in the interests of both the Soviet Union and the U.S.
Saleem Akhtar Malik is a Pakistan Army veteran who writes on national and international affairs, defense, military history, and military technology. He Tweets at @saleemakhtar53. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space.