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Defence from the Skies: Indian Air Force.

Defence from the Skies: Indian Air Force through 75 Years by Air Commodore Jasjit Singh. Knowledge World Publishers (, 5A/4A Ansari Road, Darya Ganj, New Delhi 110002, 2007, 280 pages, $75.00 (hardcover).

Tracking the birth and growth of one of the oldest air forces in the world is not an easy task, considering the diversity of platforms, roles, and theaters with which the Indian Air Force (IAF) has had to cope over the last 75 years. A number of good books have been written on the history of the IAF, the most recent The History of Aviation in India: Spanning the Century of Flight by Mr. Pushpindar Singh. However, a void existed with regard to the interpretation and analysis of events as they unfolded over the years. Filling this void was possible only if someone who has participated in the IAF's growth, and then tracked it with a magnifying glass from the outside, was willing to stick his neck out to forthrightly and substantively dissect events, strategy, and doctrine as they actually unfolded.

On that count, Air Commodore Jasjit Singh does not disappoint. By any yardstick, Defence from the Skies is a definitive and seminal contribution that needs to be read, digested, and reread. What is it about this book that differentiates it from others on the history of the IAF? First, its sheer canvas is sweeping and fast moving. Second, the author's ability to analyze events and campaigns is clinical, to say the very least. Third, his weaving of history, policy, and doctrine into a framework for the future has to be seriously considered by our strategic community.

A number of pioneers of the IAF, Air Chief Marshal P. C. Lal notable amongst them, have tracked and interpreted events up to the 1971 war with Pakistan. Air Commodore Jasjit has rightly concentrated on events that, in his opinion, needed greater clarification during the early years. He has put the reluctance to use airpower in 1962, despite having platforms to effectively interdict the Chinese forces, into the correct perspective and attributed that aversion to the lack of all-around knowledge about the capabilities of airpower on the part of both politicians and ground commanders. The author devotes much space to jointness in the various conflicts that India has fought. How many of us knew that in May 1948, when Air Commodore Mehar Singh made his historic landing at Leh in a Dakota (a DC-3, in common US parlance), Maj Gen K. S. Thimayya--then a divisional commander--was on board, along with his troops, in a display of brave jointness? That Pakistan launched a preemptive air strike in 1965 is common knowledge. Until this book came out, however, it was also widely accepted (even by our own Ministry of Defence archives) that beyond an air stalemate, the IAF did not dent the Pakistani Air Force's (PAF) capability. Armed with telling statistics, Air Commodore Jasjit has embarked on a spirited rebuttal of the common perception that the PAF emerged as a victor in the 1965 air war. The fact of the matter is that the bulk of IAF losses occurred as a result of the opening days' preemptive strikes on both the western and eastern theaters in the form of aircraft parked on the ground. A comparison of aerial losses thereafter shows that the IAF suffered much lower attrition than did the PAF. So much for perceptions. The author is very candid about the total lack of synergy between the IAF and the Indian Army during the 1965 war, attributing it to a mind-set that looked at the IAF as merely a tactical air force--a holdover of World War II. Shifting to analysis assessment, did anyone realize that the Israeli Air Force drew a page out of the PAF's tactics and launched its stunning preemptive strike in 1967, decimating the Arab air forces before they could take to the skies?

The author offers two fresh perspectives on the Battle of Longewala, a glorious chapter in the history of the IAF. Why, he asks, did the Pakistani 18th Division advance in the open desert without air cover? Did its members forget Rommel's experience in the North African desert during World War II, when the Royal Desert Air Force inflicted critical damage on his supply lines and significantly aided Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery's victory? In the same battle, the author questions the tactical employment of only four Hunter aircraft against the 18th Armored Division when more were available at Jodhpur and Uttarlai airfields. An authority on the employment of airpower in the Kargil conflict, the author has written a separate book on the subject--no doubt the reason why the chapter on Kargil in Defence from the Skies is crisp, extremely well written, and effectively illustrated with good maps. The role of the IAF in peacekeeping missions has been highlighted only in recent years, and the author reinforces this with some extremely interesting extracts from his brother's diary that describe the peace-enforcement mission in the Congo during 1961, when IAF Canberras performed magnificently. The last few chapters offer some extremely good ideas on lessons from the past, our desire for self-reliance, and airpower's coming of age in the 1990s. A passionate believer in the strategic capabilities of airpower, Air Commodore Jasjit spares no effort in suggesting doctrinal changes that would enable the IAF to cope with the challenges of future warfare. He is also quite critical about the lack of understanding of airpower and its capabilities on the part of politicians through the years and counters the myth that only airpower is escalatory. In fact, airpower de-escalated the situation during the Kargil conflict.

I wish that the author had thrown some light on the Karachi air strikes of 1971, as it may have put to rest the ongoing debate over who hit Karachi first--the IAF or the Indian Navy. The expanding role of airpower in subconventional warfare also would have added value to the doctrinal section. The layout of the book, which features excellent photographs, is aesthetic and appealing. Unfortunately, the stiff price tag will make it primarily a library acquisition. A paperback edition, however, would find its place at the bedside of every discerning airpower enthusiast. All in all, Defence from the Skies is a superb book and a must-read for anyone who wants to enrich his or her knowledge about the IAF in particular and airpower in general.

Air Commodore Arjun Subramaniam, IAF

Wellington, India
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Author:Subramaniam, Arjun
Publication:Air & Space Power Journal
Article Type:Book review
Date:Dec 22, 2009
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