8th October 1932: The Indian Air Force comes into being

The Indian Air Force was established on 8 October 1932. Between 1945 and 1950 it was called the Royal Indian Air Force. After India became a republic, the prefix ‘Royal’ was dropped, and it began to be known as the Indian Air Force (IAF). 

The President of India is the ex-officio commander-in-chief of the IAF. The primary objective of the IAF is to protect the Indian territory and national interests, in coordination with other branches of the armed forces, by defending the Indian airspace. The IAF also helps in providing relief during disasters such as floods. 

During World War II, though the IAF had obsolete equipment and more stress was laid on army cooperation and tactical matters, its personnel were awarded 22 Distinguished Flying Crosses for their achievements. When British India was partitioned in 1947, three of the ten squadrons and facilities of the Royal Indian Air Force were transferred to Pakistan.

In the months after Independence, a conflict broke out between India and Pakistan over Kashmir. The Royal Indian Air Force provided air support to Indian troops and helped in transport. With no time to plan, the No. 12 Squadron air-lifted troops from Palam, Delhi, onto the Srinagar airstrip to tackle Pakistani insurgents. Spitfires from the Advanced Flying School at Ambala and Tempests of the No. 7 Squadron also played a major role in independent India’s first conflict, helping the Indian army drive back the insurgents. 

Re-equipping of combat units and expanding airlift capability were the areas of focus for the IAF after 1950.

From 1957 onwards, the modernisation of equipment gathered steam, with additions such as the 110 Dassault Mystère IVAs, Hawker Hunters and English Electric Canberras. The IAF’s English Electric Canberra would play a major role in a United Nations operation in Congo in the early 1960s.

On 18 December 1961, with the Indian government giving green signal to its armed forced to drive out the Portuguese from Goa, and Daman and Diu, Canberra bombers bombed the runway of Dabolim airfield, Hunters attacked the wireless station at Bambolim, while Vampires provided air support to troops. Mystères targeted Portuguese gun positions in Daman and Ouragans hit runways at Diu.  

India’s unwillingness to use its air force against Chinese forces in the 1962 war is regarded by some military experts as one of the reasons why India suffered serious losses in the conflict. According to some observers, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and a section of his advisors feared that if the IAF were used, the Chinese could bomb eastern Indian cities and target industrial bases and oil installations in Assam and West Bengal. So, the Indian government decided to limit air operations to providing logistic support to the army — a decision which has been subsequently criticised by some military experts. Speaking about the 1962 war 50 years later, Air Chief Marshal NAK Browne said its outcome would have been different had the air force been used in an offensive role.

It was also in 1962 that significant decisions to modernise the IAF were taken, including deals with the Soviet Union to supply combat aircraft and missiles. These decisions would alter the face of IAF in the long run. To begin with, 12 MiG-21 fighters were purchased, Soviet assistance in setting up production facilities for fighters in India started, and SA-2 surface-to-air missiles were procured. There was also re-thinking of strategic and operational issues, leading to the emergence of the Western, Eastern and Central Air Commands.

Three years after the Indo-China conflict, war clouds rose in the West, and the IAF was in action again. In the 1965 India-Pakistan war the IAF raided Pakistani bases, but also lost many aircraft, most of the losses taking place during battles over Kalaikunda and Pathankot.

After 1965, the IAF strived to improve its fighting capability. The Para Commandos regiment was formed in 1966; 72 HS 748s, built by Hindustan Aeronautics Limited, were inducted; as were the HAL HF-24 Marut, and Soviet MiG-21 and Sukhoi Su-7 fighters.

India was better prepared — militarily and strategically — in the 1971 Bangladesh ‘War of Liberation’. On the western front, the IAF’s tasks included disruption of enemy communications, destroying fuel and ammunition reserves, and stopping mobilisation of Pakistani ground troops. On the Eastern front, the IAF’s main goal was to support Indian forces on the ground.

In West Pakistan, the IAF carried out raids on oil installations in Karachi, and a dam and gas plant in Sindh. It is estimated that the IAF flew over 6,000 sorties in the war. The MiG-21s, deployed at all major air bases from Pathankot to Jamnagar, mounted hundreds of sorties, flew escort missions for bombers and strike fighters, and intercepted intruders. The IAF also supported Indian Navy operations.

The IAF received its first and only Param Vir Chakra, India’s highest military decoration, during the 1971 war, posthumously awarded to Flying Officer Nirmal Jit Singh Sekhon of the No. 18 Squadron for his “sublime heroism, supreme gallantry, flying skill and determination, above and beyond the call of duty” .

In 1987, around 70,000 sorties were flown by the IAF to support the Indian Peace Keeping Force troops in Sri Lanka. On 3 November 1988, the IAF dropped Indian paratroopers in the Maldives after the Maldivian president sought Indian help to stop a mercenary invasion in his country. The Indian military operation was swift and successful.

In the 1999 Kargil conflict, the Indian Air Force targeted Pakistani intruder positions using aircraft and helicopter gunships, with MiG-27s carrying out initial offensive sorties, and MiG-21s and MiG-29s providing cover. The Mirage 2000s were later introduced, taking into account the high-altitude conditions.  

The world’s fourth-largest air force with an estimated 1.6 lakh personnel, over 60 operational air bases across the country, and some 1500 aircraft, the IAF today is currently on a modernisation drive, inducting new aircraft and fine-tuning its operational strategy so that it is in a state of preparedness in case of conflicts. Believing in the dictum that “The primacy of air power will be a decisive factor in shaping the outcome of future conflicts”, the IAF has sought to become a force of multi-role capability in platforms and equipment, with personnel of multi-skill capability, and emerged from a “tactical force to one with transoceanic reach”. 


Also on this day:

1926 — Raaj Kumar, Hindi film actor, was born  

1936 — Munshi Premchand, celebrated novel writer, story writer and dramatist, passed away  

1979 — Jayaprakash Narayan, activist and political leader, passed away

2005 — Massive earthquake struck Kashmir, killing thousands

2012 — Nawal Kishore Sharma, Indian politician and Governor of Gujarat, passed away  

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