Declassification and the controversy over the use of Airpower in the 1962 India-China war.
The fiftieth anniversary of the 1962 India-China war has been marked by a number of commentaries, personal recollections and analyses in the Indian media. The one that attracted most attention was Air Chief Marshal NAK Browne’s counterfactual argument that the outcome of the war might have been different if airpower was used in an offensive role. This remark set off a media storm and reopened an important though inconclusive debate—why was the Indian Air Force not used for close air support? The controversy over the Air Chief’s comments, fed by selected leaks about the 1962 war, reveal insights about the Indian military and its polity. Among the takeaway is the fact that a vibrant, supposedly open democracy like India still does not have the ability to honestly face up to its past. Instead it relies on a selective telling of history through media scoops and self-convenient narratives.
The decision not to use the Indian Air Force for offensive operations has been debated by historians for some time. Many, especially within the military community, have argued that this was a political decision made by Prime Minister Nehru and Defense Minister Krishna Menon and hence indicated flawed strategy. This fed well into the dominant narrative that emerged from this debacle—the defeat was primarily due to political interference and operational meddling. Former Indian Air Chief Marshal Tipnis subsequent remarks on Nehru’s responsibility for the 1962 defeat are typical of this school of thought. While Nehru and especially Krishna Menon bear considerable responsibility, however this narrative overlooks the significant failures of certain military commanders.
Intriguingly most accounts within the Indian Air Force focus less on the role of its commanders and more on extraneous factors—political reluctance to escalate the conflict, advice of the US Ambassador John Galbraith, army’s opposition to close air support and fears of Chinese aerial bombardment of Indian cities. There is then a marked reluctance to discuss IAF planning, training and preparations for close air support. This reluctance makes sense when we consider that the Air Staff, much like the Army Staff, Ministry of Defence and the political leadership, was equally culpable and found wanting.
Immediately after the war Lord Mountbatten, then the British Chief of Defence Staff, at the request of Prime Minister Nehru visited India to take stock of the situation. His delegation included Air Vice Marshal P.G. Wykeham, the Director of their Joint Warfare Staff. He wrote a “Secret UK-eyes only” report that is currently available at the British National Archives and deserves extended citation:
“I was briefed by the full Air Staff, on two separate occasions and the contrast with the Army was very marked. The Air Staff were full of contradictory excuses, both for the chaotic condition of the Indian Air Force order of battle and for the lack of fighting support for the Army. Air Marshal Engineer, the CAS (Chief of Air Staff), made a very bad impression on me… The leadership at the top is bad, and the CAS is uninspiring and semi-defeatist. The Air Staff has no conception of large-scale force planning, and they seem to receive no help from senior civil servants.”
While this is just one assessment, however it is supported by other accounts of the Air Force leadership during this period. Then Air Marshal Arjan Singh admitted in an interview with the late K. Subrahmanyam that they “lacked experience”. Air Marshal Engineer himself took over command after a stint at Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) and did not inspire much confidence from his command, peers and even political leaders. To be sure the fault was not entirely due to the Air Force leadership as there is enough evidence that other actors—political leaders, civilian bureaucrats and senior army officers displayed an amateurish approach to the higher conduct of war. Among other faults, senior army officers did not take the Air Force into confidence, there was no “joint planning for operations” and the Chiefs of Staff Committee was virtually dysfunctional. Sadly some of these themes were revisited during the 1999 Kargil war.
Ordinarily countries, like people, should be able to accept, learn and move on from past traumas. This however appears impossible in India. The paradox is simple—why is a loud and rambunctious democracy like India super-secretive about historical documents especially when they pertain to the military? As is well known the Indian Ministry of Defense and the three services—the Army, Navy and the Air Force do not adhere to declassification procedures. On the face of it this might appear to be a minor issue—the military does not release historical documents for scholarly study, so what? There are at least three major consequences that follow. First, the absence of primary documents means that the field of strategic studies is unable to develop. As a result civilians are not in a position to intellectually prepare and engage with the military. This adversely shapes the quality of civilian control as indicated by the recent crises in civil-military relations in India. Second, in the absence of a culture of research, military bureaucracies are unable to self-analyze and adopt corrective measures. As a result even the latest attempt at defense reforms in India—via the Naresh Chandra Committee is devoid of history. Finally in the absence of declassification the strategic community in India engages in opinion-based instead of factual based analysis. It is not uncommon therefore to hear complaints about the lack of strategic culture in India.
Leaving aside the issue of declassification, a tired cliché now the media discourse following Air Chief Marshal Browne’s comments revealed an immature strategic discourse and polity. The media in a rather simplistic manner portrayed his remarks as an indirect criticism of Prime Minister Nehru. Defence Minister AK Anthony was aware of this line of thinking and refused to engage with the debate by dismissing away any “hypothetical questions.” The Congress party was not so polite however and its spokesperson Praveen Davar pronounced the Chief of Air Staff’s views “as incorrect.” Strangely within days of the initial controversy the Indian Express broke a story citing top secrets documents (the cover letter for the still-secret Henderson-Brookes report) about how poor military leadership and not equipment shortages was the primary cause for the defeat in 1962. This story seemed to push back on the notion that politicians were to blame for the defeat. Within a week Daily Mail scored another scoop and quoted unspecified top secret documents to claim that Lt Gen SPP Thorat had prepared war plans that were ignored by the political class. The narrative once again swung to the other side—it was all the politicians fault!
These leaks and stories that emerge from them are indicative of wider, more consequential problems. Despite whatever self-images they have defence journalists are usually not “Mission Impossible” types who break into top secret facilities to steal information. Instead they are fed selective information by bureaucrats, both civilian and military, with personal or institutional agendas. Reporters thereby are spun by being granted, or denied, privileged access. While reporters are only staying true to their creed—trading access for stories, one must question the structural inability that prevents India from analysing and learning from its past. This will happen once the country moves beyond simplistic narratives of victims or villains. India should now have the self-confidence to admit that there were significant failings in their political, bureaucratic and military leaders. Instead of media leaks it is time to allow scholars access to documents that would enable them to analyse, debate and thereby learn from our past. This would thereby help inform the current generation. Not doing so indicates an intellectual dishonesty which is perhaps one of the most tragic legacies of the 1962 debacle.
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