Beyond Frequencies: The Intricate Dance of Air OP Officers and Fighter Pilots in the 1971 Indo-Pak War

The Nail-Biting Moments of Air Strike Communication Breakdown and Redemption in 1971.

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Lt. Col. M.A Siddiqui (Retd.)
Lt. Col. M.A Siddiqui (Retd.)
Lt. Col. M.A Siddiqui (Retd.) was commissioned in the Corps of Signals in December 1957. He participated in the Wars against China in 1962, against Pakistan in 1965 and 1971. He was awarded 'Mention in Dispatch' in the Bangladesh Liberation War 1971. His contact details are: [email protected], Ph: 9818260900 * Views are personal.

Ground-to-air communications (Comns) are vital factors for a successful air strike supporting ground troops by the Air Force in a war. Till just before the 1971 war, the radio set used was BE 201, a WW2 vintage set that worked on bulky secondary batteries and was not portable. This limited the mobility of the Air OP officer, who had to remain confined to the road only. The induction of VHF set GU 734, which worked on nickel-cadmium batteries, was revolutionary as it was portable, and the Air OP officer could take the set along with him to a vantage point for an effective briefing of the pilots before the airstrike. However, there was one disadvantage: the set could work only on four fixed frequencies, one for international use and one for civil aviation. That left only two frequencies available for our use.

One Sunday morning, I was asked by the CSO to come to his hut with a GU 734 set. On reaching there, I found that the EME head was also present. He, perhaps, was a telecom engineer, and he opened the set, took out one crystal and showed how simple it was to replace the crystals. I had no idea what they were planning and came back. On return, nothing happened when I asked our mechanic to switch on the set. He tried to figure out what was wrong with no result. The next day, we took the set to the EME workshop, who refused to look at it, saying that they neither had any literature nor any trained staff on the new set. So, while demonstrating his skills, the EME head damaged one of our two reserve sets.

On 01 December 1971, I was asked by the SOI (Sigs) that orders for change over to the new set of frequencies had been received and I should take the sets to the EME workshop, which will fix crystals for new frequencies. I told him it could not be done as the sets were no longer with me but already deployed with their respective dedicated formations. At this, he gave a brilliant suggestion that I withdraw sets from each division at a time (four sets), get the new crystals fitted and send them back. Then I do the same thing with the other two divisions and we would have thus changed all our sets to the new freqs. It was a highly impractical suggestion as it meant that if the war broke out, no close air support to our troops would be available for want of ground-to-air Comns. When I tried to reason with him, I was firmly told that orders had to be implemented.

Unfortunately, the CSO was away, and I could not contact him to get the order reviewed. I then went to 5 TAC comdr, Gp Capt. Gopalan and explained my problem. He promptly called the CSO of Eastern Air Command, who told him that our HQ, Eastern Command, had conveyed their readiness to switch over to new freqs, and this had already been done in their aircraft. I told the Group Capt, “Sir, your aircrafts are at the base, but my sets are not with me and already deployed with their respective formations where no technical help is available. Getting all the sets back would mean no ground-to-air communication for the duration the sets are under process at the workshop. I also shared my experience of how one set got damaged when the EME head demonstrated his skills the other day. The GpCapt understood the problem, called the CSO Eastern Air command, told him of the practical difficulties at our end, and got the order reversed. Their aircraft then switched back to the original freq. It was a great relief for me as the war broke out two days later, on 03 December 1971.

War on the Western sector started on 03 Dec. However, the 4 Corps offensive in the Eastern Sector was launched on 04 Dec. The First attack was on the Akhaura Railway Station complex, opposite Agartala on our side. The H hr (time of attack) kept getting postponed while waiting for an airstrike by our air force to materialise. Gen Sagat Singh, the Corps Commander, was observing the operation from the ATC tower at the airport, and he decided that if the air strike did not come by a certain time, the attack would go in without further delay. Finally, we received a flash message giving the TOT(time on target) for a sortie of two Hunter aircraft.

Our Air OP officer, with his radio set, was at the vantage point for a final briefing of the pilots. Air Op or FAC (Forward Air Controller, an AF officer) have the same task of guiding the pilot accurately onto the target. I recall once an enterprising Air Op climbed a tall tree as he could not find a suitable vantage point from where the target was visible. He perched himself comfortably on a branch and briefed the pilots on the target, thus enabling them to close in and release their arsenal accurately for optimum lethal results.

We were all keyed up at the JOC before the airstrike was to materialize. The excitement in the air was palpable as this would be the first-ever airstrike supporting our ground troops. I had positioned a GU 734 set there so that we could get a firsthand account of the air strike by listening to the audio of the pilots and the air op. At about 1355 H, the radio set came alive, and we could hear the conversation between the aircraft pilots, but there was no audio of the Air Op. Apparently, no contact between them was established. Finally, the pilots decided to take one more round, and if still there was no contact with the Air Op, they would return to the base. There was complete silence at the JOC, with everyone looking at me with a question in their eyes: what happened? This after so much hype I had created about the new radio sets only a few days earlier. Those were the most uncomfortable moments for me.

As if this was not enough, a Flash message was received from our Radar Station at Shillong warning us of two hostile aircraft approaching in our direction. There was a panic at the JOC as they were worried about the safety of our Hunters. We had heard of the Pak F 86 Sabres, being deadly with their sidewinders that enabled them also to take on the targets on their flank. GpCapt Gopalan exclaimed, ”Oh My God! Siddiqui, do something! Our Hunters are sitting ducks for the Pak Sabres”. I said, “ Sir, we are located in a depression with hills on both sides. Let’s go out in the open, and you can make a transmission on our radio, hoping that the pilots can hear you”. Quickly, we rushed out in the open, and I handed over the mic to Gopalan, and he made a frantic transmission, warning the pilots of the Pak Sabres in their vicinity. Just then, we heard the sound of the aircraft and looked up. We saw the Hunters overflying our location. Gop and Mohan, the SASO ( Senior Air Staff Officer), looked at each other but said nothing and returned to the JOC, leaving me behind to rue over our communication failure. At least, this came to my mind then, and I decided to find out what exactly went wrong.

Fortunately, it was a full moonlit night, driving was not a problem, and one could cruise at 25-30 km/hr speed. We reached the HQ of 311 Mtn Bde, where our Sigs officer, HK Bajaj, was the BM (Brigade Major). From him, I learnt that the Hunters never came to the target area. It later transpired that the Hunters went in a different direction due to a mix-up in briefing at the airfield. Since they were not where they were supposed to be, our Radar station at Shillong mistook them and declared them hostile, leading to the commotion at the JOC.

Another interesting incident also comes to my mind. The pride of our Navy, INS Vikrant, sailed into the Bay of Bengal sometime on 6/7th Dec and joined the action on the Eastern front. So, now we had additional air effort available to us. They came as an outstation on our airfield net. One day, the Corps HQ initiated an immediate AirSupport demand on a target on the 8 Mtn Div axis. The TOT was given as 1400 H. At that time, around noon, INS Vikrant was not accessible on our net, and we could not pass the message. So, I informed the GSO1 (Ops) of the situation, and his typical bureaucratic answer was,“ You bloody Signalers! When the GOC asks, your answer is, ‘through Sir’. It is your problem how you pass the message” and disconnected. I was stumped for a while and then said to myself, “If INS Vikrant is here, there must be some naval establishment in Kolkata with whom they must be in touch”. I thus asked our exchange to be connected to them and spoke to their Signals Officer, who confirmed that they had a radio link with INS Vikrant, and it was functional. This is how we passed the immediate Air Support demand and got their acknowledgement, and the TOT and the air strike did materialise at the specified time. Sometimes, you can find the solution to a problem with quick thinking.

Later, when INS Vikrant came up on our radio network, I asked them why they had gone off the net without notice. We were told a fire was on their deck, so they had to switch off their radio set to deal with the problem.

Except for the above incident, when the pilots went to the wrong location, our air support communications functioned with remarkable stability. There was never an occasion when our communications ever failed. When the 23 Mtn Div was in hot pursuit of the Paks, their rearward communications failed; ours was the only communication that existed then. The CSO then told us not to close down our radio communications till further orders, as normally, our nets close down at dusk as no air activity happens during the night.

Once our role in the war ended, we waited for a green signal to return to our peace location. Finally, we got orders to return and took the route via Dawki- Shillong- Guwahati- Tezpur. This was a much shorter route, and in three days of comfortable driving, we were back to our peaceful location. Everyone was keen to go on leave to spend time with their families as they had not seen them for close to a year, and the leave of all personnel was stopped due to the impending war. Life was back to normal for us with normal peacetime activities.

One early morning, the CSO rang up. “ Congratulations, Siddiqui, you got a mention in dispatch, although I had recommended you for a bigger one. Still, something is better than nothing. Have a great day”.

Though a tiny one in the hierarchy of gallantry awards allows you to wear a Fig Leaf on the war medal, I always took good care of my olive green uniform, which was kept crisp. I would stand in front of the mirror and look at myself before going to work. That FigLeaf would draw my attention, and I would feel elated. My chest would swell with pride, making me look taller than my short stature. A smile would appear on my face as I turned away.


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