The 40 mm L-70 Gun with the 'Superfledermaus' fire-control system was introduced into service, the control and reporting system was improved further, and latter coordinated with the IAF. By 1971, the Air Defence Gunners were full of confidence in their new weapons and ready for any eventuality. Today, in addition to the L-70 radar-controlled gun, the Air Defence Artillery is equipped with the Schillka, a multi-barrelled, 23 mm gun mounted on a tank chasis for operations with mechanised formations and the ZU-23-2 B, a towed twin-barrel gun.
They came in low over the western horizon, almost invisibly against the setting sun. Two ‘Sabre Jets’ and a ‘Starfighter’. Their target-a vital Air Force radar installation near Amritsar airfield. The date : 6 September, 1965.
Warned by their constantly alert lookout post, the L-60 gun detachments swung into action. The aircraft pulled up and dived — the ‘Starfighter’, to strafe the air defence guns, the Sabres to bomb the target. Simultaneously, the guns opened up, catching the aircraft in a murderous cross-fire.
The ‘Starfighter’ was hit first. It lost a wing and plummeted to the ground. Half a dozen shells burrowed into the soft-skinned fuselage of one Sabre, The aircraft shuddered violently, veered out of central and almost crashed. With smoke billowing from a fire in the belly of his aircraft, the pilot hastily dropped his bombs, not caring: where they fell, and limped back home. His surviving companion had already crossed the border. The hunter had become a victim of his prey. It was poetic justice: superbly trained gun detachments, manning ancient guns, had brought down a complex, modern aircraft and damaged another. David had felled Goliath.
The Pakistan Air Force (PAF) raided the same radar thrice again the next day, once each on 8 and 9 September, three times on the 10th; the 11th and the 12th and five times on the 13th. They kept forgetting that the Air Defence Gunners were still there.
Air Defence artillery performs a very important function in defence and is largely instrumental in keeping the skies clear for the Indian Air Force (IAF) to operate at will. The role of Air Defence artillery is to prevent enemy aircraft from observing and attacking our ground forces, as also to guard important static installations of tactical and strategic – significance such as ‘military – airfields, nuclear facilities and naval harbours. Air defence units are equipped with single or multi-barrelled guns and sophisticated surface-to-air missiles (SAM). Their targets are generally fast, low-flying aircraft, helicopter gunships, drones and missiles. Air Defence or artillery fire-control systems consist of radars and computers. Radars are employed for early warning and tracking of hostile aircraft. Modern computers are used for ballistic calculations and for predicting the future position of an aircraft to determine the ‘aim off’.
The history of Air Defence artillery is a fascinating story of slow and uncertain early development, followed by a grand expansion plan and meteoric rise to fame. The Air Defence artillery has come a long way from the handful of batteries Inherited at the time of Independence to the large number of Air Defence brigades in service today. The importance of providing effective air defence to fighting field formations was not fully appreciated till the 1965 Indo-Pak Conflict. At this time, most of the Air Defence units were equipped with the Second World War vintage L-60 Gun, with 54 guns in each regiment. The L-60 gun was a fair-weather, manually operated gun, with a rather modest rate of fire, incapable of effective engagement in hours of darkness. Inspite of all these limitations, the skill and competence of the Air Defence Gunners and their spirit and tenacity, combined with carefully devised tactics, took a heavy tool of the PAF’s deadly F 86 Sabre Jets, F 104 ‘Starfighter’ and B-57 Bombers.
The lessons learnt in 1965 resulted in a serious modernisation drive. The 40 mm L-70 Gun with the ‘Superfledermaus’ fire-control system was introduced into service, the control and reporting system was improved further, and latter coordinated with the IAF. By 1971, the Air Defence Gunners were full of confidence in their new weapons and ready for any eventuality. When the PAF launched its ill-fated pre-emptive air strike against nine of our airfields on 3 December 1971, the grand designs of General Yahya Khan were hopelessly frustrated by the poised and eager Gunners. Not one of our aircraft was hit, nor was any runway damaged.
Throughout the 14-day war, the Air Defence units maintained a ceaseless vigil over their areas of responsibility. Whenever the PAF pilots dared to venture near the Air Defence guns the intruders were greeted with a blistering barrage by the ever alert Gunners. The battlefields of Amritsar, Samha and Chhamb and the areas around many forward airfields like Adampur, Halwara and Srinagar, were littered with the smouldering wreckages of PAF aircraft. The bag of 46 enemy aircraft, officially credited to the Regiment of Artillery, included the PAF’s new Mirages and Mig-19s.
For the civilian population of Punjab, each ‘Kill’ was a spectacular event watched with breathtaking awe, remembered with nostalgia, a memory cherished forever. Thousands watched unafraid from their rooftops as the wail of the air-raid sirens ended, and the whine of the enemy’s planes was heard in the stillness of the night. As soon as a radar beam zeroed in on the leading aircraft of a flight, the guns would open up with a thunderous roar and hundreds of tracer lit shells would race for a tryst with their targets. Then, a red, orange and yellow explosion would appear against the Starry backdrop and the remains of the aircraft engulfed in smoke’ would hurtle towards the earth in a crazy spiral. The nation owes an immense debt of gratitude to the valiant Air Defence Gunners who fought and died beside their guns, braving the most incessant strafing and rocket attacks. The Honour Titles awarded to Air Defence regiments and the gallantry awards conferred for individual feats of courage beyond the call of duty, symbolise the nation’s recognition of their magnificent performance.
Today, in addition to the L-70 radar-controlled gun, the Air Defence Artillery is equipped with the Schillka, a multi-barrelled, 23 mm gun mounted on a tank chasis for operations with mechanised formations and the ZU-23-2 B, a towed twin-barrel gun. Other additions to the arsenal are a number of deadly suface-to-air missiles with a very high single shot kill probability. Both shoulder-fired and tank-mounted, self-propelled missile systems are in service. A judicious mix of these weapons systems, with varied capabilities, is employed to provide an effective air defence umbrella to the forces operating in the combat zone as also to civil and military installations.
The Air Defence Gunners have made their mark In many wars and, with their new weapons systems, can be relied upon to keep the nation’s skies clear of enemy aircraft in any future war.