The origin of the Western Air Command can be traced back to the nascent years of independent India, when the various formations of the Air Force were organised into two groups. These were the No 1 Operational Group which controlled all the flying units including the flying training units and the No2 Training Group responsible for the entire spectrum of training activities (except flying training) in the IAF.
On 22nd July 1949 the No 1 Operational Group was re-designated as the Operational Command. The Air Officer Commanding the Operational Command was then of the rank of an Air Commodore. This was upgraded to the rank of Air Vice Marshal in 1958 and later to the rank of Air Marshal. The Command assumed its present name of Headquarters Western Air Command on 10th June 1963, primarily as a consequence of formation of other operational commands and demarcation of specific areas of responsibility.
Headquarters Western Air Command, located at Subroto Park, New Delhi, has over 200 bases placed under its command and has been involved in all major operations in India since independence. Due to its geographical location the Command has always been the hub-centre of all operational activities during any operation. Some of the major operations handled are Kashmir Operations 1947-48, Sino-Indian Conflict 1962, Indo-Pak War 1965, Indo-Pak War 1971, Operation Pawan 1986 (Sri Lanka) and Operation Safed Sagar 1999 (Kargil).
1947- 48 J&K CONFLICT
Immediately after the Instrument of Accession was signed, acceding the state of J & K to India on 26 Oct 1947, the RIAF was moved into action, its task being primarily to induct the Indian Army into Srinagar to halt the advance of raiders. The 'Punching Operation' began with the first Dakota flight piloted by the legendary Air Cmde Meher Singh along with AVM Subroto Mukherjee at Poonch on 08 Dec 1947. Skillfully flying his Dakota, Meher Singh landed on a river bed at Leh. His landing marked the beginning of creation of an air bridge at 3520 meters above sea level and ensured a sustained offensive against the Pakistani raiders at Leh.
No. 1 Operational Group was assigned the task of airlift, air maintenance and combat air operations. Combat air operations in the J & K region were carried out using Tempest, Spitfire and Harvard aircraft. They ensured that enemy raiders could not carry out mass attacks during day time and even movement by night was severely restricted.
The Indo-China war broke out with the Chinese attack in the Eastern Sector and Leh region simultaneously on the fateful morning of 20 Oct 1962. The herculean task of supporting troops by air at high altitudes in the Himalayas was made worse by adverse weather conditions and inhospitable terrain. WAC performed a daring task of air maintenance in the Ladakh sector in extremely adverse conditions and unapproachable small valleys amongst steep towering mountains. The daunting task was accomplished with IL-14, An-12 and Packet C-119, defying conventional parameters of aircraft operations. The besieged Indian outpost at Galwan in Ladakh area was air maintained using Mi-4 helicopters. Although air power was not applied in combat roles, WAC was extensively involved in air maintenance roles and reinforcement of troops.
During the 1965 operations, the IAF swung into action with devastating effect once the Pakistani Army crossed the International Border in the J & K sector. Pakistan had launched a pre-emptive air attack on the morning of 01 Sep 1965 against three major air bases and two radar stations of WAC. This was synchronised with a simultaneous offensive launched by the Pakistan Army in Chhamb and Khemkaran. By evening, the fighters from Pathankot roared into retaliation and launched a massive counter offensive against the mighty Sabres of PAF. The credit for shooting down the first enemy aircraft by the IAF went to Sqn Ldr Trevor Keelor who renamed Pathankot as the 'Sabre Killer' station of WAC. Young pilots carried out offensive missions deep into Pakistan territory and caused heavy damage to their military installations and war machinery.
Pakistan Air Force attempted a ground offensive by commandos to destroy Indian Air Force's aircraft on ground. However, their plan failed miserably as only 11 of the 180 commandos escaped back, the rest having been killed or captured. On 07 Sep 65, Sqn Ldr SK Singh, Stn Security Officer of AF Stn Halwara with his team apprehended Captain Hussain of Pakistani Para Unit along with his men and a sizeable amount of arms, ammunition, explosives, mortars and wireless sets at village Rejoona, which is located at a distance of merely three Kms from AF Stn Halwara.
History was created when triumphant Indian Forces marched into Dacca and helped the erstwhile East Pakistan to form a new independent nation called Bangladesh.
By November 1971, incursions by the Pak Army and Air Force into Indian Border territories had become frequent. On 22 Nov 1971, four PAF Sabres intruded into Indian air space in the Boyra sector. Four IAF Gnats from No. 22 Sqn detachment at Dum-Dum were scrambled, which intercepted the Sabres and shot down three. At 1747h on 03 Dec 1971, PAF launched simultaneous attacks on a number of forward IAF bases at Srinagar (12 Sabres), Amritsar (four Mirages) and Pathankot (four Sabres) and between 1800h and 0430h the next morning, a further 60-70 sorties were flown by the PAF against IAF bases at Ambala (five attacks), Amritsar (two attacks), Awantipur, Faridkot, Halwara, Sirsa and Sarsawa. Operating mostly with single B-57s or in small formations, PAF strikes did marginal damage at Amritsar where some 330 yards of runway was rendered inoperable and a small radar site was damaged, but apart from Faridkot, where an aircraft was destroyed, none of the target airfields suffered more than superficial damage and all remained operational. Three of the attacking PAF aircraft were hit by anti-aircraft fire, one each over Pathankot, Halwara and Amritsar.
On 14 Dec 1971, Fg Offr Nirmal Jit Singh Sekhon on No. 18 Sqn was at ORP in his Gnat. Even as six PAF Sabres swooped down from the skies, Sekhon took off and moments later shot down one Sabre and set fire to another before he lost his life. He was awarded the Param Vir Chakra and remains the sole Air Warrior to be decorated with the award till date.
An-12s of No. 25 Sqn were extensively utilised as bombers in the Western Sector opposite Poonch and caused heavy damage to 6 Armoured Division of Pakistan. They also participated in the historic paradrop at Tangail in East Pakistan on 11 and 12 Dec 1971.
The 1971 war has been described as the IAF's 'Finest Hour'. During the 14 day long conflict, the IAF flew a total of 11,549 sorties on both fronts. Of these 4509 alone were flown in WAC. These sorties were mainly devoted to offensive air support, air defence, counter air operations, recce and strategic / special missions. On the Eastern front, after ensuring air superiority within the first 48 hours, IAF Gnats were employed for riverine interdiction, with reasonable success. Western Air Command proved that conventional air power was a credible deterrent to aggression. IAF air strikes expedited the surrender of the Pakistan govt and its Army in East Pakistan within 14 days. At 1631h IST on 16 Dec 1971, GOC-in-C Eastern Command, Lt Gen JS Aurora accepted the surrender of all Pakistani forces from Lt Gen AAK Niazi.
1984 - OPERATION MEGHDOOT
WAC has been involved in 'Operation Meghdoot' in the Siachen area since 13 Apr 1984. It has been one of the longest ongoing operations carried out by the IAF at very high altitudes. Transport aircraft and helicopters have been stretched to their limits in providing unhampered air link in support of the Army and civilians at altitudes up to 6,400 metres (21,000 ft) in harsh weather conditions, where temperatures fall down to -40 degree celcius.
1999 - OPERATION SAFED SAGAR
In early 1999, in a deliberate and highly organised manner, the Pakistani Army had managed to infiltrate many hundreds of troops and special forces upto almost 10 Km south of the LoC over a frontage of 200 kms, so precipitating the Kargil conflict in the summer of 1999.
As the magnitude of the intrusion became apparent and a clear picture emerged, the IAF was pressed into action. Additional fighters and armed Mi-17 aircraft moved into Srinagar and Awantipur airfields. IAF operations in the Kargil Sector of Northern Kashmir were conducted for a period of seven weeks, from 26 May 99 when the first air strikes were launched till 12 July when these were suspended to allow Pakistani forces to withdraw northwards to their side of the LoC.
26 May 1999 will remain a red letter day in the history of AF Stn Srinagar. On this day, the first air strikes were launched against Pak soldiers in the Kargil sector. Operating with restrictions of staying clear of LoC and engaging unconventional targets such as tents and sangars at altitudes of 4500-5000 mtrs, a number of fighter Sqns of WAC were deployed. Helicopters carried out some 925 hours of flying. They evacuated 441 casualties and airlifted into position a large number of men required immediately at different sectors.
On 12 Jul 1999, the Pakistan Foreign Minister raised three points with the very first being a clear request for complete stopping of air strikes. That proved to be a very significant milestone in the history of the Indian Air Force and the confidence of the nation in our air combat capability increased manifold.