The Origins of Pakistan-China Military Relations

Posted on March 18, 2010
Filed Under >Air Marshal (R) Inam H. Khan, Foreign Relations, History, People
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Air Marshal (R) Inam H. Khan

Pakistan was the first Muslim country to recognize China in 1950 and the third non communist state. Pakistan then voted for a bill concerning the restoration of China’s legitimate rights in the UN. PIA became the first non-communist airline to fly into China in 1964.

All Eggs in One Basket: The real transformation came when USA cut off all spares and other support such as training courses etc. both to India and Pakistan on breakout of 1965 Indo-Pak War. It did not hurt India much as they were mostly dependent on USSR. It had a few US transport twin piston-engine C-118 Packets with a third jet engine specially positioned on top of fuselage. It was specially designed for operations from high altitude airfields such as Leh, after Indo-China War of 1962. (As a POW we flew in one from Calcutta to Nagpur on way to our camp at Jabbalpur. Aircraft was in a rickety dilapidated shape due to poor maintenance).

This sudden cutting off of support effected Pakistan very adversely. PAF was very significantly effected as it had all her eggs in one (US) basket. After partition, PAF had acquired first 60 Sea Fury fighters in 1950, then followed by 12 jet Attackers from UK. In addition, for transportation, PAF replaced 8 odd C-47 Dakotas with 110( yes 110! ) British Bristol Freighters. We needed at the most 12 transport aircraft, but our RAF CinC bought 110 of them. We got a raw deal from Britishers in Attacker and Freighter sales inter alia many others – thanks to RAF C-in-C and other senior seconded RAF officers. Pakistan could only afford these small numbers with its own honest money. After joining CENTO and SEATO, PAF went whole hog for better US aircraft, acquiring 100 F-86s, 12 F-104s, approx 10 B-57s, 12 or so C-130s, and number of search and rescue helicopters and amphibians.

The two photos above show most of the newly acquired US planes at Muripur Airforce Base, Karachi in the 1950s. I was there with my newly raised 16 Squadron ( Motto as suggested by late Group Captain Mahmood (Edu) ‘tendrust-o-tenumend-o-drusht-zee’.

As you would observe, the birds are clean without drops. Nur Khan led the fly-past of ninety six clean F86s, taking off from old short 040 runway, climbing to 35,000 feet. From there diving and streaking over Karachi city at high speed to 1,500 feet high. Luckily no bird hit the planes even though the area was infested with them. Some pilots had very few hours on F86s; No 16 Squadron had then Pilot Officers late Akhtar (Air Commodore, Comdt Staff College) and P/O Riaz (Heli pilot later) who had only 5 hours or so on the type.

Ninety-six aircrafts lined up for take off on short 04, at 98% power crammed up together was not a joke. Recovery was even more remarkable as the runway was not only short but it had at the end a 2 feet high lip of main runway 27 under construction.

US Embargo Dilemma: Faced with this dilemma due to US embargo, PAF frantically looked around for replacements, but nothing was available soon and within our means. Though most of our top brass including President Ayub Khan, under the influence and over-awed by the West, had to eat the crow and beg China to help. For example, Chinese PM Chou En Lai, with his far sightedness first offered the construction of Karakoram Highway in1962. Pakistan turned it down lest USA got annoyed. Air Marshal Asghar Khan was sent to Peking during the War for immediate procurement of the aircraft and for the Chinese double barreled, very effective, 12.5 mm Ack Ack guns. Chinese PM graciously and promptly agreed to meet our request with the proviso that FM Ayub Khan will have to personally make the request. This he did soon after the war towards end of September. He visited Peking meekishly and very secretly lest USA got peeved. On advice from our Foreign Office, dominated by Brown Sahibs, Air Marshal Asghar suggested to Chou En Lai that these aircraft may be crated and secretly shipped to Jakarta, and from there to Karachi. Thus giving the impression to West that, just like Indonesian Submarines, these aircraft too have been obtained from there. It was an immature, time consuming and childish proposal.

The photo above shows PM Chou En Lai having exclusive lunch with our Ambassador M Sultan Khan and his wife Abida in the Embassy (Embassy is where Ambassadors live, Chancery is their office which is mistakenly called Embassy ). Occasion being the visit of M Shahabuddin, brother of first Pakistani PM Nazimuddin,( ex Chief Minister of combined Bengal pre-partition. He was a very honest but simple man who left little assets. His wife was living in a small house in some remote Karachi Colony till 1980 when Gen Zia allotted her some decent house.) Shahabuddin then was probably Speaker of Parliament.

Chou En Lai immediately shot the idea down and said that these will be made available at airbase like Hotian. It will be very easy to ferry them across to Pakistan from there. During this meeting Chinese PM enquired from AM as to how long it will take PAF pilots to achieve the necessary proficiency. Asghar Khan replied that our pilots are experienced aviators; they would not take more than 10 to 15 days. Remarkably PM disagreed and said that unlike your planes, these are equipped with metric systems, have configurations different from Western aircraft, and most of all there would be language problems. He thus opined it would require 6 to 8 weeks for transition. And it took that much. To highlight this, it took our pilots nearly one week to understand that switches on panels on right side of cockpit are in fact ‘circuit breakers’ and not switches as these appeared to be. China provided initially sixty F-6 aircraft along with tanks, arms and ordinance for 3 Army Divisons, large number of AA guns and ammunition etc..

And it was done almost free of cost and within days. One point always bothered the Chinese. China following policy of conservation, objected to our scales of ammunition. They said we follow American pattern of firing to frighten where as we should fire to kill. This reminds me, once in 1962 at PAF Naltar attending Ski Course, we 5 or 6 Wing Commanders went for Chakor shikar. We fired about two dozen cartridges but could not kill a single bird. Next day one local bearer took 4 cartridges, in the evening he brought 3 chakors and returned one unused cartridge. When we inquired, he said they approach bird behind a colorful shield and fired only after reaching it close,

First batch of PAF pilots reached China in early Oct 1965, where they were stationed sixty miles south of Tientsin Harbour. Base facilities were spartan but clean. Accommodation and food was prepared under Muslim requirements. They flew about 10 to 15 missions each on F-6, Chinese built Mig-19 aircraft. As stated earlier, China then made all efforts to conserve F-6s. They were thus fully covered and protected from sun and dust. They were taken close to beginning of runway; covers were removed at the last moment and mission accomplished from thereon. Protective measures were undertaken immediately after landing. Not a single fault occurred during training of the two batches of six pilots each, except one malfunctioning of a gauge. This was remarkable achievement. Life style was simple. The airfield was about a mile away from the residential area. When one of our pilots had hairline crack of ankle, he was provided with a cycle, otherwise every one walked.

Air Marshal Nur Khan’s Visit: C-in-C PAF Air Marshal Nur Khan paid two visits to China during my tenure as Air Attache at Peking. The first one was in Nov 1965 and second in Dec 1967.

The above picture was taken during first visit, when he was accompanied by AVM Qadir, Air Cdre Z A Chaudhry, Air Cdre Khawaja Maintenance, my course mate Grp Capt S H Shah, Grp Capt Khawaja Supply and Group Capt Mustafa. Embassy is represented by Minister Durrani (in grey suit in front row) and First Secretary Yunus next to me behind Minister Durrani. Normally PM Chou En Lai did not meet Military Chiefs, but he had liking for Nur Khan and thus graciously had dinner with him followed by this photograph.

The visit was to review the progress of procurement of aircraft, tanks and other equipment. It also included a visit to the air base where our pilots were undergoing. Aircraft unserviceability was zero, Base workshop produced most of the spare parts themselves despite the fact that their workshops were not as well equipped as ours, according to Air Cdre Khawaja, ACAS Maintenance. They were remarkably self sufficient in every thing including food, vegetables, etc.

F-6 Aircraft: F-6 had good power weight ratio of 86%, giving it a lot of kick and maneuverability even at high altitude. But it was not a perfect aircraft. A serious problem faced in these aircraft was turbine buckets melting away or detaching and piercing through the other engine or pipes causing it afire. This was due to poor Russian metallurgy. Engines required change of the turbine buckets after every 100 hours. This was in contrast to an F104 engine requiring Inspection and Replacement if required (IRAN) after 1200 hours.

The photo above shows newly minted F-6s – just after their arrival in Pakistan

PAF installed British Martin Baker ejection seats amongst many other changes. Maintenance wise F-6 was a labor intensive aircraft when compared to US aircraft. Latter having modular systems which are expensive but efficient. F-6 was not pilot friendly aircraft in an emergency and cost us many lives.

On the whole, however, the F-6 was a great acquisition considering that these were provided promptly at a crucial juncture; when we were against the wall and not being able to fill the requirement from any other source. To top it off these were almost free of cost, thanks to the Chinese government and in particular PM Chou En Lai. They have thus earned our gratitude, goodwill and trust, despite our leader’s penchant for the West.

Multi Faceted Relationship: The efforts put in to developing an exemplary relationship by people of both countries in those days, has paid dividends across the board. We now have collaboration in both civil and defense industries. The Karakoram Highway and Gwadar Port are two mega projects that have the potential to transform the social landscape. While there are many lessons to derive from the experience, there are some that truly stand out.

Lessons To Learn: The first lesson is never to put all our key assets at the mercy of any one country. Despite our experience after 1965 we still tried to buy US F-16s and even paid for many of them, only to see their delivery embargoed and money not returned. In contrast the collaboration on JF-17 and other projects with the Chinese have borne fruit. Becoming self sufficient in essential items is a lesson to learn from the Chinese.

The other important lesson is to lead a simple life style and live within ones means. China when it became independent was in much worse shape than Pakistan. Chinese have shown that by living simply and focusing on important things, with correct priorities, they can achieve wonders. We can better protect our interests and sovereignty if we avoid dependence on aid and learn to stand on our feet. Is it too much to ask?

Air Marshal (R) Inam H. Khan was Pakistan’s first air attache to China. He was commissioned in 5th GD(P) Course in 1949 and has the unique honour of winning the coveted Sword of Honour, Best Pilot Trophy as well as the Ground Subjects Trophy. He later raised and commanded No 16 Squadron (F-86F), two fighter Wings (No 32 Fighter Ground Attack Wing and No 33 Fighter Ground Attack Wing). Served as the first Air Attache in Peking China after 1965 war. He commanded two Bases, viz PAF Base Peshawar and PAF Base Dacca. At the latter Base, he was also AOC East Pakistan during 1971. He was appointed as ACAS (Ops) after repatriation as a POW. His last appointment within PAF was as first Air Officer Commanding, Air Defence Command. Following that, in 1976 he was appointed as the first DG JS in the newly established JCSC Headquarters. In 1979 he was inducted in the Federal Cabinet, from where he resigned and retired from PAF in 1982. He is the recipient of the second highest military award, Hilal-e-Juraat. These reflections were written informally and first appeared at Planet Earth. ATP is grateful to the author for sharing these with our readership.

29 responses to “The Origins of Pakistan-China Military Relations”

  1. imran says:

    If you have a chance to visit the China People’s Revolutionary Military Museum in Beijing, you will have the opportunity to see the grass that Mao Tse Tung, Chou En Lai and other communists ate while they were being pursued by Chaing Kai-shek’s army. You will also see the primitive weapons they used to fight the tanks and aircrafts. It is after being inspired by their spirit and commitment that I wrote f/comment-page-2/

    I know of no nation whose civilian and military leadership allows a third country to traumatize and kill large numbers of its citizens. Specially when it has the resources to stop it. You can learn more about it at ing-for-what-for-whom-why/

  2. asad says:

    asim has probably not seen the anti pakistan hatred being spread by the indian media..both print and visual…

    the indians are now riding high with the misplaced conception that they are a great power…

    so even if all pakistanis declare their ‘love’ for india, they will still be spat upon…

  3. Roshan Ali Mangi says:

    Pakistani Military personnels and Politicians should learn lesson from Great China, she has won the freedom bit after Pakistan and now no country in the world can dictate her, why our leaders can not achieve that degree of GHAIRAT to develop our resources rich country, and why they are begging from Kuffar, and why they are killing own people and asking for blood money. For example from March to August our formers are bussy harvesting Wheat crop( March from Badin to August up to Swat) still there is shortage of food, there are four seasons Iwould rather say Five seasons in Pakistan( +1 is the Raining in the THAR desert ). There is world’s 18th longest river Sindhu still we donot have the clean and enough drinking water.One day these insha-Allah there wil appear man like Jadam Jakhro to up lift this beautiful country of mine***********AAMEEN. ROSHAN

  4. Daud says:

    Very well written and interesting article with lots of new information

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