F-104 Starfighters in PAKISTAN AIR FORCE


Pakistan, which remained an important ally of the United States throughout the cold war was the first non-NATO country to equip with the F-104 Starfighter. The F-104 As and Bs provided to the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) under the US Mutual Defence Assistance Programme entered service in 1961 and continued to fly until 1972 when dwindling spares support forced their early retirement. In all twelve F-104As and two F-104 Bs were transferred to Pakistan (table below):

Serial Model Tail # Date Received
1-12 F-104 A 56-803 August 5, 1961
    56-804 August 5, 1961
    56-805 August 5, 1961
    56-807 August 5, 1961
    56-868 August 5, 1961
    56-874 August 5, 1961
    56-875 August 5, 1961
    56-877 August 5, 1961
    56-879 August 5, 1961
    56-773 June 8, 1964
    56-798 March 1, 1965
13-14 F-104 B 57-1309 August 5, 1961
    57-1312 August 5, 1961

At PAF’s request, all its F-104As were refitted with the M-61 Gatling 20 mm gun, whereas its counterparts in the USAF had been divested of their guns on the assumption that all post-Korea air combat would occur at high speeds where only the wing tip-mounted Sidewinder missiles would be effective. The PAF’s foresight was amply rewarded in actual combat and the USAF too reverted to having machine guns as mandatory equipment on all its fighters in due course. The newer GWE- J-79-11 engine was also installed on the aircraft. This made the Pakistan F-104s somewhat unique: they had the gun and being the lightest of F-104 series with a more advanced J-79 engine enjoyed the best thrust-to-weight ratio.

The only PAF unit to be equipped with the F-104 was No 9 Air Superiority Squadron. The squadron flies the F-16 today. The in-commission rate of the F-104 during the first five years of service was over 80 % and all its systems performed with high reliability. The fighter was employed in the air-to-air role by the PAF and was used extensively for aerial gunnery against both banner targets and the Dart targets with excellent scores. In strafing attacks the M-61 gun was superbly accurate.

The F-104 Starfighters remained in service with Pakistan Air Force for twelve years and flew 11,690 hours. During the 1965 Pakistan-India War, the F-104s flew a total of 246 hours and 45 minutes while during the 1971 War, the F-104s flew a total of 103 hours and 45 minutes.

1965 Pakistan-India War

During the 1965 War, PAF was forced to rely on its small force of F-104A Starfighters as high altitude interceptors and in its night fighting role, using the radar of its AN/ASG-14T1 fire-control system, in conjunction with Sidewinder air-to-air missiles.

After 1 September, the F-104s were extremely active in Air Defence and Air Superiority Operations, but of the 246 missions flown by F-104s during hostilities, 42 were at night against the IAF Canberras. The rudimentary fire-control radar met the Soviet high altitude bomber threat of the Cold War era for which it was designed but it could not illuminate small targets against ground clutter. The standard high speed intercept tactic employed by PAF’s F-104 pilots was to approach their targets from below, with a typical height differential of 2-3,000 feet, against a target they wished to acquire at a range of 10-15 kilomenters. This limitation was well known to the Canberra jet bomber pilots of IAF who attacked targets in Pakistan during the 1965 war. They adopted a standard hi-lo-hi profile to minimize the threat of interception. During most of their inbound and outbound flight over Pakistani territory the IAF Canberras would stay below about 1000 feet during their approach and exit phases. This posed a difficult night intercept problem. The PAF’s F-104s had in these circumstances to be used in an unconventional low-altitude intercept profile that severely challenged the capabilities of its airborne radar. To pick up the low flying bombers on their scope the F-104 pilots had to get down to about 300-500 feet above the ground to point their radars upward and clear of ground clutter at the enemy bombers. The problem was aggravated by the Canberra’s tail warning audio alarm that would go off the moment an F-104 got to a near astern position, and enable the bomber to take timely evasive action to shake off its pursuer.

The F-104s were highly dreaded by the Indian Air Force (IAF). On 3rd September, 1965, even before the War began, an Indian Gnat surrendered to an F-104 which forced it to land at the abandoned airfield of Pasrur (in Pakistan). Its pilot Squadron Leader Brijpal Singh Sikand became a POW.

On 6 September, two Starfighters were sent on dawn patrol from Sargodha. They were vectored by Sakesar Radar towards 4 IAF Mysteres engaged in bomb and rocket attacks against a stationary passenger train at Gakkhar railway station. One of the F-104 pilots was forced to return to base with a radio failure but the other pilot, Flight Lieutenant Aftab Alam Khan dived his F-104 with full after burners, going supersonically through the Mysteres formation which promptly scattered. The Indian aircraft tried to escape at about 50 feet above the ground but they were no match for the Starfighter. Aftab destroyed one Mysteres with his Sidewinder missile thus achieving one of the world’s first air victories by a mach 2 combat aircraft.

The other F-104 pilot, Flight Lieutenant Amjad Khan, who had missed his chance the previous day, made amends on 7 September. He was scrambled in an F-104 at about 05:15 hours and directed by Sakesar radar towards an incoming raid at Sargodha. He made visual contact with the IAF Mysteres and headed towards them. By the time he caught up with them, the Indian aircraft were 6-8 miles away from Sargodha, flying at 150-200 feet on a south-easterly heading towards India. As the Mysteres jettisoned their drop tanks, Flight Lieutenant Amjad Hussain positioned himself behind one of them and released a GAR-8 missile, which went straight into the ground. The Mystere then began to dogfight with the Starfighter, which used its superior climb and acceleration to lift the combat from ground level to about 7,000 feet to gain room for manoeuvre. Hussain fired his cannons and was delighted to see the shell hit the Mystere. The Mystere pilot showed commendable courage in staying with the F-104, and despite being mortally wounded, scored several cannon strikes on the Starfighter. Flight Lieutenant Amjad Hussain managed to eject safely and reached his Base. This was the first and only Starfighter to be lost through enemy action in the 1965 war. The Indian pilot Squadron Leader A.B. Devayya was posthumously awarded the Maha Vir Chakra in 1988, twenty three years after the war, when Indian authorities learnt of the IAF pilot’s valour through an account of the encounter published in John Fricker’s book Battle for Pakistan, published in 1978.

On 21 September, Squadron Leader Jamal A Khan, intercepted an Indian Air Force Canberra at about 33,000 feet and shot it down with a Sidewinder near Fazilka, inside Pakistani territory. The bomber’s pilot, Flight Lieutenant Manmohan Lowe ejected and was made POW while its navigator, Flying Officer A K Kapor could not bail out and was killed in action. The British made Canberra, unlike its American counterpart the Martin B-57, had no ejection seat for the navigator. This was the first kill achieved by an F-104 at night after a number of near misses due to factors described earlier.

F-104s were also used during 1965 for low level, daylight reconnaissance missions over the IAF air bases. The speed of the Starfighter gave the Indians no time to react. The F-104s were also employed as escorts for the slow Lockheed RT-33 reconnaissance fighters on photographic missions deep into Indian territory, the presence of Starfighters virtually guaranteeing that no air opposition would be encountered. Six F-104 pilots received gallantry awards during the 1965 War.

1971 Pakistan-India War

Air operations in 1971 Pakistan-India War commenced with a preemptive strike by PAF. In the 1971 War the F-104 was also used for deep penetration strikes against enemy airfields and radars. Two F-104s each attacked Amritsar and Faridkot Indian Air Force Radars. The attack on Faridkot Radar was led by Wing Commander Arif Iqbal, who not only damaged the Radar but also shot down an IAF Krishak aircraft.

On 4 December, Squadron Leaders Amanullah and Rashid Bhatti attacked Amritsar Radar. They met with stiff resistance but managed to shoot down two aircraft, an Indian Gnat and an Su-7. The pilot of the Gnat, Flight Lieutenant J Preira was Killed in Action. On 08 December, Flight Lieutenant Manzoor Bokhari intercepted an IAF Canberra and shot it down. On 10 December, Wing Commander Arif Iqbal, while attacking the Indian Harbour of Okha, shot down an Alize aircraft of Indian Navy. Its crew members, Lieutenant Commander Ashok Roy, Lieutenant H S Sirohi and AC O Vijayan were killed in action. PAF lost two F-104s along with their pilots, Wing Commander Mervyn Leslie Middlecoat and Flight Lieutenant Samad Changezi both were awarded gallantry awards of Sitara-e-Jurat (roughly equivalent to the British Distinguished Flying Cross). Flight Lieutenant Bharat B Soni, a MiG-21 pilot was credited with having shot down Wing Commander Middlecoat while Flight Lieutenant Arun K Dutta, another MiG-21 pilot was awarded the claim of having shot down Flight Lieutenant Samad Changezi.

The US Government imposed an embargo on arms sales to both India and Pakistan as soon as the 1965 war began. No consideration was given to the fact that India, a long-time ally of the Soviet Union, hardly used any American military equipment and the sanctions exclusively degraded the combat potential of only the Pakistani Armed Forces. The PAF fleet of F-104s was particularly hard hit by the arms embargoes. Eventually it became impossible to maintain a reasonable in-commission rate on the F-104s and the PAF decided to phase it out of service in late 1972. This ended the era of Pakistan Air Force’s first mach-2 combat aircraft.