India used US spy planes to map Chinese incursion in Sino-Indian war

Yashwant Raj

Washington, Aug. 16 -- India used US U-2 spy planes to map the extent of Chinese incursion in the 1962 war, starting a short-lived cooperation wound down after prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru's death.

The U-2s flew several sorties over the India-China border taking off from a base in Thailand, before switching to an unused World War II airfield in Charbatia, south of Kolkata.

The cooperation started on Nehru's request for military aid after the Chinese invasion of India in October 1962, according to a declassified CIA document released on Thursday.

"In the negotiations that followed (Indian request), it became apparent that Indian claims concerning the extent of the Chinese incursions could not be reliably evaluated," said the document.

Indian and US intelligence cooperation was not out of the ordinary then. Nehru was informed of Dalai Lama's escape from Tibet in 1959 and arrival at Indian border by the CIA.

US intentions, in this instance, went beyond providing India information on the Chinese invasion. It wanted to set up a base in India for U-2 flights over Soviet Union and China.

It succeeded: Charbatia was the pay-back base.

U-2s then were single-engine high-altitude recconaissance airplanes run by the CIA to photograph military and strategic positions in then Soviet Union and China.

The flights started in 1957 and remained largely a secret until the shooting down of a U-2 over the Soviet Union and the capture of its pilot Francis Gary Powers in 1960.

They continue to be in service with many modifications.

Back in 1962, US ambassador John Kennet Galbraith sold the U-2 plan to the Indian government saying they will be necessary to provide a more accurate picture of the Chinese incursion.

Prime minister Nehru gave his consent on November 11, and allowed the reconnaissance planes - U-2s - to refuel in Indian airspace, said the declassified CIA document.

The flights were to take off from a base in Thailand, and because they did not have overflight permission from Burma (now Myanmar), they had to come in from the Bay of Bengal.

The first flight took place on December 5, but the aircraft was able to take photographs of only 40% of the target area because of bad winter weather conditions.

The second flight, on December 11, had better luck. But it too developed engine problems because of the weather. Four more flights would be conducted in January.

Prime minister Nehru was briefed about the findings of these flights in January and March. He in turn informed the Parliament. The CIA document claimed Nehru didn't reveal his source.

And then the US rolled the rest of its plan: "to establish a precedent for overflights from India, which could lead to obtaining a permanent staging base in India for electronic reconnaissance missions against the Soviet ABM site at Saryshagan and photographic missions against those portions of western China that were out of range of Detachment H (of U-2s based in Taiwan)".

Galbraith and CIA station chief raised the issue of a base with India in April 1963. President John F Kennedy reiterated it in his meeting with president Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan on June 3.

And India yielded, handing over an abandoned World War II base in Charbatia, which was in a bad shape. As it underwent repairs, U-2s continued taking off from the Thai base.

The first flight from Charbatia took off only on May 24, 1964. Nehru died three days later. And, the CIA document said, "further operations were postponed".

Three more U-2 flights took off from Charbatia in December the same year when Indian-China tensions flared up. But US had no use for it any more, preferring the Thai base instead.

Charbatia was shut down in 1967.

Ganging up on China

India and US intelligence sent a joint team of climbers to instal a nuclear-powered device on Nanda Devi, the highest Indian peak, in 1965 to monitor Chinese nuclear activities.

The mission failed because of bad weather. The team left the device in a crevice firmly tied to a rock using nylon ropes, pitons and carabiners. They planned to come back it.

But when they did, the next year, it was gone.

The secret expedition was first reported by one of the team leaders, captain Mohan Singh Kohli, in a 2003 book "Spies in the Himalayas". Another book followed in 2012.

A monitoring device was later planted on a smaller peak Nanda Kot, which in CIA's estimation, would be just as good. But it was brought down the next year, in 1967.

Published by HT Syndication with permission from Hindustan Times.