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The 1971 Indo-Pak War cemented the Indian Air Force’s (IAF) dominance over its Pakistani counterpart. However, a post-war misconception emerged – the IAF’s nighttime effectiveness was attributed to a mythical Soviet Tu-126 AWACS (Airborne Warning and Control System) aircraft, codenamed “Moss.”

The Tu-126, nicknamed “Moss,” was a powerful tool, offering long-range, all-weather surveillance and command and control capabilities. With only 12 ever built, the idea that India leased one during the war to orchestrate nighttime strikes seemed plausible, especially considering the IAF’s success.

The truth behind the IAF’s nighttime prowess was far more ingenious. A newly formed unit, the Combat Air Development Unit (CADU), was tasked with nighttime harassment strikes against the PAF. However, their MiG-21s and Su-7s lacked crucial equipment – proper navigation aids beyond a basic gyro compass and stopwatch. Radio communication was also unreliable.

To avoid enemy radars, CADU pilots employed “ground-napping” tactics, flying at low altitudes. While this evaded enemy detection, it also made it difficult for friendly radars to track them, increasing the risk of pilots missing their airfields in the dark. Tragically, a few such incidents occurred.

The IAF’s answer was the “SPARROW.” A lone MiG-21 Type 77 aircraft, positioned at a safe altitude of 9,000-10,000 meters, acted as a relay station. Unlike a vulnerable AWACS, this “SPARROW” operated within friendly airspace.

Throughout the war, the “SPARROW” at Adampur conducted over 30 missions. Using code words, it relayed vital information to returning strike aircraft – homing instructions, diversionary parameters, and the location of friendly airbases. The “SPARROW” also communicated with Indian radars, creating a comprehensive air picture for integrated operations.

The “SPARROW” strategy served multiple purposes: relaying information to strike aircraft, guiding them back to base, and confusing the enemy with coded messages. This homegrown solution, far from a mythical AWACS, proved to be a crucial element in the IAF’s nighttime success during the 1971 war. It stands as a testament to the ingenuity and adaptability of the Indian Air Force.