April 11, 2002


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Major General (retd) Ashok K Mehta

Why is the IAF out of sync?

The Manjit Sekhon and Vinod Bhatia episodes once again exposed the warts in the Indian Air Force in particular and the armed forces in general, which are regarded as the last bastion of democracy.

The spectacle was played out in full glare of the media at a time when the services are fighting an unprecedented two-front war: against communalism and cross-border terrorism.

Coalition politics in the country is threatening to turn the services into coalition forces. Their insulation against politicisation, never very secure in any case, is now coming unstuck. Women and politics used to be on the banned list of conversation in the services. But politicking is a two-way street and men in uniform are not averse to it.

No longer can the politicians and bureaucrats alone be blamed. The attempted Yadavisation of the army did not happen without the initiative being taken by the Yadavs in the army. Keeping the armed forces outside the decision-making and power loop has encouraged them to curry favour with their political masters.

Each service has its systemic deficiencies, the IAF leading. It is time for plain writing (and talking) and not as the recently appointed first Marshal of the IAF Arjan Singh remarked recently: "To move on and leave the unfortunate episode [of Sekhon and Bhatia] behind."

The traumatic events of the last decade in the IAF have highlighted the need for both a clinical review and a surgical operation. The Air Force Association in Delhi, which includes more than half-a-dozen resident former air chiefs, should, besides scouting for senior citizens' homes, address the larger question: whither the IAF? Because the force is suffering from a crisis of identity and leadership. The near mutinous situation during the last pay commission review and the shenanigans last year in the run-up to a chief of defence staff call for introspection: on the culture, ethos and, most of all, identity of the IAF.

Why has it become so inflexible? The IAF has simply refused to get integrated with the other two services. Air warriors and scholars say the IAF prefers to fight its own wars. It has told the army that during the first seven days of a war, support should not be expected from the IAF as it would be committed to winning the air battle.

The unfounded fear is that the army, which the IAF thinks treats it like long-range artillery, would subsume its independent identity in any integration of theatre commands and leave it merely in charge of air defence and strategic forces command when these are established.

The US Air Force became an independent flying force on its separation from the US Army as late as 1948. In the UK, the Royal Marines, till this day, are part of the Royal Navy. The RAF has now agreed to give up its land-based Harrier aircraft to be deployed on aircraft carriers.

The army had to fight a bitter battle getting its army aviation wing consisting of about 160 Chetak and Cheetah helicopters in 1986. While the aviation assets in the Pakistan Army were fully integrated two decades earlier, the Indian Army has still no control over the two squadrons of Mi-25/35 attack helicopters, which are with the IAF. But the army's 10th and 11th perspective force development plans show the strength of its aviation fleet as crossing the 400-mark.

During Kargil, after losing an Mi-17 helicopter, the IAF did not fly any critical missions for the army, forcing it to use its own helicopters. The three squadrons of reconnaissance and observation Cheetahs did a great job in the war. It is worth noting that despite the Western Air Command conducting the three-week-long exercise Trishul three weeks before Kargil, it sought time to shake out and performed below par.

During Trishul, the IAF flew 5,000 sorties with 300 aircraft using 35,000 personnel and engaged targets at high elevation in the Himalayas. In his book on Kargil, A Ridge Too Far, Captain Amarinder Singh, now chief minister of Punjab, has noted that the IAF claimed to have flown 550 sorties in Kargil, though just about 80 were on or close to the target.

Soon after Kargil, both the commander-in-chief and senior air staff officer of the Western Air Command were mysteriously transferred to the Central and Eastern commands.

The experience of the navy in acquiring its maritime assets in 1975 was no less painful and there were many glitches before the IAF grudgingly handed over its maritime role through a fiat from the government.

Why does the IAF have a chip on its shoulder? This became hugely visible during the aborted attempt recently to create the chief of defence staff, which, when it happens, will be through immaculate conception. The IAF has consistently and singularly argued that it is against integration and the CDS. The unsavoury role played by the retired IAF lobby, principally by some former air chiefs, in stalling the CDS is indeed sad.

It is not clear why the government is permitting the IAF to hold the country's security to ransom, especially after the operational experience of the wars India has fought demands integration and armed forces elsewhere in the world were integrated decades earlier.

The IAF's war against the CDS is ancient. At the country's first comprehensive workshop on the integration of the armed forces in 1976 at Kirkee, Pune, the then chief of air staff dismissed the idea of theatre commands and a CDS with the threat: "over my dead body." Since then, at every forum its leaders have advocated the "leave it to the air force" doctrine: whether it is a question of retaking PoK, or bombing out militants, or teaching whoever a lesson.

Frequently, in their discussions with the army at the very highest level, in the presence of civilian security advisers and ministers, these encounters have been acrimonious. The security adviser is on record as having said that he was astonished at the display of immaturity and sense of gung-ho on the part of the IAF.

So why is the IAF out of sync? Many air force experts say it is simply bad leadership. The decline is traced to the mid-1980s after the death of Air Chief Marshal Laxman Katre. Take the case of how the purchase of the Sukhoi (Su-30MKI) was orchestrated. It is history now that when the air-superiority fighter Sukhoi was ordered, it was not needed and came without proper evaluation of aircraft, lifecycle cost and product support, at a time when Russia's defence industry and the Sukhoi Design Bureau were in the doldrums.

But this is only half the story. What the IAF actually required and had projected in 1983, 13 years earlier, was the AJT, badly required after the venerable Vampire was retired in 1972. Seven air chiefs during their tenure had pledged to bequeath to the IAF's inventory the AJT without which aircraft and pilots were dropping from the skies like gentle rain.

Hundreds of fighter aircraft and pilots laid down their lives, not to defend the country but to mock the crass indecisiveness of the air force and political leadership. The Public Accounts Committee has reported that 222 MiG-21 aircraft worth thousands of crores were lost between 1991 and 2000 with over 100 pilots getting killed.

While 150 more Sukhois have been ordered, the 66 AJTs are nowhere on the horizon. Not a single air chief made the AJT a do-or-die mission though some flew the much-maligned MiG-21 to establish its bona fides. According to one report, the AJT was being ordered in early 1996, but the new air chief preferred to acquire 10 additional Mirages.

The saddest and most unforgivable episode in the IAF's history was the attempted Mandalisation of its ranks in 1997 when caste lines were drawn first between flyers and then between flyers and non-flyers. This led to the worst crisis faced by any service since Independence. The air chief of the day tried his best to contain the damage, but cohesion and camaraderie of the rank and file had been badly mauled.

The IAF may have problems with the other two services, but why is it deficient in its internal bonding? The simplistic answer is that unlike a ship at sea or a platoon or battalion on the ground, the air force is just the fusion of a pilot and his machine. That the family glue is missing from the IAF was illustrated in parallel celebration of two flying squadrons in 1998 at Delhi after the President and Supreme Commander of India presented his colours to them on the same day.

Attending the 29 Fighter Squadron party were the senior air marshals. Practically no one graced the party given by their poorer cousin, the 41 Transport Squadron. These disparities were noted by officers within the service.

It is not anyone's intention, especially a service officer's, to deride a fighting force that is as rich in record and potential as the IAF. But when things keep going wrong, it is unwise to sweep them under the carpet each time and say: "Let's move on." The Sekhons may move on, but the unwise actions of leaders will be injurious to the health and longevity of the IAF.

Already people are calling the recent episode the "terminal crisis in IAF leadership". Fortunately, Air Chief Marshal S Krishnaswami has both the vision and will to restore the pride and prerogative of the IAF.

Major General (retd) Ashok K Mehta

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