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3.   Change is in the air

Abhijit Bhattacharyya, The Telegraph, 14/2/2007


Not too long ago, the first of April used to be observed as Indian Air Force Day. This is no longer the case though. For those familiar with the celebrations of the bygone days, April 1, 2007, will have a special significance. On this date, the first “non-fighter” pilot will take charge of 120,000 men and approximately 850 front-line fighter aircraft of the IAF.

One may ask what is so special about a non-fighter pilot taking over as the air chief. The answer lies in the fact that traditionally, in the IAF, only fighter pilots have been awarded the position of the air chief. A rare exception, however, was made in the case of O.P. Mehra, a transport pilot, who went on to become the chief.

But a helicopter pilot as the chief of the airforce? That is certainly a rare occurence. After all, it is widely believed that helicopters, also known as the rotorcraft, do not have the speed and glamour of a fighter plane. They are slow, cumbersome and ugly machines that are vulnerable to attacks from the ground. Understandably, no helicopter pilot could ever dream of rising above the rank of air commodore.


Brave move

A closer look at the inventory of the IAF and the changing role of the helicopter would show that the days of branding fighter pilots as superior to helicopter pilots are passé. Today, the IAF operates at least 20 helicopter units that play a number of important roles. However, what matters in the case of an air chief is whether the chosen person is a true leader of men or not. Whether he has flown a fighter plane or served as a helicopter pilot is of no consequence whatsoever.

However, the unprecedented decision to make a helicopter pilot the chief of the IAF must have been a difficult one. There must have been several issues that were taken into consideration such as convention, unwritten codes, positional awareness of fighter pilots and so on. Therefore, the decision to throw open the post of the air chief to competitors hailing from both aircraft and rotocraft-classes of flying machines should be applauded.

A somewhat similar situation had risen when Sushil Kumar succeeded Vishnu Bhagwat as the chief of the naval staff. Sushil Kumar was a hydrographer who broke the uninterrupted chain of executive and flying branch officers who succeeded in becoming the chief of the Indian navy.


New role

There was a time when helicopters were used to carry VIPs from the Palam air force station to inspect areas affected by natural disasters such as floods or droughts. The times have certainly changed since those days. As of now, helicopter operations have twelve clearly defined roles to perform in the IAF. These include attack, utility, observation, liaison, training, combat, search and rescue operations, reconnaissance, tactical troop transport, para dropping, strategic airlift and mounting gunship raids.

Thus, a revolutionary change of sorts is looming large on the horizon. Even European nations have been prioritizing helicopters in their military operations and in counter-insurgency initiatives. There is little reason to think that the situation is different in the rest of the world, considering the fact that the threat of global terrorism is assuming a more menacing proportion.

Fighter aircraft are likely to play a useful part in the case of large scale conflicts between nations. But to tackle intra-state conflict, one cannot really have the privilege of using Sukhois, Jaguars and the Mirage. It has to be helicopters all the way. The government of India should be congratulated for switching gears from “monopoly-cum-reservation” to “open competition”. Indian defence has finally come of age.