Change is in the air
Abhijit Bhattacharyya, The Telegraph,
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
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
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.
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.