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Race for new IAF chief wide open

india Updated: Jan 29, 2007 12:53 IST
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With just two days to go before the expected announcement on the new Indian Air Force (IAF) chief, the four-way race for Air Chief Marshal SP Tyagi's successor is wide open - unlike as has happened in the past.

In previous years, the successor has been announced two months before the incumbent's term ends. Tyagi steps down on March 31, which means the successor should be announced on Wednesday. This time, however, the announcement could be delayed till the very last minute because of a piquant situation that has arisen on the issue.

In the past, the IAF has been forwarding a list of the four senior-most air marshals on the date of the incumbent's retirement - with the cabinet committee on appointments invariably giving its nod to the officer who heads the list.

This time, however, the senior-most officer is Air Marshal FH Major, a highly decorated officer but who is a helicopter pilot. Past tradition has dictated that the IAF chief must be a fighter pilot and even though Major has flown the Mi-35 helicopter gunship, there are rumblings in the IAF that he would not be "suitable" for the job as he would not be able to "fully appreciate" the intricate nuances of fighter operations.

This means the other three officers in the list - Air Marshal PK Mehra, Air Marshal BN Gokhale and Air Marshal Padamjit Singh Ahluwalia are also in the running. Interestingly, all three were conferred the Param Vishist Seva Medal (PVSM), the country's highest honour for distinguished service, in the Republic Day honours list announced on Thursday. Major had received he medal earlier.

In normal times, this might not have meant much, but is, nonetheless, a clear pointer the other three officers also have a chance of getting the top job.

And, with Ahluwalia on Thursday assuming charge of the prestigious New Delhi-based Western Air Command (WAC), the oldest and most operationally sensitive of the IAF's seven commands, this has fuelled intense speculation he could get the top job - in spite of being the junior-most of the quartet.

This is because, apart from being a fighter pilot, tradition has it that the chief should have commanded either WAC or the sensitive Gandhinagar-based South Western Air Command (SWAC).

Mehra currently heads SWAC, while Gokhale is the IAF vice chief. Major heads the Shillong-based Eastern Air Command (EAC).

In Major's defence, it is being said that he might not be a fighter pilot, but flying a Mi-35 requires even sharper skills as this is a ground attack helicopter that has to fly low and slow to be effective and is thus more vulnerable to enemy fire.

Then, there is the Shaurya Chakra, the country's second highest award for gallantry in peacetime, which Major received for the daring rescue of passengers trapped in a stranded cable car in Himachal Pradesh in the 1990s. He was a group captain at the time.

Major has also commanded IAF Kalaikunda, a frontline base that is home to two squadrons of MiG-27 fighters.

In at least the past four decades, there has been only once instance when a non-fighter pilot headed the IAF. This was in the early 1980s, when Air Chief Marshal IH Latif was elevated to the post.

In justification for this, it was contended that Latif flew Spitfires during World War II and had subsequently converted to transports.

Officially, the IAF will not comment on the issue, but not too long ago, Tyagi himself indicated he was unhappy with a non-fighter pilot succeeding him.

"The records of all contenders are available with the government. It is the prerogative of the government to choose the military leaders they want," Tyagi had said at a press conference in New Delhi on October 5, 2006, ahead of the October 8 IAF Day celebrations.

"The IAF chief has no role (in the selection process). It is not my call," he added for good measure.

Pressed on the issue, Tyagi said: "My opinion is of no consequence. The government is not obliged to consult a serving chief on his successor."

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