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Uncertainty over next IAF chief

india Updated: Sep 28, 2006 14:56 IST
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There is uncertainty over who the next Indian Air Force (IAF) chief will be, with a whispering campaign under way to deny the job to the officer currently next in line on grounds that he is not a fighter pilot.

Air Chief Marshal SP Tyagi retires on March 31, 2007. The next in line is Air Marshal FH Major, a highly decorated pilot who now heads the Shillong-based Eastern Air Command.

In keeping with past practice, Major heads the list of four senior-most officers whose names have been forwarded to the cabinet committee on appointments that will take a final decision on the issue.

In the past, this decision has invariably been a formality, with the senior-most officer getting the nod.

This has been the practice in the case of the other two wings of the armed forces too, the only exception being made in the case of the army in 1973.

However, this time around, much is sought to made of the fact that with Major not being a fighter pilot, he would be at a disadvantage if he were to be put in command of the technological-intensive force and that one of the other three officers on the list be considered for the top job.

To be fair to these officers - Air Marshals PK Mehra, BN Gokhale and PS Ahluwalia - it must be said that they have maintained a studious distance from the issue, even as a number of senior officers have been speaking out on their behalf.

The IAF has sought to play down the issue.

"It doesn't really matter who the next chief is. We are such a well oiled machine that we will continue to run no matter who heads us," an IAF officer said, speaking on the condition of anonymity.

However, an off-the-cuff remark by a defence ministry official that seniority is not the only factor for promotion indicated the issue was wide open.

It's quite another matter that ignoring the principle of seniority would be unprecedented in the 75-year annals of IAF.

It is also being pointed out that in the early 1970s, it was a transport pilot - Air Chief Marshal Idris Hassan Latif - who headed the IAF and that too with considerable panache that is remembered even now. To which the riposte is that Latif converted to transports after flying Spitfires during World War II.

"If flying Spitfires made Latif a fighter pilot, then Major also qualifies as he has flown the Mi-35 (helicopter gunship)," an IAF officer pointed out.

"In fact, piloting a gunship requires a greater degree of skill and courage since it is a much slower machine than a fighter and has to be flown at low heights to enable it perform its role effectively - which makes it more susceptible to enemy fire," the officer pointed out.

A critical factor in Major's favour is that he is a recipient of the Shaurya Chakra, India's second highest gallantry award during peacetime.

This was for the remarkable rescue he had effected in Himachal Pradesh in 1993, holding his MI-17 rock-steady over a stranded cable car midway up a hill while its passengers were brought out and winched aboard. Major was then a group captain.

"That operation has become a case study of how a rescue mission can be undertaken in the most trying of circumstances," the officer pointed out.

And if it is being said that Major has never commanded a fighter squadron, the counter is that he has commanded IAF Kalaikunda, a frontline base that is home to two MiG-27 fighter squadrons.

While the name of the new IAF chief will only be announced around January 31, 2007, Defence Minister Pranab Mukherjee's move in including Major in the delegation he led to France and Germany earlier this month has sent out differing signals.

The most optimistic of these is that Mukherjee was clearly pointing to Major as the next IAF chief.

The reasoning: since important agreements were signed with the two countries - and since these had a critical air element - it was only logical that the IAF should be in the loop. What better way to achieve this than through the officer who would very soon head it?

The other signal was that Mukherjee wanted to assure Major that the government would play fair with him and would take a decision that it thought was best in the operational interests of IAF.

The third signal was that Mukherjee was testing the waters as to the possible reaction if Major was superseded.

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