Charlie Browne

Chief of Air Staff, Air Chief Marshal Norman Anil Kumar Browne PVSM, AVSM, VM, ADC

Ghazala Wahab

Power manifests itself in many ways in the chief of air staff’s office well before one gets to meet the boss, Air Chief Marshal Norman Anil Kumar Browne. Hints, ranging from not so subtle to broad are repeatedly dropped by the officious staff on how little time the CAS has to spare (20 minutes at a push), the turn that interview should take and how the journalist in question should refrain from sensationalism well before one even reaches the office of the CAS. Sure enough, prejudice and pre-conceived notions are firmly in place as one is ushered in the ACM Browne’s spacious but Spartan office.

Perhaps, having sensed this, the CAS starts off with disarming his opponent. “How is your father?” he asks. Father, I wondered aloud looking over my shoulder to see if he was talking to somebody else. “Yes, I met him a few years ago. Had a nice chat with him. Is he well?” ‘Yes’, I say, stumbling over my answer. Should I ask him about his family now? Is this how this interview would go? From father he switched to FORCE, praising its consistency and content. I glanced at my watch surreptitiously. Seven minutes were gone. Shall we start the interview? “Haven’t we started already?” he smiled warmly. Really, so 20 minutes would be spent on chatting about this and that with the chief saying precious little and the formality of the interview would be over. I braced myself determined to push through at least a couple of questions before I was shown the door.

ACM Browne perhaps sensed that as well. Leaning over his desk he asks, “What is your first question?” The interview it seemed was on its way and the photographer, somnolent till now, scrambled into position. Air Chief Marshal NAK Browne, popularly known as Charlie Browne took charge as the CAS on 31 July 2011 and had his baptism by fire, literally within four weeks of his taking charge. Two MiG-21 aircraft crashed in quick succession, killing not only the pilots, but in one instance a young girl on the ground. The term ‘flying coffin’ which was buried a couple of years ago as IAF consistently showed improved safety standards and lower accident rates, rose from the grave to haunt the beleaguered force struggling with depleting fighter strength. Not a propitious beginning.

“Even one accident is one too many,” says ACM Browne. “And here we had two, almost in a row. Yet, the fact is our accident rates have really come down over the years. With time, as we get better technology, our safety records will also improve,” he says

With two months in the saddle, what are his main challenges? ACM Browne does not pause to consider the question. The answer comes out as top of his mind. “My biggest challenge is to upgrade our training status,” he says. “We don’t have a basic trainer. With the phasing out of the Kirans this is a big gap. Having contracted for Pilatus basic trainer which will join service in two years, we are in the process of re-formatting our entire training syllabus.” The IAF fighter pilots will start training on Pilatus by July 2013.

According to the envisaged pattern then, the pilots will start training on Pilatus and graduate to the Advanced Jet Trainer (AJT) Hawk before moving on to their respective combat squadrons. Training on MiG-21s will finish by December 2012 with the current lot being the last to train on the Russian warhorse. “Till such time,” says ACM Browne, picking his following words with care, lest he be misunderstood, “we will have to ride out this period of two years.”

His second challenge is to balance the change underway in the IAF. The IAF is in the process of buying a lot of new equipment even as it cannot immediately phase out the old. Hence, old has to be seamlessly integrated with the new and even as the force strikes this balance, it has to continue with its high operational standards. “The next three years will be very crucial for the IAF,” he says, “because a lot of dynamic change is taking place. Our biggest challenge will be to continue with our operational task even as we absorb the change.”

Reinforcing his theme of constancy and change, ACM Browne says that no other air force in the world has attempted to modernise at such a rapid pace. The IAF envisaged the process over three defence plans, starting with the 10th Plan. Yet, most of the acquisitions and programmes have and will come through in the 11th and the 12th Plans. “By the middle of the 12th Plan, roughly around 2015, the IAF would have turned the corner,” he says. “We put the process in motion sometime back, and the results have started to show now.”

To illustrate his point he says that in the last four years the IAF has signed 271 capital contracts with the total value of Rs 112,000 crore. In the 11th Plan, the IAF had the budget of Rs 97,000 crore of which most of the amount has already been spent. High profile platforms like AgustaWestland’s 12 AW101 VIP helicopters, Lockheed Martin’s six C-130J (most of which have already been delivered) and Boeing’s C-17 Globemaster (contract for 10 of which was signed this summer) are only a part of the total volume. The other significant orders would be for additional Su-30MKIs and Light Combat Aircraft. And if things move to plan, the government would sign the contract for the Medium Multi Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) within this financial year and for the helicopters after that.

While acquisition of platforms is the most obvious evidence of change, ACM Browne insists that transformation is much more deep-rooted than that and is sweeping across the service at all levels. A lot of below the radar changes are taking place without which the process of modernisation would have been reduced to mere acquisition of systems. ACM Browne lists three areas of importance: Simulators, operational infrastructure and airfields. Till a few years ago, the Indian military did not think much of simulators, so much so that the IAF contracted for even fighters like Su-30MKIs without them. A quasi-simulator, which does not simulate motion, called the Part Task Trainer (PTT), came several years after the fighter aircraft and the full-motion simulator came even later. However, simulators are finally finding their place in the training/operational thinking of the three services, particularly, the IAF and ACM Browne lists them right on the top of his priorities.

The other development that has been taking place across the IAF bases is upgradation of operational infrastructure. As ACM Browne says, unless you have state of the art facilities and systems to house and operate the modern platforms, you cannot make optimal use of them. It is in this spirit that the IAF has undertaken the ambitious MAFI (modernisation of airfields infrastructure) programme across all its airbases, which among other things envisages better surveillance and navigational capabilities.

By now it was well past the stipulated 20 minutes allotted by the CAS’ staff. Even as I stole a glance at my watch, the CAS settled in more comfortably into his chair. “Don’t you want some tea,” he asked and even without waiting for the answer reached for the discreet button to summon the peon. The diversion of the tea was an opportunity to glance around the room. It was chief of air staff’s office alright, but ACM Browne had not appropriated it as yet. There are hardly any personal quirks on display, except the colours of the squadron, with Commodore Commandant, No 16 Sqn, emblazoned on it. No 16, or Cobras, was the first squadron ACM Browne had commanded in Gorakhpur. “That was a memorable tenure,” recalls Charlie Browne. “I converted the squadron from Canberras to Jaguars.”

ACM Browne was among the first group of fighter pilots who went to UK to train on the Jaguars and to bring them back to India. He subsequently flew a Jaguar to its base in India. “After the conversion we won the best strike squadron title,” he says with unabashed pride. Perhaps, that is where he got in the habit of being the best. All through his IAF career, Charlie Browne, despite the moniker, always bested his colleagues by topping all the courses and promotional examinations, except one, which clearly didn’t matter much.

Given this career profile, how did he end up with the name of Charles Schultz’s lead character from Peanuts, the little lost boy, bullied by peers and weighed down by the worries of the world, epitomised by the frown lines on his forehead? ACM Browne laughs. “Charlie Brown was my favourite comic character,” he says. “As a young officer, once when I returned from my sortie I was walking back with a frown on my face. That’s when a friend of mine and a fellow pilot saw me and asked if I was Charlie Brown. The name stuck. And I didn’t really mind as I was fond of the character.”

The irony is ACM Browne has the reputation of being unflappable. He himself jokes that he does not have any frown lines because he does not worry. “I am always happy,” he says. “I don’t believe in looking too far ahead in the future. I am content in the present and never look beyond the next 48 hours.”

Yet, at various stages in his career, especially when he was doing so well in his courses and examinations, it may have occurred to him that he could be chief one day? “Our generation was different,” he says. “We didn’t think in terms of a career. At least, I didn’t. I only wanted to fly the aircraft. Sure, I worked hard and tried to do my best in whatever I did.”

ACM Browne is the first generation military officer in his family. Born in Allahabad on 15 December 1951, Browne grew up in an environment completely removed from military. His peers at that time were aspiring for traditional careers in medicine and engineering. Only Norman Browne and one of his friends set their eyes on the Indian Air Force. “I was determined to get into IAF,” he recalls. “If I hadn’t made it into the IAF, I would have probably switched to medicine.” Fortunately, the IAF saw the talent in him.

Now that he is at the pinnacle of his service, does he think about his legacy? “No,” he roars jovially. “You should ask me this question after three years”. But seriously, his priorities as CAS aside, doesn’t he have a personal mission, something that he always thought he would do if he were the chief?

ACM Browne pauses for a while. “I have always wanted to concentrate on the people. Equipment comes and goes, but as a force our biggest asset is our manpower,” he says opening a floodgate. “And when I talk of concentrating on people, I do not mean welfare alone. I am talking about their training and mentoring and most importantly, giving them a reason to feel inspired by their work,” he says, listing the last one with a lot of fervour. ACM Browne feels that since the IAF is a huge organisation with multifarious responsibilities, it is quite possible for the senior leadership to get side-tracked from the issues pertaining to the workforce. And often it happens that the leadership feels that as long as welfare issues are taken care of, the personnel are happy.

“Today, the young officers are very different from what we used to be at their age,” he says. “Not only are they extremely tech-savvy with good motor skills, they are highly motivated and conscious of their careers path. They are competitive and want to do well. This motivated workforce is the biggest asset of our service and we need to harness it,” he says.

Through his career, this has been ACM Browne’s pet theme, whether it was as squadron leader, station commander or air officer commanding. Perhaps, because he could interact directly with the people, he feels that all his command appointments were his most enjoyable and fulfilling, though of course, establishing the defence wing of the Indian consulate in Israel in 1997 comes as a close second. Having commanded a squadron in Gorakhpur, he became the chief operating officer at the Pune air base, rose to become the station commander, and finally the air officer commanding, thereby staying in Pune for nearly four years. A series of staff appointments later, including a stint at the air headquarters, ACM Browne returned to command as AOC-in-C, Western Air Command, which clearly was his most enriching experience. He says, “As the commander, the bucks stop at you. This realisation is both a source of strength as well as humility.”

Under his command, on the humanitarian side, the WAC undertook the massive flood relief operation in Leh. On the operational side, he operationalised the Nyoma airfield by landing an An-32 aircraft at the remote south-eastern outpost in Ladakh. And on the crazy side, he oversaw the recovery of a Mi-17 helicopter from a place called Chungtash at 15,000ft above sea level. The pilot of the Mi-17 had crash landed the helicopter at Chungtash. Because of the impact of the landing, the helicopter was severely damaged and could not be flown. It lay abandoned in wilderness for an entire season before ACM Browne, then of course, air marshal, came up with an ambitious recovery plan. The following summer, sundry equipment was air-dropped at the location after which a team comprising pilots and engineers landed there to repair the helicopter, which by then had also suffered the brutalities of the weather at high altitude. Fighting rarefied air and frost, the helicopter was repaired and eventually flown back. “A lot of people had said that we must write-off the helicopter as recovery was impossible,” recalls ACM Browne. “But I decided that we must give it a shot. I took complete responsibility for this operation which could have gone wrong.”

From an air force command to the CAS office is not just a promotion but a toss into a completely different environment. You are no longer just a leader of men but a conduit between these men and the political leadership. More importantly, as chief of air staff, you are the military advisor to the government. The headiness that comes with this new responsibility is accompanied by bureaucratic quicksand, through which decisions seldom move forward. As a military man, used to quick decisions and deadlines, does elevation to the 5th floor of the Air Headquarters cause frustration or a sense of helplessness?

“The IAF grooms you well,” says ACM Browne. “It prepares you for the top job. For instance, before becoming the chief, I was the deputy chief and subsequently the vice chief. I was responsible for all acquisitions and used to interact with the ministry of defence officials fairly regularly. I understood that there is a process which one must abide by. Had I not been prepared for this, I would have been frustrated. But having worked through a system for a few years, one comes to not only understand how it works, but also appreciate its merits. Besides, as the IAF chief, I can never forget that the service interest is uppermost.”

With that as his guiding force, ACM Browne is poised to oversee the most dramatic change in the Indian Air Force over the next couple of years. Even as new equipment is contracted for, he is set to put into motion a process for nurturing talent in the service. And clearly, the beginning has been made at home, with his only son Omar, following in his father’s footsteps. He is also a fighter pilot, flying the Su-30MKIs. In his time, ACM Browne flew the most advanced fighter in the IAF then; his son is doing the same now.

Interview

How do you assess the security scenario where the IAF could have a role to play?

The changing geo-political alignments in the South Asian region warrants close monitoring. The region is characterised by turmoil and instabilities, as people attempt to determine and reshape their destinies. While the Middle East remains politically unstable, the security situation in Afghanistan remains as volatile as ever. The planned drawdown of coalition forces in the future and the consequent emergence of new power centres will further exacerbate the situation. Closer home, Pakistan continues to reel under relentless terrorist violence and stabilisation of internal security situation appears a distant dream. China’s increased presence in our neighbourhood, be it in POK, Sri Lanka or the South East Asian countries warrants attention. So, if you see the complete picture, South Asia will remain a global security challenge for some time to come, therefore, we need to monitor the situation very closely so as to be ready for all contingencies.

At a recent CII seminar, you had mentioned that modernisation in the IAF will be most visible in the 11th (2007 to 2012) and 12th (2012 to 2017) five year plans. Which assets and capabilities are expected to join the IAF inventory in this period?

IAF is modernising its fleet as per the Long Term Perspective Plan. The capability building being undertaken includes both new inductions and upgrades of the existing weapon platforms and systems. Modernisation programme of the IAF has gained momentum during the 11thplan period and we have added more Su-30MKIs, C-130J, Flight Refuellers, AWACS, radars of various classes and missiles to our inventory. We have also achieved certain milestones in our progress towards network centricity. The modernisation process would be further accelerated during the 12thplan period with the planned induction of additional Su-30 MKIs, LCA, MMRCA, C-17, additional C-130J, Flight Refuellers, AWACS, Helicopters of all classes and Radars & Missile systems. More RPAs are being inducted and existing inventory is being upgraded. The IAF would achieve complete network centricity during this period. I believe, modernisation during 12th Plan would be crucial since a number of units would be closing down after 2011. As long as we continue to get the budgetary support from the government, the IAF would have crossed the hill by 2014.

What is the status on network centricity; what has been accomplished and what are the timelines for the remaining tasks?

IAF has already successfully implemented a state of the art, secure Gigabit Information Grid for network centric operations called AFNET. AFNET is emerging to be the bedrock of our network centricity and a number of weapon system and combat platform are leveraging its potential for enhanced combat effectiveness. IAF is progressing well on its way to network centricity and we expect to achieve complete network centric capability during the 12th plan.

What is the update on the MMRCA? When do you expect the contract to be signed?

MMRCA programme has progressed well so far and is in the final stages. We hope to sign the contract during the current financial year.

What design changes has the IAF sought in the FGFA? What does the MTA mean for the IAF in terms of sought capabilities considering that this will be the partnership from the design stage itself with Russia?

There have been no design changes to the FGFA sought vis-à-vis the ASQRs. The FGFA includes features like super manoeuvrability, super cruise, low observability, sensor fusion and centralised information management. The MTA project is a Joint Venture between HAL and Russian UAC-TA for development and production of a Medium Transport Aircraft. The MTA will be a 15 to 20 T class aircraft. As HAL will be involved in the project from the design stage, it will provide HAL the opportunity to absorb critical transport aircraft technology that would be useful for future requirements of the IAF.

On the retirement of the present chairman, Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd, the IAF has sought the three-star officer to head HAL. What is the thinking behind this?

IAF has the largest procurement share from HAL, with 95 per cent of the aircraft manufactured by HAL, having been inducted into the IAF. Thus, IAF has a very large stake in the efficient working of HAL. We do believe that an officer from the IAF would have better appreciation of the requirements of aircraft and equipment and its application in an operational scenario. Higher level of appreciation of various elements such as employability, maintainability etc. of aerospace equipment is essential while transforming the requirements into an executable engineering design, and consequently mass producing the same. The presence of a senior IAF officer would enable involvement right from the planning stage for major procurements, thus enabling HAL to plan and set up infrastructure well in advance. In the past, seven officers from the IAF have already held the appointment of Chairman HAL whilst in harness or post retirement.

The army’s aviation corps was raised on the premise that it should have all rotary including attack helicopters in its inventory. What is the IAF’s objection to letting the army become self-sufficient in Tactical Battle Area?

The division of aviation assets and responsibilities in respect of the army and the air force is governed by the Memorandum and Joint Army Air Force Implementation Instructions (JAAII- 86) issued by the government of India in 1986. This model has already been adopted by the country. It is primarily based on true joint-warfare capability and avoiding infructuous duplication of capabilities for economy. Medium Lift, Heavy Lift and Attack Helicopters operations and maintenance were designated to be the core competencies of the Air Force, which has an elaborate infrastructure of equipment, manpower and expertise for this role. Any case, the attack helicopters are already functioning under the Command and Control of the army while being flown by our pilots and maintained by the IAF. At the Operational level, there are no shortcomings nor have any been brought to our notice. Surprisingly, these issues are always raised in New Delhi at the ‘Staff level’, giving one a sense that the real issue is not ‘functional’ but is based on only ‘ownership’. In my humble view, core-competencies and specialisation that comes with years of experience and focussed training, needs to be respected. Moreover, the roles have been clearly enunciated by the government of India. Any dilution of this aspect, in terms of taking on each other’s roles, will result in undermining the very capability that the armed forces are aiming for. Synergy enabled by true jointmanship and well-honed joint-capabilities is the real answer.

What capabilities and numbers will be achieved by end of 12th plan regarding UAVs?

IAF is upgrading Remotely Piloted Aircraft in its inventory, both in terms of technology and capability, and also procuring more of these assets. IAF, in the next three years, would have the SATCOM link on its RPA fleet, thereby increasing its reach. We are also planning to induct different classes of RPAs for various roles. By the end of the 12th plan; we would have the required assets to meet our operational ISR requirements.