The out-going chief of air staff ACM Arup Raha sums up his tenure in a press meet
In the last press conference of his tenure, Air Chief Marshal Arup Raha made three interesting comments in his opening remarks. To him these were unrelated comments, hence were spoken at different points, but put together they suggest to a new role that the Indian Air Force is seeking.
The first comment was: “We may or may not fight a conventional war, but we are always prepared.”
The second comment, which came towards the concluding part of his opening address, was: We have to focus on deterring terrorist attacks or fighting the sub-conventional threats. We are training large number of personnel for this role. We are tweaking our tactics and are looking at equipment for this role.
This was followed by, ‘We have received government approval for raising 27 additional flights of Garud.’ Garud is IAF’s commando force akin to Indian Army’s Para commandos.
Does it mean that like the Indian Army and subsequently the Indian Navy, the IAF is also seeking a role in counter-insurgency operations? If indeed this is so, then it would be a major achievement for the government to have convinced the military that its primary job is not outside India’s borders, but within.
Though I tried to ask this question several times during the press conference, I could not hold the moderator’s attention long enough for him to give me the chance. However, as the CAS stepped out of the conference hall at IAF’ Akash mess to join the journalists for tea, I managed to push through the clamouring crowd.
Hearing my question patiently he said that there is a lot that the IAF can contribute in counter terrorist operations. “I am not talking about crossing the border, but there is a lot that we can do within the country,” he said. He referred to technical intelligence gathering, logistics support as well as fighting if the need arises. To make his point about the increasing relevance of the IAF to internal security duties, he gave the example of counter-Maoist operations in India’s heartland in which the IAF has been providing logistics support to the paramilitary forces. In the coming years, he said, he envisages greater IAF participation in such operations.
Does he think that the government will use air power within the country in counter-terrorist operations? His response was the characteristic Raha grin, as he turned to another journalist.
Earlier in the interaction, he also told the media with a touch of an achievement that the IAF has convinced the government that it must have a role in military diplomacy. According to him, the government has agreed to the increased participation of the IAF in fostering military cooperation in the region.
“We have done this in the SAARC countries. Exercises aside, we have sold equipment to the neighbouring countries,” he said.
This is such a far-cry from the closing years of the last decade. The IAF then used to talk about strategic reach and out of area operations. Nearly all senior IAF officers used to mock Indian Army’s ‘hemmed-in’ mind-set, by saying that in the time a tanks roll out of the cantonment, the airborne IAF fighters would be well inside enemy territory. Of course, most of this was unsavoury brag but it was reflective of the mental make-up of the force that had internalised the slogan, ‘Touch the Sky with Glory.’
From then to now seeking a role inside the country can imply two things. One, the IAF believes that there will never be a conventional war where it would be required to participate for fear of escalation. So to stay relevant it is now seeking additional roles.
Two, it may be feeling that between the army and the navy, both with increased internal security roles, the IAF is falling off the public radar. Hence, the need to publicise its role in humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HADR) and other civil activities such as flying C-17 and C-130J sorties with currency notes after the demonetisation notification. For the record, IAF has flown 35 sorties so far.
With the focus of the entire country on terrorism, and Prime Minister’s frequent interventions on terrorism at global forums, internal security operations would fit in nicely here. Whatever be the reason, this certainly does not bode well especially when the Indian neighbourhood is becoming increasingly volatile.
These apart, ACM Raha used the press conference to sum up his tenure with a list of highs and lows. An extremely affable man, ACM Raha, right at the beginning of his address, scotched the speculation that he wanted to make some sensational declaration. “This is just a customary press conference,” he said, beaming at the media. “There is nothing special in this. In my tenure, I have had very good relations with the media. We understood one another’s requirements and have always treated one another with mutual respect,” he said, adding that this was why he wanted to share how he viewed his term.
Starting with the setbacks, he said that the disappearance of the AN-32 aircraft over Bay of Bengal was one of the worst memories of his tenure. The IAF, along with the navy has conducted extensive search of the entire region where the aircraft could have crashed but they have not been able to find anything. “But we will continue our efforts,” he said, adding that he has also asked the government for seeking foreign support in this endeavour.
Another setback, according to him, was the Pathankot terror attack, which forced the IAF to learn some difficult lessons. “Rest assured, we are better prepared now,” he said. The other issues which troubled him pertained to One-Rank One-Pay (OROP), which according to him created an unprecedented situation that affected the esteem of the military. “This has been a struggle of 40 years, but I think we should accept the government offer. Anomalies can be tackled later,” he said. In the same context, he referred to the 7th Pay Commission, on which he said that he would have been happy had the outstanding issues been resolved during his tenure.
With setbacks out of the way, he elaborated upon the achievements, which ranged from acquisition to man-power training and war-preparedness. According to him, while the government has approved off-the-shelf purchase of 36 Rafale fighters, it is well known that the IAF’s requirements are for more numbers.
“The government has sanctioned 42 fighter squadrons,” he said. So, the IAF is looking at the capability mix of heavyweight, medium weight and light weight fighters. While in the heavy-weight category, the IAF is satisfied for the moment with Su-30MKI, 10 new squadrons of which have recently been inducted, it is the medium and the light-weight categories which needs more numbers.
“The LCA Tejas is a state-of-the-art light-weight fighter. It is a 4th Gen platform, which has a lot of potential,” said the out-going chief. “In due course, we can even look at AESA radar.” The IAF has accepted three Tejas fighters as of now, but will be inducting 123 Tejas in the next 10 years. According to the Chief, it is in the medium-weight category of Rafale that the IAF needs more numbers. “Ideally, we should have 200-plus medium weight aircraft,” he said, adding that he would prefer if these were made in India as, “We should have one more line of ‘Made in India’ fighters.”
He also expressed satisfaction with the way the Fifth Generation Fighter Aircraft (FGFA) programme was progressing, though he added a rider towards the end of his comment: “We will need lot of transparency in transfer of technology and research and development (R&D).”
While on acquisitions, he expressed hope that with the new, ‘decisive’ defence minister in the chair, the IAF’s case for Flight Refuelling Aircraft would be heeded and a new request for proposal would be released soon.
Finally, there was a mandatory question on China and its galloping defence preparedness. ACM Raha said: “I won’t take any names. Every country has a right to do its threat appreciation and prepare accordingly. Our neighbour has more money for R&D and it has progressed well. Everyone knows about it.”
Yet, ironically, the IAF wants to distract itself by getting into sub-conventional wars and counter-terrorism operations.