The Next Chief

In February 2007, in a column in the Indian Express, I wrote about how the UPA government's decision to stick to protocol and designate, for the first time in history, a non-fighter pilot as the Chief of Air Staff, was "groundbreaking stuff". At least for India it was. I had written about how no government mandated that the Chief of Air Staff be a fighter pilot, and yet how right from Air Marshal TW Elmhirst to the man in office at the time (SP Tyagi), the selection process and consistently ensured that the man on top had fighter wings. So in that sense, the tenure of Air Chief Marshal Fali H Major has been a resounding first. Two years ago, it was a deep point for debate in defence circles. Make no mistake -- there were those who were severely opposed to the idea of a chopper pilot as chief. And that includes the Major's predecessor, Air Chief Marshal SP Tyagi, who said he would be "deeply embarassed" if the government asked for his opinion in the matter, and went on to add that "there was an inherent question as to whether someone who wasn't eligible to be the SASO of a command, could be eligible for the highest office".

But that's all in the past now. Air Chief Marshal Major has had two healthy, eventful years in office. And unless you seriously nitpick or provide credence to the quiet voices that always seep through the crannies of Vayu Bhawan, during his tenure he made no serious faux pas that would have handed him on a platter to his many detractors (there were and are many).

His recently designated successor, Vice Chief of Air Staff (VCAS) Air Marshal PV Naik is a rock-solid officer, whose name has been secured for the top job for some time now. As SASO Western Air Command and AOC-in-C Central Air Command, Naik has never once given the service or the establishment any reason to doubt that he will, without question, be the rightful next Chief of Air Staff. A no-nonsense fighter pilot with a dry sense of humour, Air Marshal Naik takes office under the next government, whichever way that swings!

As an officer who has commanded a base in the Valley and been on the directing staff at TACDE, Air Marshal Naik is superbly equipped with the huge task riding on his shoulders. For starters, with the impending expansion of the IAF space sub-branch and the creation of a crucial Directorate General of Operations (Air Marshal DC "Tiny" Kumaria is its first head), the IAF will begin to morph structurally and doctrinally in many different ways under the new chief. Urban warfare, the expansion of the unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) operations doctrine, and endless other concepts and doctrines will flow into the operational knowledge pool. The doctrinal loop enters one of its most critical phases ever in the next two-three years. Old machines out, new machines in. In five years, if things go the way the air force wants them to, the service will be a completely new setup, virtually unrecognisable from its present structure, such as it is.

One thing's for sure. As always, there's a great deal to look forward to.

Labels: , , , , , , ,