For the chief of the air staff, Air Chief Marshal Arup Raha, China is no more either a threat or a security challenge — if it ever was so considered by the IAF and there’s much evidence to suggest it wasn’t ever, but only a fellow regional with “common interests” with whom India should empathize! To perceive China this way is the sign for Raha of “mature statesmanship” which, he claims, will help the two states to “reconcile” their differences, and to “cooperate and coordinate for development in the region”. And by way of an anodyne statement, that the growing economic and military powers can coexist. However, just a few weeks back Raha, as a newspaper noted, had said just the opposite. Referring to China’s inroads in the countries adjoining India — Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bangladesh, and the Maldives, he had said that that country posed a security challenge. So, what changed in the month of November for Raha to tack to a contrary wind?
The IAF has always operated with a tactical mindset, as explicated at length in my writings over the years and in my new book — ‘Why India is Not a Great Power (Yet)’in the most part to justify its incomprehensible love for Western, short-legged, combat aircraft. And because the acquisition of the French Rafale plane is going through its stages of approval, the IAF leadership feels the need to do everything it can to speed it along the lines it desires to justify such purchase. Here Pakistan looms large because otherwise the Rafale makes even less sense than it would in the inventory if China is the target. Astonishingly, Vayu Bhavan has apparently absolutely no qualms whatsoever in limiting the IAF’s utility and relevance in the future by advancing such procurement decisions.
Meanwhile, China builds up comprehensively for a strategic and tactical lock down of the Indian air force, even as the latter’s brass mouth inanities and pursue modernization polices to the detriment of the country’s defence and the national interest.
On a personal note: Raha (then Air Vice Marshal) was one of the officers deputed to attend the Strategic Nuclear Orientation Course (SNOC) begun in 2005-2006 at the instance of the then CNS and Chairman, Chiefs of Staff Committee, Admiral Arun Prakash, who wanted to have in the military a “ginger group” of senior officers who would have informed, hard line, views on strategic issues at variance with the establishment thinking of the kind perpetrated by the late Air Cmde Jasjit Singh-led Centre for Air Power Studies (CAPS) via another course, and had asked me to conceptualize and conduct it at CPR. My own view was that the SNOC should be institutionalized by bringing it within the ambit of the Integrated Defence Staff. This was facilitated some years later during the time Vice Admiral Anup Singh headed it. And so it happened that SNOC came under the Centre for Joint Warfare Studies under HQ IDS. Tragically, SNOC has turned into a paler version of the Course offered by CAPS and has subverted the original intention of SNOC. The result is the perpetuation of the inoffensive sort of strategic thinking services headquarters purvey in line with what is considered the establishment view.
Now to the Raha point — the last time I had a more direct hand in running this SNOC at CENJOWS some years back, I had allotted the part of PM to the future air chief in a brief, illustrative, nuclear tripwire war game I usually ended the course with. In fact, Raha was so in tune with the attitude of the government of the day he couldn’t have been bettered by Manmohan Singh himself had he been inserted in the game, in terms of the display of characteristic vacillation and unwillingness to take decisions!
The larger point that I have iterated frequently is how beyond the Brigadier-rank, the system of selection based on “seniority over merit” has resulted over the years in a “ji-huzoori” ethos in the military that’s scarcely distinguishable from that prevailing in the civilian services. And how this has continually depressed the quality of new armed services chiefs. If elsewhere in the world the best make it to selection grades, in India it is the mediocre, “go along to get along”-types who slip up the ladder. This is most visible in the army and air force; navy is sort of an exception — tho’even there a few duffers have made it to the top more by accident than design, because being a small service it has better career management practices in place, one in which swimming against tide is tolerated unlike in its sister services where it is a liability. The consequences are there for all to see in the strategic sensibility of the navy versus that of the army and air force.