Raha’s foot in mouth or IAF strategy? System rot?

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.

About Bharat Karnad

Senior Fellow in National Security Studies at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi, he was Member of the (1st) National Security Advisory Board and the Nuclear Doctrine-drafting Group, and author, among other books of, 'Nuclear Weapons and Indian Security: The Realist Foundations of Strategy', 'India's Nuclear Policy' and most recently, 'Why India is Not a Great Power (Yet)'. Educated at the University of California (undergrad and grad), he was Visiting Scholar at Princeton University, University of Pennsylvania, the Shanghai Institutes of International Studies, and Henry L. Stimson Center, Washington, DC.
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4 Responses to Raha’s foot in mouth or IAF strategy? System rot?

  1. Brigadier V Mahalingam says:

    Very well said sir. This mediocre leadership is eroding the ethos of the services. It is precisely because of this we have not been able to restructure our forces to meet the needs of modern warfare or cut down on the flab. Consequently we are slowly becoming a third rate fighting force professionally though the spirits of our troops are as high as ever.

  2. M. Janak says:

    While you might have a strong opinion and certainly have the freedom to voice it….going personal against an individual, isn’t a particular trait any scholar should be proud of. The last three paragraphs could have been better worded and you could have argued issues, content and ideas. Very distasteful to see you targetting a serving chief, especially when you have never voiced any opposition over HIS appointment till now. In ultra-right jingoism, one must not lose sight of civility nor norms of mature criticism. Also, linking a changing China stance to the Rafale deal seemed a very disjointed argument. Seemed more of a personal crib at not being heard rather than a forceful argument. Not expected from our foremost conservative strategist !!!

    • @janak — A point well made. But there were no scathing remarks directed specifically at Raha other than his enormous caution — par for the course, and entirely understandable, for an officer set to become chief per seniority metric, as part of my general observations about the flawed selection system for the chiefs of staff. What I didn’t say in that blog was it precisely his cautionary trait that suggests that Raha is voicing the IAF brass’ sentiments.

  3. quickboy says:

    On thinking it again and again…..
    There should be a reason why the Govt. itself plays ball with this Raffale/SUkhoi/U.S/Western/Russian/French thing…… What would that be?. Maybe they have an agenda on these….

    After all what would Govt or forces achieve if they spend all the funds available on Good Looking toys..?. Is there anything beyond “Playing to the Gallery” to the current so-called diplomatic dysentry going on?.

    Well I feel we need to read a few past headlines to understand this.

    especially ones that read “Modi denied Visa” or every page writing about our PM adding “The Gujarat Riots” to them. Apart from what we read about the Current Govt. I feel the Govt. and it’s External affairs Ministry wants to have is Headlines. It may be working. As I dont see any “GUJARAT” even in National or International media right now. Even with Mr. Iyyer being sent to Pak channels to beg for help to regain power for Congress. (Sorry that is the only way I can see it”). Let us call it the infamous Jaychand syndrome or whatever, But Indians who knows to read and write can only see it that way for sure.

    So are we tied up with a PM and Govt. who are trying to earn the good name in media (apart from Beef it looks like working), Has the Indian media teamed up or got paid in advance to create some sort of pressure on assuring this Govt will look more West?. and that would make them terrible traitors for sure.

    Just a lot of confusion in the mind of an ordinary citizen, who is just doubtful and terrorised with things going on nowadays (May be the result of what we got after HINDI CHINI BHAI BHAI, between Nehru and Chow-en-lai). Well I read this blog because it comes up with some logic on these unexplained stuff. Gives a lot of relief,

    Going after IAF, well , I think (will take some words from our own Gentleman DM, Mr.Parikkar, whom I feel is in charge of Defence budget balancing, without giving the Eagles and Vested interests to cry corruption…..(read that witch….witch,) Maybe because I have a prejudice about these corruption cases, since I have found as a lawyer that most of those are preferred by either corrupt or vested interests who did not get their way, (or people like our Subramaniam Swamy who wants to take India into what he sees absolute perfection, wih no compromise allowed. While I support Swamy to an extend in his crusade, Many a time cannot fully understand or even agree with what he does, but still sees him as an absolute Nationalist and a Great Patriot.)

    Let us also take a look at IAF records, Especially in the four or so wars which we fought?. The numbers and victories does not look that much in favour if we consider we were fighting with a small Nation like Pak. While accepting Pak always was supported by superior U.S and Britain and rich Middle East, Still we always fought with Foreign aircrafts and weapons too. The Navy however has a different story. Especially in 1971 they did overwhelm the enemy. Just lost one ASW ship and simply terrorised and folded up the whole enemy navy fully. Their Air wing too in spite of having not much cutting edge tech simply did what they needed too. They did not even backtrack a foot even with the threat of 7th fleet or whatever. (Of course that was taken care in style by Soviet Navy). The question is did the Govt always consider the IAF as a show piece with just a few latest show off toys?. Other wise why did Nehru did not allow them to go against China in 1962?. If that trust on it’s capacity does not inspire confidence to the Govt of the time, Has it changed?. While we hear the stories of a few heroics in 1971, Well even in that victory, The major credit goes to Army and Navy who stood through adversity and in spite of huge losses to it’s ranks , did well to overwhelm the enemy and in every single case turned the tables on enemy, Isn’t it?.

    Even right now what we learn is IAF is short of many squadrons and if the info available on net is anything to consider they need about 600-800 aircraft to be a force to be considered useful. Also from what we read it just wants 126 fighter jets and is ready to jeopardise everything else for that?. Is this force slowly become India’s acrobatic team with a lot of good looking planes to sent everywhere for circus (oops ….exercises and accompanying media chest thumping, which I hate to hear as we are supposed to be having friendly exchanges and practise)?. A terrifying prospect for any nation !!

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