Air Marshal Rakesh Kumar Singh Bhadauria took over as the 26th Chief of Indian Air Force (IAF), on Monday, 30 September. He was previously the Vice Chief of Air Staff (VCAS), and is succeeding Air Chief Marshal BS Dhanoa.
Air Marshal Bhadauria, an alumnus of the National Defence Academy, was commissioned in the fighter stream of IAF in June 1980. He has, over 39 years of service, held various command, staff and instructional appointments.
- command of a Jaguar fighter squadron
- command of the Flight Test Squadron at Aircraft & Systems Testing Establishment
- Chief Test Pilot and Project Director of the National Flight Test Centre on Light Combat Aircraft (LCA)
- Air Attache at the Indian Embassy in Moscow
- Assistant Chief of Air Staff (Projects)
- Commandant of the National Defence Academy
Prior to his appointment as the VCAS in May this year, he served as the Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief (AOC-in-C), Southern Air Command; AOC-in-C, Training Command; Senior Air Staff Officer, Central Air Command; and as the Deputy Chief of the Air Staff, Air HQ.
With gradings like certified flying instructor, Cat ‘A’ attack instructor and experimental test pilot, Air Marshal Bhadauria is deemed as one of the best pilots in the IAF, with an experience of over 4,200 flying hours on 26 different types of fighter and transport aircraft.
Rules of Appointment & Succession
The Chief serves a term of three years or till the age of 62, whereas Lt Generals/Air Marshals/Vice Admirals serve up to the age of 60. Given his age — he will turn 60 on 30 Sept — Air Marshal Bhadauria will have a term of two years (till September 2021). Reportedly, he was initially not considered for the post of Chief of Air Staff (CAS) as he was retiring on the same day as ACM Dhanoa (i.e. 30 September).
Hence, his name did not figure in the file sent to the PMO for appointment of the next CAS, which had two contenders, Air Marshal Balakrishnan Suresh, AOC-in-C, Southern Air Command, and Air Marshal Raghunath Nambiar, AOC-in-C, Western Air Command. But the PMO asked for the record of Air Marshal Bhadauria as well.
It is rare for an officer retiring on the same day as the incumbent chief to be appointed as his successor.
However, the government, which has contended that it will not go solely by seniority, but will consider “merit” to deep select the Chiefs, can cite a precedent. In June 1991, the government had appointed the then IAF Vice Chief Air Marshal NC Suri as the next CAS although he was to retire the same day (31 July) as the incumbent Chief ACM SK Mehra — the latter controversially demitted office in the forenoon, to allow the former to take over. In this case too, ACM Dhanoa will demit office early on 30 September, to allow Air Marshal Bhadauria to take over just hours prior to his retirement.
Rationale of ‘Merit to Deep Select Chiefs of Armed Forces’
While Air Marshal Bhadauria undoubtedly has impeccable credentials for being the next CAS, there appears to be sparse weight in the rationale of “merit to deep select the Chiefs of the Armed Forces”.
The fact is that, every military officer who reaches the stratospheric rank of Commander-in-Chief of an operational command, is equally outstanding, meritorious and deserving — unless of course the system that throws them up is deeply flawed, in which case, the worth of every senior officer is suspect. But to those not buying the “merit” rationale in the present case, the government could even cite seniority — Air Marshal Bhadauria (commissioned in June 1980) is senior to Air Marshal Balakrishnan Suresh December 1980) and Air Marshal Raghunath Nambiar (June 1981).
Such supersessions however aren’t uncommon:
- In 1983, General Arun Vaidya superseded Lt General SK Sinha
- In 2014, Admiral Robin Dhowan was appointed as the Chief of Naval Staff over Vice Admiral Shekhar Sinha
- General Bipin Rawat superseded Lt Generals P Bakshi and PM Hariz
- Admiral Karambir Singh was appointed Naval Chief over Vice Admiral Bimal Verma.
Need for Extreme Caution on Supersessions at Highest Levels
While it is the government’s legitimate prerogative to appoint service chiefs, and those appointed on grounds of “merit” are under no obligation to align themselves with the political ideology of the party in power, there is yet a need for extreme caution on supersessions at such levels.
If they become routine, officers of the armed forces — particularly at the apex levels — may start to perceive that aligning themselves politically or assisting political objectives of the regime in power, can benefit them in promotions.
It needs to be noted that, military decisions that are not unbiased and objectively professional, but are politically inspired, can have serious operational and strategic repercussions. Over time, this perception can even change the very nature of a military, and turn them from an armed forces of a nation, into one aligned with the interests of a specific political party.
Air Marshal Bhadauria & ‘Rafale’ Angle
Air Marshal Bhadauria, among the first IAF officers to fly the ‘Rafale’ fighter aircraft, was instrumental in finalising (September 2016) the euro 7.8 billion inter-government deal with France, for 36 ‘Rafale’ jets (28 single-seater and 08 twin-seater). The IAF has received the first aircraft, with tail number ‘RB-01’, from M/s Dassault Aviation and its handing over in France to Defence Minister Rajnath Singh on 8 October, will mark its official induction into the IAF.
Incidentally, ‘RB’ are the initials of Air Marshal RKS Bhadauria, and the tail number series thus mark his individual contribution to India’s biggest defence deal.
The first four fighters will be delivered in India in May 2020 — after installation and intensive validation of the ‘India Specific Enhancements’ — and completion of training of pilots and technical personnel.
The entire complement of 36 aircraft is expected to be delivered by end-2021, with the IAF deploying one squadron each at its airbases in Ambala (against Pakistan) and Hashimara (against China). However, given its capabilities, the ‘Rafale’ can be quickly shifted to either front.
‘Link’ Between Bhadauria’s Elevation & His Support for Rafale?
This deal was a point of great rancour and acrimony between the ruling BJP and the Congress in the recent Lok Sabha election campaign, and it is well possible that critics may link his appointment as the CAS to all this — or as a quid pro quo for his support to the Rafale deal.
However, the Rafale deal is done, and further acquisitions of this very expensive fighter are quite unlikely — experts aver that this deal for 36 fighters was aimed at upgrading India’s capability to air-deliver nuclear weapons (currently being undertaken by the Mirage-2000 and Jaguar aircraft; all six squadrons of the latter may be phased out in the coming years), as well as a limited counter to the 5th generation combat aircraft expected to be fielded in the immediate neighbourhood.
Notably, Air Marshal RKS Bhadauria had, on the sidelines of the Indo-French Joint Air Exercise Garuda-VI (July 2019), spoken about the “potent combination of the Su-30MKI and the Rafale operating together”. Besides, after the Rafale contract was curtailed from 126 to 36, the IAF is now looking at procuring 110 additional jets. Further, the IAF is set to acquire 83 more Tejas fighters (after the initial order of 40).
Challenges Ahead for RKS Bhadauria
Air Marshal Bhadauria will assume charge of the IAF at a time of great changes and challenges. The IAF is in the process of integrating and operationalising new platforms like the Apache AH-64E Attack helicopter (deal signed about four years back), the Chinook CH-47F (I) heavy lift helicopters, the ‘Rafale’ fighter aircraft, and many new technologies. And at a time when India is facing an economic downturn and the IAF is contending with a funding crunch, this could hit its modernisation efforts.
Air Marshal Bhadauria would also be serving during a period of hawkish foreign policy — particularly with regard to Pakistan — under a Chief of Defence Staff (as and when he is appointed), and with the US still looking at some sort of a political agreement with the Taliban and a troop draw-down from Afghanistan.
The Balakot air strike (26 February) was undoubtedly a game changer, established a counter-terror precedent, and led to claims that India had abandoned “strategic restraint” and called out Pakistan’s nuclear bluff.
But the fact remains that the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) — with 22 fighter squadrons (against 31 with the IAF) — is not exactly a pushover as has been made out by the ra-ra media.
This aspect should be evident from two issues: one, the counter-strike by the PAF on 27 February; and two, that the IAF had discussed its 26 February airstrike on Balakot and 27 February aerial engagement with the PAF, during its April 2019 Commanders’ Conference, under the theme ‘Enhancing Our Operational Capability In The Short And Long Term’. Thus, it will be interesting to see how Air Marshal Bhadauria manages ongoing upgradation and challenges, and balances various operational demands and requirements.
(Kuldip Singh is a retired Brigadier from the Indian Army. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)
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