The Narendra Modi government is expected to name the new Indian Air Force (IAF) chief very soon. While the government has already appointed new cabinet secretary and defence secretary, the next IAF chief's appointment is still pending. The successor of current IAF chief BS Dhanoa, who is set to retire on September 30, will be decided by the Appointments Committee of the Cabinet (ACC), headed by the prime minister. Since PM Modi has returned from his three-nation tour, the decision is expected in the next few days.
Who are in the race of new IAF chief?
Usually, the senior-most Indian Air Force officer of the senior-most batch is chosen as the Chief of the Air Staff. The appointment, however, is approved by the Appointments Committee of the Cabinet and the appointee's abilities and confidence with the prime minister are also considered. As far as the successor of BS Dhanoi is concerned, Air Marshals B Suresh and R Nambiar are the two senior officers in contention.
Suresh is the chief of Southern Air Command and Nambiar is the Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief of the Western Air Command and looks after all the aerial operations along the borders with Pakistan. While the SOuthern Air Command chief is the senior most officer after BS Dhanoa, Nambiar is eqaully competent and their elevation will depend on decision of the Appointments Committee.
According to reports, another name, Air Marshal Rakesh Bhadauria, who is the current Vice Chief of Air Staff, is also in the race. Although Bhadauria's name was not in the file first sent to the PMO. He was one of the key negotiators of the Rafale fighter aircraft deal with the Government of France and Dassault Aviation, the firm responsible for manufacturing the fighter jet.
Although, he is set to retire on September 30, there is a precedent in the Air Force for two men retiring on the same day to have been IAF chiefs. Air Marshal Nirmal Chandra Suri became the Chief of Air Staff after Air Chief Marshal Surinder Kumar Mehra, despite both retiring on July 31, 1991. Mehra had retired in the morning and Suri became the IAF Chief.
What will be the daunting task ahead for new IAF chief?
The Indian Air Force is facing the depleting fighter squadron strength and even the new Rafale jets won't be sufficient to improve that. And to improve this, the Air Force needs major reforms in terms of strategy and systems. As of now, the Air Force has a strength of 30 squadrons against the sanctioned 42. And even if we include the two Rafale squadrons, that are expected to be delivered by 2020, the total strength would be 32.
This also includes 44-year-old MiG-21 fighter jets. Recently, IAF Cheif Dhanoa while speaking at a seminar on modernisation and indigenisation of the Indian Air Force had said that people don't even drive cars that old. The basic version of the Russian fighter jet, the MiG-21 had joined the Indian Air Force in 1973-74.
When Pakistan violated Indian air space after Balakot air strike, Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman had flied Mig 21 Bison, an upgraded version of the same aircraft. Although he did shot down an anemy jet, his own plane was also downed by a Pakistani F16 and Varthaman got captured. This was a major embarrassment as a country like Pakistan has better fighter jets than India.
The MiG-21 has seen several crashes over the years. India has lost more than half of its MiG combat fleet of 872 aircraft over the last 40 years. So, who ever replaces BS Dhanoa, the new IAF chief will have two big tasks - modernisation of the Indian Air Force and improving its squadron strength.