Tensions in Indian armed forces after Gen Rawat ridiculed air force

Chief of Defence staff dubs air force ‘supporting arm’: Air Chief say force has ‘huge role’: Veterans assail Rawat’s incorrect and wrong statement 

By: News Desk      Published: 03:22 PM, 3 Jul, 2021
Tensions in Indian armed forces after Gen Rawat ridiculed air force
File photos.

Tensions escalated between Indian armed forces over the creation of four new integrated theatre commands, with Chief of Defence Staff General Bipin Rawat saying that the Indian Air Force is like "a supporting arm" akin to artillery or engineers in the Army, reported Indian media on Saturday.

Air power has a huge role to play in any of the integrated battle roles, Indian Chief of Air Staff Air Chief Marshal RKS Bhadauria responded, asserting the Indian Air Force was "fully committed" to the theaterisation of the armed forces.

Air Chief Marshal Bhadauria's comments on air power came soon after General Bipin Rawat talked about the IAF's air defence charter as well as its role as a supporting arm to the ground forces just as the artillery or engineers support the combatants within the army.

Referring to the situation in eastern Ladakh, the Chief of Air Staff said China has bolstered its infrastructure in the past few months though the two sides have carried out a disengagement process in Pangong Lake areas.

Gen Rawat's comments about the supporting role of the air force came at a conference when asked about the growing perception that the Indian air force was not keen on setting up the proposed theatre commands integrating the capabilities of the three forces.

Elaborating on the IAF's role, the Chief of Defence Staff talked about its air defence role and said one of the theatre commands will look at the overall management of the airspace in the country.

"Do not forget that the air force continues to remain a supporting arm of the armed forces, just as the artillery or engineers support the combatants within the army. They have an air defence charter and support the ground forces in time of operations," Gen Rawat said, adding the force has to understand its basic charter.

Both Gen Rawat and Air Chief Marshal Bhadauria were speaking at separate sessions of a conference organised by the Global Counter-Terrorism Council (GCTC) - a think-tank.

When asked about Gen Rawat's comments, the Air Chief Marshal said: "It is not a supporting role alone. The air power has a huge role to play in any of the integrated battle role."

Asked about the IAF's views on the theaterisation of the armed forces, he said it was fully committed to the proposed setting up of the integrated theatre commands. At the same time, he added, "We must get it right."

To a question on argument that IAF could have reservations for the theaterisation process as it does not want to split its assets which are fewer, Gen Rawat referred to the five operational commands of the force that manage its resources.

"In an overall assessment, it is a known fact that there is resistance to change. One needs to be conscious of that and fight that inherent resistance. The nature and character of conflicts will continue to change," Gen Rawat said.

Veterans blow hot and cold

Referring to the row over the statement, former Deputy Army Chief Lieutenant General Raj Kadyan said, "The creation of theatre commands in the Indian defence forces has led to a very unfortunate and a very unsavoury controversy. There is a very famous saying by a field marshal in World War 2 that `The only thing more difficult is accepting a new idea while getting rid of the old idea. I think that scenario is playing out. 

"The creation of CDS was resisted mainly by the air force. It took nearly two decades after the Kargil review committee recommended this idea. But it has come true. This is only the first step. Creating another general doesn`t solve the problem. In today`s warfare, we need very quick decisions," Kadyan added. 

"India is a vast country with 15,000 km of land border and on two sides we face an adversarial situation. We also have a 7,500 km coastline. Indian Navy doesn`t get seen much in the media because they operate in the seas where there is no media. But is the army and the air force have a media presence. If you need to make quick decisions, then you need to decentralise the decision-making authority which is what the theatre commands are achieving," Kadyan said. 

"The fact that the change will be resisted is not something which is unknown. It is more of a turf for whether you call air force a supporting arm as General Bipin Rawat has done or for what air force has said. It is a question of semantics," he said. 

Kadyan said, "Equally strong is the argument that today army needs the support of the air force to its aid it whenever required. It is like an argument saying that `in a train whether the engine is more important or the wheel`. The fact is both cannot work without one other. Senior officials need to sit together and discuss out the matter," he said.

Air Vice-Marshal (retd) Manmohan Bahadur said, "The statement that Indian air force is supporting arm to the other two services is incorrect and wrong. Because, the air force, just like the other two services has its own attributes that have been well acknowledged in the last few decades."

Another defence expert, former Deputy Chief of Indian Army Staff Lt General Gurmeet Singh spoke on the `supporting arm` comment and said, "On August 15, 2019, PM Modi announced the formation of Chief Of Defence Staff. Our CDS was appointed on January 1, 2020. Integration and jointness is a must in the forces. Hence, there is no scope for any turf. I think that should be clear."

"The need for change was never in doubt. We definitely need to improve our joint warfighting capabilities. What was being quibbled behind closed doors and now in the media is the type, shape and size of the changes. The rant by our top military leader last afternoon probably reveals his frustration and pushing it through an agenda in a democratic setup like ours," said former Western Air Commander Air Marshal R Nambiar (retd) attacking the CDS over his remarks on the Indian air force.