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IAF’s Points-person for Key Procurements is the New Vice-Chief of Air Staff

Air Marshal R.K.S. Bhadauria is being talked of as Air Chief Marshal Dhanoa’s successor despite being scheduled to retire on the same day as him

Issue: 05-2019By Vishal ThaparPhoto(s): By IAF
Vice-Chief of the Air Staff, Air Marshal Rakesh Kumar Singh Bhadauria paying homage at National War Memorial, New Delhi.

There was elation in India’s aeronautical community when Air Marshal Rakesh Kumar Singh Bhadauria took over as the Vice-Chief of the Indian Air Force (IAF) on May 1. “He’s a very strong supporter of indigenous programmes,” Shyam Chetty, a former director at the National Aerospace Laboratories was quoted as saying. Nicknamed ‘Chhotu Sir’, Bhadauria is a familar and popular figure at the aeronautical complex with a reputation for taking tough decisions.

For long years, he has been the IAF’s key points-person with development and production agencies to midwife the indigenous Light Combat Aircraft Tejas programme. Both as chief experimental test pilot and the project director of the National Flight Test Centre, he was extensively involved in the initial prototype flight tests on the Tejas. This was no happenstance. Awarded the Sword of Honour for topping his batch at the Air Force Academy in June 1980, Bhadauria went on to clock 4,250 hours of flying on 26 types of fighter and transport aircraft.

Along the way, he picked up every single badge of honour meant for the very best of fighter pilots. He flew the MiG-21s and Jaguar fighters with distinction, paving the way for command of a Jaguar squadron and a premier air base. But he established the cutting edge as an experimental test pilot, a Category A qualified flying instructor, a pilot attack instructor and the commanding officer of the Flight Test Squadron at the Aircraft & System Testing Establishment comprising India’s foremost test pilots.

Appointments such as Air Attache in Russia and later Assistant Chief of the Air Staff (Projects) added to his experience on equipment and procurement issues. Bhadauria’s background of dealing with development agencies and Industry as IAF programme lead was tapped when he was nominated to head contract negotiations with France for the Rafale fighter jet acquisition during his tenure as Deputy Chief of Air Staff. It was under his watch that complex negotiations were concluded and significant hurdles overcome, paving the way for the signing of the deal in September 2016.

It was in acknowledgement of this role that the French Dassault put Air Marshal Bhadauria’s initials - RB 008 - as the tail number of the first Rafale jet produced for the IAF. The first lot of the 36 fighters ordered for the IAF are scheduled to be delivered by September 2019.

Air Marshal Bhadauria’s appointment as Vice-Chief of Air Staff at a time when he’s only five months away from his retirement would appear unsusual in the absence of a plan for him to succeed Air Chief Marshal B.S. Dhanoa as the IAF Chief.

His impressive array of appointments include those of Commandant of the National Defence Academy and the Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief of two IAF Commands - the Southern and Training Commands. As the head of the Southern Command, he ensured the shifting of the IAF’s first LCA formation - the No. 45 ‘Flying Daggers’ Squadron - to Sulur and the setting up of all the attendant infrastructure there. He also gave a big push to strengthening the air defence network in peninsular India. And subsequently, as the head of the Training Command, he was known to fly with cadets of every single flying school of the IAF from Dundigul to Bidar and Hakimpet to Yelahanka, boosting morale of rookies and leading by example.

Bhadauria’s appointment as Vice-Chief of Air Staff at a time when he’s only five months away from his retirement as Air Marshal would appear unsusual in the absence of a plan for him to succeed Air Chief Marshal B.S. Dhanoa as the IAF Chief. While he does have seniority to back up his credentials for the top job, uncertainty looms over that eventuality because he’s scheduled to retire on the same day as Chief Dhanoa, that is, September 30.

There are precedents both in favour and against a contendor who is retiring on the same day as the Chief. In July 1991, the succession decision went in favour of Air Chief Marshal N.C. Suri, who took over from his predecessor S.K. Mehra in the forenoon of the day of retirement. Upon taking over as Chief, Suri automatically picked up an additional two years in service. But the same consideration was not shown to the then Vice-Chief of Army Staff, Lt General Chandra Shekhar, the senior-most 3-star General, who retired on the same day as the then Army Chief General V.P. Malik did - September 30, 2000 - after the Government had decided in favour of General S Padmanabhan.

The decision on the IAF Chief will be taken by the Government which is sworn in after the conclusion of general elections towards the end of this month. If Air Marshal Bhadauria - originally from Korth village near Agra - does make it, the IAF will probably get its most qualified Industry interface as Chief. Whichever way the dice rolls, he will be the man whose initials will be painted as the tail number of the IAF’s first Rafale fighter.