Intelligence vetting of five officers starts; experience to get preference over age. Seniority likely to be overlooked for IAF top post

NEW DELHI: After the Army and the Navy, the Indian Air Force too is expected to see the ‘seniority principle’ being junked in appointing its next chief after Air Chief Marshal BS Dhanoa retires in September.

With the government opting for a merit-based selection process — whereby five officers are evaluated on the basis of their experience and performance — it is expected that the officer who has the right combination of critical postings and handling of complex issues would have the advantage.

While the intelligence vetting of five senior officers has started, the new selection process could place senior-most officer Air Marshal Balakrishnan Suresh in a disadvantageous position, given that he has not commanded any of the three operationally sensitive commands, people familiar with the process said.

Air Marshal Raghunath Nambiar, who took over as the Western Air Command chief after the Balakot air strike, is being seen as a top contender. The Delhi-based Western Air Command is seen as the sword arm of the Indian Air Force given its area of responsibility along the Pakistan border. Nambiar, who earlier headed the eastern command, also has rich experience in Air HQ where he handled complex negotiations on the Rafale fighter jet deal.

Air Marshal Harjit Singh Arora, the current chief of Gandhinagar based South Western Air Command, too has an illustrated career record that places him strongly for the top post. Arora has served as Director General Air Operations at HQ and held senior appointments in the western and eastern commands. But he is six months junior to Nambiar.

The recent posting of Air Marshal Rakesh Bhaduria as the Vice Chief of Air Staff had triggered speculation that he too could be in contention for the top post. However, the senior officer has not commanded any of the sensitive commands of western, south western or eastern. While Bhaduria led the Rafale deal negotiations before handing over to Nambiar, his command experience has been at the Thiruvananthapuram-based Southern Air Command.

Bhaduria retires on the same day as Air Chief Marshal Dhanoa and if he does not make it to the top post, Air HQ will see a fresh pair of two senior-most officers at the helm.

The fifth officer being vetted is Air Marshal Rajesh Kumar, who currently heads Allahabad-based Central Air Command, but is the junior most among the panel to be considered.