Air Marshals Balakrishnan Suresh, Raghunath Nambiar, Harjit Singh Arora and Rajesh Kumar

The government may ignore seniority principle in selection of next IAF chief

With less than a fortnight to go for the retirement of IAF Air Chief Marshal B.S. Dhanoa, suspense continues over who will be his successor.

Traditionally, the government declares the name of the succeeding chief two to three months prior to the superannuation of the current chief. The idea is to give sufficient time for the new person to understand and coordinate with the present chief for the continuation of the work.

In the history of the Indian military, it is extraordinarily rare for the government to have not named the next chief designate within two weeks of the incumbent chief’s retirement.

Dhanoa is scheduled to hang up his boots on September 30 after nearly three years of service. Top official sources have confirmed that the names of four senior-most air marshals have already been sent by the defence ministry to the Appointment Committee of the Cabinet which is headed by the prime minister. Air Marshals Balakrishnan Suresh, Raghunath Nambiar, Harjit Singh Arora and Rajesh Kumar have been shortlisted to head the world's fourth-largest air force. However, officials privy to the development claim that the key contest is between Air Marshal Balakrishnan Suresh and Air Marshal Raghunath Nambiar.

Air Marshal Suresh, who heads the Thiruvananthapuram-based Southern Air Command, would be the most senior IAF officer on the day of Dhanoa’s retirement. Air Marshal Nambiar, on the other hand, is a Kargil war hero who was moved to the Delhi-based Western Air Command from his earlier posting in Eastern Command after the Balakot strike. Western Command looks after air operations along the Pakistan border, from Rajasthan to Siachen Glacier, and controls nearly 40 per cent of the IAF's airbases.

Officials privy to the development claim that the government may ignore the 'seniority principle' in the selection of next IAF chief, as it is no longer the sole criterion. Especially after the selection of General Bipin Rawat as the Army chief, ignoring two seniors over him, and Admiral Karambir Singh as Navy Chief over Vice Admiral Bimal Verma.

Verma was the senior to Karamabir. Admiral Singh on May 30 took over as the Chief of the Naval Staff succeeding Admiral Sunil Lanba. But, after the announcement of Admiral Karamabir as the navy chief, Vice Admiral Verma approached the court and challenged the government's decision. Though the court found no merit in Verma's petition and eventually dismissed it, the development was embarrassing both for the government as well as for the military fraternity.

"Probably, government wants to avoid litigation in case of super session in selecting the IAF chief. Idea of delaying the announcement may be timed it in a way to rule out an embarrassment if any," an official added.

Traditionally in the military, the line of succession has always been clear, as the prospective candidate is groomed in a way to become the chief. While many military personnel believe that the 'seniority principle' is the best guarantee against the politicisation of the top appointment, it is not followed in most countries in the world. Top military powers like the United States, France, Germany, China and even Pakistan do not follow it. The UK, however, still follows the practice.