By S. M. Hali

Pakistan Air Force witnessed a change in command through a solemn but impressive ceremony at the Air Headquarters on Monday, 19 March, 2012. The passing of the baton was symbolically marked by handing over the command sword by the outgoing Air Chief Rao Qamar Suleman to his successor and erstwhile deputy Air Chief Marshal Tahir Rafiq Butt.

The departing air chief will look back at his tenure with satisfaction. He spearheaded the induction and operationalization of a number of force multipliers in the PAF, which include four IL-78P Midas air to air refueller tanker aircraft from Ukraine, the Swedish Saab-2000 Erieye and Chinese Shaanxi ZDK-03 AEW&C (airborne early warning and control aircraft);  fourth generation F-16 Block-52 state-of-the-art fighter aircraft, upgradation of the old F-16 Block 15 MLU (mid-life update) and the JF-17 Thunder, indigenously produced in collaboration with China, additional air transport aircraft and missile systems, Precision Guided Munitions and Remotely Piloted Vehicles, which assisted in the war against terror. Under the leadership of Qamar Suleman, PAF developed Counter Insurgency Doctrine, carried out extensive training and implemented successful strategy against the militants. Operating in tandem with his khaki counterpart General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, ACM Suleman led successful aerial operations in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and FATA against Pakistani Taliban groups. Rao Qamar guided the airmen to successfully achieve their objectives, mainly reducing the Taliban capacity to wage war against Pakistan, striking their infrastructure, and eliminating the most wanted Taliban figures through the aerial operations. Another remarkable achievement for the outgoing air chief is the flight safety record during his tenure despite extensive flying. He incorporated a paradigm shift in the PAF training philosophy from skill based to knowledge based.

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PAF showcased its modern weapons system platforms through the extensive PAF exercise “Highmark” and dovetailing air operations in the Pakistan Army Exercise “Azm-e-Nau” and Naval exercise “Amn”. Following the 2008 Bombay attacks, India wanted to conduct surgical strikes against selected targets in Pakistan. PAF was put on high alert and on 14 December 2008, when two Indian Air Force (IAF) fighter aircraft penetrated Pakistan’s airspace, they were intercepted and forced to turn back, prompting India to call off its foolhardy scheme. In his farewell speech, the outgoing air chief enumerated the achievements of Pakistan Air Force gained through teamwork but also talked about disappointments, perhaps alluding to the 2nd May 2011 US Seals operation to eliminate Osama bin Laden, in which US attack helicopters penetrated Pakistani airspace evading radar detection by PAF. The devastating floods of 2010 and 2011 saw PAF leading the rescue and relief operations for the victims of the deluge.

Both Rao Qamar Suleman and Tahir Rafiq Butt have been my juniors in the PAF as well as at PAF Public School Sargodha; in fact we were in same house “Sabre” at our beloved Alma mater. I had the opportunity to briefly teach Tahir Rafiq Butt at PAF Academy Risalpur and have followed his career with interest. He is an excellent choice to lead PAF. Firstly he has been selected on merit and seniority. He is a capable, upright and honest officer who will lead by personal example. His concentration would be to consolidate PAF and focus on the operational employment of the weapon systems already inducted. His main challenges would be the motivation of the PAF personnel, purging the service of extremists if any in the elite fighting force and ensuring that the force continues its support in the war on terror under the guidance of the government. His predecessor’s rather close personal camaraderie with his army counterpart may have served PAF in good stead but some subordinates of Rao Qamar perceived PAF adopting a subservient posture to the Army. Tahir Rafiq Butt will have his work cut out to restore the balance vis-à-vis Pakistan Army, while continuing the excellent coordination and cooperation with the other services to meet future challenges in guarding the land, sea and aerial frontiers of Pakistan. Pakistan’s arch rival in the region, India has a formidable air force but PAF has always faced challenges from IAF gallantly, getting the better of its numerically superior adversary in all encounters. In its latest budget, India has enhanced its defence outlay by 17%. With its scarce resources, Pakistan cannot pursue keeping up with India’s ambitious weapons systems induction program hence Tahir Rafiq Butt would be well advised not to pursue trying to match India weapon to weapon but instead focus on PAF’s traditional advantages of better training, superior maintenance and enhanced operational capabilities of its aircrew.