Fighter Pilot Who Became An Icon

In a nation that has few heroes, Marshal of the Air Force Arjan Singh, DFC, a sprightly 91-year-old Second World War veteran and former Chief of Air Staff, is a real national icon.
Commissioned into the Indian Air Force at the age of 20 in December 1939, Arjan Singh learnt his trade strafing the tribals in Waziristan while flying the Westland Wapiti. At 24, commanding the ‘Tigers’, No. 1 (IAF) Squadron, he helped to fight the Japanese to a grinding halt at Imphal and to turn Field Marshal Sir William Slim’s defeat into victory in Burma (Myanmar).
An intrepid pilot and a bold commander, Arjan Singh’s immense contribution to India’s war effort was soon recognised and Lord Louis Mountbatten, Supreme Commander, South East Asia, and later the last Viceroy, personally pinned the Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC) on the young officer’s chest on the tarmac of the Imphal airfield when it was still under siege. The post-Independence years saw Arjan Singh rise rapidly through the ranks, serving with professional brilliance through various command and staff appointments, till he took over as the Chief of Air Staff just before the 1965 war with Pakistan.
He led the Indian Air Force with great distinction during the war in which Indian Gnats and Hunters ran rings around the US-supplied F-86 Sabre Jets and F-104 Starfighters of the Pakistan Air Force (PAF). A Mystere ground-attack aircraft shot down a PAF Starfighter! Arjan Singh was honoured with the Padma Vibushan and became the first Indian to be promoted to the rank of Air Chief Marshal.
After his retirement from the IAF in 1969, he served as India’s ambassador in Switzerland, with simultaneous accreditation to the Holy See, and then in Kenya. He served as member of the Minorities Commission, chairman of IIT-Delhi, and as Delhi’s Lt-Governor. He was able to discharge all of these responsibilities with immense enthusiasm and great vision. And on January 26, 2002, a grateful nation bestowed on this visionary leader the ultimate honour an air warrior can aspire to: the rank of Marshal of the Air Force.
Air Commodore Jasjit Singh (Retd), author of The Icon, is himself a decorated air warrior, Padma Bhushan awardee, renowned national security analyst, former director of the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, and author of acclaimed books. He has not only told the story of the life and times of the Marshal with deep affection and sincerity, but has also woven into the narrative an analytical history of the IAF during its early years.
The expansion of the IAF, acquisition of new aircraft, setting up of facilities to manufacture fighter aircraft in India and the perennial air transport operations in support of the army deployed along far-flung frontiers are all covered in great detail. The story of why the combat air power of the IAF was not employed against the Chinese during the 1962 border war, ostensibly to avoid the bombing of Kolkata by the Chinese, is told dispassionately. It was a major military folly, indeed, for the use of air power would have made a substantial difference to the end result.
Remarkably, air power was again not used against forces in East Pakistan in 1965, even though the Kalaikunda air base was attacked by the Pakistan Air Force (PAF). The book debunks the well-entrenched myth that the PAF won the air war in 1965 with hard facts about the number of sorties flown, the total damage inflicted and the air domination achieved. The author says that over 90 per cent of the army’s requirement for close air support was provided and that the army was more than satisfied with the efforts of the IAF to keep the PAF at bay.
Jasjit Singh also highlights the gaps in the higher defence organisation, the absence of adequate intelligence assessments – sadly, still to be corrected – and the almost complete lack of joint operational planning. The yawning gap in the civil-military relations is also evident. The Ministry of Defence requested the US for 12 squadrons of F-104 Starfighters and two squadrons of B-52 bombers in 1962 without consulting the IAF! There are obviously still many lessons that have not been learnt.
Above all, the book amply reflects the profound compassion for fellow warriors that the Marshal displayed throughout his long and illustrious career, and still does in his 90s. The Icon is the biography of an air warrior that India is truly proud of – a tale well told. It should be compulsory reading for all soldiers, sailors and airmen – as well as for their political masters and the bureaucracy.
-- Brig. Gurmeet Kanwal (Retd) is Director, Centre for Land Warfare Studies, CLAWS, New Delhi