Out of the Blue into the Tree!!

“Out of the blue, into the tree,” is the Hindi equivalent of: “Out of the frying pan, into the fire.” That is exactly what happened to me (the Hindi one) when I parachuted through the clear blue Goa sky on a fine January day in 1986.

It was a skydiving demonstration as a part of the Silver Jubilee Celebrations of the Liberation of Goa. I was in charge and leading a team of skydivers. The forecast winds were way beyond the performance characteristics of the parachute we were using, and the capabilities of the jumpers, to counter. Prudence demanded that I called off the demonstration jump. But then, the thought that organisers and the spectators would be disappointed impelled me to give it a try.

To our good luck, the winds died down absolutely by the time our helicopter came overhead to commence the drop. Flight Lieutenant Thapar from the ground control transmitted the position of the streamer (a piece of cloth that has the descent characteristics of a parachute) that I had dropped to judge the actual winds. The position of the streamer also confirmed gentle winds. It was safe to jump.

It was a clear blue sky and fine weather for a parachute jump but my mind was still clouded by the forecast of very strong winds. So, I decided to err on the positive side. I signalled thumbs up to the jumpers (to jump out) much upwind of the sports ground––where we were to land in front of the spectators––hoping that the winds would help them drift and make it to the target on the ground.

It was a mistake. Jumpers could barely make it to the sports ground––a few landed in the front of the spectators others landed scattered outside the ground. I was the farthest from the landing area. Tall trees welcomed me as I approached mother earth. Despite my best efforts to avoid them, I landed in a big one. My fall through the tree broke several branches before the suspension lines of my parachute got stuck and I was jolted to a stop. It was an uneasy feeling dangling ten feet above the ground.

In the time I took to take stock of the situation, several thoughts flashed past my mind.Burma Radio Operator The worst recall was that of the vivid account of a radio operator who had bailed out of a disabled aircraft over the thick forests of Burma during the Second World War. In a similar situation i.e., hanging from a tree, he was attacked by giant red ants. He tried to cut free of his parachute harness by shooting at its webbing with his service weapon. He shot himself with the last bullet when he failed to come out of the situation and the nuisance of the ants became unbearable. His skeleton was found hanging upside down in the parachute harness when the search and rescue team found him several moths later.

It was a silly recall. I was in a much better situation, less than half a kilometre from the ground. People would soon come looking for me. In any case, I did not wait for them. I followed the standard drill: I whipped open my reserve parachute and lowered it to the ground; carefully unfastened my parachute harness and slithered down to safety. Recovering the parachute was an arduous task.

That parachute jump in Goa is one of my most memorable ones for all the wrong reasons.

Sifting the History of Pakistan Army’s Surrender (Dacca, 1971)

Strategists and thinkers assign different reasons to the surrender of the Pakistani Army in the eastern sector in the 1971 Indo-Pak War. The views differ and depend on where one stands while looking at the question.

There can’t possibly be one reason for the surrender of 93,000 soldiers. Each service and each arm did its bit to bring the enemy to its knees.

It is rather difficult to say which proverbial straw broke the camels back?

But then these, among others, could have been some of the last straws that broke the camel’s back–the leaflets thrown over erstwhile Pakistan.  In essence, the message was:

“Officers and men of the Pakistan Army surrender! You have been surrounded. You have no choice. Your fate is sealed. Don’t you want to return to your family and children? There should be no shame in surrendering to the Indian Army. Indian Army will take care of you. Surrender before it is too late!”

57822CE9-D782-44D4-8A3D-716E565B7ACD

 

Copy courtesy AVM DK Dhingra (Late) who was a member of the team that planned and executed the Airborne Operation (Tangail, 1971).

The Maldives: Omen of Recovery

Operation Cactus: The Maldives, November 3, 1988.

The Indian Armed Forces had embarked on a seemingly impossible mission; a mission to rescue President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom who had been surrounded by armed men (cadres of People’s Liberation Organisation of Tamil Elam) led by a Maldivian businessmCactusTOI Cuttingan, Abdullah Luthufee. I was a part of the team that landed at Hulule airport to respond to the SOS call of the Maldivian President.

The notice was short; and there was practically no intelligence. The odds were loaded heavily against us. Most strategists would have forecast a failure, nay a debacle, when we took off from Agra. And, although people have compared Operation Cactus with the Charge of the Light Brigade, albeit with a pleasant end, the Indian Armed Forces did not sleepwalk into the Maldives that November night. It was a fairly well planned and methodically executed Operation within the time and resources IMG_4034 2available on that day. The risks were calculated and catered for. The spirits were high. A determined Brigadier FFC Bulsara wrote the following message for me hours before we landed at Hulule: “We’ll secure the airstrip and the President by 1000h tomorrow.”

In a very well coordinated operation involving the three Services and the diplomatic corps, the IAF airlanded the Paratroopers at Hulule who rescued the President. The Indian Navy chased the fleeing rebels and rescued the hostages on board the rogue ship. Among the hostages were a Maldivian minister and his Swiss wife. There was no casualty on our side.

IMG_4033 2A Maldivian National Security Service (NSS) officer, Major Mohammed Zahir wrote a note on my scribble pad. The note speaks about the Maldivian sentiment at that time: “Your Governments kind assistance is very much appreciated by our Force. National Security Service.” He also presented me a cap badge and a formation sign of the NSS as souvenir.IMG_4031 2

That was 30 years ago. Time and tide has eroded the gratefulness.

China has taken over and occupied islands on lease in return for the infrastructure it has created for the Maldivians. Like Sri Lanka, IMG_4030 2the country is heavily in debt. The population seems ignorant; the leadership has fallen into a trap from which it would be difficult to escape. Needless to say, Chinese gains have been at India’s cost. The pro-China sentiment is expressed in a hoarding which was put on the China-Maldives Friendship Bridge when it was under construction: “Waves are gifts from God. Bridge is a gigt from CHINA!”

Cactus Malé Hulule under construction Thanks ChinaIf the recent elections are to go by, democracy is still alive and kicking in the archipelago. Opposition candidate, Ibrahim Mohammed Salih has defeated the present (pro-China) incumbent, Abdullah Yameen. The former President, Mohammed Nasheed has recommended a review of the agreements with China. For India, this might turn out to be an omen of recovery of ties with the Maldives. It is an opportunity to put back the relations with the Maldives on firm footing.

It will be naïve, to say that replacement a pro-China president will lead to slipping of Beijing’s grip on the Maldives (as a newspaper headline suggests). Change of guard does not necessarily mean change of ideology or policies. At best India can start afresh, regaining the confidence of the Maldivians. India has many advantages (over the Chinese), including that of proximity to the Maldives. There is a lot that India can do to restore the strategic balance in the region.

Today is the day, now is the time!

 

PHOTO-2017-11-30-06-01-45Author’s Note: “Operation Cactus: Anatomy of One of India’s Most Daring Military Operations” (Group Captain Ashok K Chordia, Knowledge World, New Delhi, 2018) is a seminal study of the operation launched by Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi to rescue President MA Gayoom of the Maldives (November 1988). The book is based on recollections of the protagonists and official unit records and histories.

Rafale Deal: My Anna Bit

The turbulence in the wake of the omni-role fighter aircraft Rafale, which India has decided to buy, has become insignificant in comparison to the turbulence generated by the politics surrounding it. The purchase (mind you, not so much, the flying machine itself) has been making headlines every other day. The politics of it has given the opposition parties the nuclear tipped cruise missile to try and tether the government. Rafale NewsThe Brahmastra has been launched. Now, frantic effort is ON to decide as to who or what should be the target. The effort is to ensure that the missile hits a target (anything that could be labelled as a target) before it runs out of propellant. And it must happen before the Lok Sabha elections scheduled next year.

The media is genuinely trying to keep the all-so-innocent junta informed. Effort to improve the TRP is a parallel enterprise. So, any news that informs (read sensationalises) is good. New issues need to replace the old ones.

In the clamour of people and parties accusing each other of motives and intentions, some good meaning media-persons consider it worthwhile to report on the performance characteristics of the aircraft, leaving aside the politics of it for a while. Who better to hear from than the Chief of the Air Staff (CAS), Air Chief Marshal BS Dhanoa? So they try to get the right answer from him.

Few would envy him for being in a position in which people with shallow theoretical knowledge seek comments on issues that are technical, sensitive and of strategic importance. And among the crowd are the smart people who attach meaning to each word the Chief says; and they comment on his body language and timing of the comment too. Now, because “the country wants to know,” (and because it would be inappropriate to keep the people guessing), the Chief confirms that it is a good aircraft that the country is buying to address the dire current defence need. He says so with the conviction of an air warrior who has flown thousands air chief marshal Dhanoa-ptiof hours in fighter aircraft. He is the one who flew solo in a MiG-21 aircraft soon after taking over as the Chief displaying rare and exemplary military leadership!

When he speaks, he is sure of what he is talking about.

Yet on another occasion, they ask him about the aircraft. His answer is the same. A little later, the question is repeated in different ways. The Chief who means business of national defence only, repeats the answer.

Then comes the time to generate new and renewed interest in the Rafale Deal.

At a National Seminar on the IAF’s Force Structure (2035), a media-person recalls the Chief’s statements on the performance of Rafale aircraft and the timing thereof, and suggests if the comments are politically motivated. It was not the Chief who was asked the question but an officer (a retired one in that). The question was not responded to because it was not relevant to the subject and perhaps because it was the prerogative of the Chief to respond.

Any effort to draw the IAF into the political slugfest on Rafale will benefit people: some will be able to settle scores with the government; others might find a way to pass the blame, if any. But if the deal were to be shelved or the procurement were to be deferred, the worst sufferer will be India whose defence preparedness will get compromised.

AnnaMy Anna Bit: Whichever party comes to power, it will need the Air Force to defend the country’s skies and the frontiers. The Indian Air Force will continue to feel the pressure until the shortfall is made good. We’ll do well to leave the Chief and the Air Force to do their bit.

Making Reluctant Horses Drink Water

Never in a quarter of a century of my service as a commissioned officer had I been so grossly off the mark in gauging the collective behaviour of my men.

It was like this:

The year was 2005. I was commanding the Logistics Squadron at Air Force Station Jalahalli. “Logistics Squadron” was a fancy new term coined for the erstwhile “Logistics Section.” Only the name had been changed, all else had remained same.

On a routine round, I came across an airwarrior preparing a report on a desktop computer. I was taken aback when I saw him typing raw data in the columns of an MS Word Table; then carrying out calculations on a calculator, and finally entering the calculated figures in the last column of the Word Table.

“Sergeant Dhillon, Why don’t you prepare the report using MS Excel?” I asked.

“Sir, I don’t know how to use Excel.”IMG_3915

On more inquiry, I learnt to my dismay that among my staff of close to forty men, just about four or five knew how to use Excel. Most of them were using calculators to produce reports. The three desktop computers on our inventory were being used as dignified typewriters. The reports that were being put up to me had much room for error, errors that would be difficult to detect until the reports were made afresh.

It was a sad state considering that computers were introduced at the unit level in the Air Force two decades ago. Something had to be done to change that uneasy state of being.

Education was the way forward. I mustered my men and addressed them. I told them the advantages of using Excel over the calculator. Briefly, a hundred per cent accuracy was assured and it was time saving too. It was a powerful tool in the hands of a logistician who had a lot of data to handle and to generate reports. In the interest of the Air Force and in their own interest, it was essential that they learnt how to use it. “It is easy, even I can use it,” I said.

I told them that I would soon commence classes of one-hour duration for them. “I want six to eight volunteers for the first batch. Please raise your hands.” I expected at least a dozen hands to go up.

Never in a quarter of a century of my service as a commissioned officer had I been so grossly off the mark in gauging the collective behaviour of my men.

Not one hand came up. It was a rude shock for me. I asked them, “Why don’t you want to learn Excel?”

Very sheepishly one of them said, “Sir, I guess you will conduct the classes in the afternoon. That will eat into our time.”

“I too love my golf in the afternoon. I will conduct classes during office hours,” I laughed, “Your afternoon rest will not be sacrificed. Any volunteers?” People looked at each other; no hand came up. There was something in their minds that they were holding back. I was determined to know: “Why?”

After much needling and nudging (read: “coercing”) Sergeant Mishra opened up, “Sir if we learn MS Excel we’ll get more work to do.”

I was shell-shocked. I did not know what hit me. “My men not wanting to learn something because it would increase their workload? …Did I hear him correctly?” I wondered.

It was a clear case of attitudinal deficiency. Intolerable! Such behaviour was just not acceptable. Letting the men get away with that attitude would amount to promoting inefficiency; nurturing penguins in the Air Force. Something had to be done. “Now! How?” My mind was working in overdrive.

I waited for a brief while till murmuring stopped and men gave me their full attention. “Gentlemen!” I began, “Trust me, if you do not volunteer to learn Excel the Squadron or the Air Force will not come to a grinding halt. The Air Force will continue to fly. I know how to use Excel, and with the four or five men in the Squadron who know it, the work will go on.” I continued.

“But let me tell you. And listen to this carefully….” I gave a long pause. “If you do not learn Excel today, in a few days from now, you will fall in the category of illiterate people. Those of your mates who know how to use applications on computers will be sitting and working in the cosy comfort of air-conditioned rooms… you, who will be illiterate, will be sweeping the floors and dusting the stores. You will be doomed to do menial work.”

“Worse still,” I continued with greater emphasis. “If you don’t learn computer applications today, at a later date, you will not be able to guide your children. Their progress will be slow. They will have to struggle hard to achieve their dreams. You are smart young air warriors, I don’t have to talk of the worst case scenario.” I painted the gloomiest possible picture of their future.

After another long pause, I ended my address to them, “With that I rest my case. Get back to your workstations. Be happy! No Excel for you! Jai Hind!” And with that I walked out of the room very briskly, and returned to my office.

My orderly was awaiting me with the usual cup of tea. I settled in my chair to have it. I had barely taken the first sip when more than a dozen men barged into my office. They stood in a row, saluted smartly and said in a chorus, “ Sir, we want to learn Excel!”

We got down to business; men learnt Excel enthusiastically; there was a sense of purpose. I enjoyed those classes as much as they did.

Epilogue: Months later, one of my equipment assistants who was under posting orders came to me to bid bye. “Sir,” he said with tears in his eyes. “You opened our eyes that day. I have not only learnt Excel, I have bought a PC for my family. I am learning more applications and teaching my children too.”

One can take a horse to the water but to make him drink, one has to whisper things in his ear, which strike the right chord in his heart.

A Garud Legacy

The unusually heavy rainfall in the southern Indian state of Kerala has led to the worst floods in a century. Almost all the river dams within the state were opened to let go of the excess water. More than 300 people have died and over 7 lakh people have been rendered homeless and are living in camps managed by the Indian Navy and a large number of charity organisations including the Gurdwaras.

Armed forces, the National Disaster Response Force, the Indian Railways and scores of other organisations have been toiling round the clock to provide succour to a people in distress. The helicopters of the Indian Air Force (IAF) and the Indian Navy (IN) have been dropping food packets for marooned people. They have been evacuating people to safe locations.

The print and electronic media, the social media included, are replete with news in pictures and videos on the mayhem caused by the floods. They also talk of the yeomen service being provided by all the agencies involved––uniformed men rescuing people in boats; helicopters dropping food supplies….

One such picture (and the video circulated by the India Today Group) that has caught my eye is that of Wing Commander Prashanth, a Garud of the IAF. He is seen rescuing a child in a daring winching operation by an IAF helicopter. “Well done Prashanth! Well done Garuds! The country is proud of you. Keep up the spirit! Keep up the good work!”

Garud child rescue prashanth Kerala

I see that picture and the video with a sense of déjà vu. In fact, that picture, and the video, have sent me on an errand a dozen years back in time.

Around 2005, Garud (IAF’s Special Force) was still in its infancy and I was the Commandant/ Chief Instructor for a brief period. The Garud Regimental Training Centre (GRTC) had just relocated from Air Force Station, Hindan to our new (permanent) location at Chandinagar, an abandoned airbase in the middle of nowhere. New infrastructure––classrooms, firing range, training apparatuses, messes and dormitories––was coming up. The existing facilities were in a dilapidated state.

We had to make do with the available resources till conditions improved.

Although it sounded oxymoronic, I had ordered Shramdaan (voluntary service) to clean up the thick undergrowth that had come up due to years of neglect. The entire station was at work through the afternoon. Men were scything the grass, lifting stones and clearing the paths. After about an hour of hard work in the sun, one of my officers spotted a dry well without a boundary wall. It was fairly deep, maybe 30 to 40 feet. Despite the broad daylight it was difficult to see the bottom.

It was imperative that we secured the well to avoid an accident. As we began piling stones and logs of wood to form a temporary barricade, one of the officers observed some movement at the bottom of the well––it was a dog that had fallen in and was showing signs of life.

Using nylon ropes meant for slithering, we lowered a basket containing bread and milk for the wretched animal to eat. Scared and hurt (due to the fall), the pariah dog declined the offerings. Left to itself, the fellow would die, so I suggested that we hauled him out. It meant that one of us would have to go down on a rope to the bottom of the well and physically bail him out.

There was an air of apprehension: One, the dog might bite its rescuer. Two, there could be insects and/ or snakes. And three, there could be lack of breathing air and, worse still, there could be a poisonous gas.

“Sir, after all it’s a dog,” someone murmured. “We can let him be there.”

I did not want an opportunity to test our skills and abilities to be baulked by doubts. “It is a dog today; it’ll be a human being tomorrow.” I stressed that it was a rare opportunity to rehearse a possibility. There was a need to rescue the poor animal. The questions and the doubts dissolved in the ensuing discussion.

In my assessment, there was no risk at all if one took the necessary precautions but I didn’t want employ a reluctant messiah for the task. So without ado, using a nylon rope and an improvised harness, I got myself lowered into the well. Not fear, but an eerie sensation gripped the crowd as I proceeded. Once at the bottom, I grabbed and held the dog in a tight embrace and howled orders to pull me out. In less than two minutes, the it was rescued. That incident marked a modest beginning.

The Garuds today are carrying forward the legacy.

 

Airlift During Natural Disasters: How Can More Lives be Saved?

Blame them on depletion of Ozone layer, global warming or some such phenomena––natural disasters have begun visiting us with the regularity of equinoxes and the solstices. The ongoing floods in Kerala (India) are an example of the fury unleashed by nature.

The armed forces in general––the Air Force in particular––are pressed into action to provide succour by airlifting men and material and evacuating the stranded population. The number of sorties flown despite inclement weather within the limited resources and the tonnage provide for impressive statistics. Selflessly rising to the occasion each time, the men in uniform save thousands of lives.

Thousands still die.

The question is: Ceteris paribus, can more lives be saved? Going by the Uttarakhand  experience (July 2013), the unequivocal answer would be, “YES.”

Centre for Air Power Studies, New Delhi, Issue Brief No. 19/ 2013 dated July 11, 2013 titled, “AIRLIFT DURING DISASTERS: THE UTTARAKHAND EXPERIENCE –– Can we Save More Lives?” explains, “How?

Link: http://capsindia.org/files/documents/ISSUE-BRIEF_74_AIRLIFT-DURING-DIASTERS-THE-UTTRAKHAND-EXPERIENCE_11-July-2013.pdf