Military aviation is attended by even greater hazards than commercial flying but, even so, it is shocking for the defence services to be suddenly confronted with the deaths in a flying accident of their senior-most commander and key members of his personal staff. From what is known till going to the press, the Chief of Defence Staff (CDS), General Bipin Rawat, was travelling from his headquarters in New Delhi to give a lecture to student officers attending the Defence Services Staff College at Wellington — a year-long course that marks out the brightest and best military officers who are.....
Military aviation is attended by even greater hazards than commercial flying but, even so, it is shocking for the defence services to be suddenly confronted with the deaths in a flying accident of their senior-most commander and key members of his personal staff. From what is known till going to the press, the Chief of Defence Staff (CDS), General Bipin Rawat, was travelling from his headquarters in New Delhi to give a lecture to student officers attending the Defence Services Staff College at Wellington — a year-long course that marks out the brightest and best military officers who are destined for higher rank. At the Sulur Air Force Base in Coimbatore, General Rawat and his entourage transferred from his Indian Air Force (IAF) Embraer Legacy business jet to an IAF Mil-17V-5 helicopter for the short hop to Wellington. At noon, the helicopter was just minutes short of its destination when it crashed, killing everyone except for the pilot.

One of several reasons could have led to the crash. Flying helicopters in mountain terrain poses unique dangers with the chopper forced to weave its way through valleys that cloud up suddenly. The helicopter unit at Sulur is manned by skilled pilots and technicians with extensive experience in operating in the most rugged Himalayan terrain. When flying the CDS’ party for an important lecture, care would have been taken at Sulur to ensure an airworthy helicopter. With inclement weather prevailing in the Nilgiris for the past few days, the IAF’s meteorologists would have left nothing to chance. Yet, such are the hazards of flying, that an accident took place nevertheless. It remains unclear why it took six hours after this deadly crash for the government to confirm it and issue condolences. In the absence of details or official information, the media was speculating about the casualty and fatality count. Parliament is in session, but the government did not give the members even the simplest details of what has transpired. Only after 6 pm did Defence Minister Rajnath Singh tweet about the deaths of 13 persons. Instead of this information vacuum, a statement made in Parliament by the defence minister would have prevented rumours and speculation and also accorded recognition and dignity to those who had lost their lives in the line of duty.

 
The death of General Rawat represents more than just the loss of a senior commander. As India’s first CDS, the government had entrusted him with implementing the key structures of a revised higher defence management. General Rawat had also been appointed to head the Department of Military Affairs, which sought to bring together civilian and military officials into an integrated ministry. General Rawat was also tasked with creating “joint theatre commands”, in which the army, navy and IAF operated in synergy, with the aim of offering greater combat power than the sum of their parts. General Rawat was not without his critics, especially after being appointed the army chief in 2016, superseding his senior, Lieutenant General Praveen Bakshi. He was further criticised as a “political general” when he was appointed the first CDS. Yet, a dispassionate assessment of his initiatives leaves the impression of a reformist, who tried hard to prune the military’s bloated manpower, tighten up an army headquarters that was too large for its own good and made formation headquarters more effective in combat. Perhaps most importantly, he brought in reform down to the level of combat units. It is to be hoped that his successor follows in his footsteps.

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