Tribute to Marshal
MARSHAL OF THE AIR FORCE ARJAN SINGH, DFC, PADMA VIBHUSHAN
India’s Bereft Skies: Arjan Singh Flies into Cosmos
Not just the air warrior community and the armed forces, but the entire country mourns the loss of an awe-inspiring public figure of monumental stature. He embodied the richest cultural values and core belief systems of a democratic and inclusive India founded on a rich and plural civilization. A fourth generation armed forces man—his father, grandfather and great grandfather served in the cavalry—Arjan Singh was commissioned in 1939 at the Royal Air Force College, Cranwell. He was accorded the rare honour of being invited there 28 years later as IAF Chief to take the salute at a passing out parade, and was a frequent visitor thereafter. When I visited Cranwell for a talk few years back, with immense and justifiable pride the Commandant pointed to a portrait of Arjan Singh, which continues to adorn the entrance to the main building. Nor is there a Chief of any of the world’s leading Air Forces today who has not heard of Arjan Singh’s stellar and historical linkage with the IAF. Such has been his reputation in the global community of air warriors! Nearer home and tellingly, Arjan Singh’s individual professional growth during early years coincided with the evolution of the IAF from its birth in 1932, initial baby steps and transition from propeller-driven combat fighters to an all-jet fleet. Its subsequent transformation from a tactical ‘support force’ to being the strategic sword-arm of India’s defence and security owes much to Arjan Singh’s unparalleled operational leadership during the 1950s and 60s.
His two tenures on the Burma Front during World War II were the start-point landmarks of what turned out to be a stupendous flying career. As Commanding Officer of the legendary 1 Squadron (Tigers) during the 1944 Arakan Campaign in Burma, he flew close support missions on Hurricane fighters, that helped break the Japanese siege of Imphal and tilted the scales in favour of the allies. He was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross in that campaign. Years later he was Air Officer Commanding Operational Group (responsible for air operations from Kargil to Kanyakumari ) for six years. This Group, which later became Western Air Command, helped shape India’s air power doctrine and strategy, related training needs and professional ethos that served the IAF brilliantly in subsequent wars.
The 1965 India-Pakistan War in which Arjan Singh, as the Chief of the Air Staff, so consummately directed the air campaign to prevail over the comparatively better-equipped and US-trained Pakistani Air Force, was indeed his crowning glory. We need to recall his immediate readiness to accept risks and resonate at electrifying speed to the Defence Minister and the Army Chief, both of whom sought emergency air support to the army formations facing a perilous Pakistani armour assault (Operation Grand Slam) in the Akhnoor-Chhamb sector. As he promised, the first Vampire formation was airborne from Pathankot in less than an hour, to which I was witness! But in his characteristic coolness, he shook off some initial setbacks due to loss of aircraft to eventually prevail over the adversary.
Unsurprisingly, after the war, Arjan Singh was elevated to Air Chief Marshal, awarded the Padma Vibhushan, and after retirement in 1969, he served with distinction in varied assignments: Ambassador to Switzerland and Kenya; Member, Minorities Commission and Lieutenant Governor, Delhi, before graciously embracing true retirement. In recognition of his lifelong exceptional service to the nation and the associated contribution of the IAF as the sword arm of India’s defence and security, he was conferred the five-star rank of Marshal of the Air Force (Equivalent to Field Marshal), IAF’s only officer to be so honoured. I had the privilege to know the Marshal personally over decades, particularly during my tenure in the Air Chief’s Office, and following my retirement, as the Deputy Director, Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, and later as the founding Additional Director, Centre for Air Power Studies (2002-2012).One observed close at hand the ramrod straight soldierly bearing, understated British style humour, earthy and yet big-picture-centric public articulations of India’s most celebrated air warrior.
An ideal template for what a Chief and his wife should be, the Marshal and Teji Arjan Singh were perfectly matched in elegance, dignity and compassion. In an unsurprising magnanimous gesture, they contributed a vast sum from personal savings towards a welfare scheme for the wards of non-combatants in the IAF. Their bond with the Air Force family was tenacious, the personal chemistry exemplary, and both had the subtle charm to put everyone at ease in their presence. Their home bespoke of excellence in taste and aesthetic ambience. In short a couple extraordinaire. As the Marshal joins his wife in their ethereal abode, the air warrior community, armed forces and the nation need to salute his many splendoured career and life.
Air Vice Marshal (retd) Kapil Kak is a strategic analyst and commentator.