His passing leaves a deep, intellectual void in the Indian Air Force

My generation of fighter pilots first encountered Air Commodore Jasjit Singh through his book Air Power, the first book to clearly define missions and roles for the Indian Air Force (IAF). It was our Bible as we burned the midnight oil preparing for the Staff College entrance exam. His writings on Joint Operations in the 1980s and 1990s exhorted the Indian Army to understand air power better and recognise its war-winning potential in battles of the future. Though I did not understand nuclear strategy much in those early days of the India-Pakistan nuclear rivalry, it always filled me with pride that a man in blue shaped much of India’s nuclear doctrine along with his mentor, K. Subrahmanyam. As he grew older, his writings on the historical legacy of the Indian Air Force flowed like vintage wine in Defence from the Skies: Indian Air Force through 75 years (2007). Air Cmde Jasjit shared a special relationship with Marshal of the Air Force Arjan Singh, writing a fine biography of India’s most famous military aviator entitled The Icon (2009).

‘Just write’

I came to know him well only as recently as 2006 when I went to him for advice on how to manage a mainstream career and my passion for academic and intellectual growth. I can never forget how his eyes lit up when I expressed my desire to devote the rest of my career to developing intellectual capital within the IAF and enhance the understanding of air power among the other two services and the strategic establishment at large. “Difficult task,” he said, but added, “I think the environment will support you better compared to the time when I wanted to write and lecture — people thought I was crazy to give up a promising service career to promote air power. Just write, Arjun, and I will look after the rest.”

True to his word, he published every piece I sent him and provided me the momentum for a fulfilling academic career. From then on, we met frequently and debated the contours of the changing profile of air power employment across the world. We differed on many issues, even on my insistence on doing my thesis on the employment of air power at the lower end of the spectrum of conflict, whereas his view was that air power remained essentially a tool for the big battle, and till the end he championed the concept of air dominance.

Academic centre

While his contribution to the national security establishment and his exploits in the 1971 war, for which he won a Vir Chakra, are well documented, it is his more recent stint as Director, Centre for Air Power Studies (CAPS) that merits attention because of his untiring efforts to enhance the quality of professional military education within the IAF. From Thiruvananthapuram to Srinagar, from Shillong to Jamnagar, he would organise seminars and workshops at various IAF stations on topics ranging from air power to nuclear and space strategy. As a participant in many of those seminars, I was always amazed by the commitment of this intrepid air warrior-scholar as he exhorted the audience to read more, write more, and broaden their horizons beyond the immediate professional spectrum. Even at the ripe age of 78, he would seldom miss an outreach seminar, answering questions from young officers at working lunches and evening cocktails where you could not miss his signature maroon or blue turban.

A regular lecturer at Beijing’s National Defence University, he was one of the few Indian soldier-scholars to have established a rapport with Chinese scholars like Prof. Shen Dingli and understood the nature of China’s collective military leadership. Well networked with the bureaucracy and the political establishment, he was, towards his later years a good bridge between the IAF and the government — an unofficial brand ambassador for the IAF. His tall and erect figure was a regular sight at Air HQ. He would stop by at my office on those visits. “I hope this time around I will be able to convince MoD [Ministry of Defence] to step-up financial assistance to expand CAPS,” he said once. Another time, it was to convince the Air Officer Personnel to “send me some good research scholars.”

Taskmaster

Air Cmde Jasjit’s overpowering intellect intimidated many, and he was a taskmaster too. I vividly remember one of his research scholars, a Group Captain, coming to me and describing the number of times that he was made to submit his draft for an air power book, and how finally it was not published because Air Cmde Jasjit felt it did not meet the minimum required standards. While he played his role in full as far as the national security establishment was concerned, it is the IAF that will miss him the most. His departure has left a deep, intellectual void in the IAF and I think the best tribute to him in the years ahead will be to nurture and expand his start-up, the Centre for Air Power Studies, widen the reach of professional, military education and ensure that air power is seen not only as a tool of war, but also as an effective tool of deterrence and statecraft.

(Arjun Subramaniam is a serving Air Vice-Marshal in the IAF.)

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