POST TIME: 8 September, 2019 11:16:27 AM
A game changer?
The Indian Air Force has inducted eight US-made AH-64E Apache attack helicopters that will enhance the force's combat capabilities
Kumkum Chadha

A game changer?

Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman, whose  handlebar moustache was a distinct feature till some time ago, , is in the news again. The handlebar moustache has gone but fame still pursues the 36-year old fighter pilot who hit headlines earlier this week when he started flying the MiG-21 after he was declared medically fit by the Institute of Aerospace Medicine.
Varthaman, it may be recalled,had sustained injuries while ejecting from a fighter jet that was hit by a Pakistani missile on February 27 and had been barred from flying for six months. He was taken prisoner by Pakistan after being shot down during a rare dogfight between Indian and Pakistani fighter jets earlier this year.
A recall: The Pakistan Air Force attempted entering Indian airspace and targeting military infrastructure in response to the February 26 Balakot airstrike that saw the Indian Air Force enter Pakistan and bomb a terrorist facility located in the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province.
Abhinandan was flying a MiG-21 Bison fighter during that dogfight. He ejected from his fighter jet after being shot and landed in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, where he was taken prisoner.He was released two days laterand returned home  to a hero’s welcome. At that point in time his trademark handlebar moustache was talked about.  This time too it was a point of interest though with a difference: Abhinandan did not sport it any longer.

Social media went viral after seeing Abhinandan’s latest pictures: “The handlebar is gone” wrote a user while another said: “Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman gets rid of his iconic handlebar moustache, flaunts a new look” even as another user wrote: “Sad to see that he has trimmed his iconic moustache”.

In fact the missing handle-bar moustache was among the first thing that was noticed when Abhinandan made his public appearance along side Air Chief Marshal Birender Singh Dhanoa in the border district of Pathankot.

The day was significant because it was the induction ceremony of Apache attack helicopters into the Indian Air Force.  

Dhanoa flew a sortie with Abhinandan in a twin-seater MiG-21 trainer aircraft at the Pathankot Air Base on Monday. He is set to retire from the IAF later this year following nearly four decades in service.

"It was a particular joy for me to come and fly with the 26 Squadron which is the last squadron of the legacy of MiG-21 aircraft.

Paying an exceptional tribute to Abhinandan, the Air Chief   said that it was an honour to fly his last sortie  in an Indian Air Force  aircraft with Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman.  Dhanoa did not stop there. He went down memory lane and said that as a young pilot, he had flown the Mig 21 jet with Abhinandan’s father, Simhakutty Varthaman. Abhinandan’s father, who retired as air marshal, joined the IAF in 1973 and has around 4,000 hours of flying experience.

That apart, there are striking similarities in the careers of  Dhanoa and Varthaman: both  have played key roles in conflict situations and both are MiG-21 pilot. During the Kargil war in 1999, Dhanoa destroyed Pakistan supply dumps along the Line of Control (LoC). Wing Commander Varthaman, on the other hand, downed F-16 before his MiG-21 was hit by a missile: “I also ejected in 1988 and it took nine months for me to get my category back. He's back in less than six months, so that's very good for him," said Dhanoa.

"Both of us have things in common. One is, both of us had ejected. Second, both of us have fought the Pakistanis. I fought in Kargil and he fought after Balakot. And the third is that I have flown with his father. We were together in Adampur in a MiG-21 squadron. It is an honour for me to do the last sortie in the Air Force in a fighter with his son," Dhanoa  said that morning.  

The two officers took off from the Pathankot airbase in Punjab. For Dhanoa, it was a last time he flew a fighter jet before he bids goodbye to service. However, for Abhinandan it is a return to flying after along break and  intense medical tests post his return from captivity. He was taken off flying duties due to injuries sustained after ejecting from his fighter jet  earlier this year.

The Indian Air Force has inducted eight US-made AH-64E Apache attack helicopters that will enhance the force's combat capabilities. Flown by the US Army, the  AH-64E Apache is one of the world's most advanced multi-role combat helicopters. Four more Apaches are likely to be added by the end of this month and by next year the IAF will have a fleet of 22 Apaches.

Hailing it as a “significant step” the Indian Air Force said that the induction will modernise the IAF’s helicopter fleet and enhance the capability of the force in providing integrated combat aviation cover to the army strike corps. That the  induction will boost the Indian Air Force capabilities for conducting cross border hits is a given as is the fact that it will play a battlefield role. Equipped with modern electronic warfare capabilities, this is easily a strategic asset particularly when tensions between India and Pakistan are escalating by the day. Its bullet proof cockpit helps it to be used against tanks and armoured vehicles. More importantly it is the first time that helicopters that can fire air to air missiles are part of the IAF. Termed as a “dream machine” by some fighter pilots, the Apache is easily the most advanced multi-role heavy attack helicopter in the world: enough reason for the IAF to feel smug.  

But it does not stop here. The IAF is also getting the much awaited and controversial Rafale fighter jets soon. India has ordered 36 jets from France : a deal that was in the eye of a storm. BJP’s main opponent the then Congress President Rahul Gandhi had alleged corruption by the Modi government and made it a major plank in the recently concluded general elections which returned the BJP led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi with a massive victory.

India will also receive upgraded Su-30MKIs sometime next year. Once the French Rafale and the Russian Su-30MKI jets start operating jointly, it is, according to the Indian Air Force, enough reason for Pakistan to have sleepless nights given that the two together would be a “potent combination” and easily a “gamechanger.”

The writer is a senior Indian journalist, political commentator and columnist of The Independent. She can be reached at: (kumkum91@gmail.com)