By Faisal Riaz
quest to explore and learn about Pakistan Air Force keeps me moving from one place to another. On 8th of January 2012, I had the pleasure to meet Tanvir Mahmood Ahmed at his place in Lahore. He is a retired four-star general and a career Air Officer in the Pakistan Air Force who commanded, as the chief of air staff of the Pakistan Air Force, from 2006 to 2009. The sitting was informal, a question and answer arrangement over a cup of tea which turned out to be a great dialogue and persuaded me to make it available in written form for all the avid readers of flying and enthusiasts of PAF.
This is 2nd interview of my compilation “In Dialogue with Aviators of Pakistan Air Force’. Before I reveal the discussion we had, I believe it’s a good idea to know about caliber of Tanvir Mahmood Ahmed. He did his high school from PAF Public School Sargodha where he belonged to 15th entry (767 – Fury House). Then, he joined PAF Academy, Risalpur in 1969 and was commissioned in Pakistan Air Force as a fighter pilot in 15 April 1972 in the 53rd GD(P) Course. He holds Best Pilot Trophy – which is remarkable achievement and a symbol of pride for any fighter pilot. The air marshal is a graduate of Turkish Air War College and National Defence College, Islamabad from where he did his masters in Strategic Studies. He has flown the American F-86 Sabre and F-16 Fighting Falcon aircraft and other aircraft of Chinese and French origin in the PAF inventory.
Q 1: How do you look at the last 10 years of your service where you had to manage critical positions?
A: During the last 10 years of my service, I occupied very vital and key positions like Deputy Chief of Air Staff for Administration (DCAS- Admin), then Deputy Chief of Air Staff for Operations followed by Vice Chief of Air Staff and finally the Chief of Air Staff. While these posts kept me extensively very busy from morning till mid-night. They also provided me the much needed experience and an opportunity to contribute towards the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) in a whole hearted manner.
Q 2: How was your first day as an Air Chief of PAF?
A: Since I had already prepared my blueprint for the three years of PAF command, in my opening address (which lasted over 90 minutes) I spelt out detailed outline of the plan to re-engineer the PAF for the challenges of 21st century.
Q 3: What were your strengths as a professional?
A: Alhamdulillah, being well experienced in the fields of operations, administration, logistics, budget accounts, office and general automation related to IT and HR management, I felt highly qualified to the assignment of Chief of Air Staff (CAS), PAF. Added to this was my total devotion and determination to bring results on ground. I felt lucky to get an opportunity for realizing my dreams for the PAF.
Q 4: How air warfare of today is different from the conventional air combat method?
A: Due to perpetual process of evolution, the air warfare today stands to be vastly different from the previous 2 to 3 decades. Network-centric capability and long range weapons (as indeed the hi-tech weapon systems) have made air warfare very complex and demanding. The envelop in the air has spread to scores of square kilometers and sharp response from the pilots are now a much needed virtue.
Q 5: What was your motto as an Air Chief? What have been your major achievements?
A: It was ‘lean-efficient and hard hitting’ PAF fully responsive to the needs of the new millennium. What it meant was ‘doing more with less’ and being ‘second to none’, as the Quaid-e-Azam desired from the PAF.
My majority achievements were procurement of much needed new hardware (Hi-Tech Aeroplanes) like: the F-16 C/D, Advanced Real-time Digital Reconnaissance Capability, smart and highly effective weapons including long range missiles, AWACS, Aerial Re-fuelers, co-production of JF-17 Thunder in Kamara with China, Networking the advanced and modernized Air Defense System, new and potent Surface to Air missiles, UAVs, New Generation Network for Integrating Airborne and ground based sensors, induction and modernization of existing transport aircraft fleet. Other achievements were building of new housing units for PAF personnel, re-building record number of PAF runways and operating surfaces, building newer and efficient medical facilities, improving the children education system, enhancing welfare activities, improving and revising innovative war plans, improving the overall efficiency of the PAF working by man-hours utilization etc. Logistics support and its inventory management was brought at par with the latest IT trends. Accounting and budgeting was brought truly online and fully transparent and automated. Overall working environment was made nearly paper-free.
Q 6: There is naturally huge power distance in Forces. It has indeed its pluses and negatives. Did you do anything particular to reduce power distance between ranks in your tenure?
A: PAF has traditionally provided itself in being a very open service. We communicate freely between the highest and the lowest ranks. I followed the policy to its utmost. It really helped me change the mind-set of PAF personnel and that meant greater achievability of my objectives.
Q 7: You had a vision which was to transform legacy systems of PAF into most advanced computerized systems. To what an extent you feel accomplished when you look back?
A: In the words of a colleague, I was ‘able to re-engineer the PAF’. I think this says it all.
Q 8: How did the idea come into your mind of automating Air Force where people are considered averse to change? Was it challenging to transform systems and human recourses there?
A: Being an Aquarian, I’m designed to be ahead of my age. As such I learnt a great deal from my experience of dealing with the Americans, the Chinese and the Europeans. This gave me a firm foundation of my vision for the PAF in 21st century. I am proud of the fact that I was able to achieve a very high degree of success in my endeavors to bring about a change and land the PAF in 21st century.
Q 9: What was the most essential thing to change before increasing pace of transformation in PAF?
A: To change the mind-set of PAF personnel so they could move on the desired path voluntarily and willingly.
Q 10: Without having any Information Technology background, do you think it was your right decision to start changing things at a massive level with great pace?
A: I had a counsel from a large spectrum of IT specialists; both in public and private sector. The vision was mine, solutions were theirs. I think I was able to achieve a lot.
Q 11: What should be the ‘must have’ traits of any officer who wishes to lead the Air Force efficiently?
A: Vision, dedication and loyalty to the service and the country and the determination to face all odds/ risks and head towards one’s objective with single minded devotion.
Q 12: Why was the need felt to modernize Pakistan Air Force in 2006 and not before?
A: PAF’s real induction of hardware and concepts was back in early 1980s with the induction of F-16s. It had been over two and half decades and we badly needed change; all over.
Q 13: 25 years is quite a lengthy time. Any system or technology can go obsolete during such a long time. Why didn’t your predecessors feel the need before?
A: All of my predecessors realized the urgent requirements for change. However, due to various political and internationally imposed restrictions and constraints, they could not really bring about a big change. Allah was kind to bless me with an opportunity (post 9/11) and I had the will and the courage to exploit this opportunity.
Q 14: How do you see value system in today’s Pakistan? Are the values intact as a nation?
A: Our value system (as a nation) has undergone a huge change – not for the better. We have not invested enough in education and human resource development. Hence, we are paying the price through our noses.
Q 15: The western media has misrepresented and misinterpreted Islam as a religion after 9/11. What do you want to say about that?
A: In fact, we have ourselves to blame for the West misinterpreting Islam. Were we to truly practice Islam as a code of life, the West would not be able to levy such criticism. We need some soul searching.
Q 16: What is your definition of Islamic State?
A: Where we truly and practically follow the golden teachings of Islam and not just give it a lip-service.
Q 17: Why did you change the ranks knowing the fact that it had long history before and had become part of tradition of the air force?
A: Wearing of rank badges is to make distinction between one another. Our older ranks were not doing that job well. Our new rank badges are distinct and clear – obviating the possibility of mix-up.
Q 18: After Mumbai attacks, there was standoff between Pakistani and Indian forces. How did you preempt the war in 2008?
A: Post Mumbai attack of 2008, the Indian civil and military leadership was all prepared to carry out ‘surgical strike’. I order the PAF on high air defense alert around the clock. This led to preventing a war between the two nations. I think this was timely and bold decision.
Q 19: Now you are retired. How do you spend time? Do you use social media sites like Facebook to kill time?
A: Frankly, I don’t find time to spend on social media sites. Along with my youngest son, I’m engaged in Chicken Farming thereby contributing to the society and keeping ourselves productively busy.
Q 20: What is your take on the current leadership of PAF in the shape of Rao Qamar Suleman as an Air Chief?
A: Air Chief Marshal Rao Qamar Suleman had a huge task of assimilating and operationalizing all of the newer equipment that we had contracted during my tenure of office. I think he is doing a good job and continuing to move PAF forward as a 21st century hard hitting and efficient service.
Q 21: Do you miss flying?
A: No (chuckles). I have done enough flying. I even flew fighter jets as an Air Chief.
Q 22: What is your message to the nation and the PAF?
A: Selfless devotion should be the way forward for my nation and the PAF.
About Interviewer: Faisal Riaz is a seasonal blogger and flying enthusiast. He works for Telenor Pakistan and looks after Value Added Services. He is MBA graduate from International Islamic University, Islamabad.