Air Marshal Saju Balakrishnan of the Indian Air Force (IAF) was appointed 17th Commander-in-Chief of the Andaman and Nicobar Command (CINCAN), succeeding Indian Army’s Lieutenant General Ajai Singh, who served for almost two years on the slot.
The Andaman and Nicobar Command (ANC) remains the only integrated theatre command responsible for securing India’s strategic interests in Southeast Asia, particularly the critical chokepoint in the Strait of Malacca that could tilt matters against People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Navy interests in the event of a regional conflict. The Andaman & Nicobar Islands (ANI) lie at the junction of the Bay of Bengal and the Andaman Sea.
Earlier, in December 2022, the Indian Navy’s Rear Admiral Sandeep Sandhu was appointed Chief of Staff to Singh, who will now report to Balakrishnan.
Balakrishnan was commissioned as a Fighter Pilot in the IAF. As Wing Commander, he served as Directing Staff at the College of Air Warfare in Secunderabad.
Upon promotion to Group Captain, he spent two years commanding No. 32 Squadron (“Thunderbirds”) based in Jodhpur, South Western Air Command (SWAC), operating MiG-21 Bisons; the squadron was number-plated in 2016, i.e. its personnel and assets were redistributed, and it exists only on paper. Later, he was transferred to lead the Agra-based No. 50 Squadron (“Adwitiya“/”Peerless”) in Central Air Command (CAC), which operates the Soviet-era Beriev A-50 fitted with Israel’s Phalcon Airborne Warning Control and Command System (AWACS); in fact, Balakrishnan was the first to command this formation (mid-2009). This period was particularly intense for India as it had just reeled from terrorist attacks in Mumbai, and the Indian security establishment as a whole was on a state of high alert. He holds the distinction for cohesively raising the IAF’s first dedicated AWACS squadron comprising 70 officers and more than 400 air warriors and leading all acceptance teams to comply with mission requirements in liaison with the Israeli vendor. He identified a few defects in the three AWACS and was able to secure long-term warranties for them leading to ‘significant’ financial cost savings for the IAF; apart from operational training, he also developed standing operating procedures for signals intelligence missions and other exercises.
Perhaps India’s security establishment has acknowledged, rationally, that defence against the larger perceived PLA threat in the Indian Ocean can be better derived from provisions of airpower doctrine.
As Air Commodore, Balakrishnan initially served for a little more than a year at Air Headquarters as Project Director (Air Defence Operations & Weapons Systems) before briefly returning to No. 50 Squadron as Commodore Commandant. Later, he was appointed to 32 Wing in Jodhpur (SWAC) as Air Officer Commanding (AOC) for almost two years when Air Marshal Anjan Gogoi was the Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief (AOC-in-C). After this assignment, Balakrishnan went to the UK for Staff Course at the Royal College of Defence Studies, and he returned and assumed charge as Air-I (command staff) in CAC; during this tenure, he served under two AOCs-in-C, Air Marshal Kulwant Singh Gill and later Air Marshal Shyam Bihari Prasad Sinha.
On elevation to Air Vice Marshal, he served at the tri-services Integrated Defence Staff (IDS) as Assistant Chief of Integrated Defence Staff (Perspective Planning and Force Development), reporting to Vice Admiral Atul Kumar Jain, then Deputy Chief of the same branch (At the time, Lieutenant General PS Rajeshwar was Chief of IDS to the Chairman Chiefs of Staff Committee Admiral Sunil Lanba); it was also during this tenure that the 2019 escalation with Pakistan over Balakot occurred. After two years on this stint, he was recalled to Air Headquarters and appointed Assistant Chief of Air Staff (Air Defence) for a short span of three years, an unusual duration for the term.
Balakrishnan was further elevated to Air Marshal (three-star) rank in early 2022 and appointed Senior Air Staff Officer at the Indian Air Force’s Training Command in Bengaluru during the headship of AOCs-in-C Air Marshal Manavendra Singh and later Air Marshal Radhakrishnan Radhish (coincidentally, Radhish was also one of the only three Malayali-origin three-star officers in the IAF at the time apart from Balakrishnan and Air Marshal Balakrishnan Manikantan who presently leads Southern Air Command). During this term, some of his publicised activities include engaging practitioners for mental health counselling of airpersons and the successful culmination of training for pilots on the Hawk MK 132 advanced trainer jets.
Appointment as CINCAN
Out of a total of 17 appointments, Balakrishnan is only the fourth IAF officer to have led ANC; before him, the last IAF officer to the slot was almost a decade ago (Air Marshal Pramon Kumar Roy).
Rotational headship at the ANC has been dominated by the Navy, followed by the Army. Balakrishnan’s three predecessors were from the Army, including Manoj Pande (then Lieutenant General), the incumbent Chief of Army Staff. This disparity is also visible in the appointment of Chiefs of Staff at ANC; the last IAF officer to have served in this appointment vacated in 2006.
Two highlights of the officer’s experience stand out in particular: experience with signals intelligence collection and air defence operations. India has been particularly perturbed about (what it believes) is an increasing PLA presence in the Coco Islands of Myanmar, no more than 50 km from the northern tip of the ANI archipelago. From an operational sense and also a long-term strategic sense, airpower (including maritime surveillance from aircraft and air defence operations) is expected to provide a decisive edge over perceived hostile naval manoeuvres in the Western Pacific. For India and its extra-regional patrons hedging bets on a decisive chokehold against the PLA Navy (United States, United Kingdom, Japan and Australia, to name a few), ANI holds the key.
Recall that one of Balakrishnan’s predecessors as CINCAN, General Pande, was the first engineering officer brought to speed up the construction of military infrastructure across the archipelago. India’s Defence Minister Rajnath Singh visited the ANI for a review of operational preparedness against China (January 2023), followed by the rising tempo of joint services drills such as Exercise KAVACH (April 2023) involving components from the Army, Navy, Air Force and Coast Guard.
It is also a fact that among integrated armed forces organisations in India, the Defence Space Agency is presently the only one to have a noteworthy Air Force officer at the helm (Air Vice Marshal Dhananjay Vasant Khot as Director General); the Defence Cyber Agency (DCyA) and Strategic Forces Command (SFC), for example, are presently commandeered by flag officers from the Navy. With the exception of the Training Lead at IDS, the other major senior officer positions (Operations, Intelligence), including the Chief of Integrated Staff Committee, are presently dominated by Army and Navy officers.
It could be argued that the decision to depute Balakrishnan at ANC was borne out of a desire to give the Air Force a sense of importance in the existing inter-service organisations (what with all the reservations over theaterisation). But such a narrow analysis would do injustice to the officer’s impressive credentials as an expert in both intelligence and air defence matters.
Perhaps India’s security establishment has acknowledged, rationally, that defence against the larger perceived PLA threat in the Indian Ocean can be better derived from provisions of airpower doctrine; in the long run, this is something that indirectly complements the Navy’s own warfighting capabilities. To what extent Balakrishnan is able to validate these concepts upon policymakers and sister services remains to be seen.