A thousand years the earth revolves around its orbit and then a mighty leader is born. How lucky is that tract of land on which such a leader opens his eyes. One such leader was Air Chief Marshal Sohail Aman, who hung his gloves on 19 March 2018 after a brave and courageous command. Pakistan Air Force (PAF), which has had twenty two air chiefs to-date, was blessed to have had Asghar Khan and Nur Khans as its founding fathers, who set the fledgling air force on the path of progress, ensured that the fighting force proves its mettle in every encounter, however much outnumbered and emerges as one of the topmost air forces of the world.
It is a pity that most of the air chiefs following Asghar and Nur Khan, chose to bide their time with little or no achievement to their credit.
Sohail Aman, who accepted the command sword from Air Chief Marshal Tahir Rafiq Butt on 18 March 2015, came at a difficult time, when Military Operation Zarb-e-Azb had commenced against terrorists in North Waziristan. The ground forces found the going difficult against a faceless enemy, which was well entrenched in the treacherous terrain. Sohail Aman, who had cut his teeth as Deputy Chief of Air Staff (Operations) overseeing air operations against terrorism, evolved fresh strategies to track the enemy in its lair and destroy it with precision guided munitions (PGM)s as well as provide badly required air cover to ground operations. Leading from the front, the intrepid air chief personally led the air assaults against the enemy, raising the morale of the fighting force. Guiding PAF engineers and technicians to incorporate indigenous modifications, the air transport fleet acquired the dauntless role of remaining in the forefront of the war on terror, providing real time intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance information to the fighter squadrons as well as ground and maritime forces, day and night. The erstwhile air transport support fleet was transformed to pick up the gauntlet of contributing immensely to air dominance and multirole operations.
There were no tactics or strategies developed erstwhile to combat terrorism from airborne platforms. Sohail Aman’s team delved deep to cover uncharted territory and formulate tactics to deal with terrorist hideouts, deeply camouflaged arsenals and carefully concealed safe havens. The Combat Commanders School (CCS) had been initially entrusted with the task of evolving the requisite game plan and tactical maneuvers but to ensure absolute success in meeting the challenges. Sohail Aman not only laid the foundations of PAF’s Airpower Centre of Excellence (ACE) but ensured that it was constructed in record time and housed with the top professionals who were provided the vision, mission statement, operational doctrine, establishment, development of weapon systems, evolution of tactics, training modules, curricula and the mode of conduct for air exercises to undertake the onerous task.
Impressed by PAF’s tremendous progress in this sensitive theatre of war, other air forces approached PAF to learn and benefit from the experience gained by ACE. A number of multinational airpower war-games and operational exercises were organized to benefit sister air forces. The professional institution facilitates in providing training to mid-level aircrew and air defence controllers by inculcating combat leadership and professional excellence in the role of airpower working in synergy within a net-centric environment. ACE is devoted to building a country’s capacity to undertake air warfare operations in the context of counterinsurgency (COIN). Specifically, ACE aims to build the competence of air forces to effectively utilize their intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) and precision-strike assets in an effective manner.
In order to reach the pinnacle of self-reliance and indigenization, ACM Sohail Aman introduced the idea of tying the industry and academia in a conjugal knot. Aviation City concept was visualized and executed in the shape of the aeronautics industry and Air University being co-located at Kamra so that research and defence production could proceed hand in hand. As an initiation project, the next generation fighter aircraft is being designed and produced at the Aviation City.
To lay true emphasis on education, Sohail Aman decided to send the teachers for training abroad. He strongly believed that to invest in the future of the nation, it is the teachers who must be taught the latest techniques and developments in education from the prime institutions abroad so that they can return and impart the same level of training to their students and disciples so that the torch they had lit, is passed on to future generations.
The humble workers of PAF, who were once known as Class IV workers, were given a more respectable name and status. Their living quarters and general standard of living received a major boost. He even attended religious ceremonies of non-Muslim PAF workers.
While every possible effort was made to avoid collateral damage in the air to ground strikes through the use of PGMs, Sohail Aman endeavoured to compensate the areas where the terrorists had hid themselves and followed a scorched earth policy. Under his leadership, fresh houses, schools and hospitals were constructed to rehabilitate the displaced persons.
To draw the misled youth away from the path of terror, ACM Sohail Aman ensured that vocational training institutions are established in the troubled areas so that the youth may be provided with alternate means of livelihood and are weaned away from the path of terrorism.
Sohail Aman, who had cut his teeth as Deputy Chief of Air Staff (Operations) overseeing air operations against terrorism, evolved fresh strategies to track the enemy in its lair and destroy it with precision guided munitions (PGM)s as well as provide badly required air cover to ground operations
The attacks by terrorists on PAF Kamra and Naval Base Mehran specifically targeted surveillance aircraft. It is no rocket science to guess who instigated the attacks. The Naval P3C Orion and the PAF Airborne Early Warning Aircraft were destroyed. PAF lost its eye in the sky with the SAAB 2000 aircraft being badly hit. Recovering them involved the cost of new aircraft but Sohail Aman and his technical team did not know the word “impossible”. Not only did his technicians fully recover the seriously damaged aircraft but when certification was refused by international organizations, PAF acquired the capacity and capability of awarding certification and made the badly damaged aircraft airworthy.
The bard William Shakespeare states in his epic play Julius Caesar “There is a tide in the affairs of men, which taken at the flood, leads on to fortune. Omitted, all the voyage of their life is bound in shallows and in miseries.” Such was the case with the diminutive Sohail Aman. The US State Department asked the former Prime Minister (now deposed) permission to fly its high level surveillance aircraft across the Pakistani air space. When the Prime Minister broached the subject with ACM Sohail Aman, he refused outright. The PM told the US State Department that he was prone to accord permission but the Air Chief was the stumbling block. The US State Department went directly to Sohail Aman and offered high value assets for PAF in lieu of the permission. Perhaps reminiscing the 1960 U2 incident and fearing the US surveillance would target the brotherly country of China, Sohail Aman stuck to his guns much to the chagrin of the US.
He took up the intimidating task of cleaning the Augean Stable of corruption and cleansed PAF of sleaze and perfidy even though he received death threats to desist.
To regulate the lives of every PAF officer, Sohail Aman introduced the “Compass” to enable every individual to navigate their course smoothly. The bar has been set very high for Sohail Aman’s successor but Air Chief Marshal Mujahid Anwar is an apt choice. He is a passionate professional, the winner of the coveted Sword of Honour and Best Pilot Trophy and brings his own set of qualities to the pinnacle of command.
I have had the honour of teaching him when he was a cadet and wish him well. The standards set by Sohail Aman will enable the future generations to ensure the steadfast climb of PAF. Au revoir mon cher chef de l’air maréchal (Farewell my dear Air Chief Marshal) Sohail Aman.