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PAF s' Chief of the Air Staffs

Air Marshal M Nur Khan, HJ, HS, HQA, SPk

As with Air Marshal Asghar Khan, so also with Air Marshal Nur Khan, there was unanimous opinion in PAF ranks that he would be the most suitable successor. Although he had been running an airline for the preceding six years and, to that extent, been out of touch with prevailing air force affairs, he had earlier demonstrated his instinctive understanding of air force problems and a flair for finding their solutions.

Air Marshal Nur Khan was 18 years old when he was 18 years old when he was commissioned in the IAF in January 1941. Earlier he had attended the Royal Indian Military College at Dehra Dun after completing his education at Aitchison College, Lahore. Notable amongst his assignments before partition was that of a flight commander in No 4 Squadron. In the RPAF, he held various key appointments including command of Chakala and Mauripur stations and, as an air commodore, of No 1 Group at Peshawar. In 1959, following a series of mishaps in the country’s airlines, Air Marshal Nur Khan was deputed to head the amalgamated Pakistan Airlines Corporation where he remained till taking over from Air Marshal Asghar Khan in July 65. During that period, he made a name for his airline as a safe and reliable organization, and for himself as a dynamic go-getter. It was not surprising therefore that he was named as Air Marshal Asghar Khan’s successor; he was then 42 years old.

What did puzzle those who could sense that the end of the Rann of Kutch episode did not necessarily spell peace for very long, was the wisdom of a change of command in that extremely tense situation. However, the combat elements of the PAF had never felt more confident about their state of preparedness for war than in the preceding year or so, and the change did not affect that confidence either way.

At the outset of Air Marshal Nur Khan’s tenure, the PAF became engaged in a war which had been simmering for some time and which did not catch any thinking person unawares, least of all Nur Khan who seized the finely honed instrument of war he had just inherited and held it poised, while the rest of the national war machinery seemed unable to throw off the ‘no war’ spell cast upon it by the foreign office. Had Nur Khan done the required homework with regard to the PAF strike plan, he may even have avoided the one needlessly wasteful operation which marred his otherwise commendable conduct of the war.

It was immediately after that war, however that Nur Khan faced his real challenge. Over a period of nearly ten years, the US aid programme had lulled the PAF into a false sense of security with regard to where the next squadron was coming from, so to speak. Now with the abrupt termination of the aid agreement, Nur Khan stepped into the breach with confidence to recast the PAF in an entirely new, self-made mould.

Amongst the measure which Air Marshal Nur Khan implemented while restructuring the air force inventory was the creation of an operations command which rectified the anomaly of Air Headquarters staff trying to be critics of their own operational policies. That concept, after a series of mutations, eventually resulted in the PAF’s present operational organization into four air commands. Another major step was the systemization of PAF-wide welfare activities through a Pakistan Air Force Women’s Association (PAFWA).

Perhaps because of his long involvement at PIA with workers unions and prolonged exposure to the high pressure public relations activity which normally prevails in such environments, Air Marshal Nur Khan had brought back with him two characteristics which did not stand him in good stead in the PAF. Firstly, he considered it unwise to supersede anymore because that was likely to cause some resentment. This led him sometimes to assign even critical combat appointments according to the seniority list rather than on merit; over a period of time, this practice led to a lowering of combat leadership standards.

The other characteristic was an overemphasis on image-projection, both of the PAF as well as of himself. To many in the PAF ranks who, over a period of 18 years, had grown accustomed to a low profile in this respect, the frequent exercises in high visibility publicity were often quite embarrassing.

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