India military chief dies in helicopter crash that kills 13

Rescuers stand near the debris of the Russian-made Mi-17V5 helicopter after it crashed near the town of Coonoor in the southern state of Tamil Nadu, India, December 8, 2021. REUTERS/Stringer

NEW DELHI – A military helicopter carrying India’s highest-ranking military official crashed Wednesday, Dec. 8, 2021, in the southern state of Tamil Nadu, killing him and 12 others, according to the Indian Air Force, which has launched an inquiry.

The Russian Mi-17V5 helicopter was carrying Chief of Defense Staff Bipin Rawat and his wife when it crashed.

“With deep regret, it has now been ascertained that Gen. Bipin Rawat, Mrs. Madhulika Rawat and 11 other persons on board have died in the unfortunate accident,” the air force said in a statement.

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There were no immediate indications of foul play. Videos from the crash site broadcast by local news outlets showed the charred wreckage burning in a forested area, with local residents and rescuers attempting to extinguish the blaze. Local outlets quoted residents as saying the helicopter may have accidentally struck a tree.

FILE PHOTO: Indian Army chief General Bipin Rawat arrives for the Beating the Retreat ceremony in New Delhi, India, January 29, 2019. REUTERS/Altaf Hussain

Rawat previously survived a helicopter crash: In 2015, his Cheetah helicopter suffered an engine failure and plummeted moments after it lifted off from a military base in northeast India. Rawat suffered minor injuries.

Born into a military family, Rawat began as an infantry commander and rose to become the army chief in 2019 when he oversaw an airstrike in Pakistan’s Balakot in retaliation for a terrorist attack against Indian soldiers in Kashmir. The Indian airstrike was criticized for achieving scant military objectives, but it stoked nationalist sentiment in India just weeks before national elections.

Rawat, 63, was promoted in 2019 to chief of defense staff, a newly created role similar to the U.S. chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Rawat’s mandate was to lead a military modernization effort to unify India’s army, navy and air force under one command.

On Wednesday, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi hailed Rawat as an “outstanding soldier” who “greatly contributed to modernizing our armed forces.” Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa, who was for several years Rawat’s direct counterpart in the rival Pakistani army, expressed condolences via the Pakistani military’s Twitter account.

The Indian military has undergone a significant reorientation in recent years as it redeploys resources and troops once targeted toward Pakistan to confront China, its massive northern neighbor. But under Rawat’s watch, the Indian military has seen its budget relative to the government’s total expenditures shrink consistently year after year as India’s economy sagged and its outlays on costs such as pensions have risen.

As Indian and Chinese troops skirmished along the remote Himalayan border in recent years, Rawat had been one of the most vocal Indian officials to characterize Beijing rather than Pakistan as the top threat to India. He pulled the Indian military closer to the Biden administration, seeking to counter China. In October, he visited Washington to discuss closer collaboration with his U.S. counterpart, Gen. Mark Milley, and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin.

After his death, the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi issued a statement calling Rawat “a strong friend and partner of the United States, overseeing a major expansion of India’s defense cooperation with the U.S. military.”

Pravin Sawhney, a veteran defense analyst and editor of Force Magazine in the Indian capital, said the military overhaul that Rawat led was still old-fashioned and treated China as an extension of India’s traditional adversary – Pakistan – rather than as a far more sophisticated rival that could deploy advanced technology and cyber weapons.

Rawat’s successor will need to continue the modernization push but in a different way, Sawhney said.

“China today is three generations ahead of India militarily,” he said. “Something new is required.”

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