This month, I had the pleasure to meet Air Marshal (r) Shahid Lateef over a cup of tea. He retired as the Vice Chief of Air Staff of Pakistan Air Force in April, 2009. My discussion with him was very casual and lasted for more than 2 hours starting from his personal life to professional one. Before I share snap of discussion I had with him, it would be great idea to know about his profile.
He was commissioned in the General Duties (Pilot) Branch on April 7, 1974. He earned top honours by winning the coveted Sword of Honour for his overall best performance and earning a gold medal for securing first position in academics, on graduation from the PAF Academy, Risalpur. He has served as a fighter pilot in various squadrons and was among the pioneers of F-16 induction programme in the PAF in 80s. During his career, he has commanded a fighter squadron, a fighter wing and an operational air base. He has held various key staff appointments at the Air Headquarters. He has been associated with the development and production of the most prestigious JF-17 Thunder aircraft for nearly eight years, initially as deputy chief project director and then as chief project director for five years. He has served as Deputy Chief of the Air Staff (Operations) and was also deputed in the Abu Dhabi Air Force for three years. His career is a text book example of success as he was a topper throughout his service and remains very inspiring for the officers of Pakistan Air Force. He holds wealth of knowledge and likes to impart it with the youth of Pakistan.
Q: Tell us something about your background.
I am an ordinary bloke who belongs to Sahiwal which is a developing city of Punjab. I did my basic studies from Government High School before I went to Lower Topa PAF Public School. Life was very peaceful and simple in Sahiwal and so were the people. I enjoyed different stages of my young age as long as I lived there.
Q: How do you spend your time after retirement and what are your hobbies?
I am living a disciplined life. I read, write, play golf and spend quality time with my family. This all makes my day a busy day. Furthermore, I make appearances on TV to talk about national issues confronted by us and respond with possible and logical solutions. I believe this is the best I can do as a retired person now with an aim to serve the national cause which is my passion and spread awareness among masses to enable them to serve the country to the best of their potential.
Q: When did you realize your capability of being a fighter pilot?
When you compete against the best, it is only then that the best starts coming out of you. Definitely, Lower Topa was the place where I really felt I had started to appreciate and recognize my talent. That is where I began to know what were my strengths and qualities. However, it was not untill I started flying in Risalpur that I was convinced of a bright career in this field.
Q: In public schools, a lot of emphasis is given on physical sports vis-a-vis academics? How were you as a student and as a sportsman?
While I was in matric at Lower Topa, it was closed down and we were all shifted to PAF Public School Sargodha where I did my F.Sc. Alhamdulillah, I was very balanced in studies and sports. I was the best athlete and used to play all out-door games. I created Inter Cadet College Sports record in 100 meters (10.8 seconds which was very close to the national record in those times). The National Sports Board wanted to take me into the national team but my principal stopped me saying that sports career would be a risky business and might end in a short period. As a matter of fact, he wanted to see me rise in my professional career which he could visualize based on my current performance though I was tempted and wanted to join the national athletics team.
I was also made the house captain in my final year at PAF College Sargodha. For initial physical and academic training after selection in the GD(P) branch, cadets had to go to ITW (Initial Training Wing) established at Lower Topa. I was the top appointment holder at Lower Topa. It was called ‘Wing under Officer’. I also earned the highest appointment of ‘Wing under Officer’ in the final term at PAF Academy Risalpur.
Q: This is very rare that someone becomes ‘Wing under officer’ at Lower Topa and at Risalpur as well because cadets are judged over different set of qualities at both places. How did you attain this distinction?
I have a strong faith in Almighty Allah who has always been very kind to me. A firm belief in divine help and prayers of my elders coupled with hard work and focused attention towards clearly defined objectives was all that helped me achieve my goals.
Q: You were among the first six pilots who tried hands at the Falcon. How do you define your experience with the F-16?
Flying it first for Pakistan was an honor. There is no doubt that F-16 is the best aircraft Lockheed Martin ever produced. This statement can be supported by the number of units sold all over the world. It was designed so well that it retains its attraction even today. Though Lockheed Martin has now produced F-22 and JSF and there are Rafale and Eurofighter but yet when you look at the F-16, it stands out. It is a design which immediately appeals. Therefore, Lockheed keeps on making necessary changes in order to keep its variants competitive with the contemporary hi-tech aircraft. I loved flying it then and would love to fly it again.
Q: What does it take to be an excellent flier in the Air force?
In the air force, you need to have flying aptitude along with good academic record. Flying is all about your motor skills – the coordination between the mind and the limbs. You may not be a genius or studious person yet you can be a very good flier. On the other hand, flying is not just stick and throttle. There is science behind it. The more you understand, the better you will fly. Attention to details and prompt response to situations confronted in the air differentiate you from others.
Q: You were writing very frequently in the newspaper The News. Why don’t we see your columns so frequent these days?
I was writing almost every fortnightly. But now I have dropped down to a month for the simple reason that I don’t write for the sake of writing. I write when I am convinced I should write on something. I pen down my thoughts whenever there is a significant change or development and when I feel I should give my opinion which somehow is not coming forth from others. In short, I am driven by the urge and don’t force myself into this activity.
Q: There has been a rumor that newly acquired F-16 fleet is handicapped and cannot be used against conventional enemy of Pakistan. Is there any contractual binding upon PAF?
It is not true. These aircraft are not handicapped in any way and can be used aggressively against anyone. The only restriction is that the F-16 fleet has to be kept at a separate place and shouldn’t be mixed with the Chinese aircraft. The rationale was that the Americans wanted to protect their technology. Therefore, we maintain a separate base for Block 50/52.
Q: India is aggressively working on acquisition of aircraft carriers these days. This will certainly create power imbalance in the region. Do you see any potential role of maintaining aircraft carrier in PAF?
I don’t think we need one. Carrier is an offensive platform which you use to demonstrate your power against the enemy. We have no offensive designs against India or for that matter against any other country. Our posture has always been defensive/counter offensive. The objective is very clear and that is to protect our country against any aggression. Instead of a carrier, we should have solid defense, potent counter offensive capability, and credible nuclear deterrence in order to make the cost of any adventurism against us unbearable for the enemy.
Q: This year has really been unfortunate as PAF met around 7-8 air crashes in just 7-8 months. Is there anything wrong with current flight safety policy or its implementation?
I don’t think there is anything wrong with our flight safety policy. As a matter of fact, Pakistan Air Force has a very tight flight safety mechanism in place but we need to acknowledge that Mirages are over 4 decades old fighter jets which should have been grounded by now. We would have avoided many crashes if we had not overstretched the use of these planes. I’m happy that the leadership of air force is not sleeping over this issue and has been aggressively working on phasing out Mirages by 2014-2015. As per my knowledge, each aircraft which is going to be retired will be replaced with JF-17 Thunder.
Q: One out of your achievements has been successful development and delivery of JF-17 aircraft. What makes it a potent fighter plane and can it be considered as mainstay of PAF in the future?
F-16 is the most advanced plane we have in PAF. However, it can be paralyzed by Americans as a result of any friction with them as we saw during the sanctions imposed in early 90s. Therefore, we really need to have an indigenous aircraft which fits in the modern category.
JF-17 Thunder is an answer to address such apprehensions and future challenges. It is a beautifully designed aircraft with great capabilities like long range radar, comprehensive avionics package, BVR capability, glass cockpit and many other features we mostly see in the latest generation aircraft. It is to be noted that the aircraft is designed on US specs in order to make it attractive in the international market. It has a modern avionics architecture that is compatible with the universal standards, allowing easy integration of any Western equipment with plug-and-play capability. The aircraft is designed on a block-building concept that permits regular upgrades like the F-16 in order to keep the platform relevant with time and in sync with the changing technology.
Air power is likely to play a decisive role in any future conflict as witnessed over the last two decades. Against this background, the JF-17 occupies a central position in the defence of our country and will remain the backbone and life line of the PAF.
Q: We haven’t seen any progress on ending of drone attacks in Pakistan. What is your take on it as a fighter pilot and what should be the role of government to end such attacks?
First we need to remember that the moment you violate the territorial boundaries of a country, it is considered to be an act of war. From a fighter pilot’s perspective, shooting a drone is no difficult task. You don’t need a very hi-fi sophisticated technology. It can be shot down easily by the PAF in case the government shows the will to do so. Anyways, drone attacks are a menace and they must be stopped.
Q: When was the last time you flew a jet and do you miss strapping up in the cockpit?
My last flying was as the Base Commander. It’s been over 12 years now I haven’t flown anything. It is natural that a true fighter pilot would always miss flying in his life.
Q: Do you visit your native city frequently?
I usually go there to attend family events. Since, I am settled in a different city now and that place is too far, therefore, I hardly get time to go there. Personally, I would want Sahiwal to be a developed city with proper infrastructure. Though, it has been given the status of a ‘Division’ in recent years but I feel a lot has to be done to improve the associated facilities. The biggest handicap is the non-availability of an airport there. For faster mobility, there should be one in my opinion.
Q: In your life, you have seen so much and you have done so much for the country. Do you plan to write a biography?
I very much want to write for posterity and have been trying to find time but the national matters which have been deteriorating rather rapidly continue to capture my mind. Every time I sit to scribble a few things, there is some development at the national level that takes precedence. Nonetheless, I will write to express my rich experience of life inshAllah.
Q: What is your message to the nation and to Armed Forces of Pakistan?
When I look around, I feel that the moral values have taken a hit. The merit has been pushed to the back seat. There has to be a radical change, otherwise whatever our elders had earned and established for us, we would lose it. Therefore, my message is to develop and protect a solid character. Those who deserve must rise. Those who use other means to gain benefits must be detected. This is the only way our institutions and society can develop itself to achieve excellence. Nepotism must be curbed in all forms and professionalism should be the main criteria for promotions and appointments.