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Force Magazine
Guest Column - Force Magazine
Two to Tango
Joint air exercises are a significant tool for operational preparedness
Air Vice Marshal Manmohan Bahadur (retd)
By Air Vice Marshal Manmohan Bahadur (retd)

The Indian Air Force (IAF) conducted Exercise Garuda-5 with the French Air Force (FAF) in Jodhpur in July this year. The exercise saw the IAF fly its Su-30 air dominance fighter, MiG 21 Bisons and MiG 27 ground attack aircraft while the FAF brought in its Rafale multi-role fighter. The very mention of the name Rafale got the media excited, courtesy the long pending decision of India’s acquisition of a Medium Multi Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA); the increased media interest also pointed to a major aim of such international air exercises, which is to showcase and increase the visibility of a nation’s military products with an aim to hardsell it.

The IAF holds air exercises with the US, UK, Singapore, Oman and France and as per Air Chief Marshal Arup Raha, India’s Air Chief, similar exercises are in the offing with the Russian Air Force. A question is often posed whether these air exercises have any operational value as they are very costly ventures in terms of money and the absence of aircrew and aircraft from their primary duties in their own countries for a substantial amount of time. The short answer is, yes, for there are innumerable gains from such events. The gains from these air exercises can be broadly classified into two segments, viz., gains that can be quantified in some manner and those that are intangible. First, let’s address the quantifiable gains.

Professionally, when two air forces exercise, they pit their Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) against each other. Thus, every event or scenario setting in an exercise draws two responses which educate the participants about differing thought processes in action. The operational culture of a force comes into play in responses that are elicited to tackle a setting, which then go into the framing of the solution. Broadly speaking, there is a western way of air operations, in which NATO and US tactics are preponderant and a Russian way. Thus, every air force, to stay current with the latest in air tactics and weapons delivery, wishes to exercise with the best in the field. Also of importance is the fact that an air force is able to exercise its aerial assets with different ones of the other air force, helping its aircrew to know more about different types of aircraft that it may have to engage in combat in the future. Thus, surprising as it may be to many, the IAF which has a preponderantly Russian fleet, has its own unique blend and ethos of air operations due to its training, exercising and intermixing in various seminars and meetings with the Western air forces. When the IAF does conduct its first ever full-fledged exercise with the Russian Air Force (not a single one has been held till now!), it would indeed be a unique learning curve for air crew of the two air forces.

Analyses of air exercises lead observers to certain deductions that otherwise would not have been available; but the analyses also point to the advantages that accrue to the participants. Let us take a test case of the ‘Shaheen’ series of bi-annual air exercises of the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) and China’s People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) which commenced in 2011. In Shaheen I, a PLAAF contingent with Su-27UBKs deployed to Rafiqui airbase in Shorkot, Pakistan. The PAF flew its Mirage Vs, F-7PG and JF-17 during the two week exercise where Dis-similar Air Combat Training (DACT) was supposed to have been conducted, besides the usual air to air and air to ground armament work. The second part of the series, Shaheen II, took place in Hotan (between 2 and 22 September 2013) in the Xinjiang Uygur region of North West China. The PAF contingent was equipped with Mirage Vs and F-7 PGs and it was claimed that this was the first ever exercise conducted by any other country in Chinese airspace. An APP report said that ‘The prime objective of the exercise is to excel in air combat capability with a focus on air power employment in any future conflict.’ The PLAAF participated, as per one report, with J-10, J-11 and JH-7s.

The exercise details available in the open domain point to an interesting aspect of Shaheen II that, though Pakistan’s latest acquisition, the Sino-Pakistan JF-17 is operational with two squadrons of the PAF, it was not sent to participate – instead, the legacy Mirages and F-7PGs took part. Normally, in international exercises, the front line operational aircraft are put through their paces. Though there may be caveats in fielding some equipment due to commercial or security sensitivities of countries of origin of the equipment no such issues could have been forthcoming in the case of JF-17 which is a joint China-Pak product. While it is every country’s prerogative to decide on the aircraft composition, the absence of the JF 17 from Pakistan raised doubts on the reliability of the aircraft with respect to flight line availability or the lack of training of aircrew of this relatively new aircraft in PAF’s inventory to operate from airfields of slightly higher elevation (Hotan is at 4,600 feet). The absence of its frontline fighter, the F-16, from both Shaheen exercises, leads one to conclude that there are possibly US restrictions in place when it comes to interaction with the Chinese. How much this was for ‘show’ is open to interpretation because as per an Australian think tank Pakistan had surreptitiously made available to the Chinese R&D establishment the F-16A on its inventory in the late Eighties when the J-10 was in the design phase. The participation of J-10s of PLAAF is, however, interesting as PAF pilots would have been able to exercise with this modern fighter in the Chinese inventory and one that they are going to acquire in the coming years. If PAF pilots flew the Chinese J-10s as part of the Exercise, and this would normally be the case, it would have given them insights in advance about the practicalities of operating it.

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