Mother of All Shows

Gagan Shakti-2018 showcased the IAF’s air power

A FORCE Report

From 8-22 April 2018 the Indian skies were lit up with the power and magnificence of the Indian Air Force’s (IAF’s) Gagan Shakti-2018. The IAF conducted its biggest ever exercise in three decades with a focus on real-time coordination, deployment and employment of air power in a short and intense battle scenario. During the 13-day exercise, the lAF showcased its entire war fighting machinery to validate its concept of operations and war-waging capability.

Defence minister Nirmala Sitharaman and Chief of the Air Staff, Air Chief Marshal B.S. Dhanoa interact during IAF’s exercise Gagan Shakti-2018

The exercise was conducted in two phases so that all Commands got adequate opportunity to test their preparedness. Phase-I of the exercise involved activation of Western, South Western and Southern Air Commands, with affiliated army and naval components. Phase-II of the exercise involved activation of Western, Central, Eastern and Southern Air Commands. Re-deployment for Phase-II involved relocating the forces so as to be effective at the new locations within a short span of 48 hours. This was made possible through round-the-clock operations of heavy lift transport aircraft like C-17 and IL-76 as well as by employing a large number of tactical airlift aircraft like C-130 and An-32 aircraft.

During the exercise, all types of combat missions, encompassing air campaigns, were conducted. Fighter aircraft undertook surge operations i.e. generating maximum number of sorties in a 24-hour cycle. These included long range missions with concentrated live and simulated weapon releases across all air-to-ground ranges in India, creation of air defence umbrella to facilitate operation of ground forces and Counter Surface Force Operations in support of the army in various sectors. During both phases Maritime Operations were also practiced. The efficacy and integration of indigenous LCA aircraft and Akash Missile system in the operational matrix of the IAF was also seen. In addition, capabilities of upgraded Mirage-2000 and MiG-29 aircraft were tested for the first time in an operational environment. All types of aerial weapons, including standoff and precision were employed to validate their use in the Air Operations Matrix.

Combat Support Operations involved missions by force enablers like AWACS and air to air refuellers, Special Ops comprising a Battalion Group paradrop, Special Ops with Garud commandos, Combat Search and Rescue for effective extraction of downed aircrew behind enemy lines, sea rescue and operations from Advanced Landing Grounds. The transport aircraft also undertook mass casualty evacuation missions in all Commands employing C-17, C-130 and An-32 aircraft.

For joint operations, the lAF’s joint command and control structures with the army and navy, such as Advance HQ of the IAF co-located with Army Commands, Tactical Air Centres, Maritime Air Ops Centre and Maritime Elements of Air Force etc, were activated. Army troops and combat vehicles were deployed to simulate Tactical Battle Areas in all Commands and some of the army exercises were dovetailed with air operations for simulation of realistic battlefield environment. Ships were deployed, both in the Arabian Sea and Bay of Bengal, for anti-shipping strikes by the IAF maritime aircraft.

During the exercise, more than 11000 sorties were flown, which include approximately 9,000 sorties by fighter aircraft. To sustain the tempo of operations on such a large scale, on a 24×7 basis, the IAF’s training, especially the aircrew, was augmented. More than 1,400 officers and 14,000 men were deployed for the exercise.

A major highlight of the exercise was availability and reliability of all combat assets including aircraft, missile systems and radars. High tempo operations also enabled the IAF to ascertain sustainability of the logistics chain.

The IAF was able to achieve 80 per cent serviceability of aircraft while radars and surface to air guided weapons maintained a serviceability of 97 per cent, which included some of the legacy systems that were over 40 years old. Focussed effort enabled a dispatch rate of more than 95 per cent for the Combat Assets, 100 per cent availability of Combat Support Systems and almost 100 per cent dispatch rates of combat enablers.

Preparations began nine months before the exercise kicked off and involved close coordination with Airport Authority of India (AAI) for airspace coordination. Dedicated efforts of air warriors and continuous support of Defence Public Sector Undertakings such as Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL), Bharat Electronics Limited (BEL) and Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) made the exercise successful.

The exercise also focused on base security aspects. Simulated drills involving infiltration into operational area by various means were practiced. Dedicated contingencies were conducted towards sustaining operations in a Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear (CBRN) attack scenario. Similarly, different techniques for repairing runway after bomb damage were practiced as well as extensive coordination with Territorial Army Units and local civil administration was undertaken to refine response during various security and administrative contingencies.

Exercise Gagan Shakti-2018 provided the IAF with an excellent opportunity to practice its war time drills and undertake operations in realistic scenario. The exercise also enabled the IAF to validate operational efficacy of new platforms and refine existing Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs). Joint operations with army and navy helped in achieving better operational synergy between the three services in application of combat power.