Enhancing Joint Warfighting

Ex Shaheen-VIII, PLAAF-PAF’s joint exercise, was conducted in mid-August 2020

Prasun K. Sengupta

Although the air forces of China and Pakistan have been conducting bilateral air exercises since early 2011, it was only over the last two years that such exercises have acquired criticality, with the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) increasing its reliance on the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) for accessing critical operational inputs on the warfighting capabilities of the Indian Air Force (IAF). Hence, it came as no surprise that within five months of the IAF-PAF clash over Jammu on February 27 (when the PAF launched OP Swift Retort), the eighth in the series of PLAAF-PAF air exercises—codenamed EX Shaheen-VIII—was conducted at Hotan air base in China’s Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region over a 15-day period in mid-August that year.

J-10C with TVC nozzle

This was the largest of the bilateral air exercises ever to be conducted over a 15-day period, beginning on 23 August 2019 and concluding on September 10. More than 50 combat and combat-support aircraft took part, with the PAF pitching in with six each of its Mirage-VPs, F-7PGs and JF-17s, while the PLAAF, in addition to its J-10B, J-11A and Su-30MKK combat aircraft and KJ-200 airborne early warning & control (AEW & CS) platform, also brought in for the very first time its dedicated airborne electronic warfare platforms, the Y-8EW for electronic jamming and the Y-8GX4 for conducting ELINT missions. Together, such platforms for the very first time exercised for missions ranging from air superiority, suppression of hostile air defences, deep and tactical interdiction, to joint air-defence.

LogoFollowing this, the two air forces began the process of creating a networked airspace surveillance grid covering both Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (POK) and southern Xinjiang, and this involved the despatch by Beijing of a JY-27A Skywatch-5 VHF radar to the PAF’s Mianwali air base (for training purposes), which will ultimately be permanently located at Skardu airport in Baltistan and will be able to conduct bistatic operations with a similar JY-27A located since late 2019 in Kargilik in southern Xinjiang. Since then, several sorties by the PAF’s IL-78MKP multi-role tanker transport aircraft carrying PAF electronic warfare specialists were flown to the PLAAF’s Dingxin Test & Training Base in China’s Gansu province last October for helping the PLAAF optimise the performance (when operating against the IAF) of its latest airborne electronic warfare platform, the Y-9G.

Later, on December 7, a PLAAF combat aircraft contingent comprising four J-10Cs, two J-11As and two Su-30MKKs, and accompanied by two Y-20 airlifters, a KJ-500 AEW & CS platform and a Y-9G, arrived at the PAF’s air base in Bholari (commissioned in December 2017) at Thatta District in Sindh for taking part in the 23-day bilateral air exercise, codenamed EX Shaheen-IX. The opening ceremony of the exercise was jointly witnessed by the PAF’s Deputy Chief of Air Staff (Operations) Air Vice Marshal Waqas Ahmed Sulehri and the PLAAF’s Assistant Chief of Staff, Maj Gen Sun Hong. The J-10Cs J-11As, Su-30MKKs, KJ-500 and Y-9G belonged to the Dingxin-based Tactical Training Centre of the PLAAF’s HQ Central Theatre Command, while the Y-20A airlifters belonged to the PLAAF’s 13th Transport Division.

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