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Above: An airdrop of personnel during Gagan Shakti 2018

Gagan Shakti 2018 was meant to test the preparedness of all the fighting systems of the IAF against the might of the Chinese and Pakistanis, and India has emerged looking like a well-oiled fighting machine

~By Praful Bakshi

Every military service down the ages has not only lived up to the universal adage, “The more you sweat in peace, the less you bleed in war”, but spends considerable time and resources in honing its fighting skills to face combat. The aim of any military exercise is not only to develop the correct methods of carrying out a military operation, but to fine-tune all fighting systems to the policies and doctrinal demands during conflict on land, sea and air.

Gagan Shakti 2018, a national-level war exercise of the IAF and perhaps the biggest till date, covered practically the entire Indian peninsula in April, including areas over the sea and adjoining island territories. Each and every fighting and support system of the Air Force was tested in a war scenario along with the Army and Navy to ascertain their battle worthiness. The exercises not only tested the operational preparedness of various combat formations of the IAF, but checked the effectiveness of current standard operating procedures so as to update the present infrastructure to more modernised and effective forms. That includes the testing of the recently developed technology demonstrator, Tejas. More importantly, it showed the serious need for realising and undertaking the Make in India approach, one of the leading agendas of the present government, in defence technology and weapon development.

The role of the Air Force, besides guar­­ding the vast air space of the na­tion, is also to provide support and pro­tection to land and sea forces to meet the overall war objective. Gagan Shakti, which was a two-week exercise, displayed precisely this important aspect.

Most importantly, for over five decades, India has been carrying out such exercises with countries like the US, Canada, Australia, France, the UK, Singapore, Oman, Sri Lanka and Russia. Perhaps the most noteworthy of these was the famous five-coun­try air exercise held at Kalai Konda in West Bengal in 1963 between India, the US, the UK, Australia and Canada. In the last 15 years alone, India has carried out 31 such exercises with other countries.

In Gagan Shakti 2018, the IAF deployed nearly 300 officers, 15,000 men and close to 1,100 aircraft. This included close to 550 fighters like the Sukhoi 30 MKIs, S-30s, MiG-29s, MiG-21s, MiG-27s, Jaguars, Mirage 2000 Hawks and the Indian-built Tejas (light combat aircraft). Transport aircraft such as the C17 Globemaster, C130 Hercules, IL 76 & 78 (AWAC and the air-to-air refueller) and the work horse, AN-32, also took part. Helicopters such as the MI-35s, MI-17s and Dhruv were also included. Besides the flying machines, other fighting arms of the Air Force were put to test too. For example, the reaction time of the radar system which controls fighters so as to put them to tactical advantage was critically tested. Being a very important part of the air defence network, its mobility and operational readiness, along with the missile and anti-aircraft gun system it controls, were exercised and judged. Emphasis was placed on the ground and air mobility of these systems.

When so many fighting systems are put to task, it is important to have an efficient and well-integrated info and communication network. The network connected with the IL 76-based AWACS brought out how the fighters are controlled by this airborne radar system, which simultaneously provides ground commanders real-time information. Judicious and intelligent use of AWACS easily makes it into a force multiplier.

It is evident to any military planner that the next conflict on our borders could easily develop into a two-front war as we have serious border issues with both the Pakistanis and the Chinese. Not only are they close allies, but Pakistan is heavily dependent upon China for conventional and nuclear weapons. One can, therefore, understand the magnitude of this “mother of all exercises” if one goes through the various operations undertaken by the IAF’s fighting systems.

To make it into a realistic exercise, the entire Air Force was divided into  three sections. The first, called the Blue, represented India, the Red represented the enemy force, and the White the umpires. The exercise started in the western sector, including the coast facing Pakistan, and then switched to the eastern sector to include the North-east and the Bay of Bengal, down to the is­land territory of the Andamans and Nicobar area. The idea was to demonstrate that the IAF can carry out operations not just on land but can also dominate the sea, specially the Indian Ocean region. Here are some of the missions undertaken by the fighters in Gagan Shakti:

Air defence—Interceptors like the MiG-29s, MiG-21s and the Mirage 2000s flew in combination with the network of AWACs and ground radar. Air-to-air missiles were used in controlled situations over fixed ranges and ground-to-air missiles were activated. Em­phasis was placed on the reaction time of interceptors in taking to tactical height alongside the reaction and efficiency of the fighter controllers on the ground.

Counter Air—To neutralise the flying assets of the enemy like airfields and aircraft located there, special counter air long-range missions were flown by the Su-30 MKIs, Jaguars, MiG-27s and Mirages. The simulated enemy location was placed in various firing ranges like Pokhran, Kalai Konda, Punjab and Jamnagar where live bombs and missiles were fired to ascertain the actual results against the targets constructed for the exercise. The personnel of the White force (umpires) were positioned to record the actual result not only of the attack but also the working of the explosives. To make it realistic, the flight distance was long as in real attacks in Pakistani or Chinese territory. This brought in the requirement of refuelling in the air by the IL-78s. This automatically included the role of escorts like the Su-30 MKIs or the Mirages which took offensive measures against the enemy aircraft. All this was monitored by the accompanying umpires.

Close Air Support—The Air Force has to work towards neutralising aerial and ground threat to our advancing artillery and infantry columns in the tactical battle area. Therefore, in scenarios built up in this exercise, the MiG-21s, Hawks and Tejas were put to test. It was realised that the MiG-21s and the Tejas would be able to tackle both air or ground threat very effectively, while the Hawks would ideally be suitable to neutralise the ground threat posed by the enemy’s artillery and also in deep Himalayan valleys like Siachen.

Maritime strike and support role—With close to over 8,000 km of coast constantly being monitored by hostile shipping and submarine forces of China and Pakistan, it becomes quite an indomitable task for Indian forces to meet any threat from these regions. With the Chinese seeking and establishing ports and submarine harbours in Thailand, Myanmar, Bangladesh, the Maldives and Sri Lanka right up to Pakistan, the Indian Navy needs full support of the Air Force strike arm. Gagan Shakti amply demonstrated this through well-planned and executed long-range strikes by the Sukhois and the Jaguars armed with Harpoon and Brahmos anti-ship missiles. Besides striking targets over 3,000 km in the sea, the Su-30 MKIs flew close to 6,000 km non-stop with the help of IL-78 air- to-air refuellers, clearly demonstrating its strategic operations capability.

Remember the IL-76s had inducted a full brigade within a few hours in the night during the 1988 Maldivian crisis to rescue their president, Abdul Gayoom? Interestingly, the Su-30 MKIs and Jaguars flew in coordination with the Navy’s long-range patrol and MR aircraft, the P8i, in both offensive and defensive mode.

Army support—As part of the war plans, the Air Force demonstrated how to support the Army not only through offensive flying, but through its transport and helicopter arm too. In a record number of missions, the C17 Globemasters, C130 Hercules, IL 76s and MI 17s carried out round the clock troop induction through para operations in the valleys and desert areas. A very apt demonstration of airborne assault was carried out when a parachute brigade completed a battalion-level night in­duction in the Rajasthan sector. Here, 560 combat troops, combat vehicles and GPS-guided cargo platforms were successfully used. Six C130 J Hercules and seven AN 32 me­dium transport aircraft flew in at night under the guidance of AWACs and were escorted by a Su-30 fighter aircraft. In this massive exercise, great emphasis was put on casuality evacuation of the wounded by helicopters and also establishing the forward surgical centre to provide effective surgery on the spot.

The successful culmination of the exercise is not enough for the Air Force. For now, a proper examination of all the actions in air and on ground will be studied very critically to know whether the Force has performed to the doctrinal requirements or fallen short and what steps can be introduced to achieve the required result in future.

The quantum of air effort put in and the record number of sorties performed by the combat and support aircraft, along with the tactical task achieved, have no doubt proven to military experts the world over that the IAF is not only one of the largest air forces but is second to none in its operational efficiency. What better testimony can come than the official Chinese media stating that no other country other than the US can perform the stupendous task involved in Gagan Shakti.

Clearly, the IAF has come a long way.

—The author is a defence and security analyst and former spokesperson for the defence ministry

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