New Delhi – After the “surge” in air combat operations on the western front with Pakistan, which saw a staggering 5,000 sorties by fighters alone in just three days last week, the Indian Air Force (IAF) has now switched its forces to the northern borders with China from Ladakh to Arunachal Pradesh.
No, the worst-case scenario of a two-front war has not suddenly hit India. Instead, the IAF’s entire war machinery has been activated for the ongoing pan-India exercise “GaganShakti” + . “It’s the biggest such exercise in terms of scale since Operation Brasstacks in 1986-1987, or Operation Parakram in 2001-2002 when India nearly went to war with Pakistan after the terror attack on Parliament,” said a senior officer.
Despite having just 31 fighter squadrons, when 42 are required to tackle the Pakistan-China threat, the IAF has pulled out all stops to hone its war-fighting skills by testing offensive and defensive capabilities on the two fronts.
As many as 1,150 fighters, aircraft, helicopters and drones as well as hundreds of air defence missile, radar, surveillance and other units have been deployed for the high-voltage exercise, which is taking place with active participation from Army and Navy for integrated land-air-sea combat operations. The IAF has systematically worked towards achieving 83% serviceability (operational availability of the number of aircraft at any given time) for the exercise, in conjunction with defence PSUs like Hindustan Aeronautics and base repair depots, from the usual 55%-60% in peacetime.
“The aim of the exercise is to validate our operational capabilities and concepts in a realistic war-like scenario as well as check our ability to sustain high-tempo operations. It’s not aimed at any country,” said IAF chief Air Chief Marshal Birender Singh Dhanoa. But the game-plan is quite clear. If the focus in the western theatre was to generate the maximum possible sorties with the same number of fighters to overwhelm the enemy forces, the intent in the eastern one is to operate from dispersed locations to avoid the adversary’s rocket forces while undertaking deep strikes with Sukhoi-30MKI fighters being refueled in mid-air by IL-78 aircraft.
The combat manoeuvres along the northern borders will also see intensive high-altitude operations at advanced landing grounds and helipads, some as high as 20,000 feet, as also inter-valley troop transfers and logistics sustenance by heavy-duty helicopters to make up for the lack of roads.
“Fighters are also practising concentrated weapon releases in realistic attack scenarios all throughout Gagan-Shakti, which includes firing precisionweapons with ‘through window’ capabilities. A simulated battalion-level airborne assault behind enemy lines, which included paradrop of 560 soldiers, combat vehicles and GPS-guided cargo platforms, has also been undertaken with six C-130J Super Hercules and seven AN-32 aircraft launched from multiple airbases,” said another officer.
GaganShakti, in short, reiterates the primacy and flexibility of airpower in modern-day battles.The Sukhoi-30MKIs, which have a combat radius of about 1,500-km without mid-air refueling, for instance, have even got airborne from an eastern coast airbase to strike multiple targets in the western seaboard at distances beyond 2,200 km before landing at a southern base to cover a total distance of around 4,000 km in single non-stop missions.