The Indian Air Force has just conducted a massive war drill. In sheer scope and scale this matches the legendary military manoeuvres like Brasstacks (1987) and Op Parakram (2001-02). It was a massive exercise and involved over 1150 aircraft that generated a blistering rate of 11,000 sorties in 13 days. Some 1400 officers and 14,000 men were pulled out of training establishments to participate in this gigantic exercise.
In the intense Bangladesh war of 1971, the IAF had generated a sortie rate of 500 per day and some 7000 sorties overall in 14 days in both theatres. In just the first three days of this exercise the IAF notched up 5000 sorties and launched 11,000 sorties overall (including 9000 by its fighter aircrafts alone) in 13 days. The Chinese media was awed and commented that only the US Air Force was hitherto capable of generating such massive sortie rates. For some strange and inexplicable reason however, the Indian media totally blanked out this exercise. For all those 13 days the focus was exclusively on rape.
Exercise Gagan Shakti was a highly professional and well thought out war drill. Its aim was to validate our war plans and streamline SOPs and procedures. It played out the worst case scenario of a two-front war. In Phase One, the western front against Pakistan was activated. In just 72 hours (three days ) the IAF generated an incredible 5000 fighter sorties. This was twice the number of sorties the Pakistani Air force can generate and would have sufficed to decimate that Air Force. The IAF also undertook maritime ops in the Arabian sea and IOR that were vectored by the Navy’s Boeing MR aircraft.
In one such operation Su- 30 aircraft flew an incredible 4000 km non-stop with the help of midair refueling. It also launched special heliborne operations and the paradrop of a battalion group. Having dealt with Pakistan the IAF switched around to face the Chinese front. It took just 48 hours to switch resources to the north and east by using its heavy lifter aircraft like C-17s and IL-76s, rail and smaller aircraft and civil air line resources.
To avoid the Chinese missile saturation attacks on known airfields, the IAF deliberately operated from scattered satellite airfields and ALGs. Inter-valley transfer of troops and resources was practised and all conceivable scenarios played out. Mass casualty evacuation drills were also rehearsed to cater for the contingency of even a nuclear strike.A SU-30 simulated a Bramhos cruise missile attack over The Malacca straits.
So far, the SU-30s had been operating on a 50 per cent serviceability rate. These glitches have been fully ironed out and a serviceability rate of 80 per cent plus has been achieved with massive help from the PSUs like HAL, BDL , DRDO etc. The SU-30s, the Mirages, Jaguars, the Mig- 21s, Mig- 29s, the Hawks and even the indigenous LCA were pushed to the limits and managed to generate an incredible rate of six sorties per day for each aircraft. With the radars and air guided weapons an incredible serviceability rate of 97 per cent was achieved. Incidentally, this included some legacy systems that were over 40 years old. Combat Support elements like the Airborne Early Warning Aircraft and air-to-air refuellers put in a stellar performance and achieved a tremendous combat multiplier effect.
The air force used surge tactics in a short but intense conflict scenario to make up for its glaring shortage of aircraft and its rapidly dwindling squadron strength. This exercise pushed men and machines to their limits but proved a point. Despite the shortage of aircraft and the government’s refusal to release resources, our air – warriors would move heaven and earth to give a bloody nose to our adversaries. They would fight with what they have- and still triumph!
Such a massive tri-services exercise needs a great deal of planning and coordination. Advanced HQs of the Air Force were co-located with Army commands. Tactical Air Centres and Maritime Air Ops centres were set up and the Army provided huge amounts of troops , tanks and transport to depict targets. Live delivery of munitions was actually practiced at the Pokhran, Tilpat and other field firing ranges. This mammoth exercise entailed over nine months of planning and preparation. The complete and total apathy of the Indian media however, made such a huge mobilization of men and machines virtually a wasted effort. The electronic medium was ideal to generate and publicize such images and carry them to our adversaries to China, Pakistan and the increasingly hostile regime in the Maldives.
In the Sundarji era, such large scale military exercises were used to send a salutary, media directed message to the adversaries. Simply put it said – don’t mess with us. It deterred hostile activity by a massive display of raw military power. The messaging was done through the Indian media. Such massive mobilisation of resources can only be done rarely. It is a great pity that the Indian media blithely ignored this huge exercise and thus wasted its entire deterrent potential. The Indian people are Gandhian in outlook and non-violent in character. What a waste of national effort it seemed because the media simply failed to convey its message of deterrence to China, Pakistan and the Maldives. Imagine the psychological impact of masses of SU-30s, Mirages, Migs and Jaguars on the TV screens in South Asia and beyond. The media is the message and it was vital to convey this message of deterrence to our adversaries.
The IAF and its Chief need to be congratulated for its massive display of exemplary professionalism. The Indian media has poured scorn by pointedly ignoring these massive war-games – which would have been headlines news in any other country. Air forces the world over are awed by these figures. Any other country would have lauded such a valiant effort by its armed forces. Our media and people have unfortunately ignored both the massive Naval and Air force exercises in a row.