Next week, at the Pokhran firing ranges in Rajasthan, the Indian Air Force (IAF) will let Pakistan and China know it is ready for war at short notice. In a massive firepower display, some two hundred IAF fighters will rain bombs and missiles on targets spread across the desert. Watching this will be a flock of defence and air attaches, flown down from Delhi for the spectacle.
This is Exercise Iron Fist 2016, a once-in-three-years firepower demonstration that is part of what strategists term "deterrence signalling". It is a shot across the bows of potential adversaries, to dissuade them from harming Indian national interests.
|IT WILL RAIN BOMBS|
Briefing the media in New Delhi on Thursday, IAF vice-chief, Air Marshal Birender Dhanoa, cited former US president Theodore Roosevelt's famous exhortation, "Speak softly and carry a big stick".
Said Dhanoa: "Exercise Iron Fist 2016 demonstrates the business-end of the IAF; the Big Stick; our capability to deter."
The IAF says Iron Fist 2016 will involve 181 aircraft demonstrating 69 missions. There will be 103 fighters, including the Tejas, Mirage 2000, Sukhoi-30, Jaguar, MiG-29, MiG-27, MiG-21 and the Hawk advanced jet trainer. Also on display will be 59 helicopters including the Mi-17V-5 transport helicopter, Mi-35 attack helicopter, and the Dhruv and Light Combat Helicopter.
Synchronised waves of fighters will fly in from different IAF bases across the western sector. This involves close coordination by the Integrated Air Command and Control System (IACCS), which would similarly direct fighters into various combat theatres during wartime.
Says Dhanoa: "The IAF will demonstrate in Exercise Iron Fist, its capability to fight an adversary's army, navy and air force… and to win a war both during day and night. [This] capability [has been] demonstrated only by our air force in the sub-continent. This is a major change that has taken place in the last 10 years."
Curiously, given the exercise's aim of deterrence signalling, the Pakistani and Chinese defence attaches to India will not have front row seats for Exercise Iron Fist 2016. In fact, the IAF confirms that neither country's representatives will even attend.
Defence ministry officials explain that Pakistani and Chinese attaches were not invited because those countries did not invite Indian defence attaches for their air exercises, even after New Delhi expressly conveyed interest in having them attend.
IAF sources confirm that, in December, the Indian air attache in Islamabad was kept away from the Pakistan Air Force's firepower display at the Sonmiani ranges, near Karachi. Similarly, the Indian air attache in Beijing was not invited to the Chinese air force's elite Golden Helmet exercise. Unusually, the IAF is playing the international spotlight over indigenous platforms. The Tejas light combat aircraft will display its excellent "swing role capability" by, in a single pass, delivering a laser-guided bomb to a ground target and firing an air-to-air missile at a simulated enemy fighter.
The Defence Research and Development Organization's (DRDO's) Akash surface-to-air missile, being deployed to defend IAF bases from enemy fighters, will demonstrate firing. So too will the DRDO's Astra air-to-air missile, which a Sukhoi-30MKI will fire at a simulated enemy that is "beyond visual range" (BVR).
The indigenous Light Combat Helicopter (LCH) will fire rockets at tank targets. The airborne early warning and control (AEW&C) system, which the DRDO unveiled at the Bahrain Air Show last month, will also be on display. This features Indian radar and command software, mounted on a Brazilian Embraer aircraft.
Dhanoa, walking the "Make in India" line, stated: "The IAF, contrary to popular belief has achieved significant indigenization. If you take an IAF base as a platform to project air power, akin to a naval ship, its total indigenous content is 52%. This includes all its aircraft, its missile systems, radar, communications network, infrastructure, and the IACCS that is indigenous developed, right from the design stage. This compares reasonably with a (war)ship having about 55% indigenous content."
While demonstrations like Iron Fist serve a deterrence purpose, the real training takes place in internal exercises like the IAF's recently concluded "Live Wire" exercise; or next summer's Red Flag exercise in the US, a major international event for which the IAF will be flying across four Su-30MKIs, four Jaguars, two C-17 Globemaster IIIs and two air-to-air refuellers.