“Shaking the Heavens and splitting the Earth”
The IAF conducted its largest air exercise extant ( Gaganshakti) for two weeks in April 2018, its dimension, range and lethality described as ‘Shaking the Heavens and splitting the Earth’. The IAF flew a reported 11000 sorties, most of them by fighters but there was also unprecedented employment of transport aircraft and helicopters for special missions.
The IAF conducted its Exercise Gaganshakti from 8 to 22 April 2018 but planning for this had reportedly been set in motion almost nine months earlier. Described as the largest exercise in the past three decades, with its dimension range and lethality translated into ‘ shaking the heavens and splitting the earth’, this was quite in contrast to the general public perception that the IAF is much in need of enhancement of its fighter squadron strength from the present 31 to 42 and more, along with drastic modernisation and substantial increase in its other assets.
“India has not witnessed anything on this scale since Exercise Brass Tacks in 1987”, stated Air Chief Marshal Birender Singh Dhanoa, Chief of the Air Staff, and added that the western neighbour was apparently concerned by the sheer scale and complexity of Gaganshakti 2018. According to the Air Chief, the country’s western neighbour had monitored the Exercise closely through their airborne warning and control systems.
Considering that this massive exercise was during peace time, in a real confrontation, vital assets and ammunition (missiles, bombs, etc) would have been used resulting in diminishing war reserves. The aim of the exercise was to surmount constraints of economy for conserving air power needed when the real challenges occured.
As enunciated by the CAS, “The intention of the Exercise was 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 is not aimed at any country.”
The exercise was conducted in two phases so that all Commands of the IAF got adequate opportunity to test the efficacy of their preparedness. Phase-I of the exercise involved activation of Western, South Western and Southern Air Commands, with the affiliated Army and Naval components. Phase-II of the exercise involved activation of Western, Central, Eastern and Southern Air Commands. Re-deployment for PhaseII involved relocating the forces so as to be effective at the new locations within a short span of 48 hours. This was made possible by round the clock operations of heavy lift transport aircraft like the C-17 and Il-76 as well as by employing a large number of tactical airlift aircraft, C-130s and An-32s. The IAF also used civil chartered flights and trains for mobilisation of its resources.
During the exercise, a spectrum of combat missions, encompassing various air situations, were conducted. Fighter aircraft were involved in surge operations, generating maximum number of sorties in a 24-hour cycle. These included long range missions with concentrated live and simulated weapon release at various air- to- ground ranges in India, creation
of an air defence umbrella to facilitate operation of ground forces and Counter Surface Force Operations in support of the Army in various sectors. During both phases, Maritime Operations involving long range maritime strikes with Maritime Reconnaissance provided by Indian Navy aircraft also took place. The integration of Tejas LCAs and Akash SAMs in the operational matrix of the IAF was checked out. In addition, capabilities of upgraded Mirage 2000s and MiG-29s were tested in an operational environment. Various types of aerial weapons, including standoff and precision weapons, were employed to validate their use in air operations.
Combat Support Operations involved missions by force enablers like AWACS and mid-air refuellers, Special Operations including a Battalion Group paradrop, Special Operations by IAF’s Garud Commandos, Combat Search and Rescue for effective extraction of downed aircrew behind enemy lines, rescue from the sea and operations from Advanced Landing Grounds. The transport aircraft undertook mass casualty evacuation missions both in Eastern and Western Sectors. Helicopter missions included Special Heliborne Operations, casualty evacuation, strike missions against ‘enemy’ formations and Inter-Valley troop transfers.
For joint operations, the IAF’s joint command and control structures alongside the Indian Army and the Navy, involving Advance Headquarters of the IAF colocated with Army Commands, Tactical Air Centres, Maritime Air Operations Centre and Maritime Elements of the Air Force were activated. Army troops and combat vehicles were deployed in simulation Tactical Battle Areas in various sectors and some Army exercises were dovetailed with air operations for simulation of realistic battlefield environment. Warships were deployed, both in the Arabian Sea and the Bay of Bengal, for simulating anti-shipping strikes by IAF aircraft operating from bases on the east and west coast, as well as from the island territories.
“The Exercise e mphatically demonstrated the IAF’s proven command over operationalisation of its assets yielding airpower in defence of the century.” The Su-30MKIs, with a combat radius of 1500 km without mid- air refueling operated from an eastern coastal airbase to strike a multiple targets in the western seaboard over distances beyond 2200 km before recovering to a southern base covering a total distance of about 4000 km in single non-stop missions.
The IAF was able to achieve 80% serviceability of aircraft while radars and surface-to-air guided weapons maintained a serviceability of 97%, which included some legacy systems that were over 40 years old. Focused effort enabled a dispatch of more than 95% for combat assets, 100% availability of combat support systems and almost 100% dispatch rates of combat enablers.
There were no reports of casualties in various missions in the air or on the ground. Amongst the few glitches was that of a Jaguar veering off the runway at Bhuj owing to unfavourable weather conditions and six of the eight Tejas LCAs developing some snags, but quickly fixed by HAL engineers.
During the Exercise, Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman visited Chabua airbase in Assam and Pasighat in Arunachal Pradesh and expressed satisfaction with the manner in which the Exercise was conducted.
What stood out was the demonstration by the IAF through deep sea missions that military bases alongside Indian maritime boundary are within its striking range of the IAF. Su-30MKI aircraft took off from bases in Southern India including Tanjavur and Sulur with Brahmos supersonic cruise missiles, having a range of 300 km and carried out simulated strikes in the Malacca straits, Nine Degree Channel and other sensitive areas.
An impressive aspect of the Exercise was the massive deployment of air and ground crew plus other personnel setting an unprecedented record of sorties flown by the fighter and transport aircraft. The IAF flew some 11000 sorties during the Exercise, 9000 by fighters including Su30MKIs, Mirage 2000s, Jaguars, MiG-29s, MiG-21s, MiG-27s, Tejas and some Hawk advanced jet trainers.
Su-30MKIs on long-range missions
IAF Hercules airdropped Special Forces in critical sectors
‘Garud’ special forces deploying from Hercules