Part three: the Exercise
Gary Parsons reports on the UK's most eagerly anticipated exercise of the year - Indra Dhanush 2007, held between 2-12 July. All pictures by the author or Crown copyright
Evolving from the British Prime Minister Tony Blair and the Indian Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh's joint declaration of 2004, in which they set out plans to strengthen and deepen the bilateral relationship between the two countries through a comprehensive strategic partnership, the second part of the bilateral Indo-UK air exercise, Indra Dhanush, involving the Indian Air Force (IAF) and the Royal Air Force (RAF), recently completed at RAF Waddington in Lincolnshire. This two-part exercise that commenced last October is the first time that the two countries have worked together in more than forty years and this second phase was a first for the Indian Air Force, as it was the first time it has exercised in the United Kingdom.
"It is a mutual learning experience for us both", said Wing Commander AK Bharti, talking after returning from a sortie of a four-aircraft formation comprising a Su-30MKI, Tornado F3, Typhoon and a Hawk. Last October Sentry AEW1s and the Tornado F3s from the RAF participated in the first exercise of the series, held at the Gwalior and Agra Indian Air Force bases. Exercise Indra Dhanush 2007 came to an end on 12 July, reaching its crescendo with a six-v-six aerial combat involving four Su-30MKIs, four Tornado F3s, two Typhoons and two Royal Navy Harrier GR9s. RAF Tornado pilots were candid in their admission of the Su-30 MKI's superior manoeuvring in the air, just as they had anticipated, but the IAF pilots were also impressed by the Typhoon's agility in the air.
Although it is highly unlikely that any of the modern-day fighters will ever get into a situation that warrants extreme close air combat, most of the training sorties were close range combat simulated in one-v-one sorties. With a 'kill' criterion being mostly under 1,000 metres, a 'gun kill' is invariably the most certain kill. Pilots begin honing their tracking and combat skills under such close combat situations, so it was useful to get the two air forces working together in packages. The Indians were hampered by not being able to use the Su-30MKI's unique all-weather, digital multi-mode, dual frequency, forward facing NIIP N-011M radar, a restriction placed by the Russians as the Indians would be operating in NATO airspace.
With the radar restriction in place, the Indian Air Force flew the Su-30MKI with two pilots, enabling the twenty brought on the exchange to maximise their flying time. Flying in packages with Tornado F3s, the RAF would act as the 'eyes', communicating with the Sentry through JTIDS and directing the engaging of the opposing forces. The Flanker's ace card, its thrust-vectoring, was not used, although it is a "phenomenal combat facility", according to Sqn Ldr Lall, one of the senior IAF pilots - "it must be used intelligently" he added. It's not just the Indians that benefitted from the exercise; Flt Lt David Griffiths, a pilot with 25 Squadron, said: "It's been a fantastic experience, and not like anything I have done before - it is my first time working with another nation and it's the chance of a lifetime. It's been extremely challenging. We have been really working together and integrating crews from both nations onto each side. We have had to learn each other's terms and tactics and it has definitely been rewarding."
Officer Commanding 25(F) Squadron, Wing Commander John Prescott ("I don't have two Jags, I have sixteen Tornados!"), said "At one level, this is a squadron exchange - we work together, exercise together, prepare procedures and learn how each other works. It's the first time we've worked with the Indian Air Force in the UK, although 43 Squadron went to Gwalia last year on exercise, and ideally they would have hosted the Indian Air Force this time, but the runway at RAF Leuchars is being resurfaced. It was then decided they would come to Leeming, but the runway length isn't suitable for the Flanker, so they decided they would come to Waddington. So we're in the slightly unusual position of hosting an exchange while being guests ourselves."
"This exercise has been tremendous value - this has not been 'RAF against Indian Air Force' at all. We have been fully integrated with Su-30MKIs and Tornado F3s on both sides, red versus blue. On coalition operations normally we'd expect RAF formations to operate separately, maybe a four ship operating with another nation's four-ship - to actually integrate different aircraft into the same formation is another level - it adds complexity, but you really do learn how people operate."
"The exercise started off with some relatively simple missions, one-v-one air combat, building up to today's six-v-six with MKIs and F3s on both sides, Typhoons and Harrier GR9s. All this is instrumented so we can debrief and see where everyone went - the Indian system with its GPS tracking fully fits in with our rangeless system."
"We've gained at several levels - at the tactical level, it's been very interesting to see how a different air force operates. The only real surprise is that we're so alike - similar tactical procedures, similar capabilities, but slightly different terminology. It took a couple of days to iron that out, but us being the home team the Indians elected to use NATO terminology, which took a bit of getting used to. In the heat of the moment, as you're converting to the visual merges, occasionally we all defaulted - the Brits talked too quickly, and the Indians reverted to their own terminology. But that was ironed out in a day or two. From my personal point of view, the cultural and social exchange has taken this particular exercise to a different level - planning together, socialising together, not just the aircrew, but the groundcrew too."
"From the Indian perspective, we wanted to build on the exercise from last year, with specific training objectives, which we have managed to achieve", said Wing Commander A C Chopra, Exercise Director for the IAF. "We have flown in mixed formations, requiring a high understanding of each other's capabilities, the way your minds work in the cockpit. With the great historic ties of the two air forces it has been a great opportunity to work together."
Much of the value to the Indian Air Force was the logistical aspect of the deployment - it was only the fifth time that the Il-78MKI Midas has been used to ferry aircraft outside of Indian airspace. One Midas participated in Exercise Indra Dhanush 2007, although no cross-tanking was undertaken on this occasion. "We would have loved the experience of tanking RAF fighters during the exercise that would have made inter-operability possible. We look forward to such an experience in the future", said Group Captain K Raghavendra, Commanding Officer of 78 Mid-Air-Refuelling Squadron (MARS), suggesting that Exercise Indra Dhanush 2007 would be repeated in the near future.
Air Chief Marshal FH Major, Chief of the Air Staff of the Indian Air Force, was present at RAF Waddington to see the exercise culminate and meet the participating IAF team members. Air Chief Marshal Sir Clive Loader, Commander-in-Chief (CinC) Air Command, RAF accompanied the CAS during the visit.
With thanks to the Waddington Media Communications team