The Indian Air Force (IAF) conducted its biggest war-game exercise ever – Gaganshakti 2018 – during 8-22 April. In the past the IAF has conducted many aerial exercises. However, this 13-day long combat exercise is the biggest exercise undertaken by the IAF in almost three decades, to prepare for adversaries on two fronts: Pakistan on the Western Front and China on the Eastern Front, including against CBRN (chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear) attacks. Before Gaganshakti, the last major peacetime military exercise that India witnessed was during November 1986-March 1987, codenamed as Operation Brasstacks. In this context, this article attempts to analyze the achievements of the 13-day long exercise in light of India’s efforts to strengthen its two-front war strategy.

 

Scope of Exercise Gaganshakti

 

Exercise Gaganshakti kick-started on April 11, after a three-day preparatory phase at Chinyalisaur town, 230 kilometres from the India-China border to examine the strategic preparedness of the IAF for a two-front war with China and Pakistan. It involved 1,100 aircraft in the inventory (fighter jets like Sukhoi-30 MKIs, Mirage-2000s, Jaguars, MiG-29s, MiG-21s, MiG-27s, Tejas and the Hawk advanced jet trainers in a combat support role, trainer jets, AWACS, transport aircrafts, helicopters, and mid-air refuelers), 15,000 air warriors, 46 Indian airforce bases across India. It is the biggest aerial combat exercise after Operation Brasstacks conducted in 1987. A total of 11,000 sorties were carried out by aircraft and choppers of the force. The combat exercise ranged from “deep strikes to air dominance and long range maritime strikes off the west coast to air defence.” Operations were simulated in different terrains across India – desert of Rajasthan, high altitude of Jammu and Kashmir, plains of Punjab, Uttarakhand and North East. The combat drill has been planned at a time when China is getting assertive along the border with India, while Pakistan continues to problematize the Line of Control in Jammu and Kashmir.

 

Focus of Exercise Gaganshakti

 

Long-range maritime missions, real-time special operations with a specific focus on air-to-surface attack, aerial combat and weapons release, paratrooper assault and medical evacuation were key focus areas. In a statement, the IAF said the drill provided an excellent opportunity to practise the force’s war time drills and undertake operations in a realistic scenario. “Activities were undertaken in a cohesive manner to achieve the stated objectives of the Indian Air Force, in case of any contingency,” a report quoted. Expressing their satisfaction after conducting the exercise, the IAF stated, “A key focus of the exercise was to check IAF’s readiness to deal with a biological, chemical and nuclear war and we were satisfied with our capability to deal with such situations.”

 

According to a statement released by the Press Information Bureau of the Government of India, “As part of ongoing exercise ‘Gaganshakti-2018’, the Operational Commands of the IAF planned and executed Inter Valley Troop Transfer (IVTT) in coordination with affiliated Indian Army Commands. IVTT, a major Joint Operation, was conducted in the high hills of Northern and North-Eastern Sector.” The aim of the exercise was to validate the capability of the Indian Air Force and the Indian Army to quickly transfer and redeploy acclimatized troops, in the simulated objective area. These operations are conducted to reposition troops from one valley to another, to counter any evolving threat and to surprise or offensively exploit the weakness of the adversary. IVTT operations essentially help to reposition the desired forces within a couple of hours.

 

A major focus of the exercise was to check combat capability of the indigenously manufactured Light Combat Aircraft (LCA), Tejas. Although there were some difficulties in operating the Tejas, the troubleshooting was done quickly for the fighters to carry out the task of air defence and ground attack assigned to them. While the officials have expressed satisfaction regarding the performance of Tejas, they were worried about the slow production rate. They commented, “We are happy with the Tejas. We are looking for fast production and also induction into the force.” The Tejas Light Combat Aircraft is a supersonic, single-seat, single-engine multi-role light fighter jet that has been under development since 1983 by state-owned Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL). On July 1, 2016, the LCA Tejas was inducted into the ‘Flying Daggers’, No. 45 Squadron of the IAF and has been deployed to replace the MiG-21 aircraft.

 

Gauging the Magnitude of Exercise Gaganshakti

 

Referring to the massive magnitude of the aerial drill, Chief of the Air Staff Air Chief Marshal B. S. Dhanoa explained it as “the operation that is shaking the heavens and splitting the Earth.” Despite being an IAF Exercise, the doctrine of “Joint Operational Doctrine” was applied. The exercise focused on the flexible use of airspace, joint maritime air operations with the Indian Navy, joint operations with the Indian Army, simulated combat search and rescue for effective extraction of downed air crew behind enemy lines, among others. During both phases of Exercise Gaganshakti, the IAF effectively exercised its maritime war fighting concepts on both the Western and Eastern seaboards. Air dominance demonstrations were carried out across the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) in support of the Indian Navy (IN) by employment of combat enablers like the Flight Refueling Aircraft (FRA) in conjunction with maritime fighter forces of the Su-30 and Jaguar class carrying potent, long distance, anti-ship weaponry.

 

During the exercise, IAF ensured 80 percent serviceability (operational availability) of different aircraft with 97 percent radars and missile systems. Serviceability refers to availability of an aircraft or a weapon system for deployment. The IAF has been struggling to maintain high serviceability levels of its platforms due to difficulty in getting requisite spares.

 

The overall objective of Gaganshakti, as asserted by Air Chief Marshal B. S. Dhanoa was fully achieved. He said, “We achieved relocation and re-balancing of assets from one sector to another in 48 hours…we achieved things beyond our stated objectives.” Interestingly, the combat drill coincides with the period when China is increasingly being assertive along the border with India and in strategically critical sea lanes of the region (on India’s Eastern Front). According to Air Chief Marshal Dhanoa, the scale and magnitude of Gaganshakti has sent shockwaves to Pakistan despite being informed about the first phase of the combat exercise in the Western Front. He said, “We have noticed that they (Pakistan) are monitoring Gaganshakti-2018 closely through their airborne sensors (airborne warning and control systems).”

 

Strategic Preparedness for a Two-Front War

 

In 2017, the Service Chiefs seemed to have contrasting opinion about leading a two-front war. While Army Chief General Bipin Rawat asserted Army’s preparedness for a two-front war, Air Chief Marshal B. S. Dhanoa highlighted the deficiency in the number of fighter squadron for a two-front war. He said, “It is akin to a cricket team playing with seven players instead of 11.”

 

The very fact that India’s defence budget 2017-18 witnessed a rise in the modernization budget for the Air Force, is an indication of the government’s quick response to the under-preparedness of IAF for not possessing adequate aerial combat equipment. While Exercise Gaganshakti was undertaken to exhibit India’s strategic preparedness for a two-front war it is necessary to understand the nature of threat across India’s broad front spectrum in the east and west.

 

The two-front strategy dates back to 2009 when Army Chief General Deepak Kapoor enunciated it. It was shortly after the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attack when the then Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh ordered the Service Chiefs to prepare for war. Although, the then Defence Minister A. K. Anthony had added “preparation for a two-front war” in his directive, nothing was done to implement it.

 

During the 1965 and 1971 Indo-Pakistan wars, although forces deployed in the Eastern Command were not occupied with any security operation due to the lack of flexibility, the forces were not utilized to fight Pakistan on the Western Front. Since swinging forces in a crisis period was a real challenge for India in a real two-front war, Operation Gaganshakti has reversed the convention and has shown the world for the first time how IAF’s aerial combat capabilities can handle a two-front combat. According to a report in Times of India, during the first phase of Gaganshakti, 5,000 sorties were carried out in air combat operations on the Western Front with IAF then switching its forces in 48 hours to the northern borders with China from Ladakh to Arunachal Pradesh. This was a significant part of the operation as it showed IAF’s spontaneity in swinging the forces for a two-front war. The exercise also demonstrated IAF’s full spectrum capability activating civil airfields, real time coordination, deployment and employment of air power in a short and intense battle scenario.

 

Conclusion

 

The enormous success of Exercise Gaganshakti demonstrates India’s attempt to strengthen its resources for a two-front war strategy, as claimed by the IAF. To strengthen defence preparedness, India needs to follow a synergized approach, combining all the wings of India’s security forces as last year’s defence budget fell short of catering to the need for modernization of the army or naval capabilities. Nevertheless, the importance of any drill is to instil the foundation of discipline in a battle. It has a three-pronged objective a) It is a way to instil public confidence in a nation’s military forces b) It instils discipline in the troops and c) It sharpens the war-waging capability in the wake of a fast evolving regional security scenario. The success of Exercise Gaganshakti implies that it has achieved these objectives.

 

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the view of Manipal Advanced Research Group.