New Delhi, Feb. 10: The chief of the French Air Force will be given a taste of Kashmir this week even as fighters from France exercise with the Indian Air Force to begin learning tactics of concealment and mid-air refuelling during strategic missions.
Exercise Garuda will be the first of its kind involving fighter aircraft from the two air forces in India since Exercise Shiksha with the US 40 years ago in 1962.
France’s chief of air staff, Richard Wolsztynski, will be flown to Leh and given a briefing on security considerations in the Ladakh region. The briefing would touch upon the stand-off at Siachen. French aircraft may also begin preliminary work for an exercise from the sensitive air force station at Leh.
This is the second time in recent months that a top military official from the West is being taken to Kashmir. Last year, the chief of the US Pacific Command was also taken to Leh. Last week, the defence establishment was also considering a guided tour of Kargil for the US army chief, General Eric Shinseki, who “stopped by” in New Delhi en-route to Philippines. However, the programme could not be slotted into his itinerary. General Shinseki was given a briefing by the army in the operations room at the army headquarters.
Against the backdrop of nose-diving India-Pakistan relations, successive visits by top military officials from the US and France, is as close to acknowledgement by the West as ever that the Pakistan dimension to the Kashmir dispute is of serious concern.
The India-France Exercise Garuda has two objectives. This is the first time that the Indian Air Force would begin training on refuellers. Refuellers, or tanker aircraft, pump fuel into fighters in mid-air.
The IAF has contracted for six refuellers from Uzbekistan, the first of which is scheduled to reach India by the end of the month. The refuellers, originally from Ukraine and reassembled in Uzbekistan are on the IL-78 transport aircraft platform.
The focus of the exercise on refuelling suggests that the IAF is preparing for contingencies in which it will conduct operations from deep in the hinterland. Recent additions to the IAF’s inventory are configured to refuel in mid-air. Also, some of the older aircraft — like the Jaguar deep penetration strike aircraft —have been reconfigured with ability to refuel. The Sukhoi 30, the Su 30 mki and the Mirage 2000s can refuel in mid-flight.
The idea behind arming the IAF with refuellers in India’s immediate security environment despite sharing a long common border with the principal adversary is to conceal strike power. For instance, refuellers will give IAF aircraft the ability to fly from Thiruvananthapuram in the deep south for missions up north and return to home base.
The refuellers will not only enable the aircraft to fly longer, they will also allow aircraft to be loaded with more arms. The payload capacity of aircraft are indirectly proportional to their fuel-carrying capacity — the more fuel they carry, the less they can be loaded. Without refuelling, aircraft fly shorter sorties and become more detectable during landings and take-offs.
IAF sources said during Garuda, Mirages of the French Air Force will give demonstrations on refuelling from the KC-135. Mirages of the IAF are not configured to “dock” with the French refueller. The French Air Force contingent has flown to Gwalior directly from Djibouti, Africa. They refuelled thrice en-route.
The second objective of Exercise Garuda is to familiarise the IAF with French procedures and French aircraft. The IAF has two squadrons (about 40) of the French-built Mirage 2000 multi-role aircraft based in Gwalior — where Exercise Garuda will be conducted.
Another 10 Mirage 2000H are to be inducted into the IAF from September. Negotiations for an additional 130 aircraft are in the preliminary stage.
India is also in talks with the Americans for the Lockheed Martin produced F-16 Fighting Falcons and with the Russians for the upgraded MiG 29-MCR for the same segment in its inventory.
The French are in Gwalior with 4 Mirage 2000s, a refueller on a KC-135 and a transporter DC8. A total of 80 French Air Force personnel and 120 from the IAF are participating in Exercise Garuda. The Indian contingent for the exercise will include 10 Mirage 2000s, MiG 21s, MiG 27s, AN32 and Mi17. More than 100 sorties are to be flown in a week. The composition of the aircraft suggests that the exercise will touch upon not only refuelling and airlift but also on interception and air defence.
The French Air Chief, who is here to oversee the exercises, today met Air Chief Marshal S. Krishnaswamy. “We now have a presence in Central Asia and we have also flown during Operation Enduring Freedom. Post-September 11, air defence is a major concern and we hope to benefit mutually,” France’s chief of air staff Richard Wolsztynski said after the meeting. Asked if he had begun talks on transfer of more French aircraft to the IAF, he said: “I don’t sell aircraft but I can say that the Mirage 2000-V (the aircraft that the IAF is considering) is a good fighter.”
“The French have a lot of experience on the Mirage which are similar to the aircraft in our force but there is a difference in onboard equipment and avionics because the two air forces relate to their specific environments,” Air Chief Marshal S. Krishnaswamy said. “Air-to-air refuelling is part of the operational exercise of the French Air Force and we hope to share the knowledge.”