| A Mirage 2000 fighter jet takes off in Gwalior during the joint exercise. (Reuters)
Air Force Station, Gwalior, Feb. 12: Diving out of the blue and roaring over the airfield from the northeast to the southwest, the two Jaguar deep penetration strike aircraft — bombers — of the Indian Air Force fly low, ‘drop’ their deadly payload, record a ‘hit’ and climb away in a flash of orange afterburner.
From the roof of the observation post, it is as if the Jaguars are coming straight at the forehead at supersonic speed, the roar following them like the black smoke they trail behind.
But before that, the six-foot-something Captain Franck ‘Terra’ Moly of the French Air Force in his Mirage 2000 has locked-in in his radar one of two IAF’s Mirage 2000s escorting the Jaguars, recording a ‘kill’ from beyond visual range.
Here, in Air Force Station, Gwalior, home to the IAF’s Tactical Air Combat Development Establishment, TACDE, ‘claims’ and ‘kills’ are simulated and recorded on 16-mm film and French onboard video cameras. This is where lessons from Kargil and Kosovo are being learnt and shared.
It is the Indians, with their last real combat experience during Operation Safed Sagar — the Kargil war of 1999 — who share skills in high altitude weapons delivery and close combat; the French impress with their knowledge of Nato exercises and air defence during the Kosovo war.
This morning, the Gwalior station — the base for the IAF’s two Mirage squadrons, No. 1 Tigers and No. 7 Battleaxes — was the designated target for the two Jaguars. Two Mirage 2000s were tasked to escort the Jaguars across an imaginary border and attack the airstrip. The ‘Battleaxes’ saw action last year, too, when they were tasked to ‘take out’ a Pakistani intrusion in the Gurez-Macchil sector near the Line of Control. Two Mirages from the French Air Force’s Tiger Squadron based in Cambresis, Northern France, were put on CAP — Combat Air Patrol — jargon for aircraft whose duty it is to protect static strategic installations.
The French Mirages were to intercept the Indian formation, primarily targeting the Jaguars. The Indian Mirages were to protect the Jaguars so that they complete their mission.
In the second mission, the roles for the escorts and CAP are reversed. The Jaguars, temporarily flown in for TACDE from their home in Gorakhpur, continue in the deep strike role. This time the French escort the Jaguars, the Indian Mirages are tasked to intercept.
It is day four of Exercise Garuda, the first exercise involving fighters from two air forces in India in 40 years. The level of the exercise is being steadily ramped-up. On day one, the Indians were given a demonstration of air-to-air refuelling; day two saw two aircraft in strike formation familiarising with the area and on day three, two escorts were pitted against two interceptors.
“It is their international experience that we lack. Also, it is their ability to lock-in and fire from beyond visual range,” says Squadron Leader N.K. Choudary. The Mirages of both air forces are loaded with similar weapon systems. The Indians have also innovated by marrying the Russian R-73 missiles to the French-built Mirages. But the advanced radar of the French allow them to fire at aerial targets from ranges upto 20 km.
“In close combat, we are generally better. But you need to get close enough to combat,” says a flight lieutenant with the IAF’s Tigers.
In its immediate security environment, the IAF’s Mirages are equipped A4M, fighter-pilot jargon again for “all aspect air to air missiles”, just as much of the Pakistani aircraft is. The French make BVR (beyond visual range interceptions) and programme their missiles to fire on locking-in.
“We are not here to assess the performance of the IAF’s pilots,” says Captain Sebastion ‘Dodi’ Vallette, the badge on his overall pocket reads “Nato Tigers”. “We’re here to understand.”
In the five presentations each side will be making to the other, pilots and fighter ground crew will exchange notes on their experiences in Kargil and Kosovo, Air to Air Refuelling, BVR combat and precision guided missiles.
“We have come here to exchange information and build capacity,” says the chief of French air staff, Richard Wolsztynski. “There is no other purpose.” In the medium-term, the Indian Air Force will be replacing its MiG 21 fleet — the mainstay of its air defence. A possible induction of more Mirage 2000s from France is being considered but there are other aircraft, too, in competition for the segment such as the US-made F-16s.
“Our experience with the Mirage 2000s have been very good and almost fault-free,” says Air Marshal Ajit Bhavnani, senior air staff officer, Central Air Command, who was coordinator for the IAF’s Mirage programme since the Dassault Aviation built multi-role fighters were first inducted in 1985.