The Su-30MKI, takes off at Nellis Air Base. Picture by Kedar Kamarkar; view entire collection at Kedar's gallery.
Marking a new phase in its defence ties with the US and some of its allies, the Indian Air Force (IAF) took part in complex and advanced network-centric "Red Flag" war games with US and NATO air forces last month.
Sukhoi-30s, IL-78 tankers and IL-76 aircraft rubbed shoulders with F-15s and F-16s in the network-centric operations -- the toughest test for flying machines and men -- over the Nevada desert in their first appearance in the peacetime aerial war games.
"We regularly conduct exercises in India. We have also held joint exercises with the US, both in India and in America. But what makes this exercise unique is its scope and scale and the fact that it is a multi-national effort," Wing Commander George Thomas, who is the Commanding Officer of IAF's 20 Squadron, told PTI.
"In India we would launch up to 50 aircraft in an exercise and in Red Flag as many as 70 fighter aircraft are launched in one combat mission. And there are two such missions every day. What also makes the exercise unique is the range targets at Nellis Air Force Base, both air-to-air and air-to-ground, and the amazing resources," he said during a break in the fortnight-long exercise.
As many as 1,000 personnel, including 247 from IAF, are participating in the two-week exercise concluding on Aug 24. The Indian Air Force has sent eight Su-30s, two IL-78 tankers an IL-76 aircraft. France and South Korea are the other two important US allies taking part in the combat exercise being held on the outskirts of the Sin City of Las Vegas in searing temperatures touching 50 degree centigrade. Wing Commander Thomas said it was a huge learning experience for all the participants, adding that for IAF "it is everything we hoped for and more."
"It is a multi-national exercise which provides us opportunities to work with more than one air force and with a larger variety of aircraft and resources. It also exposes us to different procedures and the ability to integrate with so many people at the same time is unique," Thomas said.
"The exercises help us test how the forces would work together during large scale missions. It allows us to understand and speak the same language. If we do have to operate as a group in a contingency, we will have an understanding of how the other air force operates and be more effective," said young pilot B S Reddy.
IAF Contingent Commander Group Captain D Choudhary said that planning and preparation for this exercise had begun a year ago when India accepted the invitation. Part of the preparation involved providing the USAF India's training objectives.
"Every nation provides their training objectives, which may not necessarily be in sync. What makes this exercise special is that Red Flag develops and designs the training in a manner to achieve most of those objectives," he said.
He also noted that the exercise comes at a very good time for IAF, which is a force "in transition -- evolving from a tactical air force to a strategic air force."
The American side seemed very interested in the Su-30MKI:
David A. Fulghum in Aviation Week
American, French and South Korean aircrews are getting a close look at one of the world's fabled aircraft - the Indian air force's Su-30MKI strike fighter.
An Indian air force group of 50 pilots and weapon systems officers - flying eight Su-30MKIs, two Il-78 tankers and an Il-76 transport - are just finishing a month-long deployment to the United States with a training cycle at the latest, annual Red Flag aerial combat excercises based at Nellis Air Force Base, Nev.
They were part of a contingent of 246 IAF personnel selected from 20 (fighter) Squadron, Poona; 78 (tanker) Squadron, Agra; 44 (transport) Squadron, Nagpur, and a special operations team trained for combat search and rescue, says Group Captain D Choudhry.
Of great interest to observers - and no doubt to U.S. intelligence - was the Su-30MKI's Russian-made, long-range radar and AA-12 Adder air-to-air missile capability. In fact, foreign air force officials admit that they suspect that intelligence gathering goes on at an event like Red Flag.
Indeed, to observers' dismay, and no doubt to that of the U.S. intelligence community, the IAF flew with a number of handicaps, some of them self-imposed, some not.
Their powerful Russian-made radar was, in fact, emitting, says Choudhry, but operating only in the training mode which limited all its range and spectrum of capabilities. In addition, the IAF wasn't allowed to use chaff and flares to avoid being targeted by surface-to-air missiles nor did its aircraft have the common data link. CDL brings a flow of targeting information into the cockpit displays that improves the accuracy and speed of data transfer and eliminates the need for most communications. The Indian air crews had to rely on voice communications which slowed the process and limited situational awareness.
"It was almost what we expected," Choudhry says. "Because we couldn't use our chaff and flares, when we were targeted by SAMs we were shot down. And there was no picture in the cockpit to help our situational awareness so the workload on the [aircrews] was very high." Nonetheless, "We came a long way. We trained hard. And the degree of difficulty was not unexpected."
More pictures and discussions at Bharat-Rakshak.