Gaganshakti 2018: IAF displays might, air chief says ‘we’re shaking the heavens’

The Gaganshakti-2018 exercise seeks to test the IAF’s readiness and stamina for a two-front war with China and Pakistan.
By Rahul Singh | Hindustan Times, New Delhi, New Delhi
UPDATED ON APR 17, 2018 10:35 AM IST
A Sukhoi 30 re-fuels mid-air during the Indian Air Force exercise.(Picture courtesy: Indian Air Force)

More than 1,100 aircraft – half of them fighter jets – have logged over 6,000 flight hours in three days during the Indian Air Force’s largest exercise in the past three decades, with Air Chief Marshal Birender Singh ’Tony’ Dhanoa saying on Monday that Pakistan was closely watching the operation that is “shaking the heavens and splitting the Earth”.

As IAF’s assets in the largest-of-its-kind exercise, Gaganshakti-2018, move from the western sector to the eastern front “in less than 48 hours,” Dhanoa said, all training activities in the force will remain suspended till the two-phase drill ends on April 22. It is usually in wartime that militaries shelve all training activities.

“We are flying a lot of sorties and dropping a lot of bombs. So in that sense -- borrowing a phrase from a Rand monograph -- I would say we really are shaking the heavens and splitting the Earth,” Dhanoa said in his first public comments on the exercise in which every wartime drill is being rehearsed.

United States-based think tank Rand Corporation had in 2011 published a document titled Shaking the Heavens and Splitting the Earth: Chinese Air Force Employment Concepts in the 21st Century.

The Gaganshakti-2018 exercise seeks to test the IAF’s readiness and stamina for a two-front war with China and Pakistan. “I wouldn’t like to comment on the two-front aspect… But every single platform in the IAF’s inventory is being exercised and we are carrying out surge operations – highest tempo operations where fighters and other platforms have clocked more sorties in three days than they normally would in over a month,” said Dhanoa, a decorated fighter pilot.

From deep strikes to air dominance and long-range maritime strikes off the west coast to air defence, the IAF is practising every manoeuvre in the book in its preparation for a short and intense war.

“India has not witnessed anything at this scale since Operation Brass Tacks in 1987. Weapon delivery scores for air-to-ground munitions were exceptional, both by day and night, and pilots have done a wonderful job in overcoming fatigue during surge operations,” the IAF chief said.

Conducted in 1987, Operation Brass Tacks was India’s largest peacetime military exercise that sent shock waves through Pakistan.

Once again, Dhanoa suggested that the western neighbour was rattled by the sheer scale and complexity of Gaganshakti-2018, despite being notified about the first phase of the exercise in the western sector.

“We have noticed that they (Pakistan) are monitoring Gaganshakti-2018 closely through their airborne sensors (airborne warning and control systems),” the air chief said.

Dhanoa said the IAF jets have recorded a serviceability rate of 80% and flown very long range missions flawlessly. In IAF parlance, serviceability of a fleet refers to how many warplanes are available for missions at any given time.

Soldiers board a C-130J aircraft. (Picture courtesy: Indian Air Force)

The exercise has had no glitches so far except a Jaguar fighter veering off the runway at the Bhuj airbase due to bad weather and a few Tejas light combat aircraft developing snags. “Hindustan Aeronautics Limited was able to fix the Tejas problems in less than 12 hours,” Dhanoa said.

British-origin Hawk advanced jet trainers, capable of dropping bombs, are also taking part in the exercise as the IAF is struggling with a shortage of warplanes.

Compared to an optimum strength of 42-plus units required to fight a two-front war, the count of the IAF’s fighter squadrons has shrunk to 30 (excluding the Tejas squadron with eight aircraft).

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