LiveFist Column: Vishnu Som first-hand on what really happened at Red Flag 08

Vishnu Som, Associate Editor and Senior Anchor at NDTV, was the only journalist from India at Red Flag 08, and in that sense, best placed to talk about what happened there. He sent us a very comprehensive comment to the last post on the leaked video controversy. Vishnu has allowed me to post his excellent comment here as a column. Thanks Vishnu!

For all of you who are out there in the internet world and who have an interest in the performance of the Indian Air Force at Red Flag 2008 .. I have a few remarks. As the only Indian journalist who spent a lengthy period of time at Nellis after being granted permission by both the Indian Air Force and the US Air Force, I was granted access to impeccable sources in both forces.

Whats more, I was able to independently corroborate this information with reliable, alternative sources. Several of the points I present here in the form of this post on the Bharat Rakshak forum will be compiled into an article which I will post on my company website For those of you not familiar with the Indian media ... New Delhi Television (NDTV) is India's largest 24 hour news network and our website is one of the most viewed among news websites in the country. For the moment, I have decided not to do a television news report on this since I believe the contents of this post are too technical for a larger audience.

For starters ... and this cannot be stressed enough ... the Red Flag exercises were a brilliant learning experience for all the participants, not least of all the Indian Air Force which, over a period of time, has earned the reputation of being one of the world's finest operational air forces.

This was a reputation which was reinforced at Red Flag 2008, the world's most advanced air combat exercises where the Indian Air Force fielded a number of state of the art Sukhoi 30 MKI jets in addition to IL-76 transports and IL-78 mid air refuellers.

For other participants at the Red Flag exercises ... namely the South Korean Air Force, French and US Air Force ... the opportunity to train with a platform such as the Sukhoi 30 MKI was an opportunity which just couldn't be missed. This has a lot to do not just with the jet but also with the air force operating the fighter, a force which has made a mark as an innovative operator of fast jets.The US Air Force … the host of these exercises … was singularly gracious in its appreciation for the Indian Air Force contingent which came into Red Flag having trained extensively for the exercises not only back home but also at the Mountain Home Air Force base in the US.

Contrary to unsolicited remarks by certain serving US personnel not directly linked to day to day operations at the exercises … the Indian Air Force and its Su-30s more than made a mark during their stint in the United States.For starters … not a single Sukhoi 30 MKI fighter was `shot down’ in close air combat missions at the Mountain Home air base. In fact, none of the Sukhois were even close to being shot down in the 10 odd one on one sorties which were planned for the first two days of the exercises at Mountain Home. These one on one engagements featured USAF jets such as the F-15 and F-16 in close air engagements against the Su-30 MKI. The majority of the kills claimed in these engagements were granted to the Indian Air Force with the remainder of these being no-results. Indian Air Force Sukhois did use their famed thrust vectoring in these one on one engagements. Contrary to what may have been reported elsewhere … the Su-30 has a rate of turn of more than 35 degrees when operating in the thrust vector mode. In certain circumstances, this goes up substantially.

By the time the exercises at Mountain Home had matured … the Indian Air Force had graduated to large formation exercises which featured dozens of jets in the sky. In one of these exercises … the blue forces, of which the Indian Air Force was a part … shot down more than 21 of the enemy jets. Most of these `kills’ have been credited to the Indian Air Force.

By the time the Indian Air Force was ready for Red Flag, the contingent had successfully worked up using the crawl, walk, run principle. At Red Flag though, they found themselves at a substantial disadvantage vis a vis the other participants since they were not networked with AWACS and other platforms in the same manner in which USAF or other participating jets were. In fact, Indian Air Force Sukhois were not even linked to one another using their Russian built data links since American authorities had asked for specifics of the system before it was cleared to operate in US airspace. The IAF, quite naturally, felt that this would compromise a classified system onboard and decided to go on with the missions without the use of data links between the Sukhois.Neither was the Indian Air Force allowed to use chaff or flares, essential decoys to escape incoming missiles which had been fired by enemy jets. This was because the US FAA had visibility and pollution related concerns in the event that these were used in what is dense, busy air space in the Las Vegas region.

The Red Flag exercises themselves were based on large force engagements and did not see the Indian Air Force deploy thrust vectoring at all on any of the Sukhoi 30 jets not that this was required since the engagements were at long ranges.Though it is true that there were 4-5 incidents of fratricides involving the Indian Air Force at Red Flag … it is important to point out the following:In the debriefs that followed the exercises … responsibility for the fratricides were always put on the fighter controllers not the pilots. Its also important to point that unlike in Mountain Home, none of the Indian Air Force’s own fighter controllers were allowed to participate since there was classified equipment at Nellis used for monitoring the exercises. The lack of adequate controlling and the fact that Nellis fighter controllers often had problems understanding Indian accents (they had problems understanding French accents as well) resulted in a lack of adequate controlling in situations. Whats more … given the fact that the availability of AWACS was often low … the bulk of fratricides took place on days when the AWACS jet was not deployed. Whats important to remember though is that US participants in these exercises had a similar number of fratricides despite being fully linked in with data links and the latest IFF systems.

So was the Indian Air Force invincible at Red Flag. In a word … no. So yes, there were certainly days in which several Sukhoi jets were shot down. And there were others when they shot down many opposing jets. Ultimately though … the success of the Indian Air Force at Red Flag lay in the fact that they could meet their mission objectives as well, if not better, than any other participant. Despite the hot weather conditions, the IAF had a 95 per cent mission launch ratio, far better than some of the participants. And no one went into the exercises thinking the score line would be a perfect one in favour of the IAF. In fact … the IAF went into these exercises with an open mind and with full admiration of the world beating range at Nellis with an unmatched system of calibrating engagement results.Perhaps the most encouraging part of these exercises comes from the fact that the Indian Air Force’s young pilots … learnt from their mistakes, analysed, appreciated and came back strong. Mistakes were not repeated. In fact … the missions where the IAF did not fare well turned out to be immense learning experiences. At the end of the exercises … its more than clear that the IAF’s Su-30s were more than a match for the variants of the jets participating at the Red Flag exercises. Considering the fact that the central sensor of the Sukhoi, its radar … held up just fine in training mode …despite the barrage of electronic jamming augurs well for the Indian Air Force.

As for its young pilots … these are skills and experiences that they will take back to their squadrons … experiences which will be passed on to a whole new set of pilots who will come into the next set of exercises that much wiser.

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