IAF in Desert Flag: What does it mean?

IAF in Desert Flag - Aviatorsbuzz

For the first time ever, the Indian Air Force is flying its fighters in Multilateral Air Exercise Desert Flag along with the air forces of the UAE, the US, France, Saudi Arabia, South Korea and Bahrain. This joint exercise is in progress as of today at Al-Dhafra airbase in UAE. It is indeed the first time for the Indian Air Force which is participating in such a large scale exercise involving a plethora of diverse fighter aircraft from across the Globe. Desert Flag VI started on 3 March & will continue till 27 March 2021. 

Su-30MKI- Aviatorsbuzz
Pic: Su-30MKI flying in formation with F-15 Eagle & F-16 Fighting Falcon.

This is an annual exercise hosted by UAE’s air force & this is the 6th edition of the same. In all the previous 5 editions, IAF was not invited but due to changes in world order, recent emerging geopolitical relations & IAF being one of the most significant & influential air forces in the region, was requested to be in the exercise. Let’s deep dive into the befits of such a drill. There are two things happening on the positive note here.

Su-30MKI with F-15E Strike Eagle - Aviatorsbuzz
Pic: Su-30MKI with F-15E Strike Eagle

Primarily, this kind of exercise will provide IAF & the other participating air forces with an incredible learning opportunity to exchange knowledge, experience, enhance operational capabilities and interoperability. Undertaking simulated air combat operations in such a highly competitive environment helps the nations to learn from each other’s doctrines & tactics. These tactics & lessons develop & give rise to better & more effective combat flying. This exchange of best practises will significantly boost our operational capabilities & will enable us to make better utilization of our existing fighters. Apart from combat flying, both offensive and defensive operations with AWACS (airborne warning and control systems) and inflight-refuelling aircraft in a realistic combat setting will be part of the drill.

Su-30MKI in the backdrop of USAF F-16 taxing on the tarmac - Aviatorsbuzz
Pic: Su-30MKI in the backdrop of USAF F-16 taxing on the tarmac.

Among the fighters in the Desert Flag are F-15 Eagles & F-16 Fighting Falcons from USAF, Dassault Rafale from French Air Force, upgraded variants of Mirage-2000, F-15 Eagles & F-16E Fighting Falcon from the UAE Air Force. Combat flying against F-16s in such exercises are crucial. The experience gained with F-16s in such exercises in the past has proven pivotal in gaining tactics against the aircraft which has lead to IAF’s MiG-21 Bison shooting down a Pakistani F-16 in 2019 as well as dodging AMRAAMs fired from F-16s during the same skirmish. IAF has continually learnt the strengths & weaknesses of such fighters & have exploited them. 

PLAAF Flankers during Air Exercise with PAF - Aviatorsbuzz
Pic: PLAAF Flankers during Air Exercise with PAF.

This is something both our neighbours, China & Pakistan lack as the only air exercise they do is with each other & hence do not have any credible exposure to international air tactics or any outsider’s experience. This is where Indian Air Force has a substantial & colossal edge over the Chinese Air Force (PLAAF) & the Pakistani Air Force due to participation in multilateral exercises like Exercise Desert Flag, Pitch Black (with US, France, Germany, Australia & seven other nations), Cope India (with US), Blue Flag (with Israel, US, Greece, Italy, France, Poland & Germany), Indradhanush (with UK), Eastern Bridge (with Oman), Garuda (with France), Sindex (with Singapore) etc.

C-17 Globemaster III being escorted by a pair of Su-30MKI - Aviatorsbuzz
Pic: C-17 Globemaster III being escorted by a pair of Su-30MKI

In the ongoing Desert Flag VI, IAF has fielded six Su-30MKI fighters, two C-17 Globemaster strategic airlifter & a single IL-78 aerial refueler aircraft. The six Indian Flankers had flown directly from India to Al-Dhafra airbase in UAE non-stop & were refuelled mid air by the Il-78 refueler. Along with this equipment list, 150 Air Warriors are present to man & maintain these aircraft. 

IL-78MKI refuelling Su-30MKI mid-air - Aviatorsbuzz
Pic: IL-78MKI refuelling Su-30MKI mid-air.

But what is more important here is Exercising and interaction with the participating nations in a dynamic and realistic warfare environment will also contribute to strengthen international relations. This shows the India’s rising stature in the middle-eastern countries. Being in the big league with the United States Air Force, French Air Force in foreign soil shows that gone are the days when military & political relations were based on religious brotherhood. Now power befriends power. 

Quad group members: India, Japan, Australia & US - Aviatorsbuzz
Pic: Quad group members: India, Japan, Australia & US.

Politics is much like business, all about mutual benefit & today India is in a state to be beneficial to other powerful nations. In the recent few years, our effort has been towards strengthening political relations with many countries across various regions & form allies. The Desert Flag exercise is one of the many examples where this allyship is demonstrated. Other instances include India forming the Quad group with USA, Japan & Australia to create a pressure on Chinese trade in the region, inclusion of Australian Navy into Malabar Exercise to curb the influence of Chinese Navy in the South Asian waters, setting up Indian Naval bases in Agaléga Island in Mauritius & in Assomption Islands in Seychelles under SAGAR (Security & Growth for All in Region) Initiative to stop the Chinese debt trap in poor African countries. Also, India has signed logistical agreements with USA, France, Japan & Australia under which Indian Naval Ships can dock & replenish from the naval dockyards of these countries as well as benefit from the real time data acquired by the surveillance platforms of these countries. In today’s warfare, the side with more information has the strategic advantage.

Australian Navy in Malabar Exercise - Aviatorsbuzz
Pic: Australian Navy in Malabar Exercise

All these efforts towards maintaining a strong political & military relationship with these powerful countries is an attempt to corner China & its military & economic influence in the South Asian Region. For India, Pakistan is not the real threat, China is & India is going in for the larger piece of the pie by engaging China indirectly by forming allies all across the region; Exercise Desert Flag is just one small piece in this big Jigsaw Puzzle.


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Subhadeep is a military aviation & defence systems enthusiast who writes well researched & unbiased content. He has written over 300 articles which have helped close to 5 million viewers to have an understanding of Defence. Hailing from a military family, he has experienced the functioning of Indian Armed Forces for years which has led to the understanding & accurate portrayal of the forces in his content. He will be frequently writing about aircraft, strategy, weapons & all his content will be easily comprehensible even by the common man with a limited understanding on the subject.