In March 1999, the Indian Air Force conducted the "Vayu Shakti-99" exercises at Pokhran in the Rajasthan desert. In one of the biggest ever exercise carried out in South Asia, about 70 aircraft, including helicopters, transporters and top of the line combat aircraft like Sukhoi 30, Mirage 2000 and Mig 29 were in action, demonstrating practically every aspect of IAF operation.
IAF Mig-27's complete a bombing run
In a two hour show of power, precision and finesse, the IAF bared its might in a scintillating display of air defence, ground attack and support manoeuvres. Vayu Shakti-99 seemed to be a scene straight out of the "Star Wars". The IAF used a variety of combat aircraft, attack helicopters and air-to-air missiles during the show. Hundreds of IAF pilots in gleaming new fighter planes and helicopters showcased the country's tremendous air power, as the government vowed to fill chinks in the IAF armour.
Defence minister George Fernandes was the chief guest of the show which was attended by top Indian military and political heads including Air Chief Marshal Anil Yashwant Tipnis, Information and Broadcasting Minister Pramod Mahajan, Cabinet Secretary Prabhat Kumar, Army Chief Gen V.P. Malik and Civil Aviation Secretary P.V. Jayakrishnan, Defence Secretary, Principal Secretary to the Prime Minister and a host of Members of Parliament, mainly those from the Standing Committee of Parliament on Defence.
As news of an IAF AN-32 crash near Palam airport in New Delhi, just hours before the show trickled in, the mood was somewhat somber. Defence Minister George Fernandes said he was saddened by the accident, and the airforce needed better machines.
Air Chief Marshal Tipnis said the public's interest in military matters had gone up over the years and the people now wanted to know whether the armed forces were prepared.
Prepared they were as the " Vayushakti '99" literally began with a thunder as two top-of-the-line MiG-29's made a supersonic run at a speed of over 1300 kilometres per hour before the audience. This was followed by a fly-past of the latest fighters and helicopters including multirole Sukhoi-30 in IAF's inventory. Participating in the flypast were MiG-27, MiG-29, Mirage-2000, Su-30, Mi-35 attack helicopters, Mi-8 and Chetak helicopters.
Before the audience could recover, the country's latest acquisition, Sukhoi-30 waged an air-superiority battle with a Mirage-2000 aircraft. The dog-fight between the two was one of the highlights of the air display. Both planes, showing off their skills in air defence released flares to dodge any missiles which either may release while bidding at the same time for an angle to "kill'' the rival plane with a close combat projectile. The Su-30 quickly triumphed over its formidable rival.
For the first time, Vayu Shakti-99 showed live firing of air-to-air missiles with pin-point accuracy. Two Su-30s fired lethal heat seeking R-73 missiles, showing the march of technology over human skills. The missile has the special ability to veer immediately after launch towards a target that is well displaced from the forward axis of the aircraft that fired it.
Plane after plane decimated pre-designated targets in waves, raising clouds of sand, fire and smoke at the target sites. Hi-tech weapons including ``smart bombs'' were also fired by a variety of planes including deep strike Jaguars and Mirage-2000s. Around 100 IAF planes, participating in the show, taking off from the bases in Jodhpur, Jaisalmer, Uttarlai and Nal landed 1000 kg. of TNT on the range within a span of an hour and a half.
Among the weapons which were used in the exercise were laser-guided precision bombs, cluster bombs, heavy bombs, BAP-100 bombs, which are used to make runways inoperable; and fuel-air explosives which are used to blow up mines and bunkers.
The multi-functional role of the Mirage-2000 was brought out to the best during the exercise when it dropped "iron bombs" for the first time.
The demonstration of the strategic strike capability of the IAF to hit targets from a large distance was shown with two Jaguars acquiring a dummy hanger from a distance of 20 km and destroying it with the help of laser guided bomb. Although there were some misses during the exercise, the IAF fighter aircraft returned to destroy everything in sight. The performance of the Jaguars capped the demonstration of the IAF's ground attack skills. These planes fired a variety of ammunition on such targets as mock marshaling yards.
The MiG-27 planes which are also dedicated ground attack planes showed that some of the earlier shortcomings of the IAF have been overcome. For instance the ground attack HF-24 or Marut with the IAF in the past, had a problem in pulling up after undertaking dive attacks because of its underpowered engine. Consequently, a large number of Maruts were shot down in the 1965 and the 1971 wars while trying to scoot after an attack. The MiG-27, on the contrary has few problems on this count. Its powerful engine pulls it out of trouble quickly after it has landed its around 4000 kg of bomb load in a dive attack.
This was the first time that joint operations with the Army had been included in the exercise, which was used by the Air Force to test its skills and tactics. The joint operations included airdrop of two armoured personnel carriers(BMPs) by IL-76 transporters, which was followed by airdrop of paratroopers. A BMP weighs 14 tonnes and carries 10 personnel, anti-tank missiles, a 30 mm gun and 84mm rocket launchers. Two Mi-8 helicopters, each armed with 128 rockets, attacked a radar site. Two MI-8 helicopters, each carrying a jeep underneath, and another carrying troops followed.
Two world class Mi-35 helicopters attacked targets with Shtrum missiles, 57 mm rockets, 12.7 mm four barrel gun and 12.7 mm shells -- all in a single pass. The firing ability displayed by the Mi-35 choppers is not available even with the best of the fighter aircraft any-where in the world.
The IAF pilots with their exquisite air manoeuvres, deft skills and fantastic accuracy, more than lived up to the expectations of the audience. By the end of the air power demonstration, the audience, including foreign dignitaries, was gasping for more as all the dummy targets were obliterated with precision bombardment of the IAF sharpshooters. While the supersonic run of the MiG-29s left a deafening silence in the awestruck audience, the display in the end by the Surya Kiran aerobatic team brought out the applause from all.
While the "Vayushakti-99" exercise was timed and performed to near perfection, it also showed some equipment gaps in the IAF. For instance, the absence of the early warning system platform(AWACS), was sorely missed. Its substitution by a helicopter, vulnerable to ground fire, was hardly appropriate as a command centre in the sky.
In his speech, Defence Minister George Fernandes said "We saw peaks of performance today, but we are today feeling lack of advanced jet trainers, we also felt the lack of AWACS ". He assured the IAF that the Government would redouble efforts to indigenously produce an AWAC system and take a decision on acquisition of an advanced jet trainer(AJT) soon. The absence of an AJT was one of the key factors responsible for the high accident rate in the IAF.
Video clips of 'Vayu Shakti-99'@Dr Shiv's Site