Against the sound of cicadas singing in the Mediterranean heat, Indian Air Force Sukhoi Su-30 fighters took off from this French air base in their first exercise in European skies, marking New Delhi’s desire to strengthen ties with Western militaries.
Their Russian-built jets roared into the clear sky on twin afterburners, eager to engage French Mirage 2000s off the southern coast.
The flying exercise, dubbed Garuda II, also signaled France’s interest in cultivating defense links with India, a regional power which is looking to augment its armory with new attack submarines and a fleet of 126 multirole combat aircraft.
The French naval chief of staff underlined his country’s interests in maintaining a military presence in the region. The island of Reunion in the Indian Ocean is directly governed by Paris under the status of an overseas region and France has historical links with India, Adm. Alain Oudot de Dainville told reporters June 21.
India’s mixed fleet of Western and Russian aircraft includes Jaguar light strike aircraft, Mirage 2000s, MiG-29s and Su-30 fighters.
As part of the air force exercise, six Su-30K fighters and an Ilyushin Il-78 in-flight refueling aircraft flew against and with six French Mirage 2000s and a C-135 FR air tanker, base commander Gen. Bruno Clermont told reporters June 22.
India’s cooperation with foreign air forces is fairly recent, but marks an eagerness to learn procedures and tactics with friendly forces.
Group Capt. Shreesh Mohan told reporters here that the Indian Air Force started flying with a foreign military in 2003, in Garuda I, when four French Mirages flew to India for exercises with their Indian counterparts.
Indian pilots flew six Jaguars to Alaska last July to operate with the U.S. Air Force and, in other exercises, took part in operations with the services of Singapore and South Africa last autumn. Indian Air Force pilots bested U.S. F-15 pilots in an exercise in India last year. Practicing Interoperability
Garuda II marked India’s first deployment of its Su-30s to Europe, and a first refueling of the Russian-built aircraft with a French C-135 tanker, Mohan said.
“There is a lot of learning value in training with the French Air Force, which we consider a very professional air force,” he said.
Mohan declined to comment on India’s tender for new fighters, in which France is offering the Mirage 2000-5 against the Saab Gripen, MiG-29 and Lockheed Martin F-16. Although Indian pilots had flown against the F-16 and other foreign aircraft, he said, “Flying with an air force is one thing; evaluating an aircraft [to buy] is another challenge.”
He added, “We’re very happy with the Mirage 2000.” India has operated the French fighter for some 20 years. The Mirage 2000-5 would have a more advanced radar, to allow air defense and strike missions.
In Garuda II, a French Mirage 2000 RDI was scheduled to refuel from the high-winged Il-78 tanker. The cross-refueling exercises meant that if France sent Mirage jets into the region, it could ask for refueling support from India, rather than send its own C-135s, allowing an enormous saving, French Air Force Gen. Alain Perriault said.
Both the French and Indian aircraft use the flexible drogue-and-hose refueling system, while the C-135 also is equipped with the rigid boom used by the U.S. Air Force.
Mohan said the fighter exercise showed an “understanding between the two governments for good bilateral relations and enhanced defense cooperation.” The deployment of Indian fighter and support aircraft and 125 personnel was a major undertaking and a valuable lesson in organization and interoperability, he said.
The Indian aircraft flew in two stages: a six-hour leg to Egypt with a stop near Alexandria, then a four-hour flight to this base near Marseille, southern France.
During the eight-day exercise, the two air forces would dogfight and fly mixed patrols as well as engage in increasingly complex operations, designed to show each other how to interact.
Simulated beyond-visual-range (BVR) missiles were used during the dogfights. Wing Cmdr. KVR Raju said the Su-30 carries the A12, which uses an active radar and infrared seeker and has a range of 15 to 18 miles. The Mirage 2000 is armed with the Mica, which is also a BVR weapon.
In Garuda I, the Indian pilots used the semi-active R27ER missile, which requires the pilot to use the Su-30’s radar to illuminate the target throughout the engagement.
Other assets planned for use in the exercise included a Mirage 2000N, an E3-F airborne warning and control system aircraft and Tucano turboprops, to simulate transport aircraft.
Mohan declined to give the maximum range of the Su-30, with midair refueling from the Il-78.