by Air Marshal Anil Chopra

The Indian Air Force (IAF) contingent has just reached Alaska for the US Air Force’s (USAF)-led two-week advanced combat training, multi-nation military exercise, “Red Flag 24”. It aims to offer realistic air-combat training for military pilots and other flight crew from the United States and allied countries.

The exercise also serves as a platform for building stronger partnerships and increasing interoperability between participating air forces. The professional interactions between planning teams, aircrew, and support staff foster mutual understanding and respect. Some of these relationships get carried forward into the senior ranks.

Eight IAF Rafale fighters were supported by IL-78 flight refuelling aircraft (FRA) and the C-17 “Globemaster” transport aircraft. The transatlantic flight from India was staged through Greece and Portugal.


The origin of Red Flag was the unacceptable performance of USAF fighter pilots and weapon systems officers (WSO) in air-to-air combat during the Vietnam War in comparison to previous wars. A USAF analysis known as Project Red Baron II showed that a pilot’s chances of survival in combat dramatically increased after he had completed ten combat missions. As a result, Red Flag was created in 1975 to offer USAF pilots and WSOs the opportunity to fly ten realistically simulated combat missions in a safe training environment with measurable results.

An “aggressor squadron” is created with some of the best USAF pilots, who fly as opponents to those undergoing training. These pilots are trained to operate according to the tactical doctrines of likely adversaries at the time. Suitably painted F-5 Tiger-II would simulate the Soviet MiG-21, the F-16 Fighting Falcon as MiG-29, and the F-15 Eagle as the Russian Su-27/30 variants.

Since the first time in November 1975, each year, three to six ‘Red Flag’ exercises are held at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada, while up to four more, dubbed ‘Red Flag Alaska’, are held at Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska. These exercises bring together aircrew from the USAF, United States Navy (USN), United States Marine Corps (USMC), United States Army (USA), and numerous NATO and some other friendly nations’ air forces.

The exercise area has now increased to close to 93,000 sq. km of airspace in the Joint Pacific Alaska Range Complex, which is the largest combat training range in the world. A larger area is required to cater for training with fifth-generation fighter aircraft, which use longer-range manoeuvres and weapons than previous fighters. Beyond-Visual Range (BVR) combat is simulated, and also factored in is the Surface-to-Air Missile (SAM) threat. Also involved are space-based sensors and electronic attack aircraft.

India pilots and controllers had been going as observers for some earlier years. Physical aircraft participation took place in 2008, 2016, and now in May 2024. Pakistan Air Force (PAF) participated in 2010 and 2016, not at the same time as the IAF.

Exercise Cope Thunder was a Pacific Air Forces (PACAF)-sponsored exercise initiated at Clark Air Base, the Philippines. Cope Thunder was moved to Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska, in 1992. Cope Thunder was re-designated as Red Flag-Alaska in 2006. By providing generic scenarios using common worldwide threats and simulated combat conditions, Red Flag-Alaska gives everyone an opportunity to make the tough calls combat often requires. 2018 marked the first time a RQ-4 Global Hawk had been integrated into a Red Flag-Alaska exercise. June 2019 saw the exercise debut of a MQ-9 Reaper. This exercise should not be confused with the “Cope India” exercise, which is a series of international Air Force exercises between the IAF and the USAF conducted on and over Indian soil.

The USN Strike Fighter Tactics Instructor Program (SFTI Program), more popularly known as “Top Gun” teaches air combat manoeuvring tactics and techniques to selected naval aviators and naval flight officers, who return to their operating units as surrogate instructors.

Red Flag 24

The IAF’s participation in the 16-day multi-nation “Red Flag 24” exercise from May 30 to June 14 reinforces the growing defence cooperation between India and the United States. It reflects the shared commitment of both nations to maintaining regional stability and security.

Approximately 3,100 service members are expected to fly, maintain, and support more than 100 aircraft from different nations during the exercise. The Rafale is a top-end aircraft in the IAF fighter fleet. It is of Western origin and shares some systems and procedures with NATO counterparts.

The Red Flag 24 exercise showcases the IAF’s capability to be deployed thousands of kilometres away on the other side of the globe. Long-range air- transport is supported by its own FRA (IL-78 MKI) and large cargo (C-17) aircraft. The exercise will provide IAF crews with realistic simulations of air combat in large-force, complex, and dynamic combat scenarios. Over the course of two weeks, participants will engage in a series of challenging missions designed to test their skills, coordination, and adaptability. There will be air-to-air combat, air-to-surface strikes, and offensive and defensive counter-air operations. The exercise will have combinations of day and night missions, with scenarios that simulate high-threat environments.

IAF aircrew will get to operate and engage with the F-35, the USAF’s latest and most advanced fifth-generation fighter. IAF personnel will gain invaluable exposure to and experience from engagements with different operational tactics and strategies. It will enhance their ability to operate effectively in multinational coalitions. IAF combat controllers and other support personnel will also be exposed and will work seamlessly as part of a larger team. It will also allow IAF crews to validate or appraise their own tactics, techniques, and procedures in a realistic combat environment. It will also help refine the IAF’s operational doctrines and combat readiness.

IAF’s Other Major Exercises

IAF and USAF participate in the bilateral US Pacific Air Forces (PACAF)-sponsored Field Training Exercise (FTX) Cope India series, conducted in India. The first such exercise was conducted at the air force station in Gwalior in February 2004. The exercise was repeated in 2005, 2006, 2009, 2018, and 2023 (Kaliakunda).

The IAF and French Air and Space Force (FASF) have been holding a series of Garuda air exercises since the first in 2003 at Air Force Station Jodhpur, India. Subsequently, they were held in 2005, 2006, 2010, 2014, 2019, and 2022. Other locations for the exercise have included Istres and Mont-de-Marson in France and Kalaikunda in India. France is ‘one of India’s strongest partners’, with their relationship encompassing a number of critical sectors, including nuclear, defence, and space cooperation.


The 17-nation Multilateral Exercise ‘Pitch Black’ 2022 was held in Darwin, Australia, in August–September 2022. Exercise Pitch Black is a biennial warfare exercise hosted by the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF), which has been held every alternate year since 2006, except for 2020 due to Covid-19. India began participating in 2018. Exercise traditionally consists of a ‘red team’ and a ‘blue team’ based at separate locations, with one attacking the other. As inferred from the name of the exercise, it takes place in low-light conditions. All Quad members and many from the Indo-Pacific were part of the exercise, which had over 100 aircraft and 2500 military personnel participating. It gives exposure to a very large cross-section of aircraft, including the F-35s.

Exercise ‘Indradhanush’ is a joint exercise conducted between the IAF and the Royal Air Force (RAF). The exercise started in 2006 and has held four editions so far, in 2006, 2007, 2010, and 2015. These were held in both India and the UK.

Desert Eagle is a bilateral exercise between the IAF and the United Arab Emirates Air Force (UAE AF). The first was held in 2008 at Al-Dhafra Airbase, UAE, and again in 2016. IAF also participated in the multilateral Exercise Desert Flag VI in the UAE in March 2021 and in 2023. Participants included Gulf nations, the USA, France, Saudi Arabia, and Bahrain, while Jordan, Greece, Qatar, Egypt, and South Korea participated as observer forces. IAF has also been participating in Exercise Eastern Bridge since 2009 with Oman. Eastern Bridge IV was held in 2022 in Jodhpur, India.

Blue Flag is a military aviation exercise held by the Israeli Air Force at Ovda Air Force Base in Israel. In 2017, the exercise hosted the air forces of the USA, Poland, Italy, and Greece, and for the first time, India, France, and Germany participated as well.

In July 2022, the IAF carried out a one-month-long engagement with the Egyptian Air Force (EAF) at the Egyptian Fighter Weapon School, located in Cairo West Air Force Base. This was a first-of-its kind interaction for both the air forces, as it was conducted between their respective Fighter Weapon Schools. On behalf of the IAF, Tactics and Air Combat Development Establishment (TACDE) participated.

The Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) and the IAF have been carrying out bilateral exercises, codenamed SINDEX. Beginning in 2004 at Gwalior, subsequent editions were held at Kalaikunda in West Bengal and also at Paya Lebar Air Base in Singapore.

The Japanese Air Self-Defence Force (JASDF) and IAF participated in bilateral air exercise SHINYUU Maitri-18 in 2018 at the IAF airbase in Agra. In March 2023, IAF participated in a similar exercise in Komatsu, Japan. IAF and JASDF also participated in joint air exercise ‘Veer Guardian-2023’ at Hyakuri Air Base in January 2023 that involved fighter aircraft engagements between Su-30 MKI and F-15s, among others.

IAF participated in Exercise Orion at the Mont-de-Marsan airbase in France and Exercise INIOCHOS at Andravida base in Greece, hosted by the Hellenic Air Force, both held in April–May 2023.

Pakistan-China ‘Shaheen’ Exercise Series

Pakistan Air Force (PAF) and China’s PLA Air Force (PLAAF) have participated in a series of exercises called Shaheen since 2011 to improve interoperability to respond to ‘mutual threats’. The missions have included simulated air combat, surface attack missions, air-refuelling missions, and logistic support missions. Shaheen-I was held in Pakistan. Shaheen-II was held in September 2013 in Hotan, Western China. Subsequent exercises have been held at different airbases in the two countries. The JF-17, J-10, and Sukhoi Su-27/Su-30MKK have participated. The USA has not allowed the PAF to field F-16s.

The exercises gave both the Air Forces an opportunity to improve specific skills and to practice Dissimilar Air Combat Training (DACT). It also allowed for training in different threat environments. It provided an opportunity to further enhance the interoperability of both air forces, improve the actual level of combat training, and strengthen practical cooperation between the two air forces.

These exercises were of special importance to PAF as they gave them exposure to fly against Chinese Sukhoi Su-27/Su-30MKK aircraft, which are similar to the IAF frontline Su-30MKI aircraft, and helped them validate their tactics. The most recent Shaheen-X was held in August 2023 in Jiuquan, in China’s Gansu Province, and Yinchuan, in China’s Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region.

Pakistan also gets to participate in the Anatolian Eagle exercise hosted by the Turkish Air Force. They also take part in other exercises in the Middle East.

Complex Exercise Planning And Learning

The large-force bilateral and multilateral air exercises between major professional air forces require months of planning and coordination. The planning has to factor in multiple aircraft flying in confined spaces at very high speeds and engaging in combat manoeuvring. The pace for the exercise is set by initially doing smaller packages and increasing the degree of difficulty in a graduated manner.

There is a need to de-conflict flight paths. The air engagements have to be closely controlled by ground-based and airborne radars. The radio procedures have to be coordinated. The mission commanders have to be designated. Flight safety and operational issues have to be managed. Each mission must have a clearly spelled-out aim and a detailed briefing. Air effort must draw lessons for all air and ground crews.

In addition to enhancing combat knowledge by imbibing the best practices of other air forces, it also improves interoperability. Young aircrew get exposure from flying aircraft of other air forces. Social and casual interactions help exchange ideas and imbibe knowledge. Special lectures are organised to educate the participants. These exercises are also a part of defence diplomacy. There are cultural events and exchanges.

Exercise Tarang Shakti

IAF’s mega-multilateral multi-nation exercise ‘Tarang Shakti’ is planned later this year. The air forces of nearly a dozen nations are likely to participate. It will be the biggest air exercise to be conducted in India. Invited air forces will participate with fighter and transport aircraft and other force multipliers. Initial indications are that the FASF, RAAF, USAF, and RAF are likely to participate. The location has not been announced, but it is likely to be in central India. There are likely to be large force engagements, long-range missions, and maybe joint exercises with elements of the Special Forces and maritime strikes. Also, they will look at “No War, No Peace” scenarios. Many air forces will send observers.

The IAF is fast transforming from a continental air force to one with global reach. It now has trans-domain operations capability, and prides itself on its reach, flexibility, versatility, responsiveness, and offensive lethality. In keeping with the evolutionary nature of air power and the need to stay relevant across the spectrum of conflict in an interconnected environment, there is a need for exercises and doctrinal reviews. Exercise Tarang Shakti will help understand the nuances of the capabilities and application of air power.

Exercise Exposure Advantage

Unlike PLAAF, which exercises primarily with PAF and very few other major air forces, IAF benefits from exposure to air exercises with all the major air forces in the world. The frequency and number of air exercises have gone up in recent years. The saying, “More you sweat in peace, less you bleed in war,” is best exemplified by these air exercises. India must be proud that all Western air forces have rated IAF aircrew as great professionals and very superior in their air combat capabilities.


The role of the armed forces in supporting India’s foreign policy has been very clear. A stronger military gives the political leadership greater options. Countries with a more powerful military get to sit on the global high table, such as the UN Security Council. The US, and now, to some extent, China, have been able to call the shots globally because of their military presence and power. While India believes in strategic autonomy, global partnerships are important.

India has a powerful military. It is a nuclear weapons power with credible missile and space programs. A key element of being a ‘net security provider’ is the ability to launch Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief (HADR) operations in the region. Indian armed forces played a globally acclaimed role during the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, the 2015 Nepal earthquake, the 2020 floods in Madagascar, the Covid-19 pandemic medical-relief operations, and the earthquake in Turkey.

The military-to-military contacts are at various levels, including senior-level visit exchanges, arms sales and purchases, military equipment training, joint military exercises, training staff courses, and the exchange of strategic and tactical appreciation literature. India has a significant presence in the UN peacekeeping missions. Defence wings in embassies play a huge role in facilitating all these activities. Also, military exercises are used for political-diplomatic messaging and muscle-flexing. These exercises also help integrate militaries and build relationships at the working level. All this is part of “defence diplomacy”.

The writer is former Director General, Centre for Air Power Studies