By Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 18th May 16
Until recently, the Indian Air Force (IAF) planned for the possibility of United Arab Emirates (UAE) supplying up to a squadron of F-16 fighters to boost the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) in an Indo-Pakistan conflict.
Now, dramatically signalling the transformed relationship between New Delhi and Abu Dhabi, an IAF contingent returning to India next month from the on-going Red Flag exercise in the US will train with the UAE air force. Its pilots fly the world’s most potent F-16s, the Block 60 version, superior even to US Air Force F-16s and to the Block 50/52 version that Washington supplies Pakistan.
This and other aspects of defence cooperation with the UAE and Oman will be on the agenda of Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar during his four-day visit to those two countries that begins on May 20.
The UAE is unlikely to choose defence equipment manufactured in India, the oil-rich country preferring state-of-the-art western weaponry, like the Block 60 F-16. Even so, New Delhi hopes to overhaul and upgrade the Hawk trainer jets that both the UAE and Royal Omani Air Force fly.
The IAF has the world’s largest Hawk fleet, and Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL) continues to manufacture the advanced jet trainer at Bengaluru. In May 2015, HAL and BAE Systems, the Hawk’s original manufacturer, agreed “to collaborate towards developing a comprehensive fleet support service for India’s Hawk and Jaguar aircraft”. HAL hopes to take this forward, becoming the hub that supports several Hawk fleets in the region.
Of the 161 Hawks flying in West Asia, the UAE operates 46 and Oman flies 25. Saudi Arabia operates 72; Kuwait 12 and Bahrain six.
Another 190 Hawks fly with other Asian and African air forces, including 33 with Australia; 60 with Indonesia; 28 with Malaysia; 20 with South Korea; 24 with South Africa; 12 with Kenya; and 13 with Zimbabwe.
Besides the Hawk trainer, the UAE and India air force enjoy several other equipment commonalities. UAE operates 63 Mirage-2000-9 fighters, the most potent version of the IAF’s Mirage 2000. The UAE also flies the Apache AH-64D (28 attack helicopters) and the Chinook CH-47D (eight heavy lift choppers) that the IAF has contracted to buy from Boeing. Both air forces operate variants of the C-17 Globemaster III and the C-130 Hercules transport aircraft.
Growing defence and counter-terrorism cooperation between India and UAE has been catalysed by Abu Dhabi’s sharp U-turn from the time PAF pilots trained its air force and retired PAF technicians maintained its Mirage III and F-16 fighters. This has been catalysed by the radical threat posed by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
During Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to UAE last August, the two countries forged a “comprehensive strategic partnership”. On its heels came the February visit to New Delhi of the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, Sheikh Mohammad bin Zayed al Nahyan, when “the two renewed their commitment to strengthening the existing cooperation in training, joint exercises, and participation in defence exhibitions, as well as in identifying opportunities to cooperate on the production of defence equipment in India”.
The UAE has detected and deported terrorist sympathisers from the two million Indians working in that country, handing them over to Indian authorities. Sheikh al Nahyan, visiting soon after the terrorist attack on Pathankot Air Base this year, condemned cross border terrorism.
If the UAE is a new friend, Oman has long been India’s most steadfast partner in West Asia. Muscat and New Delhi signed a military protocol in 1972, and the two air forces together conducted the Exercise Eastern Bridge in 2009 in Oman, and in 2011 in India. This incorporated the common Jaguar fighter, which both operated until Oman retired its Jaguars in 2014 and bought the Eurofighter.
Until then, Jaguar spares built by HAL were sold to Oman. With the IAF looking to extend the service life of its six Jaguar squadrons by fitting in new engines and avionics, Oman’s 24 retired Jaguars could be of interest to the IAF.
Oman sent a naval vessel to participate in the International Fleet Review that the navy hosted in Visakhapatnam in February. When the Tejas flew the long journey to Bahrain for its first international outing in the Bahrain International Air Show, it staged through Muscat, Oman.