From March 4 to 27, 2021, the Indian Air Force (IAF) participated in the sixth iteration of Exercise Desert Flag in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). It was India’s first experience in these multinational drills, hosted annually by the UAE Air Force. Participating IAF assets included six Russian-origin Su-30MKI fighter aircrafts and two United States (US)-origin C-17 Globemaster transporter aircrafts manned by a total of 125 personnel.
A total of six countries participated in the exercise (UAE, US, France, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and India), while five countries sent observer delegations (Jordan, Greece, Qatar, Egypt, and South Korea). Interestingly, the IAF’s official press release mentions that the exercise objectives were to “expose coalition participating forces to large force employment, sharpen tactical capabilities, and enhance interoperability along with fostering closer relations between the participating forces. The aim for the participating crew and specialist observers was to expose them to operational environment in scenarios requiring multinational forces working together”. However, it does not mention the UAE-based Air Warfare Centre as the coordinating authority. There are reasons to believe this was an intentional omission to prohibit adverse strategic signalling toward regional countries.
At the outset, it would appear that the IAF participated in a routine multinational exercise aimed at promoting interoperability and understanding among participating forces. However, a historical examination of the exercise offers broader takeaways.
Origins of Exercise Desert Flag
Per the French Ministry of Defence, Desert Flag is a companion to the annual Advanced Tactical Leadership Course (ATLC) at the UAE Air Warfare Centre (UAEAWC). These ATLCs are held bi-annually to develop mission commanders “who can lead large ‘coalition packages’ of aircraft”, according to a former US commander at the centre.
Diplomatic cables from the early 2000s, published by WikiLeaks, reveal that UAEAWC was originally known as the Gulf Air Warfare Centre. It is a bilateral project of the UAE Air Force and erstwhile US Central Command Air Forces (CENTAF), now known as Air Forces Central Command (AFCENT). It was co-developed in 2001, based on an extraordinary October 2000 symposium of regional air chiefs hosted by the UAE, with CENTAF’s support. Besides the UAE, air chiefs from Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the US, United Kingdom (UK), Egypt, France and Jordan participated in the symposium. The agenda was to improve long-term interoperability, develop a “common vision” of aerospace operations and set up new combined schools for “common doctrine and tactics”. In fact, one of the initiatives put forward by the then CENTAF leadership, which was readily accepted by the air chiefs, was the establishment of a “Middle East version” of the NATO tactical leadership programme.
While the UAE and the US matured Iron Falcon over a nearly two-decade period of sustained partnerships, and it remains one of the region’s most prominent multilateral air exercises, PAF moved out of the coalition and is now replaced by the IAF.
Another WikiLeaks cable reveals that the UAEAWC was envisioned as a state-of-the-art regional air force training centre for the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) plus two (Egypt and Jordan) countries alongside the US, UK and France to foster officer-level understanding among American, Arab and European countries in a “post-Iraq environment” while also helping to build “long-term relationships”. While US Air Force (USAF) personnel were stationed there, a separate AFCENT Air Warfare Centre (AAWC) was activated in 2007 that operates in partnership with the UAEAWC. These and related cables discussing Air Force Base Al Dhafra imply that the perceived threats from Iran and a Shiite-dominated Iraq factored significantly in the Emirati leadership’s decision to procure US armaments and improve air force partnership.
UAEAWC and AAWC may be operating separately, but open-source records show ATLC graduates’ official group photographs with the UAEAWC’s logo. Indeed, the AAWC works “closely” with UAEAWC in the planning and execution of exercises, including the provision of USAF air advisers from time to time. The official AAWC fact sheet mentions that Desert Flag is among those where AAWC advises. Desert Flag provides participants with “a realistic rolling scenario with a relevant regional threat array”.
Exercise Desert Flag and Iron Falcon – One and the Same
A 2016 press release by USAF’s 380th Air Expeditionary Wing indicates that Desert Flag is synonymous with (alternate name of) Exercise Iron Falcon that is led by AFCENT. This was the first publicised, recorded use of the Desert Flag nomenclature, in which the UAE, US, four other GCC countries and another five extra-regional countries participated. In contrast, the second instance can be found in an AFCENT press release from 2019.
Close examination of a declassified US military record listing US joint military exercises suggests that Iron Falcon exercises with UAE have been ongoing regularly since 2003. The exercises were called off in 2017 due to the intra-GCC political turmoil whereby Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain led a boycott of Qatar. The exercises were postponed again in 2020, possibly due to COVID-19. GCC countries, UK and France, have been consistently participating in Desert Flag/Iron Falcon co-hosted by the UAE and US.
Interestingly, lesser known is the fact that there are two known/publicised instances of Pakistan Air Force (PAF) participation in Iron Falcon. Reportedly, the PAF participated in the November-December 2006 and October-November 2010 iterations of Iron Falcon alongside the US, UAE, France, UK and Jordan. Participation in other iterations remains unclear and might not have occurred.
Thus, while the UAE and the US matured Iron Falcon over a nearly two-decade period of sustained partnerships, and it remains one of the region’s most prominent multilateral air exercises, PAF moved out of the coalition and is now replaced by the IAF. Pakistan may have sensed the open secret that Iron Flag exercises are framed in lieu of a future conflict involving Iran, or it may have lost the interest of both the US and UAE, with whom its relations have not been as “ideal” as they once were.
India-UAE Air Force Relations
The IAF held its first bilateral air exercise Desert Eagle-I with counterparts from the UAE in 2008, followed eight years later with Desert Eagle-II. In 2018, UAE Air Force officers participated as observers in an IAF exercise on Humanitarian Assistance & Disaster Relief (HADR) involving air forces of Bangladesh, Nepal and Sri Lanka.
In July 2020, the first batch of IAF’s Rafales made a brief stopover at Air Force Base Al Dhafra before proceeding toward Air Force Station Ambala, India. A similar stopover was cancelled in November 2020 due to a high alert issued by UAE’s air defence authorities against a feared Iranian missile attack. These arrangements were being brokered in the backchannel by France, which enjoys exceptional defence and strategic relations with both the UAE and India.
The IAF’s inclusion in Desert Flag leads to the speculation that IAF pilots may have undergone ATLC training at UAEAWC or the AWWC. Irrespectively, it is another practical manifestation of the Indo-US resolve to extend cooperation beyond the US Indo-Pacific Command (USINDOPACOM) to include USCENTCOM and the US Africa Command (USAFRICOM). Earlier, the Indian Navy had successfully stationed a Liaison Officer at US Naval Forces Central Command (USNAVCENT) in Bahrain.
Indian Army Chief General Manoj Mukund Naravane’s December 2020 visits to the UAE and Saudi Arabia aimed at improving bilateral military relations with the respective countries. However, they may also have served a broader purpose of opening avenues for collaboration amongst land forces in bilateral and multilateral arrangements, such as those patronised by the US Army Central Command (USARCENT).
Desert Flag may just be a simulated exercise, but its guiding framework is discreetly oriented against the Iranian regime. In such a scenario, it would not be an exaggeration to suggest that India has officially joined an anti-Iran military coalition in the Gulf.
In the past, IAF’s Su-30MKIs have participated in bilateral air exercises with the US (Exercise Cope India), France (Exercise Garuda) and the UAE (Exercise Desert Eagle). Therefore, for the IAF, interoperability with Saudi and Bahraini aircraft would be a new experience and vice versa.
India, France, and the US had the opportunity to participate trilaterally earlier in Exercise Blue Flag (2017) hosted by the Israeli Air Force. With Israel’s relocation to USCENTCOM, experiences with AFCENT would only complement the IAF’s existing bilateral and multilateral engagements with USAF and Israeli Air Force. Thus, India is clearly improving coordination and interoperability with air forces of partner countries across West Asia. The “privilege” once enjoyed by the PAF, primarily due to the ongoing conflict in Afghanistan, appears to be waning.
Sooner or later, the Afghan Peace Process is expected to result in a drawdown of the US and coalition forces. Subtracting the commitments in Afghanistan, the primary regional “threat” for the US and its allies would be from Iran. Without a doubt, AFCENT and its partners are building capabilities to engage in combat operations against the Iranian regime’s assets, if and when required. Only this time, they will be assisted by Israel as well.
Here, it is important to observe Iran’s reaction. Desert Flag may just be a simulated exercise, but its guiding framework is discreetly oriented against the Iranian regime. In such a scenario, it would not be an exaggeration to suggest that India has officially joined an anti-Iran military coalition in the Gulf. This assertion is more telling considering that AFCENT has not yet publicised the exercise details, nor has the IAF acknowledged back-end coordination by UAEAWC.