Military exercises are the highest form of military training and real-time application of theoretical knowledge. The objective of the military exercises is to increase the combat readiness, training, and learn from each other’s tactics. They are also important to assess the state logistics, tactics, overall preparedness of the forces, and help the militaries enhance their joint fighting capabilities.
The exercise is becoming significant for the PAF as it promotes interoperability and gives it an insight into the PLAAF tactics and its weapons platforms.
To achieve the same objectives, the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) and Pakistan Air Force (PAF) have been conducting Shaheen or Eagle joint exercises since 2011. Both countries host the exercises on an alternate basis. The ninth edition of the exercise started on December 9, 2020, and has entered its last phase. The exercise is becoming significant for the PAF as it promotes interoperability and gives it an insight into the PLAAF tactics and its weapons platforms. Additionally, the closer PLAAF-PAF cooperation may not be doing well for India due to the lows in its bilateral relations with both Pakistan and China. However, its concerns over the exercises may not be well- justified.
Shaheen series of exercises has become important for the PAF for the following reasons:
Near Realistic Combat Scenarios
The last edition of the exercise in 2019 was conducted in a “back-to-back” manner. In this manner, both the parties/forces are not informed of each other’s situation. They depend on the early warning aircraft to predict each other’s operations and plan accordingly. This format of training is more confrontational than a pre-arranged plan. The ninth edition is most likely to follow the previous method. That method involves more realistic combat scenarios like an actual operation. It not only brings out the best performance of the aircraft but also the best test of human capabilities like the handling of pressure and decision making in uncertain situations.
Variety of Combat Missions
The exercises involve a variety of combat missions. They may include land attack strikes, air-to-air combat, electronic countermeasures (ECM) and electronic counter-countermeasures (ECCM), naval target strikes, and surface to airstrikes, among others. The variety of missions increases the scope of professional training and skills development of the PAF and the PLAAF.
Enhanced and Consolidated Interoperability
The Pakistani Chief of the Air Staff, Air Chief Marshal Mujahid Anwar Khan, has praised the training of Chinese pilots’ combat skills and termed the PLAAF combat training program as modern and robust. He also maintained that the Shaheen series of exercises would go a long way in enhancing the professional skills, training and interoperability between the two air forces. Both the air forces learn from each other’s skills, tactics, and platforms. They thus increase the ability of both the troops to carry out joint operations and strikes smoothly.
PAF Evaluation of Chinese Platforms
The PAF gets a chance to assess the performance of more Chinese platforms and systems during such exercises. During the Shaheen exercises, a variety of PLAAF air war machinery participates. These include light combat multirole fighters like the J-10C, equivalent to Rafale in performance and the J-11B, similar to the Su-30MKI, electronic warfare, and airborne early warning and attack aircraft. The JF-17 has been produced with a partnership with China, and if the PAF wants to acquire another Chinese platform to meet future needs, such exercises give it a chance to evaluate and test them. There are rumours about the PAF having an interest in J-10C or a fifth-generation Chinese aircraft J-31. The J-11, which participates in the exercise, is a licensed variant of the Russian Su-27 multirole fighter.
The PAF Chief has also expressed his confidence in the Chinese Military Aviation Technology which is at par with the contemporary requirements and is fully capable of meeting the modern warfare challenges.
India has raised its concerns over the exercise. It has said it to be aimed at India. For this, the Indian media has referred to the recent visit of China’s Defence Minister General Wei Fenghe to Pakistan, where he met with the senior political and military leadership. During his visit, a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) for defence cooperation between China and Pakistan was also signed. The exercises are being held at a PAF operational base Bholari in Sindh, not far from the Indian border. The last edition of the exercise was held in 2019 in the Chinese Hotan City near the Ladakh region.
The importance of the Shaheen exercise has mostly increased after the limited air engagement between India and Pakistan in February 2019.
The high-profile visits of the Chief of Army Staff, General Qamar Javed Bajwa, and the Chairman Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee (CJCSC), General Nadeem Raza also highlight the importance of the exercise. Both have praised the professionalism of the pilots and stressed the significance of the joint exercise for improving the combat training level of both forces.
The importance of the Shaheen exercise has mostly increased after the limited air engagement between India and Pakistan in February 2019 as the training gives the PAF a chance to fly and fight against the Chinese Su-27 and Su-30. The India-China stand-off in the Ladakh region during Summer 2020 has also added a new dimension to them. Henceforth, the Indian apprehensions over the exercises have also been raised. India now looks at these or any other defence cooperation between China and Pakistan more closely.
The purpose of any military exercise is to improve combat training for an actual crisis. Therefore, these exercises should be considered more of a routine activity to operational readiness than a planned activity against India.
However, the exercises are being held regularly for the last nine years. The training and tactics learned from them may have helped the PAF have the upper hand over its Indian counterpart during the February 2019 events. It is a known fact that the PAF was already renowned for its high training and skills even before the exercises. It is also true that the purpose of any military exercise is to improve combat training for an actual crisis. Therefore, these exercises should be considered more of a routine activity to operational readiness than a planned activity against India.