The five decade-old bonhomie between the air forces of China and Pakistan witnessed another significant step forward last March when the People’s Liberation Army’s Air Force (PLAAF) for the first time ever took part in an operational air exercise—codenamed Shaheen-1—with the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) within Pakistani airspace. Two PLAAF Su-30MKK heavy multi-role combat aircraft (MRCA), accompanied by a 12-member complement of ground support crew, visited the PAF’s air bases in Rawalpindi (PAF Base Chaklala), Kamra (PAF Base Minhas) and Sargodha (PAF Base Mushaf) where a series of dissimilar air combat exercises were conducted with the PAF’s Dassault Aviation Mirage IIIP, Mirage VP and Chengdu/PAC Kamra JF-17 Thunder MRCAs, in addition to conducting mid-air refuelling sorties with the PAF’s four newly acquired IL-78MKP aerial refuelling tankers. Officially, the exercises were designed to share mutual experiences, hone professional skills and accrue maximum benefits from the expertise of the two air forces. But in reality, the air exercises are widely seen as the beginning of a formalised process of collaborating on a range of air combat training-related issues that include all-weather airborne battle management with the help of airborne early warning and control (AEW & C) platforms, and both within-visual-range and beyond-visual-range air combat doctrines and tactics.
The two visiting Su-30MKKs hailed from one of the three ‘Blue Army’ aggressor squadrons of the 8th PLAAF Flight Academy, which is the Chinese counterpart of the Indian Air Force’s (IAF) Gwalior-based Tactics & Combat Development Establishment (TACDE) and which has been modelled after the US Navy’s ‘Top Gun’ Naval Fighter Weapons School and the Naval Strike & Air Warfare Center, and the US Air Force’s 64th and 65th Aggressor squadrons at Nellis air force base in Nevada. The 8th PLAAF Flight Academy, which comes under the operational jurisdiction of the PLAAF’s Flight Test & Training Base (FT & TB) at Cangzhou air base in Hebei province, presently has three ‘Blue Army’ aggressor squadrons, each of which are equipped with four Su-27SKs and four Su-30MKKs, eight J-10A medium MRCAs, and eight J-7E light MRCAs. Commissioned in June 1987, these aggressor squadrons have been trained to act as ‘hostile bogeys’ during air combat exercises by simulating the air combat manoeuvring characteristics of US- and European-origin combat aircraft. These squadrons use enemy tactics, techniques, and procedures to give a realistic simulation of air combat (as opposed to training against one’s own forces). For the PLAAF, therefore, there is much to learn in terms of dissimilar air combat tactics from the PAF, especially since the latter has, for almost a decade, participated in multinational air exercises with NATO and non-NATO air forces in both Turkey (under the Anatolian Eagle series) and the US (the Red Flag series). For the PAF, in turn, there is much to learn from the PLAAF in terms of the latter’s expertise—acquired over the past six years—in planning and executing offensive and defensive air campaigns in which AEW & C platforms and Su-30MKKs are the major participants. The PLAAF in future will also be training the PAF to operate the four ZDK-03 AEW & C platforms which are due for delivery by China’s CETC International from later this year. The four ZDK-03s will be employed by the PAF specifically for directing and managing the air campaigns waged by the PAF’s fleet of Mirage IIIPs and Mirage VPs, JF-17 Thunder, F-7PG and (in future) FC-20 MRCAs. The four Saab 2000 AEW & C platforms, on the other hand, will be employed for directing and managing the air campaigns waged by the PAF’s fleet of Lockheed Martin-built Block 52 F-16A/B/C/D MRCAs and the Mirage IIIPs and Mirage VPs.
The PAF and PLAAF, along with companies like China’s CETC International and Pakistan’s Wah cantonment-based Advanced Engineering Research Organization (AERO), have, since 2008, been also working together on developing a rangeless dissimilar air combat training system (DACTS) and an air combat manoeuvring instrumentation (ACMI) system, both of which, by using GPS technology, allow pilots to train in any available airspace without reliance on a ground-based, tethered range. A rangeless ACMI system can support up to 100 high-activity aircraft and up to 100 simultaneous weapons-launch simulations in a single training exercise. While the IAF had acquired two sets of ‘EHUD’ rangeless DACTS/ACMI training aids worth US$42 million from Israel Aircraft Industries’ (IAI) MLM Division in the late 1990s, and followed it by acquiring a supplementary system—comprising digital video-cum-data recorders (DVDR) and ground debriefing systems (GDS)—for its Su-30MKIs from Israel’s RADA Electronic Industries Ltd, such training aids have, to date, remained elusive for both the PAF and PLAAF due to US and EU export control regulations imposed since the late 1980s. The kind of DACTS/ACMI systems now sought by China and Pakistan are presently made by companies such as DIEHL/BGT Defence GmbH of Germany (maker of the Flight Profile Recorder system), US-based DRS Defense Solutions Inc and Cubic Defense Systems, Israel’s IAI/MLM Division RADA Electronic Industries Ltd, Singapore’s Prescient Systems & Technologies (a subsidiary of Singapore’s ST Electronics), and Dong Ji Inter-Tech of South Korea. Given the unavailability of DACTS/ACMI systems being made available for export from Europe, Israel and the US, it appears highly likely that the PAF and PLAAF will eventually procure such systems from the Far East.
The rangeless DACTS/ACMI system being sought by the PAF and PLAAF will have four main elements: the ACMI pod, DVDR, real-time monitoring station (RTMS), and GDS. Designed with the same aerodynamics performance of an actual air combat missile, the ACMI pod is an exact replica of the air combat missile whose performance needs to be simulated. The homogeny includes its physical dimensions, weight, mechanical and, electrical and electromagnetic interference characteristics. The pod allows for real-time data transmission, reception and relay between the aircraft and a ground-based RTMS, as well as a GDS for combat outcome assessment and debriefing. The ACMI pod, incorporated with GPS technology, is retrofitted on to the aircraft. The flight data is captured and recorded in data cartridges that can be easily removed for after-action review at the RTMS or GDS. The combat and flight data of the air crew is relayed by the pod to the RTMS. This data is then used to monitor the training scenarios in real-time as well as to conduct post-flight debrief during the after-action reviews. Data recorded and stored by the DVDR is used to reconstruct the spatial flight patterns of all participating aircraft, superimposed on a three-dimensional representation of the mission terrain. Data among all aircraft is automatically synchronised by the GDS. When two screens are used (one for three-dimensional imagery, the other for video), both displays are synchronised as well with no user intervention. All viewing angles and directions, whether from within the cockpits or outside, are user-selectable and adjustable. The GDS is capable of conducting simultaneous, synchronised recording and playback of numerous digital channels, carrying audio and video from multiple sources. The system supports specialty features such as simulation and analysis tools for mission debriefing, and military unit data management. Utilising COTS-based PC technology, the GDS is designed for advanced squadron-level post-flight debriefing.—Prasun K. Sengupta