Pakistan Air Force launches a major Air Exercise – High Mark-2010

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Context

The Pakistan Air Force (PAF) recently initiated a major exercise, the High Mark-2010, to test its professional skills and capabilities. Such exercises, which also involve Pakistan Army and Navy, are held every five years. However, this year the size and timing of the exercise, which will continue for 40 days, is significant as it comes in the backdrop of rising tensions between the two hostile neighbors, Pakistan and India, particularly the Indian Cold Start Doctrine(CSD).

Analysis

The High Mark-2010 follows a similar Indian Air Force (IAF) exercise held recently in Rajasthan. A report quoted Uday Bhaskar, a New Delhi-based strategic affairs expert, commented on the IAF exercises, “This is not just a firepower demonstration but a clear message about what India’s air force is capable of. It is a message to the neighbors.”

The Cold Start Doctrine espouses that India is in a position to take on Pakistan and China in a two-front war. They want to show that it can mobilize its forces to move into enemy territory within 96 hours and have enhanced its strategic reach and out-of-area capabilities to protect its interests from the Malacca Strait to Persian Gulf. Also, the CSD seeks to achieve these goals through “operational synergy” between the three services and countering military and non-military sub-conventional threats. It is certainly a tall order.

The PAF’s High Mark exercises should be seen as a message to Indian military planners that Pakistan Air Force is ready to counter and retaliate to any attack that could be forthcoming from across the border in response to a terrorist strike somewhere in India on the pattern of Mumbai attacks. It should be remembered that the Indian Air Force had gone on high alert following the Mumbai attacks. Also, two Indian aircraft had violated the Pakistani airspace soon after the attack. The air intrusion was taken seriously by Pakistani defense establishment, which had put the PAF on high alert and activated satellite air bases along the Indian border. So, the timing of the exercise shows High Mark 2010, besides other factors, is a message from Pakistan to India that it is ready to retaliate should the IAF think of conducting surgical strikes on alleged militant camps in the country.

While it is obvious that the High Mark 2010 has assumed greater significance in response to the Indian Cold Start Doctrine, it has other dimensions also.

One objective of the exercise is to increase coordination with Pakistan Army and Navy. In these times, no single service can launch attacks or defend territory on its own. The role of air forces all over the world has become critical following the two Iraq wars. Pakistani defence planners have also realized this and are working on these lines, developing greater synergy between the two services.

The exercise will also see PAF putting new strategies and doctrines to test. According to Pakistani air chief, Air Chief Marshal Rao Qamar Suleman, new force multipliers have recently been inducted by the PAF and the ongoing exercise is meant to test the true potential of the force. It will also validate precision engagement capabilities as the PAF steps into a new era of modern warfare.

Another reason for conducting such a massive exercise is to show off the new assets which Pakistan Air Force has recently acquired. These include the IL-78 aerial refueling tanker, bought from Ukraine. Also taking part in the exercises is the first Saab 2000 AEW&CS from Sweden. The aircraft, which is a force multiplier, is a major acquisition by the PAF. Also the JF-17 Thunder fighter aircraft, which will be the mainstay of the PAF in the years to come, will be a part of the exercise. In fact, the PAF is now much stronger than two years ago since acquiring new F-16s and a range of other new assets.

Pakistani observers believe that India lacks the capacity to test the Cold Start Doctrine on Pakistan, largely due to its vintage and outdated military hardware, massive logistics issues, prohibitive costs and lack of integrated tri-service training. It will be important for the Indians to keep in mind the nuclear threshold could be reached earlier than their expectations. However, at the same time, observers believe that the PAF, which is already involved in conducting operations against the Taliban and Al-Qaeda in the North West Frontier Province, would have a critical role to play should the Indians still go ahead and try to test the Cold Start Doctrine on Pakistan.

As such, the High Mark conveys a key message that the Pakistan Air Force may go beyond its traditional deterrence doctrine of qualitative upgrades and focus on survivability should the Indian Cold Start Doctrine come into play.

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