Here Comes The BOOM ……
How does it feel to be in the midst of jet noise, and explosions from bombs, rockets; the whole thing lit up by flares?? Well ……definitely I was not in the midst of an air strike in a war somewhere – but it was just awesome to see all the action happening all around. It was IRON FIST 2013 – Indian Air Force’s annual Fire Power Demonstration – in the desert ranges of Pokhran, near Jaisalmer city, in Rajasthan.
More than 100 aircraft from a dozen air force stations from around the country were taking part in Iron Fist. The IAF was demonstrating the preparedness of the various force levels and the capability to deliver a pounding blow to the enemy in time of war. All the front-line aircraft like the multi-role long-range Su-30MKIs, multi-role Mirage-2000s, air superiority fighters like the MiG-29s, trainer Hawk, strike/attack MiG-27s, A-50 AWACS, Searcher UAV, An-32s, Il-76s transports, low-level strike Jaguars, MiG-21s, took part in the demonstration. The Tejas – Light Combat Aircraft – indigenously designed point fighter would also make its presence felt in the Fire Power Demo firing ground attack munitions as well as air2air missiles.
The Garud special forces displayed their skills at Combat Search And Rescue, Suppression of Enemy Air Defense (SEAD) operations blowing up Radar sites behind enemy lines. This was the first time the IAF was also showing off its Surface to Air Missile (SAM) capabilities as well. The involved aircraft took off from bases as far as Nagpur in Maharashtra, Gujarat, besides local bases in Rajasthan. Supporting all the on-screen characters were a variety of back-screen artists consisting of Il-78 Mid-Air Refueling tankers, AWACS A-50, and Searcher UAVs. In years prior to 2010, the Fire Power Demo was a day affair. 2010 was the first year, the demo consisted of a late day phase, dusk phase and complete night phase. 2013 was a step further – newer aircraft in the fray, and SAM firings – being featured for the first time. The IAF would be stepping up its game. Along with the offensive forces, display teams like the helicopter aerobatic team Sarangs, the parachuting team Akash Ganga, a Sukhoi Su-30, Light Combat Helicopter (LCH), the new Pilatus PC-7 MkII trainer would also take part in the program.
Attending dignitaries included, the Prime Minister (PM) of India, the President, and the Raksha Mantri (Defence Minister) as well as attending officers from the defense forces of allied countries, from all over the world. The IAF was really going no-holds barred approach for this event – with complimenting audio/video coverage of the event – being relayed to the various news outlet, as well as live streaming of the event.
The day came – D-day – or Display Day The weather outlook was not good – there was a low pressure area to develop later in the day – and all the adjoining high pressure systems were supposed to move in. It would rain – the only question was when. The morning started off with calm air, and scattered clouds at 25,000 feet. Towards the afternoon a steady stream of spectators started to fill in the small structure that was erected overlooking the range and the targets. Liaison officers and military delegates from friendly countries started arriving and taking their seats. Personnel from the Air Force, Navy and the Army were also in attendance – being flown over from their bases.
Why Iron Fist you ask? The logo shown above shows a muscular fist with a long arm depicting the lethal punch and the long reach of the Indian Air Force. It shows a laser guided bomb directed to the surgical strike capabilities and technological advancement the Air Force possesses. The Himalayan eagle, the symbol of the Indian Air Force, perching on top blending with the Iron Fist. The wings spread shows the readiness for flight and incredible power. Behind the arm and eagle is the Tiger Moth aircraft that is a part of the Vintage Flight with a long tri-color trail leading to the Sukhoi Su-30MKI showing the evolution of the Indian Air Force over 80 years. The blue symbolizes the sky, while the yellow depicts the wisdom, and glory of the IAF. The shape of the shield is that of the “Coat of Arms” awarded for continuous excellence. The name “Iron Fist 2013″ is engraved on an antiquated banner at the bottom of the shield.
The aerial armada took to the air and the aircraft would be sequenced in smoothly to converge on the range. After the national anthem was played the event began with a trio of Mil Mi-8 helicopters (below left and center) trooping the three flags: India, Indian Air Force and the Flag of South Western Command. After the peculiar sound of the Mil Mi’s faded to the East, it was time for the banner tow.
A MiG-27 Flogger (top right) ingressed with the “IRON FIST” banner (below left) in tow from West to East. After the MiG-27 egressed to the East, a lone two-seater Jaguar (above center) with a recce pod passed the podium from afar – at the same time the imagery as seen by the optical eye in the pod was flashed on one of the video displays – showing the realtime data switching capability of the IAF. Then one of the star attractions – a blast from the past, if you will – the recently resurrected Tiger Moth (above right) flew in front of the crowds. Brightly painted in yellow, and restored in the UK, it is part of the Vintage Flight of the Indian Air Force. The DeHavilland DH82 Tiger Moth is a two-seat biplane powered by a 145hp engine. The origins of the Tiger Moth with the Indian Air Force start off with the Jodhpur Flying Club in 1932. The Tiger Moth features in the Iron Fist logo as well. The Indian Air Force has plans to restore, a Harvard (T-6 Texan), Spitfire and a Hurricane to complete the Vintage Flight.
After the Tiger Moth left with the pilots waving at the crowd, it was a buzzing sound of a turboprop – it was the latest acquisition by the IAF – the Pilatus PC-7 Mk II trainer aircraft (below left and center). Its role is to replace the HPT-32s as a basic trainer based at the Air Force Academy in Dindigul. It did some barrel rolls and some 360s and went on its way. With the whole “world” – meaning other aircraft – already holding behind it – didnt want to delay everything.
After that the whole “shock and awe” routine was on. A supersonic run by a MiG-29 (above right) timed to perfection, right in front of the podium made for “big bang” start. After that again sort of “blast from the past” theme – there was a flight of 5 different variants of the MiG-21s (below left) – I dont have the details of all the versions but – they are Type 96, Type 77, a dual-seat trainer, the Bison. This was followed up by 5 Jaguars (below center) being led by one dual-seat trainer. Then a flight of the DASH-II upgraded MiG-27s (below right). 5 MiG-29s (bottom left) in a V formation was up next. There was an upgrades flight next – a Jaguar, MiG-21 Bison, and the MiG-27 (bottom center). Then as a surprise for everyone, three Sukhoi Su-30MKIs (bottom right) came in from our six o clock – that is behind in plain old English – trailing white smoke – the flew in low over the crowds and then broke formation in Trishul making a white arc in the sky.
This was followed by a formation of choppers – Cheetah (Alouette-II)(below left), Chetak (Alouette-III), the Advanced Light Helicopter (ALH) Dhruv (below center), followed by the Light Combat Helicopter (LCH) (below right). After the other choppers left, the LCH performed its demo routine showing off its maneuverability.
After that it was boom time – two Mirage 2000s (above left) armed with 5 250-kg bombs came by from our right and dropped those on the target. A pair of MiG-21 Bisons (above center) came by and let go of 64 57mm rockets each. One Su-30MKI came by and dropped a 500kg KAB (korrektiruyemaya aviatsionnaya bomba = correctible aircraft bomb) onto its target with deadly precision. A MiG-27 (above right) came by firing off 40 80mm rockets. Three Su-30MKIs (left) came by and released the BetAB runway cratering bomb on a simulated runway target. This is a strange munition. Once deployed from low-flying aircraft, it is retarded by parachute that pops out the back. While the bomb is hanging by the chute – the chute is discarded and a rocket fires off the back. The munition then punches its way through the concrete on the runway through raw kinetic energy and lodges itself once its dug its hole. It waits for around 10-15 seconds and then Kabooooom – it blows the shit out of the whole place.
A Jgauar dropped a 500kg bomb next. A Su-30MKI dropped a Laser Guided Bomb on its target that was lased and marked, next. Two Jaguars strike aircraft came by next, and dropped 8 1000 pound bombs (above left) on their way to targets. Next up was the Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) Tejas (above right) dropping one laser-guided bomb on target, and then banking around and firing a R-73 Air-Air Missile on its simulated target. Next it was the turn of ground-launched missiles. The 9K38 Igla (Russian for needle) is a man portable air defense system homing via infra-red. It seeks its targets by the hot air exhaust coming out of the nozzles. Couple of troops on the ground fired the Igla missile at simulated targets.
Next up was a neat demo of something called as CSAR – Combat Search And Rescue. Simulating a downed pilot that needed rescue – couple of Mi-35(above left) attack choppers and one Mil Mi-17V5 (above center) to lift the pilot. The Mi-35 flew a protection detail – called Combat Air Patrol (CAP) over the target area. An enemy intruder was detected – that was flown by another Mi-35 chopper (above right) – and the friendly Mi-35 immediately converged on the intruder to chase him away and try to keep him away from the Mi-17V5 . That goal was achieved since all the attention of the crowds was diverted by the Mi-35s chasing the intruder away, while the Mi-17V5 snuck out with the downed aviator.
Next up was the SAM launch from the SA-8 Gecko (above left) system. One missile from each mobile launcher was fired off that made its way towards its target and the target blown to bits. Next up were two Hawk jet trainers (above right) that are used but can also be fitted with strike munitions like rockets or bombs and used for close support of ground troops. In this case, the opportunity was to showcase the training level of the Air Force in that, two junior pilots were selected to fly the attack missions – they dropped bombs on the first run, and then fired off rockets on the second attack run. After that it was a repeat performance of the MiG-27s (below left) firing off 100 30mm rockets at ground targets. This was followed by a MiG-21 Type 96 and a Bison firing off S-24 rockets (below right) at the targets on the ground. And then came an amazing sight.
A Su-30MKI (below left) was going to let go off 26 250-kg bombs that are used to carpet-bomb large area – it was almost like fish laying eggs – but what those eggs did on the ground was a completely different matter – it was boom, boom, boom almost to eternity I definitely dont want to be at the receiving end of that one.
It was the time for the attack choppers (above right) to show what they got – couple choppers came by and show what they got – they fired 40 80mm rockets at simulated tanks on the ground. Just as the choppers egressed the scene, two C-130Js (below left) flying low droned over the range, dropping special forces troops in LALO – Low Altitude Low Open – jump – plastering the sky over the range with little floating parachutes (below right).
It was special forces Garuds that came in next and blew up (below right) a forward enemy SAM site. The Gypsy vehicle drove from the back of a Mi-17 (below left), offloaded the troops and then got them back in for a quick egress – while couple other helicopters had the special forces slithering down to secure the flanks of the SAM site.
This was followed by an Il-76 (below left) coming for a heavy cargo drop – escorted by two MiG-29s. While the transport offloads the cargo, the MiG-29s detect a threat to the North. They immediately initiate procedures (below center) to intercept the threat and launch air2air missiles to take the threat out. With air supremacy finally achieved, a lone C-130J Hercules (below right) droned low overhead the audience from the six (behind). It made a low pass midfield of the short strip, and initiated a tactical landing approach – coming in low, feathering the props as the transport touched down. The ramp opened and a group of special forces troops got out of the transport while the engines were on and the C-130 was rolling. The troops cleared the runway and went about securing the runway and airfield from land threats. The C-130 rolled further ahead, did a turn around, and made its quick getaway – it was out of there as soon as it appeared. That was a classic display of the capabilities of the IAF that have been recently upgraded with the acquisition of such aircraft and systems.
After that it was the turn of the Mil Mi-17V5 (left) and the Bambi bucket (center) water drop. The IAF had “somehow” found a nearby lake to fill the Bambi buckets. Couple of the V5s came by and dropped the water on a controlled fire that was lit up for them. The Bambi bucket was developed especially for helicopter crews fighting fires in Canada and North America. It is not only a bucket, but it has pilot controls for timing the water dump, as well as dump patterns over the fire. The bucket itself is portable and compact, and also features foam injection systems for effective fire fighting.
After the Bambi display, was the cue for the IAF Helicopter aerobatic team, the Sarangs(below left and center). They appeared again from behind the crowds – in four ALH Dhruv helicopters painted bright red and with a peacock on the sides. They entertained the crowds with some amazing display of precision and crossovers and sharp maneuvers. As the Sarangs departed after their display, there came a low jet noise and a Sukhoi Su-30MKI (below right) barged in on the scene for its demo routine. The highlight of the Sukhoi demo is obviously the loop, tumble and yaw – where it goes as if its performing a loop – at the top of the loop, the vectored thrust nozzles on the twin engines kick in, and sort of tumbles the Sukhoi, head over heels (so to speak) and the pilot quickly initiated a yaw – a sideways movement in the aircraft axis – changing the direction of flight rapidly and quickly exited the box in front of the crowds that were left amazed. It ended the display by doing a vertical Charlie – coming in high speed pass, and then pitching straight up with flares lighting up the setting sky.
After the Sukhoi were the sky divers of the Akashganga team of the Indian Air Force. Based out at the Para Jumping school in Agra, it is comprised of the instructors and other paratroopers from the school. They have tri-color parachutes (below right) and they form interesting formations as they descend earthward after jumping off from the An-32 (below left).
Next up were the “Black Cats” and no these are no cats – they are the feared National Security Group (NSG) commandos. They had two Mil Mi-17V5s choppers (below center and right) arrive on a simulated urban building terrace in which some terrorists have holed up. The NSG folks simulated something they did in Mumbai on a building during the 26/11 attacks. The NSG folks slithered their way onto the terrace. Hanging from the sides (below left), they blasted the windows with explosives and gained entry into the building, clearing it floor by floor. There was a team on the ground to secure the perimeter and prevent the escape of the terrorists after the commandos flushed them from the top. It was a nice display by the NSG folks – and would give us common folks only a “tip of the iceberg” sneak preview – if you will – about “a day in the life”.
Then the “eye in the sky” – and no I am not referring to the AWACS, but a more smaller, higher duration hovering machine – the remotely piloted vehicle (RPV) – called Searcher (right)- made a low, slow pass in front of the grand stand. It was up in the air long before the crowds started to mill the podium. Flown by a small of aviators sitting in their command centers, these RPAs or as in the US we like to call them, the UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicle) form the spearhead for reconnaissance of the forward enemy areas – giving tactical and situational awareness to the troops on the ground, as well as relaying the same picture to a pilot in the air, and even a top brass directing the war from the command center. This is where the world can go to – the possibilities are endless – its more of a question of when and how much capabilities will be packed in this system. They represent a small airframe packed with the state of the art electronics and avionics for navigation, imaging and target designation – and form the invisible enablers and an essential component to conduct modern warfare.
And then it was the time for the Indian Air Force Drill Team (IAFDT). And the first time I saw these young air warriors, I was blown away by the precise control they had over their rifles. The scene took me straight to the opening scene of “The Few Good Men” starring Jack Nicholson and Tom Cruise and is one of my favorite movies. I was literally dumbstruck by the command and control of these guys over the rifles which were fitted with bayonets – one wrong move and it might cause some really serious harm – but no – practice and constant practice has drilled perfection into these young lads. For the first time in my DSLR lifetime, that I was actually happy that my DSLR had a video function in it. I went ahead and made couple of videos of them going through their moves. Look at the last finale display, where the leader walks through the barrage of rotating rifles, and walks back – and then repeats the same walk going through when rifles are being exchanged by the other troop members – without even a moment of hesitation and looking here or there. Now that requires utmost practice, precision and above all faith in your comrades.
The serious mood was broke up by the Air Warrior Symphony Orchestra (AWSO) playing some really popular numbers – both from Hollywood and Bollywood After a short break, the night phase of the attack started. It was opened in a brilliant daze of flash by a Mil Mi-17 (below left) firing off rockets at a simulated target ahead of it. The Mi-35 attack choppers (below center) were next, launching a series of similar rockets at ground targets.
What followed next – was a series of “Kabooom”, “Pflat”, “Phfoooom”, (top right, above left and above center) dull thuds and flashes of light – as one air strike after another rolled in to attack, dropped the munitions and egressed the target area. After the series of unrelenting attacks, was a night insertion operation of the IAF Garud special forces. Couple of Mi-17s flew in to the area in front of the crowd. One chopper hovered (above right) while other provided searchlight illumination for the landing zone. Initially I was skeptical if I can ever get a shot in pitch black lighting conditions. I could see a picture develop as the hovering chopper was silhouetted (below left) against the light of the circling chopper. One of the other firsts in Iron Fist 2013, was the launch of Surface-2-Air missiles – and this one was a blast – I mean literally a blast. One should experience the night launch of an SA-3 “Pechora” system (below center) – and not one, but two launches. The program was ended by a flare display by an Antonov An-32, Ilyushin Il-76 (below right), and an Embraer.
And with that, it was time to get back to reality. It was time to bid adieu to my friends – old and new. They were an unforgettable three, four days that I got to spend with the folks. It was painful to get back to routine. I had to figure out my transport back to Jaisalmer, and fortunately could pile on with the Media Bus that took everyone to Jaisalmer for the post event party. It was good for me and Kaps, my good old friend from my hometown, Mumbai who was also covering the event – that we had decided to camp out at Jaisalmer instead of Jodhpur – since returning to Jodhpur after the event would take us 5-5.5 hours to reach Jodhpur. Jaisalmer was just around an hour’s drive away. We requested if we can get down before we hit the party spot – and would go directly to the hotel. We both packed once we reached our hotel since we both had flights to catch at Jodhpur at 1200 in the morning. For reaching the airport at 1000, we left Jaisalmer at 0330 in the morning. We parted at the airport since he had different flights going back to Mumbai than mine. And with my luck, the flight I was on was late by couple hours. So by the time I sat on my seat in the Air India Airbus A319, I dozed off almost immediately. In fact one of the cameraman I had met at the event, was sitting on the aisle seat in my row – and I did not even realize that, until my eyes opened after we landed in Mumbai. For me an even more longer journey awaited. I was leaving for returning back to the US the night the next day. And boy did I sleep on the flight like a baby . I would like to appreciate and thank the IAF folks – there are many to list individually – for giving me the opportunity to cover the Iron Fist exercise.
Till next time folks – stay safe and have a blast – Blue skies and Happy Landings!!