The first such drill was held in Pakistan in March 2011. The Chinese Defence ministry did not reveal the number or type of the aircraft participating this time but according to Chinese state media, the last time such an exercise was held in Northwest China in August 2019, lasted for a couple of weeks and involved some 50 aircraft along with complete combat units.
|The Author is Former Chief of Staff (COS), Central Command, Indian Army. He is an expert on Siachen and Ladakh with experience in counter insurgency operations in J&K and North East and is also an expert on Information Warfare.|
A news item appeared on December 08, 2020 reporting that “A batch of Chinese air force personnel left for Pakistan on Monday to participate in a joint exercise to deepen practical cooperation and improve the actual-combat training level of the two sides”.
The report also said that “The troops left for Pakistani Air Force's airbase in Bholari at Thatta district in Sindh, northeast of Pakistan's port city of Karachi, to participate in the drills named "Shaheen (Eagle)-IX". The joint air force exercise, as per the Chinese spokesperson will be held close to the Gujarat borders and is said to conclude in late December and is a project within the 2020 cooperation plan of the two militaries. A Chinese Airforce (PLAAF) Y20 Heavy lift plane was also spotted descending into Pakistan near Bholari Airbase, along with it was spotted another unknown fighter aircraft (suspected PLAAF) following the same route.
The drill comes in the backdrop of the ongoing India-China border friction along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in Eastern Ladakh and Pakistan miserably failing to send terrorists across the Line of Control (LOC) before winter settles in.
The exercise is aimed at promoting the development of China-Pakistan military-to-military relationships, deepen practical cooperation between the two air forces, and improve the actual-combat training level of the two sides
It may be recalled that when strikes were planned by the Indian Air Force at Balakot, a lot of speculative propaganda was launched on TV channels and the social media, of some action being planned against the JeM after the Pulwama suicide bomber strike on the CRPF convoy which had killed 40 jawans. Pakistan had also started focusing on the possibility of an air strike. At that point, another speculation was deliberately spread that the JeM headquarters in Bahawalpur could be an option.
On the D Day, a group of Mirages were scrambled and asked to move towards the Border in Rajasthan re-inforcing these speculations to divert attention from the main target. When the Mirages were nearing the IB in the South, Pakistani SAAB AWACS, which was in the air, seemed to have picked up the fighters and two Pakistani aircraft were scrambled. The Indian aircrafts had continued to fly a path giving the impression that they were actually headed towards Bahawalpur. And then in the early hours of February 26, 2019, 20 fully armed Mirage 2000 fighter aircraft took off, one by one in quick succession, from the runway and taxiway of the Air Force Station at Gwalior. The diversion worked and the Mission was successful.
Given the chinks in our Air Defence and the current situation on the Line of Actual Control (LAC) where the confrontation is going on over the last eight months, Beijing would not miss any opportunity with its all weather ally to show India in a poor light. The eight rounds of talks between the senior military commanders from both sides having failed and the several rounds of diplomatic parleys also meeting the same fate, as also Indian Army’s occupation of Kailash Range under the nose of PLA, Xi Ping would not let this pass easily. He would be looking for any chance even at the cost of Pakistan to put India on the defensive.
Should India be wary of such an exercise at this stage? Yes. It needs to be in an exceptional vigil of every joint endeavour by China & Pakistan in the given external environment on Northern and Western Front. Though Pakistan on its own, will rather hesitate to draw India in to any conflict at any other place, along the front, except J&K where attempt on trans-border intrusions by fire or physical are routine. Though these exercises have been going on since 2011 and obvious approach is one should not be unduly worried about this routine. But location of PLAAF fighter jets of J11 category at Skardu Air Field in POK is not routine. Hence, given the support from PLA, and the rogue state with irrational approach that Pakistan has been, nothing can be ruled out.