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In the first such endeavour in the strategically-located Persian Gulf region, India is all set to take part in a major multi-nation air combat exercise in the United Arab Emirates with fighter jets and heavy-duty airlift aircraft this month.

The IAF on Wednesday will dispatch six Sukhoi-30MKI fighters, two C-17 Globemaster-III aircraft and around 125 personnel for the high-voltage “Desert Flag” exercise, which will see participation of air forces from the US, France, South Korea, UAE, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain.

Greece, Jordan, Kuwait and Egypt, in turn, will be “observers” for the three-week wargames coordinated by the air warfare centre of the Al Dhafra airbase in UAE, with fighters like American F-15s and F-16s, French Rafales and Mirage-2000s and Russian-origin Sukhois taking part.

India has assiduously built stronger defence ties with the Gulf nations through military training, intelligence-sharing and a few bilateral exercises over the years. “But this will be the first time the IAF will take part in such a multilateral exercise in the crucial Gulf region,” said a senior officer.

“The exercise will see the entire gamut of offensive and defensive operations with force-enhancers like AWACS (airborne warning and control systems) and flight-refuelling aircraft in a realistic combat setting,” he added.

This will be the fourth time IAF will participate in such a multilateral exercise in the last five years, after the American ‘Red Flag’ in 2016, the Israeli ‘Blue Flag’ in 2017 and the Australian ‘Pitch Black’ wargames in 2018.

The IAF’s versatility in operating in diverse terrains, from the high-altitude region of Ladakh and the deserts of Rajasthan to the Indian Ocean Region, has made it “a partner of choice” for such wargames around the globe.

“Moreover, IAF has successfully integrated fighters from western (Rafales, Mirage-2000 and Jaguars) and eastern (Sukhois and MiGs) blocs, and now indigenous (Tejas) ones as well, into its network-centric operations,” said another officer.

The upward trajectory in military ties with the Gulf countries also saw General M M Naravane tour UAE and Saudi Arabia, in the first-ever such visit by an Indian Army chief in December last year, at a time when their traditionally close ties with Pakistan have faced turmoil in recent months. The UAE has also taken the lead among the Gulf countries in “normalizing” ties with Israel, a country with which India has close strategic-military ties. The UAE Air Force, incidentally, has been providing support through its Airbus MRTT refuelling aircraft to IAF’s new Rafale fighters on their over 7,000-km flight to India from France.

India is also in discussions to export BrahMos supersonic cruise missiles, which have a strike range of 290-km, and the Akash air defence missiles, which have an interception range of 25-km, to the UAE and Saudi Arabia, among other countries.