India Conducts Unannounced Air Exercise near Doklam

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Commercial imagery acquired on 03JAN2016 shows up to 9 x SU-30MKI at Bagdogra Airbase.

Indian Air Force (IAF) rotations of SU-30MKI Flanker continued in 2017/2018 at the Bagdogra Airbase, likely for an unannounced air exercise. Previous commercial imagery acquired in January 2016 also showed a squadron level deployment of the IAF’s advanced fighter. Up to eleven Flanker were observed and nine were still visible by the end of January 2018.

Prior to the Bagdogra deployments, commercial imagery acquired in October 2017 captured the arrival of at least four SU-30MKI at nearby Hasimara. The flight of Flanker deployed for QRA duty likely due to tensions with China over the Doklam dispute. The QRA aircraft may have relocated to Bagdogra to fill out the squadron level deployment, as they were no longer visible at the end of December.

After the Flanker departed Hasimara, commercial imagery showed additional arrivals on the eastern parking apron. Imagery acquired in early January showed a flight of five Hawk MK 132 trainer aircraft. (The IAF & Indian Navy ordered 123 Hawk MK-132 jets.) The Hawk provide Stage 3 training before pilots progress to operational fighters. It’s likely the Hawk participated in the air exercise. Imagery suggests the exercise concluded within the month as the Hawk departed the airbase.

Not far from the Hawk, four MIG-27ML were also observed on the north side of the runway. India reportedly decommissioned the remaining MIG-27 at the airbase in late December; however many remained near operational areas in January. Previously, non-operational MIG-27 appear to have been cannibalized for parts and relocated south of the runway. India still operates the swing-wing aircraft out of Jodhpur and Gwalior.

Satellite imagery continues to show a larger number of fighter aircraft deployed at China’s Shigatse, the closest airfield to the Doklam dispute. With the completion of India’s air exercise and the decommissioning of the MIG-27, it will be interesting to see if the IAF will maintain the previous QRA flight or even a larger air element. Until we get additional collects, we won’t know if India is attempting to hedge against Chinese rotations.

Bottom Line: India conducted an unannounced air exercise near Doklam. Historical imagery suggests it was previously planned and may not be directly related with tensions in the area.