Air combat exercise boosts Pakistan's image as key security partner

By Zia Ur Rehman


A pair of Pakistan Air Force JF-17s. [Pakistan Air Force]

KARACHI -- A multinational air exercise under way in Pakistan, shortly following major joint naval drills in February, is further evidence of the country’s eagerness to partner with the international community on joint efforts toward peace and security, officials and observers say.

The ACES Meet 2021-1 aerial exercise is designed to maximise the combat readiness of participating countries through air-to-air combat training.

The two-week drills started on Monday (March 29) at an undisclosed air base of the Pakistan Air Force (PAF), a PAF spokesperson said.

The PAF, Royal Saudi Air Force (RSAF) and US Air Force are actively participating, while Bahrain, Egypt, and Jordanian air forces were invited as observers, he said.


Participants of Aces Meet 2021-1 take part in the inaugural ceremony of the exercise on March 29. [Pakistan Air Force]

The PAF's F-16 and JF-17 fighter jets and the RSAF's Tornado aircraft are taking part in the exercise.

The most recent iteration of the exercise is unique because "participating air forces bring along a vast experience of combat operations, whether in counter-terrorism or composite flying domains", PAF Deputy Chief of Air Staff (Operations) Air Vice Marshal Waqas Ahmed Sulehri said at the opening ceremony.

"The platform must be fully utilised to share the invaluable experiences for mutual benefits," he said.

The first ACES Meet exercise were held in Pakistan in 2017. The air forces of eight countries, including the PAF, RSAF and Turkish Air Force, took part.

The first drills were focused on developing air power to contribute toward counter-insurgency and counter-terrorism campaigns.

Boosting regional stability

Inviting foreign forces to participate in joint counter-terrorism military drills shows Pakistan's commitment to international co-operation against extremism and terrorism in the region, officials and observers say.

Forty-five countries -- with ships, destroyers, fighter jets, special operations teams, explosive specialists and military observers -- participated in the multinational AMAN-21 naval exercise hosted by the Pakistan Navy in February in the Arabian Sea off the coast of Karachi.

"The exchange of experiences and expertise among the security forces of various countries in the joint naval and air force drills helps repel the threat of terrorism and maintain peace in the region," said Muhammad Hussain Shah, a professor of international relations in Karachi.

The shared experiences "will help the air forces of the participant countries to counter security threats regionally", said Shah.

The PAF's experience in ousting militant groups might provide guidance to Saudi Arabia in fighting Yemen's Houthi rebels, he said.

In Pakistan, the PAF has played a decisive role in eliminating militancy over the years.

"In military operations against local and transnational militant outfits, including Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan and al-Qaeda, the PAF helped the Pakistani military inflict huge damage on militants by targeting high-profile commanders," said Shakir Hussain of Islamabad, a retired military official and a security analyst.

"The militants had taken refuge in the mountains of tribal areas of Pakistan bordering Afghanistan, where ... ground operations were difficult for the Pakistani army to carry out," he said.

Pakistani-Saudi military ties

Since the beginning of the conflict in Yemen, the Houthis, who are backed by Iran and refer to themselves as Ansarallah, have fired dozens of missiles into Saudi Arabia. Most have been intercepted by the Saudi military.

Islamabad regularly condemns Houthi attacks on Saudi territory.

The PAF enjoys close co-operation with Saudi Arabia and frequently participates in bilateral military exercises and joint training.

Pakistan has provided military aid and expertise to the kingdom for decades. In the 1960s the PAF helped the RSAF build and pilot its first jet fighters, and PAF pilots flew RSAF Lightning aircraft to repulse a South Yemeni incursion over the kingdom's southern border in 1969.

Former Pakistani army chief Gen. (ret). Raheel Sharif also heads the Islamic Military Counter-terrorism Coalition, a 41-nation military alliance of Muslim countries founded by Saudi Arabia in December 2015 to act as a pan-Islamic front against terrorism.

Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Afghanistan, Uganda, Somalia, Mauritania, Lebanon, Libya, Yemen and Turkey are part of the alliance.

The alliance excludes Iran, as well as Syria and Iraq, whose leaders have close ties to Tehran. Saudi Arabia has accused Iran of supporting armed groups across the Middle East.

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