Anatolian Eagle-2023 A View From Konya

Anatolian Eagle is always an exciting exercise that the Turkish Air Force is keen to promote, not just to NATO but to other international allies like Jordan, Qatar, United Arab Emirates and of course the Pakistan Air Force. It gives all sides an opportunity to share their experiences, and the PAF with its high level of alert and capabilities, is always an air force that other participants are keen to talk to.

The Pakistan Air Force has been the biggest foreign supporter of Turkey’s Anatolian Eagle. Since its first attendance in 2004, the PAF has attended the event nearly every year, always with JF-17 Thunders and F-16A/B or F-16A/B MLUs, from a variety of units. This year, however, we saw No 5 Falcons Sqn send five of their F-16C/Ds (two dual-seat Ds and three Cs) to Konya (TuAF’s 3rd Main Jet Base) on what was its debut appearance.

Gaining experience

Based at Jacobabad-Shahbaz Air Base, the unit operates arguably the most lethal aircraft in the PAF inventory. So, it’s quite remarkable that the Falcons, the PAF’s oldest fighter unit, has been operating arguably the PAF’s most potent fighter since 2010. Obviously the multirole unit has had more pressing matters to deal with until now.

Heading up the detachment was Air Commodore Asad Khan whose role was to ensure everything ran smoothly, while the unit’s OC, Wg Cdr Ahmad Sami, looked after the flying side with his executive officers. The PAF managed to use Anatolian Eagle to bed down their less-experienced pilots in the art of tactical flying as a coalition force.

“It’s a great experience for them,” Air Cdre Asad told the author on the edge of the exercise ramp, adding: “Participating at any international forum whether it be AE or Red Flag, provides an opportunity to interact with personnel from other nations, from the west and the east. You get an opportunity to work with different professionals from all tiers.

This gives young pilots, who had previously only operated in a domestic environment, a chance to operate in an international  scale. That’s a great take-away. Everyone has these learning opportunities and even if you learn one new thing, it’s worth it! There’s a lot going on during every mission and sortie.”

Love to learn

The men of PAF love to learn, that’s one of the force’s strengths and this trait paid its dividends during Operation Swift Retort in February 2019, when it bloodied the nose of its arch-rival the Indian Air Force,  when it shot down a MiG-21 Bison and captured the pilot Wg Cdr Abhinandan ‘Nandu’ Varthaman. No such proof on the Su-30MKI that was reportedly shot down and which India still disputes. The Indian Air Force is trying to learn from mistakes, by participating in more international exercises in France, Greece, UK and in India with the USA.

On the missions at Anatolian Eagle, the Air Cdre said: “Generally we are flying air-to-air, sweep, or air-to-ground. We are a multirole squadron so we can put our skills to anything. We just do what White Cell [the planners] ask us to do and give it our all.”

During the exercise, the participating nations can fulfil any roles, and if there is a desire by any of the nations to work in any specific roles they can do it. “There was never an occasion, when we asked for a specific role – we went along with the planners requirements.”

Several PAF personnel played the role of a mission commander in the exercise – a wonderful opportunity to lead an international Blue Air sortie.

The Air Cdre was reluctant to discuss the specific weapons that the ‘Falcons’ F-16C/Ds were simulating, but he did say “the aircraft was flown with its full set of capabilities.”

Time to tango

In addition to the DB 110 reconnaissance pod and Sniper targeting pod, the 18 jets – made up of 12 single-seat Cs and six dual seat Ds, can be equipped with Enhanced Paveway II, Paveway III, JDAM and AIM-120 AMRAAMs. However, none of these systems were to be seen at Anatolian Eagle, only an Air Combat Manoeuvring Instrumentation (ACMI) pod on the right wing.

These pods allow the aircraft to be tracked by personnel watching the air war unfold, over the vast ACMI range, and showing the drama on the large Anatolian Eagle screens in the White Force building and subsequent debriefs, it ensures there are no arguments as to whether someone was shot down or not!

Among the 80 personnel that were involved in the 5 Sqn detachment was the first female F-16 Block 52 pilot, Flt Lt Eisha, who has flown both the JF-17 Thunder and the F-16A/B Block 15s.

For the OC 5 Sqn, Wg Cdr Ahmad Sami, this was his first international exercise while leading the unit, although he had participated in other domestic exercises. The Wg Cdr had flown at AE in 2012, with No 9 Sqn ‘Griffins’. Last year, 5 Sqn attended the Saudi Spears of Victory exercise, which included an international field including the hosts, Saudi Arabia, as well as the RAF, US and Greece. Aside from the RAF, it meant they were working with air forces that never appeared at Anatolian Eagle, thus sharpening the point of the PAF’s combat spear.

Panel 1: PAF arrival

The PAF was among the first international partners to arrive this year, on April 25. They flew from their home base Shahbaz, made a night stop before landing at Konya. In the past, F-16s and JF-17s have required an additional stop, but with their conformal fuel tanks, the Block 52+ can carry an extra 450 gallons of fuel. No 5 Squadron flew three single-seat F-16Cs and two dual-seat F-16Ds. 

Panel 2: Oldest PAF fighter squadron

No 5 Sqn is the oldest fighter squadron in the PAF, having been formed at PAF Base Peshawar on August 15, 1947 with eight Hawker Tempest Mk IIs. It entered the Mirage era on March 8, 1968, when the squadron was the first to be re-equipped with the Dassault Mirages – the IIIEP version, By the time of its conversion to the F-16 Block 52 in 2010 the unit had more variants of the delta-winged fighter than any other unit – continuing its tradition of being multi-role. They included the Mirage IIIEA, IIIDA, IIIEP, IIIRP and VDR. 

Panel 3: AE debut back in 2004

The PAF made their debut at AE in 2004, when No 9 ‘Griffins’ Sqn deployed with five F-16A/Bs based at PAF Base Mushaf. The ‘Griffins’ led by Wing Commander Jawad Saeed, who rose to Air Marshal and retired from the PAF two years ago, headed up 14 pilots and 63 personnel.

Much of what the Wg Cdr told me back then is relevant today: “Anatolian Eagle provided the PAF with a great chance to see how well we could operate with other air forces. We found we were not out of place – we knew our strengths and weaknesses before we arrived and go away happy with our performances.”

Another senior officer from another air force added, “They made a lot of friends here, they went about their business very professionally.”

That still rings true today. Wherever the PAF goes, they make friends – whether it is international aerospace shows like Farnborough, Paris, Dubai and Zhuhai marketing the JF-17 Thunder or at exercises in China, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and UAE.