Shahbaz 78, a joint USAF/PAF Exercise was held at PAF Base Masroor in April 1978. A detachment of Mirage Squadron from Sargodha Base was deployed at Masroor for the purpose. The first part of the exercise was fairly straight forward where USAF aircraft conducted night raids at Masroor Base and PAF interceptors flew air defence missions against them. Both the USAF strike elements and PAFs air defence fighters operated from Masroor. The second half of the exercise was a planned Dissimilar Air Combat Training Camp (DACT) that pitted the formidable F-15s, USAFs prize new acquisition against PAFs Mirages and F6s.
For much of the 60s and part of the 70s of the twentieth century, USAF F-4s were considered the top of the line combat aircraft, especially in the air superiority role. Following their not so encouraging performance in air combat in the Vietnam War (kill ratio of 4:1 in favor of USAF as against 10:1 in the Korean Conflict), USAF was looking for an unadulterated air superiority fighter to replace the multi-role and aging F-4 fleet. The F-15 entered service around 1975 and in every parameter of combat maneuvering, it outperformed its contemporaries by a wide margin. It was developed for one single role establish air superiority by decimating the adversaries combat aircraft in air combat. The F-15 combat Wings that were raised were not assigned multi-roles; they concentrated solely on air to air combat training and nothing else.
One such Wing was deployed at Bittburg in Germany. Besides conducting mutual air combat missions, they frequently flew against Saab-Drakens, Lightnings, Phantoms, Mirages and F-104s belonging to the air forces of their European NATO allies. The stories of how they have been chewing up their adversaries with consummate ease had preceded their arrival. The Wing was deployed at PAF Base Masroor in April 78 to participate in a DACT Camp. I had the privilege of being a member of the Mirage flight deployed at Masroor for the purpose. The F-6 Squadron that participated in the Exercise was commanded by the irrepressible Wing Commander Safdar Mahmood (retired as Air Commodore), better known to his comrades as Safdar Mousey, for reasons I never knew then and still do not know till today.
The gleaming F-15s parked at Masroor tarmac were a sight to behold. Here was the most lethal fighter of its time and we by comparison in our antiquated Mirages and F-6s were going to take them head on, both in the literal and metaphorical sense. How should we plan to achieve this apparently improbable feat?
Vanity is an essential ingredient of fighter pilots and they are generally hopeless optimists with a never say die attitude. We were no different. To prepare ourselves for combat, we studied the flying and weapon characteristics of the F-15s to discover any weakness that could be exploited – we found none. In every regime they outperformed us by a wide margin. But there was one slight advantage we enjoyed. Visual spotting of the F-15 for us was far easier than for the F-15 pilots to establish visual tally with us because as compared to the majestic F-15s, we were only half their size. Their brilliant AI radar with the Target Designator (TD) box feature that was unknown in our part of the world at that point in time however neutralized the drawback. The TD box pinpointed our position on their Heads Up Display (HUD) that aided them immensely in establishing visual contact with us. If only we could fool their AI radar, we stood a chance. Hmmm, time to come up with something unexpected. Think outside the box. That appeared to be our only salvation.
The combined briefings laid down the rules of the game for the camp. All combats would take place in the designated areas from 10,000 Above Ground Level (AGL). The upper height limit was not specified. F-15s would hunt in pairs whereas we had the option of employing up to 4 aircraft though in majority of engagements we also operated in twos. F-15s were to be configured with training AIM-7 Sparrow BVR missiles, along with AIM-9s (heat-seeking missiles) and cannons. We only had the heat seekers and cannons but no BVR missiles. The F-15 Airborne Intercept (AI) radar had a pick-up range of over 40 NMS; our Mirage AI radar capability was zero and the poor F-6 did not even carry an AI radar.
To even out certain obvious disadvantages of our fleet, it was agreed that we would operate under positive ground radar cover whereas the F-15s would rely on their AI radars. Also, while the F-15s could simulate Sparrow Launch (Fox 1) from long-ranges, staying well clear of the lethal ranges of our missiles and cannons, the engagement would continue till one side managed a heat missile (Fox 2) kill parameter or gunshot cine/video on one or both the adversaries. To resolve the dispute about who took the first shot, the F-15s with their multiple radios were to announce on our channel a kill (Fox 2/Fox 3) immediately on exposing valid gun camera film, after which the stricken aircraft was to remove itself from the combat arena. If we achieved a Fox 2/Fox 3 on the F-15s, without earlier announcement of being foxed by the F-15s, the kill would be granted to us subject to its validity from gun camera film assessment.
The show began on the third week of April. According to my log-book, I flew a total of seven missions against the F-15s, from 22nd April to 26 April. In retrospect, I consider those five days as the most enjoyable and professionally rewarding week of my flying career. We achieved verifiable kill parameters on the F-15s and in the bargain gave away shots to them. Before revealing the final tally of the week-long camp, I would like to share with my young fighter pilots two episodes which will be of interest to them. To my non-fighter pilot readers, I apologies in advance as the next group of paragraphs will be full for fighter pilots jargon’s which only they can truly relish. You are at liberty to skip over these paragraphs if you feel so inclined.
I was to lead a section of two Mirages against a pair of F-15s. Flt Lt Razzaq Anjum was my no 2 (Razzaq rose to the rank of AVM before he embraced martyrdom in the unfortunate Fokker 27 accident). From our earlier experience, we knew that there was only one way we could prevail – do the unexpected. We had to somehow make the F-15 pair lose sight of one of us, who could then sneak in for a kill. Given the very impressive performance of the F-15 airborne radar, normal tactics was bound to fail. We had to try something very different.
The standard practice for a pair entering the combat zone is to maintain battle formation that is line abreast and a mile to two miles apart, depending on the nature of threat. We chose to enter the battle arena in close formation, thereby hoping to present a single blip on the F-15 radar scope. We knew they would pick us up at around 40 NMS and seeing a single blip they would wonder about the other bogie. The superior performance of their weapon system just might lull them to a degree of complacency where they might not worry too much about the unaccounted bandit.
When our ground radar reported bandits at 15 NMS, as per our game plan, we did a violent vertical split. I zoomed up while Razzak continued straight towards the target. Soon, Razzak called contact with one of the F-15s which apparently had not established visual tally with him. I saw him go after the F-15 and simultaneously spotted the second F-15 about 3-4 NMS behind Razzak maneuvering for a missile shot towards him. Apparently, neither of them had spotted me and I found myself favorably placed to go after the second F-15. Warning Razzak of the impending threat which was still a fair distance away from the lethal missile (Fox 2) range, I went after the second F-15. Before I could get in range for a missile shot, either on a warning by his comrade or his spotting me, the F-15 broke hard. In Mirage and F-6s, our break is normally in the turning plane but the F-15 pilot perhaps banking on the unbelievable thrust to weight ratio of his machine which permitted him to accelerate even while in a vertical climb, chose to break upward knowing that the Mirage would not be able to keep up with it for much longer. I followed him and soon both of us were facing vertical with my speed diminishing rapidly. Because of my initial speed and height advantage, I continued to close in for a valid missile shot and finally was within gun range and managed a decent gun shot before eventually falling off the sky. In the meanwhile Razzak too announced a Fox 2 and Fox 3 on his quarry. Since no Fox had been called on us till then, we had apparently drawn first blood.
I eventually ran out of speed, control and ideas and fell off the sky, recovering without entering into a spin no thanks to my superior handling unlike the F-6, Mirage is far more docile and forgiving at low speeds. Pretty soon I saw the F-15 on my tail but he was gentleman enough to come over to our frequency and inquire if I had exposed cine on him. On my answering in the affirmative, the first engagement was called off.
To be fair to the F-15 pair, in the next engagement (in each mission we could carry out up to two mix ups) we were unable to surprise them. They had us both firmly on their radars and rapidly closed in for close-quarter one versus one engagement. Our only realistic option was to hightail it and make an immediate exit out of the designated combat zone well before establishment of visual tally by the F-15s. We did not. Despite our twists and turns, barrels, and even threatening to spin out, we were clobbered, but not without putting up a futile albeit a gallant resistance. For the mission, the final score stood two for us and two for them an even contest.
After landing as I met Razzak on the tarmac, he wore a grin that would have made the Cheshire cat proud. What? I asked him. You should see the gunshot I have exposed on the F-15, he burst out. Let’s check it out, I answered. We assessed our films. Both my claims were valid and so were Razzak’s but there was a catch. The minimum safe distance specified in the Rules of Engagement (ROE) during gunshot was 600 feet. In Razzak’s gunshot cine, the Mirage gun sight was the same size as the F-15 canopy he had closed into less than a 100 feet of the F-15 and still had the sight sitting pretty and steady. Oh my God! I exclaimed. Hide it. If the bosses see it, both of us would get grounded, if not worse, But don’t you agree it is a beautiful sight, he countered. I am impressed, I answered and just could not help marvel at the enthusiasm and ego of my irrepressible no 2.
The mutual debrief was very educative. How did you stay behind me in the vertical break, the F-15 leader wondered. hat was your speed when you initiated the break, I queried. 250 knots, he answered. I was closed to 450 kts, I replied. That explains it, he concluded. His no.2 had apparently lost sight of Razzak as he was busy updating his leader on his (leaders) rather precarious position. I showed him Razzaks gun camera shot. He was dumbfounded for a few seconds. We saw their gun camera films and in the second engagement they had us good and proper in their sights and they too had closed into less than 600 feet. Two kills to each pair in the mission was mutually agreed. We complimented the F-15 pair on their professionalism and they too applauded our subterfuge and aggressive handling.
The next episode involved two F-6s flown by Safdar and his No.2 against two F-15s flown by the F-15 Wing Commander, a full colonel and his No 2. I am not aware of how the mix up proceeded but would like to quote from memory the following narration of the event by the USAF Wing Commander:
On our AI radar we picked up only one target and soon spotted a lone F-6 heading south. Assuming that the other one was not in the arena, I promptly achieved Fox 2 parameter and closed in for a Fox 3 shot. On my stand-by radio, I announce, F-6 flying south, Fox 2 and Fox 3 on you. Back came the chilling reply, Which F-6 are you referring at. There are two of us heading south. Instinctively I swiveled my neck and looked back. Sure enough, an F-6 well within the missile range was sitting merrily at my six. It turned out to be the F-6 leader and I could almost imagine him grinning under his helmet, under his bushy mustache.
What tactics had Safdar’s formation employed to escape radar detection? Why did he not warn his No.2 to break? Perhaps he might have concluded that the No. 2 was a dead duck regardless and why not even the score and bag an F-15 in the bargain. Where was the second F-15? I am not aware of the details and we need to get hold of Safdar and ask him to render his version of the event in his own inimitable style, a style that I can assure you would be both interesting and very hilarious.
The camp was a roaring success. I do not have the official result but if I recall the final kill ratio was roughly 2:1 in favour of the F-15s. In all their other engagements against the likes of Saab Drakens, F-4s, Mirages, Lightnings and F-104s flown by European pilots in Continental Europe, the Wing had apparently enjoyed as high as 20:1 kill ratio in their favor. Our pilot’s aggressive maneuvering and tactical skills came as a surprise to them. We too were impressed by the awesome flying performance of the F-15s, its unmatched (at that time) AI radar performance and the thorough professionalism and sportsmanship of the USAF pilots.
Exercise Midlink 78 was held in November/December 1978 where air and maritime forces of Pakistan and USA interacted with each other off the Karachi coast and in the air spaces around Karachi and the Arabian Sea. As the Flight Commander of No.5 Squadron, I was again fortunate and privileged to have taken part in the Exercise.
The air portion of Exercise Midlink 78 was fairly conventional. Red forces (aggressors) were represented by land-based USAF F-111 and F-4 squadrons operating from Masroor. PAF Mirage IIIs and F-6s again from Masroor operated in the air defence role. F-111s (singly) and F-4s (in pairs) conducted raids over Masroor while Mirages and F-6s from Masroor carried out interceptions with the aid of air defense radar that were deployed for the purpose.
The aggressors ingressed at low levels and while the minimum height from safety point of view was 250 feet Above Ground Level (AGL), the F-111s, having their terrain following radars at their disposal invariably flew in at about 100 feet AGL. We as the defenders rarely complained.
As per the Rules of Engagements, the interceptor was permitted to carry out a single attack simulating a heat missile (Fox 2) or gunshot (Fox 3) while the attackers were permitted one hard turn into the interceptor at which point further maneuvering by both was to cease. These restrictions were placed for flight safety reasons. These restrictions, as we soon learned, existed on paper only.
F-111s, basically being an attack aircraft with little pretense to air combat potential, generally adhered to the laid down rules. The F-4s were a different kettle of fish. They had too much of fighter ego ingrained in their psyche to tamely allow another fighter jock to expose gun camera film on them capturing their theoretical destruction without a serious struggle. On a number of occasions, a hard turn by the strike formation led to full-fledged combat at what in our fighter pilots lexicon is termed as the deck level.
These maneuverings and subsequent claims were never officially revealed as it would have resulted in strict disciplinary actions on both the guilty parties. But unofficially we talked about it in a hushed manner, displaying the cines on the quiet and only to each other.
Till the advent of F-15s and then F-16s, F-4s were the most potent fighter/ground attack aircraft in USAF’s inventory. During the Arab Israeli war of 1973 when the Israeli Air Force possessed both F-4s and Mirages, the former was considered to be their No.1 air combat aircraft. With that impressive background, we expected a very tough dogfight if the F-4s decided to engage us seriously in air combat. The F-4s, as I had mentioned earlier, on more than one occasion took us on and much to our surprise and delight we normally enjoyed the upper hand in those engagements. Mercifully also, there were no mishaps.
Photo: Shahbaz 78, A Joint USAF/PAF Exercise was held at PAF Base Masroor in April 1978.