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SOURCE: The Tribune

The failed, supposedly Fethulllah Gulen-inspired military coup d’etat in Turkey in July 2016 is known to have had the involvement of several Turkish Air Force officials, including pilots and some other senior functionaries.

Some rebel Turkish F-16s had even tried to shoot down President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s personal plane then. The ensuing purge by Erdogan is known to have deprived the Turkish Air Force of 250-300 pilots, another similar number choosing to leave voluntarily on account of safety apprehensions.

This directly impacted the operational capabilities of its American supplied F-16 fleet. Now, modern-day fighter pilots take considerable time and money to train and this serious shortfall of pilots has made Turkey look elsewhere for some ‘mercenary’ pilots, more so in the wake of the country’s ongoing war-like activities in Syria, Nagorno-Karabakh regions (Pakistani mercenaries are known to have fought on behalf of the Azerbaijanis against the Armenians here) and against Greece across the Aegean Sea.

Pakistan Air Force is known to have stepped in to provide trained pilots out of its own inventory, given the known excellent political relations between Erdogan and Imran Khan. It is reported that Pakistani pilots have been flying Turkish F-16s for the past year. Greece has, meanwhile, been complaining about Pak pilots violating their air space flying Turkish F-16s and even P-3C Orions. Whilst this may seem to be an innocent helping gesture by a friendly nation, clearly there are implications for India. The US is believed to have denied permission for PAF pilots to fly the Turkish F-16s, asking them to seek assistance from Saudi Arabia and Qatar to augment their pilot strength. But while frantic efforts are on to step up fighter pilot training, Erdogan went scouting for trained F-16 pilots from other nations. That’s when Pakistan’s Imran Khan obliged.

Earlier in Indo-Pak history, the PAF is known to have got the services of several (eight by one account) F-104 Starfighter jets from the Jordanians during the 1971 war. Given its propensity to team up with other Muslim nations in matters military, India should be wary of these activities and how they could impact our neighbour’s war-waging capabilities. Timely help by the PAF is bound to be reciprocated down the line by Turkey, especially in light of the cooling off of decades old military supply chain from the US and the Turkish Aerospace’s considerable aviation related wherewithal. Pakistan has traditionally opted to field its military assets in aid of other friendly Muslim nations, not merely to further its strategic interests, but also to save on valuable foreign exchange in terms of spares and fuel that military training of its own Air Force would demand. This is even more critical given the country’s largely failing economic predicament.

Pakistan has made ‘mercenarisation’ standard fit for its armed forces. Whilst being active in various UN assignments all over the world, it has a standing commitment to deploy its military in support of the House of Saud, mainly for security duties after the Iranian revolution of 1979. It maintains almost 20,000 military personnel there, including pilots in its Air Force, headed by an ex-Pak Army Chief, General Raheel Sharif to fight, ironically, what it calls ‘terrorism’. Possibly, the windfall of training with the Americans during the Cold War tempted several African and Middle-East nations to requisition the services of Pakistani military personnel to further their security interests.

As the sixth largest military in the world, it has maintained contingents, missions and battalions in several Middle-East states such as Saudi Arabia, Libya, Jordan, Iraq, Oman, UAE, Bahrain and Kuwait. Likewise, the Zimbabwean Air Force appointed Daudpota as commander of its Air Force, deploying several other PAF pilots too. PAF pilots flew Royal Saudi Air Force Lightnings in 1969 to repel South Yemeni incursions. Pakistan’s military ties with the UAE started as early as 1971, the first five Air Chiefs of the UAE having been PAF officers. PAF indeed then saw the UAE Air Force as an extension of itself. A PAF pilot, Saiful Azam, shot down two Israeli aircraft flying for Jordan during the Six-Day War. Also, Pakistan’s Special Services Group (SSG) was instrumental in freeing Mecca’s Grand Mosque of militants in 1979.

The systems of government in both the countries would dictate the opportunities for military engagements for our armed forces during peace and war. India of course would prefer to employ its military in furtherance of its national military objectives, whereas our neighbour would opt for jumping into the fray where their mercenary instincts or other vested considerations take them. Our concern, of course, needs to be about additional combat assets accruing to our adversary, as also the intangible factor of war experience that they may garner in fighting other people’s wars.

There has been considerable pressure on India from the Americans to join the war effort in Afghanistan and our government has so far not chosen to go down that route. Military exercises with friendly countries is the best that India could do in this area, such as those with the Americans, Russians and now with the Quad via the Malabar series.

Even democratic nations such as France and the US have compunctions to get involved militarily in various military skirmishes across the world. A largely peaceable nation such as ours therefore has a handicap in this context. Till our priorities change on account of altered strategic interests vis-a-vis other nations, we need not expect to be embroiled in other people’s wars no doubt, as years of national political thinking along lines otherwise would indeed be difficult to change. But we need to keep a tab on the activities of our adversaries such as what Pakistan is doing with Turkey. The quid pro quo that such deals entail would directly impact the degree of military threat faced by our nation.