IAF Sukhoi Su-30MKI air superiority jet and ASDF's F-16 fighter

India and Japan were set to kick off their first-ever joint fighter aircraft exercise on Monday as the two strategic partners continue to deepen defence and security ties amid growing concerns over China’s assertiveness in the Indo-Pacific region.

Named Veer Guardian-23, the aerial manoeuvres were to take place in the airspace around the Air Self-Defence Force’s Hyakuri and Iruma air bases in Ibaraki Prefecture, running until Jan. 26.

The ASDF said in a statement that the purpose of the exercises is to “promote mutual understanding, strengthen defence cooperation between the air forces” and enhance the ASDF’s tactical skills.

The Indian Ministry of Defence said the 11-day exercise, which will include training for various “air combat missions in a complex environment,” will also fortify the “long-standing bond of friendship” and pave the way for greater interoperability between the two air forces.

The Indian contingent includes four Su-30MKI multirole fighters, two C-17 Globemaster transport planes, one IL-78 aerial tanker and about 150 personnel, while the ASDF will field four F-2s and an equal number of F-15 multirole fighters.

With the launch of the exercise series, India has now become the fifth country to send fighter jets to Japan for joint drills following the United States, Australia, Britain and Germany, as Tokyo expands its array of security partners across the globe.

New Delhi-based defense analyst Rahul Bedi said the joint training could help the ASDF “draw lessons from the extensive operational experience of the Indian Air Force,” particularly with regards to China, and the technical innovations it has achieved on its fighters, especially the Sukhoi-30MKI fighters taking part in the exercise.

The launch of Veer Guardian-23 was agreed upon during a “two-plus-two” meeting in September between the nations’ foreign and defense ministers that also saw the two countries announce the launch of high-level talks between the Japan Joint Staff and the Indian Integrated Defence Staff. The two sides also pledged to conduct “more complex and sophisticated” exercises and boost multilateral maritime cooperation in the Indian Ocean region.

Japan and India, which are members of “the Quad” grouping of nations alongside the United States and Australia, are not only enhancing their own defense capabilities but have also been deepening security cooperation in recent years. Tokyo and New Delhi are also considering expanding their partnership to include defense equipment and technological cooperation.

Bedi said that India, which relies heavily on Russian-made equipment for its military, is seeking defense-industrial collaboration with technologically advanced countries to help reduce materiel imports.

One of the key factors driving the partnership is the shared concern over the impact of China’s rise in the region. Apart from their respective territorial disputes with Beijing, India and Japan are also increasingly worried about China’s economic and political influence, not least via Beijing’s Belt and Road initiative and its growing maritime assertiveness.

In 2008, Tokyo and New Delhi signed a joint declaration on security cooperation to enhance information exchanges and policy coordination. In September 2020, they reached an agreement to facilitate the reciprocal provision of supplies and services between the Self-Defense Forces and the Indian military.

As part of the Quad, the two countries participate regularly in the Malabar naval exercise series. They also conduct bilateral naval drills, including JIMEX-22, which was hosted by the Indian Navy in the Bay of Bengal last September. Moreover, they hold bilateral ground exercises such as Dharma Guardian, the latest iteration of which took place last February and March in Belgaum, southwestern India.

“The continuing sophistication of India-Japan military exercises represents a natural development and growing comfort between the two countries,” said Dhruva Jaishankar, an expert on Indian foreign policy and executive director of the Observer Research Foundation America.

“Ties have grown gradually since the year 2000, but the recent establishment of regular air and ground exercises — after many years of primarily maritime cooperation — represents a qualitatively different stage in the relationship,” he added.

That said, there is still room for improvement from both sides, analysts say, with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine exposing the differences in Tokyo and New Delhi’s responses to the crisis.

“Relations, including security relations, have grown quite impressively, but I worry that we are also at something of a plateau,” Jaishankar said.

“A lot will depend on Japan’s ability to see through expectations on defence spending and military modernization, and on India’s part, its ability to project power in traditional and new domains,” he added.