Exercise Desert Flag Solidifies French Regional Defence Partnerships

17 March 2021 Leighton G. Luke, Research Manager, Indo-Pacific Research Programme

The multinational air warfare exercise hosted by the United Arab Emirates further cements France as a resident Indo-Pacific power.



Now in its sixth edition, Exercise Desert Flag, held by the Air Warfare Centre of the United Arab Emirates Air Force at the Al-Dhafra air base near Abu Dhabi, is underway from 6-25 March.

Held annually as a multinational air warfare exercise, Desert Flag is intended to contribute to regional security by testing air crews’ combat readiness, furthering the adoption of best practices, enhancing co-operation and building relationships among the participating air forces. Desert Flag operates as ‘the companion to the Advanced Tactical Leadership Course (ATLC) qualifying exercise held annually in November, by the UAE Air Warfare Centre.’ While press releases published by the various participants do not name names, preferring to cite only ‘real or simulated threats’, there can be little doubt that Iran will again be among the potential threats to be countered in Desert Flag.


Desert Flag 2021 brings together in Emirati airspace just over 50 aircraft from the air forces of the UAE, the United States, France, Saudi Arabia, South Korea, Bahrain and, for the first time, India. The French Air Force (l’Armée de l’Air) contribution of four Dassault Rafale multirole fighters comes from its forces in the United Arab Emirates (Forces françaises aux Émirats arabes unis, or FFEAU), which are permanently stationed at Al-Dhafra air base.

As a resident power in the Indian Ocean Region, Desert Flag is but one component of French regional security efforts. French forces have been stationed in the UAE since 2009, at the request of the Emirati Government. The FFEAU comprises some 650 personnel from all three services and, as the Ministère des Armées explains, it:

‘… supports the French military assets deployed in the Arab-Persian Gulf and the northern Indian Ocean. Thanks to its conditions of warfare, it [the UAE base] also allows French soldiers to be trained in combat actions in desert and urban areas.’

Within the Middle Eastern context, the UAE-based French forces exercise and train regularly with their Emirati and Saudi counterparts.

Desert Flag brings further scope for the French and Indian air forces to cement their relationship, coming soon after Exercise Desert Knight 21, the Indo-French joint air exercise held 20-24 January at Jodhpur Air Force Station.

In addition to underpinning the Franco-Indian diplomatic and security relationships, Desert Flag also underscores India’s own links with the Middle East, which have been deepening following the visit last year to the UAE and Saudi Arabia by Indian army chief, General M.M. Naravane.

The relationship is poised to evolve further in April, with the inclusion of the UAE in the annual Franco-Indian Varuna naval exercises, to be held this year in the waters of the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman.

Also in April, India will reportedly join the France-Australia-Japan-United States La Perouse naval exercises to be held in the Bay of Bengal. La Perouse will bring together destroyers, frigates, submarines and surveillance aircraft from the participating navies, with the Royal Australian Navy to be represented by HMAS Anzac and HMAS Sirius. If Desert Flag has an eye towards Iran, there can be little doubt that the evolution of La Perouse into a “Quad-plus-France” arrangement will not go unnoticed in Beijing, something that Paris will presumably have factored into its own, more critical, reassessment of China.

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