(Indo–US Joint Air Exercises)

An IDC Analysis 

(With inputs by Sayan Majumdar)


New Delhi, 18 June 2004

India and the United States conducted ‘Cope India 2004’ from February 15 to 27, 2004 in Gwalior, in which the top pilots from the two countries matched their skills against each other in a series of joint air-combat exercises. These were the first bilateral dissimilar air combat exercises together, conducted by the IAF and USAF, mainly to enhance relations and to understand each other's mutual capabilities. The US Air Force assets participating included F-15C ‘Eagle’ aircraft and approximately 140 personnel from the high-profile Elmendorf Air Force Base, Alaska. The F-15Cs were equipped with the newest long-range, high-definition radars possibly AESA (Active Electronic Scanned Array) type. A variety of IAF aircraft participated including Mirage 2000s, MiG-21Bisons, MiG-27s and the formidable Sukhoi-30MK/Ks.

With more information of the post assessment of the air exercises becoming available, it is apparent that the IAF had scored a distinctive edge over the USAF across the board. Therefore in our assessment Cope India 2004 should be regarded as a “watershed” event of the IAF community, where the IAF pilots and personnel displayed outstanding and exemplary human resources and skills and are poised to brand themselves as top class air-combat personnel on a global scale. According to Colonel Mike Snodgrass, commander of the 3rd Wing at Elmendorf USAFB (United States Air Force Base), the training standard and some of the equipment of the IAF was decidedly better than what they had anticipated.

The Cope India exercises consisted of air combat manśuvres in which pilots of both sides would practice their fighter tactics and fly against each other on a one-on-one combat basis, as well as simulated combat scenarios. According to US officials it was during this simulated combat, which included both “offensive counter air” and “defensive counter air” scenarios, that the Indians proved the most formidable. In the offensive counter air scenarios, a small number of F-15Cs would attempt to intercept an enemy strike aircraft en route to a target that was guarded by a larger number of Indian fighters. In the defensive counter air missions, the F-15Cs would attempt to defend a target against Indian fighters.

According to Colonel Greg Neubeck, deputy commander of operations for the wing’s 3rd Operations Group and exercise director for Cope India, in these offensive and defensive missions, four F-15Cs were usually flying against ten or twelve of the same model Indian fighters. The 3rd Operations Group was responsible for the 3rd Wing’s flying mission. He further stated that what USAF faced was not only superior numbers, but also IAF pilots who were very proficient in their aircraft and smart on tactics, a tough combination for the USAF to overcome.

Indian pilots with their Sukhoi-30s, and MiG-21Bisons did exceedingly well, surprising USAF officers and gaining admiration. The MiG-21Bison with its latest radar, missiles and EW (Electronic Warfare) sets sprang a major surprise. It indicated that the lessons of Exercise-Garuda 2003 with the French Air Force were well learnt and the complications and techniques of BVR (Beyond Visual Range) combat were well absorbed by the IAF within the shortest period of time.

The USAF pilots are usually trained to operate in close cooperation of Boeing E-3B ‘Sentry’, Grumman E-2C ‘Hawkeye’ AWACS (Airborne Warning And Control System) and other ISR (Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance) platforms and their absence in the Cope India 2004 air exercise proved to be a great handicap to the USAF pilots. According to respected media reports Indian pilots outflew the Americans, right through the exercise. “On the first day all four American planes were shot down. Never once did the Indians come off second”. According to United States media, the F-15Cs were defeated more than 90 percent of the time in direct combat exercises against the IAF. It should be noted that the IAF did not field its newest “near fifth-generation” Sukhoi-30MKI air-dominance fighters and if it did so, the results may have been even more favourable to the IAF.

Nevertheless the IAF in sharp contrast had the benefit of operating the two-seater Sukhoi-30MK/K “four plus-plus-generation” fighters that was bound to have some benefit of an air-battle-management platform if not in the same league as the newest Sukhoi-30MKI. Not only the rear-seat occupant WSO (Weapon System Officer), could remain focused on planning the air-battle, but he generally could single-handedly take the vital responsibility of launching the deadly BVR missiles after making judicious IFF (Identification Friend or Foe) decisions.

Media sources stated that those who have read draft copies of the Cope India 2004 report say the IAF Sukhoi-30MKs and USAF F-15 pilots were detecting each other at the same time with their radars, but the Indian pilots were getting off the simulated first shot with their R-27 (AA-10 Alamo) AAMs (Air-to-Air Missiles) and often winning the long-range BVR engagements. It should be noted that Sukhoi-30s inherently have a very respectable internal fuel capacity to enable them to make generous use of afterburners and establish kinematics advantage. Similar advantage is enjoyed by the Russian R-27 (AA-10 Alamo) series of BVR AAMs with powerful motors, especially the 130 kilometres extended-ranged models. Not surprisingly, the powerful USAF lobby is now very keen to introduce the fifth-generation F/A-22 Raptors in decent numbers to hopefully retain a technical edge. One may only wonder at the extent of  “Outer-Air Battle” capability the IAF Sukhoi-30MKIs may attain if equipped with RVV-AE-PD or Ks-172 ultra-long-range AAMs now under development.

While the superb performances of IAF Sukhoi-30s were somewhat anticipated, the performance of MiG-21Bison came as a major “unpleasant surprise” to the USAF officials. It also validates the claim of the Russian officials that they are capable of successfully converting “second generation” late-model MiG-21bis fighters to “fourth generation combat platforms”. Inherently the significant positive attributes enjoyed by MiG-21s were their dog fighting ability in WVR (Within Visual Range) combat. Even the earlier models had a low corner velocity of 556 kilometres per hour and at Mach 0.5 had an instantaneous turn rate of 11.1 degrees per second. The MiG-21Bison with more powerful R-25 engines not only considerably bettered this performance but it may also be credited with “jackrabbit” acceleration, a very critical attribute in WVR combat.

Among many fourth generations attributes added to the IAF MiG-21Bison design, the incorporation of HMS (Helmet Mounted Sight) and high-off-boresight R-73RDM2 NBVR/WVR (Near Beyond Visual Range/Within Visual Range) AAMs (Air-to-Air Missiles) have turned it into a “Great Equalizer” in the WVR combat scenario. Conceptually a small number of MiG-21Bisons maintaining “radar silence” can be guided towards their aerial target by a couple of Sukhoi-30s by secure data links in accordance with MFFC (Mixed Fighter Force Concept). Upon entering into an WVR combat envelope the MiG-21Bisons armed with HMS and deadly NBVR/WVR missiles had the capability of destroying even fifth-generation fighters alike F/A-22 Raptor as assessed by high-profile Fighter Analyst Ben Lambeth of RAND Corporation. According to Lambeth “in visual combat everybody dies at the same rate.” F/A-22 also has to slow down if forced into a WVR combat scenario and loses the advantage of its super-cruise attributes. The situation further complicates if the IAF Sukhoi-30s have acquired the capability of providing target illumination for RVV-AE (AA-12 Adder) BVR missiles being launched from IAF MiG-21Bisons at extended ranges.

Interestingly the greatest benefactors of Indo-US Cope India 2004 may turn out to be the U S Aerospace giants Lockheed Martin and Boeing. Their product the F/A-22 Raptor fifth-generation air superiority fighter may get an extended production run to retain the American “technological dominance”. The first USAF stealth F-117A Nighthawk has a dedicated SEAD (Suppression of Enemy Air Defence) role. The F-117A fuselage is comprised of flat panels called facets that reflect radar energy away from the transmitter. Heat absorbing tiles around the engine exhausts minimise the chance of IR (Infra-Red) tracking.

The “flat panel design” has made F-117A very difficult to control and fly and has very poor air combat manoeuvrability. Moreover although F-117A can carry self-defence AAMs, its internal weapon bay usually carries a combination of Paveway series LBGs (Laser Guided Bombs) and AGM-88 HARM (High-speed Anti-Radiation Missile). No wonder one very high-profile aviation journalist remarked that the only air-to-air combat option an F-117A fighter pilot may select is to make rude gestures to his adversary. In contrast the Lockheed Martin/Boeing F-22 Raptor airframe has a stealthy angular but “more conventional” design. A FBW (Fly-By-Wire) FCS (Flight Control System) and thrust vectoring exhaust nozzles combine to make F-22 highly manoeuvrable and agile. The high-performance turbofan engines provide ‘Super Cruise’ capability for extended periods while the AAMs and PGMs (Precision Guided Munitions) are carried in internal weapon bays. Among primary roles the F-22 is endowed with an array of active and passive radar and sensors for optimum performance and the recently allotted cruise missile interception.

Naturally when IAF pilots travel to Alaska during July 2004 for another joint exercise, the Americans will be well prepared. The IAF in turn will need to concentrate on sustained offensive air-operation tactics and optimum utilization of AWACS and IFR (In-Flight Refuelling) platforms and USAF inputs in these areas will prove to be invaluable. Protection of operational AWACS and IFR platforms should also be on the agenda. If possible the emphasis should also be on simulated nuclear-delivery and SEAD (Suppression of Enemy Air Defences) as a major aspect of the growing Indo-US defence cooperation was to develop interoperability –– which will depend on a number of factors which include frequency of training exchanges, exchange of doctrines, and access to equipment. India's desire to buy United States equipment through FMS (Foreign Military Sale) and US willingness to sell state-of-the-art equipment are converging –– and if more joint-exercises are held, the greater will be the rationale for providing India access to the weapons, communications, doctrines and technologies.

With the IAF pilots stealing the limelight in recent times one can safely bet on the intense desire of the Indian Naval Air Arm fighter pilots to get access to the MiG-29Ks for operation from the aircraft-carrier ‘Admiral Gorshkov’. ‘Admiral Gorshkov’ is slated to enter Indian Navy service sometime during 2008, but “obligatory” arrangements meanwhile should be made for the Indian Naval Air Arm fighter pilots to operate prototype MiG-29Ks from the Russian aircraft carrier ‘Admiral Kuznetsov’ and Dassault Rafales from the French aircraft carrier ‘Charles de Gaulle’. Valuable experience can be gained in both the concept of Short Take Off and Catapult Launch. 

Moreover if a catapult of sufficient power can be installed in ‘Admiral Gorshkov’ with a proposed sufficiently elongated flight-deck, the Indian Navy may well consider “fielding” a small batch (perhaps six) of Sukhoi-33s “Naval Flankers” on the deck of ‘Admiral Gorshkov’ for dedicated long-range air defence and air-dominance roles, with two more stand-by batches waiting on shore bases. Of course the Sukhoi-33s will have to be parked on the deck itself, as they will be unable to use the lifts and hanger of ‘Admiral Gorshkov’ even with their folded wings and tail planes. For maintenance the Sukhoi-33s need to be flown with ferry-tanks to shore bases where the IAF has by now surely established a formidable maintenance facility. A “replacement batch” meanwhile will take charge on the aircraft-carrier deck. The MiG-29Ks in turn will perform the dedicated role of multi-role air superiority and strike. 

The process appears to be complicated and financially expensive. But since an aircraft-carrier battle group represents one of the most expensive military assets, even expensive solutions are welcome. Not surprisingly modern navies have traditionally assigned their best fighter design to their aircraft-carriers from time to time, exemplified by United Stated F-14 Tomcat, F-18E/F Super Hornet, F-4 Phantom, Russian Sukhoi-33 and French Rafale. Protection of a high-value aircraft-carrier battle group always enjoyed predominant consideration and the best course of action should be formulated and this should influence design specifications for our indigenous ADS (Air Defence Ship).

Disclaimer   Copyright