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Cope India: How the IAF rewrote the rules of air combat

February 16, 2014 Rakesh Krishnan Simha

The Cope India 2004 air exercise was a landmark in combat aviation, as it
highlighted the innovativeness of Indian fighter pilots, the impact of Russian
jets and the potentially fatal limitations in USAF pilot training.
Cope India: How the IAF rewrote the rules of air combat
Two U.S. F-16 fighter aircraft taxi on a runaway at the Indian air force base
Kalaikunda during the joint air force exercise Cope India 2005. Source: AP
Exactly 10 years ago, in the space of just 13 days, the Indian Air Force dealt a
massive blow to the myth of invincibility of the US Air Force. At the Cope India
exercise held at the Gwalior air force range on February 15-27, 2004, Indian
pilots reportedly notched up an astounding 9:1 kill ratio against the allpowerful USAF, sending shock waves through the American defence
While the Pentagon brass tried to knock the IAFs achievement, the USAF
gave their Indian counterparts their due. Aviation Week & Space Technologys
David A. Fulghum quotes Colonel Mike Snodgrass, commander of the USAFs
3rd Wing based at Elmendorf Air Force Base, Alaska: The outcome of the
exercise boils down to (the fact that) they ran tactics that were more
advanced than we expected...They could come up with a game plan, but if it
wasn't working they would call an audible and change (tactics in flight).
About the different IAF fighters the six F-15Cs from the 3rd Wing
encountered, Snodgrass said: The two most formidable IAF aircraft proved to
be the MiG-21 Bison, an upgraded version of the Russian-made baseline MiG21, and the Su-30MK Flanker, also made in Russia.
About the capabilities of IAF pilots, USAF team leader Colonel Greg Newbech
said: What weve seen in the last two weeks is the IAF can stand toe-to-toe
with the best air force in the world. I pity the pilot who has to face the IAF and
chances the day to underestimate him; because he wont be going home.
They made good decisions about when to bring their strikers in. The MiG-21s
would be embedded with a (MiG-27) Flogger for integral protection. There
was a data link between the Flankers that was used to pass information. They
built a very good (radar) picture of what we were doing and were able to
make good decisions about when to roll (their aircraft) in and out.
The Times of India summed up the aerial encounter: The US Air Force
underestimated the Indian Air Force pilots and their numerical skills. They
thought these are another set of Iraqi or Iranian pilots.

A different spin in D.C.

Used to hearing the United States is second only to god, the US leadership
nearly burst a collective artery. The 3rd Wing had barely packed up its kit at
Gwalior when Republican Congressman from California, Duke Cunningham,
told a House Appropriations defence subcommittee hearing that USAF F-15Cs
had been defeated more than 90 percent of the time in direct combat
exercises against the IAF.
Defence and Security
Cunninghams revelation kicked up a huge uproar in Washington DC. Some
Western military observers attempted to debunk the results, claiming the
USAF did not bring its true go-to-war-gear to these exercises and that the
American pilots fought with several handicaps. What really happened?
Handicapped and totally unprepared
First up, its true the F-15Cs that participated in Cope India 2004 were not
equipped with the active electronically scanned array (AESA) radars. But then
neither were the Indian jets. Secondly, at Indias request the USAF agreed to
mock combat at 3-to-1 odds, which meant the six American jets were up
against 18 IAF aircraft. And finally, the Americans agreed not to simulate their
beyond-visual-range (BVR) missiles. Doesnt look like a fair fight.
But wait, ask yourself, which air force would spend millions of dollars on a
fortnight long exercise that ends in a turkey shoot? Not the IAF, which is a
highly professional service. Also, why would the USAF bring all that highoctane military gear all that way just to get a drubbing?
The IAF believes its strength is dogfighting, for which it trains hard as Western
air forces. Secondly, the service did not deploy its advanced Su-30 MKI
Flanker, only the older Su-30, because the MKIs radar frequencies are
classified. Theres little advantage in letting your adversarys patron know
your combat strategies.
The Indians wanting to even the odds is understandable but the United States
accepting these handicaps seems counterintuitive. But in fact the USAF
agreed because it was desperate to get a close look at the legendary Flanker.
Why the USAF came up short
The lopsided result can be explained in the difference in combat styles of the
two air forces. While the IAF varied aircraft mixes, altitudes and formations,
the American pilot seemed stuck in the static Cold War-style of groundcontrolled interceptions, which gives little leeway to the individual pilot.
Weaknesses in crew performance and limitations in their range of action were

evident during the simulated aerial combat.

Also, US fighter pilots train in a closed system where delusion in the America
militarys superiority reigns supreme. The belief is that overwhelming
numbers recall the 1000 bomber raids over defenceless and tiny Iraq and
technological pyrotechnics allow the US to dominate without sweating it out.
The 1982 wipeout of the Syrian Air Force by the Israelis in which 82 Syrian
MiGs were downed against the loss of just two American-built Israeli Air Force
jets had reinforced the myth of superiority of US jet fighters. Cope India 2004
showed the quality of the men in uniform matters more than the jets they fly.
Cope India 2005: Repeat performance
Because of the storm kicked up by Cope India 2004, the following year the
IAF and USAF opted for exercises that had mixed teams of Indian and
American pilots on both sides. But observers and participants at Cope India
2005 said in a surprising number of encounters particularly between USAF
F-16s and Indian Su-30 MKIs the Indian pilots came out on top.
Indian Air Force to get first BrahMos-armed Su-30MKI fighter in 2015
Cope India 2005 proved the previous years IAF performance was no fluke.
Retired air commodore Jasjit Singh, who is also director of the new Delhibased Centre for Air Power Studies said: Since the Cold War, there has been
the general assumption that India is a third world country with Soviet
technology, and wherever Soviet-supported equipment went, it didn't perform
well. That myth has been blown away by the results.
Stealth myth
Another copout being used by some in the US defence fraternity is Cope India
2004 was staged to pave the way for the F-22 and F-35 stealth fighters.
However, these big-ticket projects or rather white elephants were already
on their way, and did not need a push. Its not like the guys at Lockheed were
woken up the night after the Gwalior drubbing and asked to get back to work.
Air power dynamics
Ten years after that paradigm shifting exercise, the IAF strike forces are of an
entirely different magnitude. The MiG-21s are being retired, and the MiG-27
will be gone by 2017. However, the increasingly modern versions of the Su30MKI having a loiter and combat persistence ability that has no Western
equivalent will continue to give the IAFs adversaries and American aircraft
designers many sleepless nights.

For the US, Cope India should be a wakeup call. Its overreliance on stealth
and long range radar is resulting in a generation of leaden footed and
predictable pilots. While this strategy will prevail against puny adversaries
such as Iraq and Libya, the equation is entirely different when the opponent is
well trained and innovative like India or Vietnam.
Also, not underestimating the enemy would be good idea too. For instance,
while the performances of the IAFs Mirage-2000 and Su-30 were expected,
the MiG-21 Bison came as a nasty surprise to the USAF. The positive
attributes of the MiG-21 such as low radar visibility, instantaneous turn rate
and jackrabbit acceleration" were critical factors at Cope India.
Plus, its new of helmet mounted sight and high-off-boresight R-73 air-to-air
missiles turned the MiG-21 into a Great Equaliser in the WVR (within visual
range) combat scenario. It also validated the claim of Russian officials that
they are capable of converting second generation late-model MiG-21 fighters
to Generation 4 combat platforms.
This has serious implications for air forces inducting stealth fighters. At some
stage aircraft like the F-22 and F-35 will have to come within visual range and
thats when pocket rockets like the MiG-21 can be deadly. As Ben Lambeth of
the Rand Corporation so succinctly put it, In visual combat everybody dies at
the same rate.
With the benefit of hindsight, its good the Americans discovered their
shortcomings in peace rather than war. Had the pilots of the 3rd Wing come
up against the might of Russian air power during the Cold War, they probably
wouldnt have winged it back to Alaska.
The opinion of the writer may not necessarily reflect the position of RIR.