Cope India, the myth is busted - The simulated combat exercises between the US Air Force and the Indian Air Force
by Adnan Gill
Lately, the military pundits seemingly cannot get tired of expressing their surprise and shock over how Indian Air Force (IAF) topped the United States Air Force (USAF) during the most recent in the Cope India series of joint Indo-US military exercises. Reportedly, overwhelming air battle victories - about 90% - were awarded to IAF, as they achieved their objectives time and time again.
But what both gloating Indian and surprised American military analyst hesitate in telling the world is the well masked relevance in which Indian victories took place and how the Americans did not go to India to win? If today, both of these Air Forces would go against each other in anger, would India be able to embarrass the USAF like it did during the 'Cope India, 04?' Not at all.
Following is a brief history of what actually took place, its context, and the most likely American agenda for going to India.
In February 2004, supposedly the best of the best from United States Air Force (USAF) and Indian Air Force (IAF) took part in simulated air-to-air multi-bogey combat engagements over the skies of Gwalior, IAF base. These mock battles were part of an exercise named "Cope India, 04."
Gwalior is an Indian airbase, about 150 mi. south of New Delhi. It is the home of the IAF's Tactics Air Combat Development Establishment/operational training, testing and national-level exercises. The station is the only Indian air force electronic warfare range. Typically upgraded (reportedly equipped with a "gray-market" Bison radar and avionics upgrade) MiG-21 Fishbeds as fighter escorts and MiG-27 Floggers in strike roles operate out of this IAF establishment. It might be significant to highlight that the TACDE is the closest establishment that the IAF has to the USAF's Fighter Weapons School at Nellis AFB. For the duration of exercise IAF's Mirages 2000s, MiG-29s, Sukhoi Su-30s and an Antonov An-32 as a simulated AWACS all called Gwalior their home.
For their part, the US Air Force assets in the exercise included six F-15 aircraft and approximately 140 personnel from Elmendorf AFB, took part in the exercise.
If anything, the USAF military planners sitting in Pentagon used the exercise to their advantage. They wanted a close look at what the latest Russian technology had to offer, wanted to evaluate their own tactics honed against the non-western adversaries, and most importantly wanted to create a crises in the US congress to ensure uninterrupted congressional funding for the development and production of both F/A-22 (Raptors) and F-35 (Joint Strike Fighters). Expectedly, the results of Cope India shocked some in Pentagon who used the event to renew calls for modernizing the US fighter force with stealthy F/A-22s and F-35 Joint Strike Fighters.
After the conclusion of the exercise, the Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. John Jumper immediately went to Congress to guarantee the survival and prosperity of his favourite projects. While lobbying for the uninterrupted congressional funding for the development and production for F/A-22 and F-35 aircraft, the Air Force Chief told the Senate Appropriations defence subcommittee in March that the results of Cope India were "very revealing". He successfully used Cope India as a justification that the extremely expensive F/A-22s are vital for the continued US air superiority.
In the halls of US Congress too the friends of US top brass like Rep. Duke Cunningham (R-CA) did their part in scaring the daylights out of rest of their colleagues to ensure F/A-22's future. The Congressman told the House Appropriations defence subcommittee that the US F-15Cs were defeated more than 90 percent of the time in direct combat exercises against the IAF.
Some facts of the Cope India
At India's request, manoeuvring limits as well as considerable weapons employment limits were put on the USAF. The US agreed to mock combat at 3-to-1 odds which were highly favourable for the IAF. Indians also requested USAF not to use the simulated long-range, radar-guided AIM-120 AMRAMS. The rules of exercise put severe limits on the AIM-120 capability. Its range was limited to a 20 nautical miles while keeping the target illuminated in attack missions and 18 nautical miles. defensive in defensive missions. It meant that the missile could not be simulated to be used as active seeking BVR missile.
In an interview with Aviation Week & Space Technology (10/04/2004), Maj. Mark A. Snowden, the 3rd Wing's chief of air-to-air tactics and a participant in Cope India, revealed the root cause of beating USAF got from the Indians. He explained that none of the six 3rd Wing F-15Cs which had been to Singapore for another exercise were equipped with the newest long-range, active electronically scanned array (AESA) radars. USAF could have easily brought the AESA-equipped F-15Cs with them from Singapore, but the excuse given for not bringing them was that they didn't want to bring along the additional maintenance package needed to support such F-15Cs.
The other reason Maj. Snowden attributed for the drubbing they got was the USAF handicap of manoeuvring limits as well as considerable weapons employment limits put on the request of Indians. "That's what the Indians wanted to do," Maj. Snowden explained. "That [handicap] really benefits a numerically superior force because you can't whittle away some of their force at long range. They were simulating active missiles [including] AA-12s" (Aviation Week & Space Technology, 10/04/2004, page 50). This means, while the USAF could not use simulated long-range, radar-guided AIM-120 AMRAMS, the Indians had an overwhelming advantage of using the missiles with their integral on-board radar transmitter and didn't depend on the launch aircraft's radar after launch. The Indian Mirage 2000s also carried the long-range active MICA missiles.
Skeptics also believe that USAF fought the losing battles in attempts to convince Pentagon for the development of a new long-range air-to-air missile that would be able to complement the F-22's radars with ability to find targets more than 120 nautical miles away. They also wanted to ensure the F-22's air superiority fighter role by providing incentive to Pentagon to start rapid production of the new AIM-9X high-off-boresight launch capable missile, and its helmet-mounted cueing system. Experts doubt that the SU-30 MK would face difficulty shooting their BVR missiles from considerable distance against relatively small Radar Cross-Section (RCS) F-16 or F-18s and certainly against the stealthy F-22 or F-35. In fact, Pakistan Air Force's F-16s with their smaller RCS would have had better chances of winning in Cope India.
Whatever the hidden agendas Americans might have had for fixing the outcome of the exercise, one thing is for sure, they didn't return from India without gaining respect for their worthy foes, who they thought of underrated and ill-trained pilots. Americans went to the exercise with the belief that the IAF still used the Soviet-style tactics of ground-controlled interceptions. But returned with new respect and understanding that Indian pilots were quite capable of showing innovation and flexibility in their tactics. Americans were surprised that the Indians used more advanced tactics, which Maj. Snowden thought were developed "somewhat in a vacuum".
Had the USAF gone to India to win, they would have sent ASEA equipped F-15Cs and fought without debilitating handicaps of manoeuvring limits as well as considerable weapons employment limits, which clearly favoured the numerically superior IAF. It could be argued, that in reality USAF went to India with the objectives to get a closer look at the latest Russian hardware, and wanted to evaluate their own tactics developed against the non-western adversaries, and most importantly wanted to guarantee uninterrupted governmental funding for the development and production of both F/A-22 and F-35.
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