U.S. and Indian Air Force (USAF/IAF) units are back at the Kalaikunda Air Station (KAS) in India for the third series of Cope India exercises between the two services. Both sides have benefitted from the exchange which pits the IAF–outfitted mostly with Russian and French-made fighters–against frontline U.S.-made aircraft.
However, during the first Cope India exercise last year the USAF units suffered lopsided losses in its engagements. These results were immediately interpreted to mean that the IAF’s Sukhoi Su-30MKI fighters were far superior to the U.S. Boeing F-15s, and that without a one-for-one replacement of F-15s and Lockheed Martin F-16s by the Lockheed Martin F/A-22 Raptor and F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, the USAF would be helpless in future conflicts against the latest Russian aircraft.
But these conclusions appear not take into account the rules of engagement that were applied during these exercises, many of which put the U.S. aircraft at a disadvantage. Also, the aircraft sent to the 2004 exercise were not equipped with the Raytheon APG-63 (V)2 active electronically scanning array (AESA) radar that is installed on other F-15s. The IAF Su-30MKIs were equipped with the latest NIIP N011M radar from Russia.
During the exercise the USAF F-15s were tasked with the defense of the Gwalior base. The IAF aircraft attacking Gwalior were a mix of Dassault Mirage 2000, Su-30MKI, Mikoyan MiG-29 and upgraded MiG-21-93s which were escorting a strike group of MiG-27s. Against these aircraft was a much smaller force of F-15s that were outnumbered better than three-to-one. Only six F-15Cs were sent to India. They were fitted with a fighter data link, AIM-9X infrared air-to-air missiles and a helmet-mounted cueing system.
The F-15s were also not accompanied by a Boeing E-3 airborne early warning and control (AWACS) aircraft, which is normally part of the USAF air battle deployment. This forced the F-15s to rely on Indian ground radars and their much older standard model APG-63 airborne radar sets, while pitted against a markedly superior force composed of the best IAF pilots flying the most advanced aircraft.
The F-15s were further limited by operation of their Raytheon AIM-120 AMRAAM (active medium-range air-to-air missiles) missiles in an artificially truncated mode.
The F-15s were not permitted to engage the active on-board radar mode of the AMRAAM; the missiles were limited to a range of only 20 miles and could be targeted only with the F-15’s onboard radar. In its usual mode the Amraam has a range in excess of 60 miles and operates in a fire-and-forget mode that does not require any fire control guidance from the aircraft’s on-board radar after launch. At the same time, the Indians were operating using simulated modes for their active- homing missiles–the Russian Vympel RVV-AE (AA-12) and Mica-EM–essentially giving them the capability that the F-15s were being denied.
Even if they had been given free reign on their AMRAAMs, the F-15 pilots still would have felt like they were operating with one hand tied behind their backs because the usual mission profile of the USAF is to deploy two F-15s fitted with the Raytheon AESA radar combined with two additional aircraft that employ the standard radar set. The AESA aircraft, which can compensate for the lack of an AWACS, can make missile launches at long range to disrupt enemy formations before they enter visual range.
In the end, the exercise, while judged as a valuable experience for both sides, was also not viewed as a realistic scenario for any future conflict. Vijainder Thakur, a retired IAF pilot and aviation commentator summed up the real-world conclusions of that first round of the Cope India exercise: “USAF pilots do not usually train to fight enemy pilots. Instead, they train to shoot them down much before the enemy aircraft can come in close enough to fight with them. Given the right circumstances USAF pilots do their jobs very well. So the question whether Indian fighter pilots are better than USAF fighter pilots is moot. They probably are if they get to fight them, as they did at Gwalior. But that was an exercise. In actual combat, however, they will probably be taken out long before they engage the USAF pilots.”