Indian Air Force, in war games, gives US a run
Foreign fighter jets performed well against F-16s in recent exercises.
Mingling over a few rounds of golf, dogfighting a bit over the jungles of West Bengal - this month's Cope India 2005 war games were billed as a standard two-week exercise between Indian and American top guns.
But in website chat rooms devoted to the arcania of fighter aircraft, there was a buzz. Arre, wa! Oh, wow! Had the Indian Air Force beat the Americans?
Not exactly, according to observers and participants. The exercises had mixed teams of Indian and American pilots on both sides, which means that both the Americans and the Indians won, and lost. Yet, observers say that in a surprising number of encounters - particularly between the American F-16s and the Indian Sukhoi-30 MKIs - the Indian pilots came out the winners.
"Since the cold war, there has been the general assumption that India is a third-world country with Soviet technology, and wherever the Soviet-supported equipment went, it didn't perform well," says Jasjit Singh, a retired air commodore and now director of the Center for Air Power Studies in New Delhi. "That myth has been blown out by the results" of these air exercises.
For now, US Air Force officials are saying only that the Cope India 2005 air exercises were a success, and a sign of America's growing appreciation for the abilities of its newfound regional ally.
But there are some signs that America's premier fighter jet, the F-16 Fighting Falcon, is losing ground to the growing sophistication of Russian-made fighter planes, and that the US should be more wary about presuming global air superiority - the linchpin of its military might.
"The Sukhoi is a ... better plane than the F-16," says Vinod Patney, a retired Indian Air Force marshal, and former vice chief of air staff. "But we're not talking about a single aircraft. We're talking about the overall infrastructure, the command and control systems, the radar on the ground and in the air, the technical crew on the ground, and how do you maximize that infrastructure. This is where the learning curve takes place.
"So let's forget about I beat you, you beat me," he adds. "This is not a game of squash."
Tell that to the participants of bharat-rakshak.com (Guardian of India). On any given day, this website seems devoted to which Indian fighter plane uses which missile, with occasional grumblings about why Saurav Ganguly is still playing on the Indian cricket team. But during Cope India '05, Bharat Rakshak was a veritable cheering session for the underestimated Indian Air Force.
Typical was a posting by a blogger who called himself "Babui." Citing a quote from a US Air Force participant in Cope India '05 in Stars and Stripes - "We try to replicate how these aircraft perform in the air, and I think we're good at doing that in our Air Force, but what we can't replicate is what's going on in their minds. They've challenged our traditional way of thinking on how an adversary, from whichever country, would fight." - "Babui" wrote, "That quote is as good an admission that the F-16 jocks got their clocks cleaned."
Another blogger, Forgestone, advised against such "chest-thumping." "Coming out on the winning or losing side of a scorecard doesn't change their large technological edge, their resources, their experience, their talent, their geostrategic position," he wrote, referring to the US Air Force.
More recently, an American pilot who participated in the exercise, added his own two cents on the blog. "It makes me sick to see some of the posts on this website," wrote a purported US "Viper" pilot. "They made some mistakes and so did we.... That's what happens and you learn from it."
The point of the exercise, he said, was for the USAF and the IAF to train, learn, and yes, play golf alongside each other. "For two weeks of training, both sides got more out of their training than they probably would in two months."
Military experts say the joint exercises occurred at a time when America's fighter jet prowess is slipping. Since the US victories in the first Gulf War, a war dependent largely on air power, the Russians and French have improved the aviation electronics (avionics) and weapons capabilities of their Sukhoi and Mirage 2000 fighter aircraft. These improvements have given countries like India, which use the Sukhois and Mirages, a rough parity with US fighter planes like the F-16 and F-15C. China, too, now has 400 late-model Sukhois.
Yet, while the Indian Air Force designed the exercises to India's advantage - forcing pilots to fight "within visual range" rather than using America's highly advanced "beyond visual range" sensing equipment - both observers and participants admit that Indian aircraft and personnel performed much better than expected.
The Su-30 MKI "is an amazing jet that has a lot of maneuverability," Capt. Martin Mentch told an Air Force publication, AFPN. Maneuverability is key for missions of visual air combat.
If it turns out the US Air Force did, in fact, get their clocks cleaned, it will have been the second time. In Cope India 2004, an air combat exercise that took place near the Indian city of Gwalior, US F-15s were eliminated in multiple exercises against Indian late-model MiG-21 Fishbeds as fighter escorts and MiG-27 Floggers. In the 2005 exercises in Kalaikundi air base near Calcutta, Americans were most impressed by the MiG-21 Bisons and the Su-30 MKIs.
Maj. Mark A. Snowden, the 3rd Wing's chief of air-to-air tactics and a participant in Cope India 2004, admitted that the US Air Force underestimated the Indians. "The outcome of the  exercise boils down to [the fact that] they ran tactics that were more advanced than we expected," he told Aviation Week last year. "They had done some training with the French that we knew about, but we did not expect them to be a very well-trained air force. That was silly."
One USAF controller working aboard an AWACS (Airborne Warning and Control System) plane told reporters at Kalaikundi Air Base that he was impressed by the speed in which Indian pilots responded to target assignments given them by AWACS. The AWACS, while operated by Americans, was acting as a neutral party, feeding target assignments to both Indian and American pilots during the exercise. In most cases, the Indians responded to target assignments faster than the American pilots did - a surprising fact, given that this was the first time Indian pilots had used the American AWACS capability.
Given India's growing economic and diplomatic aspirations, it's not surprising that many Indians would have the occasional outburst of jingoism. But Indian pilots know they still have a lot to learn.
"Whether the Indians win or lose is crew room gossip," says Mr. Patney. "The important thing is for us to be involved with the Americans; the purpose is to fly alongside each other, to learn from each other, to see if there is any interoperability. And for the Americans, the main thing is to see what we [Indians] can do with limited resources."