Would you be surprised to know that in 2004, the United States Air Force (USAF) lost a major training exercise against the Indian Air Force (IAF)? I was. The United States sent one of its most "sophisticated" aircraft, the F-15C to Gwalior Air Force Station, India for joint training February 15-28, 2004. Actually it sent 150 airmen and aircraft from the 3rd Wing out of Elmendorf Air Force Base, AK to train and mock fight against the IAF's Mirage 2000, MiG-21, MiG-27 and SU-30 (though not the SU-30 MKI). The exercise was named COPE India 2004, and its stated purpose was Dissimilar Air Combat Training (DACT), or simulated combat flying between different types of aircraft (Air Force Link write up here).
COPE INDIA 2004
The exercise, which began its planning period in September 2003, focused on India attacking against a defending United States.
"Following two days of familiarization flights, the F-15s joined the Indian SU-30K Flanker, Mirage 2000, MIG-29 Fulcrum, MIG-27 Flogger and MIG-21 Bison aircraft in a series of offensive counter-air and defensive counter-air engagements.
Each engagement series lasts about 30 minutes over the nearby training range, and two series are scheduled each flying day, said Capt. Mark Snowden, U.S. exercise project officer. During nearly all these simulated combat sorties, the F-15s protect ground targets against advancing Indian aircraft -- the two will swap roles during one series.
Combined pre- and post-flight briefings set the stage and evaluate the scoring for each engagement."
The F-15Cs appear to have lost a majority of the simulated encounters:
"Although service officials have been reluctant to detail how the Indians performed against the six F-15Cs from the 3rd Wing that participated in Cope India, Rep. Duke Cunningham (R-CA) said in a Feb. 26 House Appropriations defense subcommittee hearing that U.S. F-15Cs were defeated more than 90 percent of the time in direct combat exercises against the IAF."
Losing 90% of the time to the Indian Air Force or to any other air force would seem a major problem for the United States in future conflicts and does not support our idea that we retain air supremacy and calls into question even our air superiority.
THE US SETS ITSELF UP TO "LOSE"
However, in researching the exercise in greater detail, I came across some very restrictive parameters the F-15C pilots were "cuffed" with, so to speak. The cuffs in place were:
- The scenarios were four versus 12 or a 1 to 3 ratio against the Americans (though this is standard training):
"Generally the combat scenario was to have four F-15s flying at any time against about 12 Indian aircraft. While the U.S. pilots normally train to four versus 12, that takes into account at least two of the U.S. aircraft having AESA radar and being able to make the first beyond-visual-range shots. For the exercise, both sides restricted long-range shots."
- The F-15Cs did not have their advanced AESA radars (see quote above)
- The F-15Cs were not allowed to fire beyond 18-20 nautical miles:
"The U.S. pilots used no active missiles, and the AIM-120 Amraam capability was limited to a 20-naut.-mi. range while keeping the target illuminated when attacking and 18 naut. mi. when defending, as were all the missiles in the exercise."
- The IAF used advanced AA-12 Adder missiles that do not require continued pilot control and allow the attacking pilot to fire and fly away:
"'That's what the Indians wanted to do,' Snowden says. '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. ' This means the missile has its own radar transmitter and doesn't depend on the launch aircraft's radar after launch. With the older AA-10 Alamo, the launching fighter has to keep its target illuminated with radar so the U.S. pilots would know when they were being targeted. But with the AA-12, they didn't know if they had been targeted. The Mirage 2000s carried the active Mica missile. Aerospace industry officials said that some of the radars the U.S. pilots encountered, including that of the Mirage 2000s, exhibited different characteristics than those on standard versions of the aircraft."
- The US flew boilerplate defense formations that were based on having the long range ability and AESA radars:
"By comparison, the U.S. pilots don't think they offered the Indians any surprises. The initial tactic is to run a wall with all four F-15s up front. That plays well when the long-range missiles and AESA radar are in play.
'You know we're there and we're not hiding,' Snowden says. 'But we didn't have the beyond-visual-range shot or the numerical advantage. Eventually we were just worn down by the numbers. They were very smart about it. Their goal was to get to a target area, engage the target, and then withdraw without prolonging the fight. If there were a couple of Eagles still alive away from the target area, they would keep them pinned in, get done with the target, and then egress with all their forces.
'All their aircraft seemed to be capable of breaking out [targets] and shooting at the ranges the exercise allowed,' he says. 'We generally don't train to an active missile threat [like the Mirage's Mica or the AA-12 for the Russian-built aircraft], and that was one of the things that caused us some problems.'"
PUTTING COPE INDIA 2004 INTO A GLOBAL AND POLITICAL CONTEXT
The USAF and IAF agreed on the rules prior to the exercise, so why did both sides allow an uneven match-up? The Indian side is obvious. India beating the United States Air Force looks like an emerging power to its two regional rivals, Pakistan and China.
However, on a broader political and strategic global level, it was in the United States Air Force's interest to "lose" this competition as well for something far more valuable than bragging rights.
The Politics of the F-22
On the political side, the war on terrorism has moved Pentagon and Congressional thinking towards fighting insurgencies and non-advanced terrorists on the ground. This does not look promising for future high-end weapons systems like the F-22. While the F-22 is a huge improvement over the F-15C, if the US sees its air missions as being supportive of ground troops in the Middle East, it is difficult to argue why scarce defense resources should buy even more sophisticated fighters. Secretary Rumsfeld often comments on the US needing to skip or "leap frog" a generation of high-end weapons systems to transform the current military away from a Cold War fighting machine to a more mobile, adaptable force.
The USAF needs a reason to buy 756 F-22s, not the lesser 336 number that some on Capitol Hill want. Any weapons system needs a threat for its existence. COPE India 2004, with its restrictions, may have been partially designed by the USAF to prove that "threat", that US air superiority is not what Congress thinks it is. Rep. Duke Cunningham's (R-CA) quote above, who received a classified briefing on COPE India 2004, is the only quoted loss statistic for the exercise in print that I could find.
It turns out Rep. Cunningham is a supporter of the F-22 program. Rep. Cunningham in comments on the House floor passionately stated:
"I will tell the gentleman, if he has any idea what it is like to look at tracers coming across the canopy, if he has any idea what is like to see a sidewinder coming up one's tailpipe, if he has got any idea what it feels like to be coming down in a parachute over enemy territory, then he would support the F-22....
Mr. Chairman, if our pilots fly against the SU-27 today, both in the intercept and in the dog fight, our pilots die 90 to 95 percent of the time. But our liberal and socialist friends would tell us the Cold War is over; there is no threat. Our kids are going to die, and it is amendments like this that have stopped our military from surviving and puts us in a situation where we have got 21 ships along pier that cannot be deployed because they are down for maintenance. Our kids are getting worn out, and we are flying 30-year-old equipment."
Rep. Cunningham has a distinguished US Naval Aviator career, serving in Vietnam and in the famous Top Gun school. He would be a natural ally of fellow pilots for better equipment. His background would explain, in a non-cynical way, why, in 2002, he was the 4th largest recipient of both Defense Aerospace and Defense Electronics contributions in the US House, according to Open Secrets. (He is lower on the 2004 list).
COPE India 2004, with non-realistic red versus blue drills between the US and India, allowed the USAF to pressure Congress to keep alive the F-22 program. From a link on the Strait Times of Asia, no longer available but copied on a message board here:
"[S]enior officers have begun leaking information about the exercise, freely admitting their technical inferiority. 'We may not be as far ahead of the rest of the world as we once thought we were,' said General Hal Hornburg, head of the US Air Combat Command.
The reason for the sudden candour has little to do with the F-15, and much more to do with another high-performance aircraft: the US $72 billion F/A-22 Raptor, a new stealthy combat jet the US Air Force is desperate to save from Congressional and Pentagon budget cutters."
From a political analysis in DC politics, the US may have "lost" COPE India 2004 to attempt to promote the F-22 before Congress. It also doesn't hurt Sec. Rice's attempts to sell F-16s to India (from DEL). [I believe the politcal agenda was not the driving force, but rather, once the strategic perspective described below was taken, the political angle became an added benefit.]
The Strategic Perspective
The strategic global perspective, I believe, is the better framework for viewing the US "loss". The political aspects for the USAF were not as important as the strategic value of the exercise.
The United States had never flown against the high tech, Russian built SU-30. This presented the USAF with a treasure trove of intel on its capability over a long exercise. Why wouldn't the IAF and USAF want an equal balance of attack and defend scenarios instead of the constant IAF attack versus American defense? Since Pakistan is a primary threat to India, one would think they would be interested in the defense, unless the IAF wanted to convey the message to Pakistan that if it can overwhelm the American F-15C, it can surely overwhelm the Pakistani Air Force. Sometimes the best deterrence is a good offense. India also would have conveyed a similar message to China.
The USAF has been far more on the attacking side of the equation over the past, say, 60 years with aircraft, so why the focus on defense? It all comes down to defending Taiwan against a Chinese attack. The ability for the US to train and fly against the SU-30, a massive and sophisticated Russian attack aircraft, for the first time was too good to pass up. The Indians were reluctant to utilize the aircraft in the scenarios but ultimately decided on it. The benefits the IAF received were worth giving up valuable intel on a plane that is in India's adversary China's arsenal.
China, over the past 5 years, has purchased 60 SU-30s from Russia and has negotiated transfer of technology arrangements with the Russians worth over $2 billion. The US had a golden opportunity to witness dissimilar air combat training with aircraft very similar to what the Chinese would employ against Taiwan. The US used boilerplate tactics to not give away how the pilots of the F-15Cs from their briefing and intel room meetings would really plan a solid defense. They instead focused on watching the capability, studying it, and preparing for not another exercise, but the real deal. Someday soon, those pilots may be facing Chinese SU-30s over the Strait of Taiwan defending a new democracy from a Chinese invasion.
It was in our interest to lose COPE India 2004. It is much like losing a battle to win a war. The intelligence information was too great to pass up. It may save a good deal of American lives in the future, well worth losing "bragging rights".
Comments: I would greatly appreciate USAF, IAF or other commentary on this post. This is my longest research exercise and feedback would be greatly appreciated, either by email or preferably on the comment section below.
End notes: Here are the links for this story that were helpful to me if you wish to dive further into it, including very valuable forums that were not quoted above. (Forums: Military.com, Pakistan Defense and here on a SU-30 crash in China, F-16 Forum, Ibiblio, Above Top Secret, Articles: Su-30MK beats F-15C 'Every Time', Washington Watch Blogs: Lawyers, Guns and Money)
Update 2: DEL Welcomes readers from various areonautical website forums. A couple of interesting comments are here and here (though I may have oversimplified the AA-12, the 15km is still within the exercise's parameters and is an advantage). March 24, 2005
Update 3: DEL makes a prediction that the US proposed sale of F-16s to Pakistan is the opening move of a gambit to bring India into the US sphere of influence, promote it as a 21st Century Major World Power and ultimately contain China, all in support of the Bush Administration desire to expand and strengthen democratic governments here. March 25, 2005