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Exercise Cope India-04

A Su-30K fighter lands following exercises with F-15's.

In February 2004, the Indian Air Force (IAF) and United States Air Force (USAF) conducted a series of combat air exercises. Codenamed ‘Cope India-04’, the exercises involved fighter aircraft from both sides engaging each other in 'mock' defensive and offensive missions. The ten-day exercise not only provided a platform for the participants to learn from each other in the field of aerial combat, it also provided a strong foundation and deep understanding towards developing a new relationship between the IAF and USAF for the future.

Indicating a clear strengthening of military ties between the two countries, the United States and India have held three joint military exercises since the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks when Washington decided to engage New Delhi as a strategic partner. The two countries already have a pilot exchange programme, a US instructor is at the Indian Air Force training academy and their airforce surgeons are also working together.

Cope India-04 banner and patch (

The 'Cope India-04', was the second and the largest one in the Cope India series involving fighter aircraft from both sides. It was the first bilateral dissimilar air combat training (DACT) exercise held between the two airforces in more than 40 years. While 'Cope India-02' held at Agra in 2002 focussed on air transport functions, this exercise was the first meeting ground between the two air forces in a truly operational air combat environment. It identified areas of commonality between the two forces in terms of operations, maintenance and administration for future joint exercises.

A lineup of Su-30's (

The US Air Force assets participating included F-15C ‘Eagle’ aircraft and approximately 140 personnel from the high-profile Elmendorf Air Force Base in Alaska. Aircrews, maintainers, communications, security and logistical support and a tanker/airlift control element team from Travis AFB, California, were present supporting the exercise. The F-15C's were equipped with the newest long-range, high-definition radars possibly AESA (Active Electronic Scanned Array) type. A variety of IAF aircraft participated including Mirage 2000s, MiG-21 Bisons, MiG-27s and the formidable Sukhoi-30MK/Ks.

An IAF Mirage 2000 taxis to park (pic:

Planning for the exercise commenced way back in September 2003, during the IPC (Initial Planning Committee) meeting at Air HQ in New Delhi. Here various modalities for the smooth (and safe) conduct of the exercise were chalked out. The USAF delegation which was led by Colonel F. Greg Neubeck, a senior F-15 pilot with over 3000 hrs flying experience, helped work out the modalities concerning security and administration aspects. Once the IPC was conducted, a broad outline for planning was set into motion.

The arrival of a USAF transport plane at Gwalior AFS (

All aspects relating to operations, maintenance and administration were finalised and put in place during the discussions which took place subsequently between the two sides. Exchange visits by the participants of the two air forces took place. A team of IAF pilots, fighter controllers, ATCOs and AFSOs visited the US Air Force Base in Alaska. Likewise, a USAF team visited India to familiarise and acquaint themselves with the procedures followed by IAF.

A USAF transport plane unloads (

By the first week of February 2004, Gwalior Air Force Station(AFS) was all geared up for the exercise. The station, located approximately 10 miles from the city of Gwalior in North Central India, is home to the IAF's No.1 'Tigers' and No.7 'Battle Axes' squadrons, both of which operate the Dassault Mirage 2000H/TH aircraft. The station is the hub of the IAF's operational training and testing and often plays host to national-level exercises. It includes the only Indian airforce electronic warfare range. The Chief of Air Staff, Air Chief Marshal S. Krishnaswamy made a visit to the base to check the arrangements for the exercise.

No.1 'Tigers' and No.7 'Battle Axes' squadron banners (

Sqn Ldr A.S. Hundal recieved the first F-15 to arrive (pic:

On February 12 evening, the first transport support aircraft of USAF, a C-5 Galaxy, arrived. This was followed by a few more trips and the entire ground support facilities were in place by February 14. The first two F-15 fighters, from the USAF's 19th Fighter Squadron “Gamecocks”, flew in on the 14th. However the next four F-15's were delayed due to technical reasons and arrived in the afternoon of the 19th.

IAF and USAF officers interacting on the airfield (

IAF and USAF officers discuss procedures (

The exercise began on February 16, with the USAF pilots being familiarized with the airfield and local procedures and also of the diversionary airfields. The USAF pilots got a chance to see the Taj Mahal at Agra and the mighty Himalayas from the air and they were visibly impressed by both. Besides flying activity, there was considerable social interaction. Welcome Cocktails at both Officers Mess and SNCO(Senior Non-Commissioned Officers) Mess were organised to break the ice. This was followed by a “Roll Call” on the evening of the 20th.

A USAF F-15 and two IAF Mirage 2000's overfly the Himalayas (

IAF and USAF officers interacting after drinks (

Flying activity picked up pace in the next few days and missions went through as planned. The Americans soon became familiar with the famous Indian culture, hospitality and especially spicy Indian food, which was well appreciated. The growing friendship between the two teams was clearly visible by the fact that the airmen of both air forces were soon playing volleyball and football matches together during their spare time. The Americans showed a keen interest in learning cricket and likewise the Indians in learning baseball.

IAF firefighters play volleyball with their USAF counterparts. More on the firefighting exercises here.

Flying activity continued at a brisk pace during the second week as the Gwalior’s skies became transformed into a 'mock' war theatre. Six F-15 'Eagles' of the USAF were pitted against Su-30s, Mig-21 Bisons, Mirage-2000's and MiG-27's of the IAF in a ‘big fight’. The war machines of the IAF zoomed into the skies with incredible power. The F-15's were already there in a tenable position. A MiG-27 unleashed her lethal power and the ‘Eagles’ answered it with matching prowess. In the same vein, when the ‘Eagles’ displayed their ‘own’ tactics, the IAF’s ‘stings in store’ silenced them with their awesome manoeuvres. Unrelenting to give up the ‘fight’, both sides gave a taste of their forte to each other. The ‘defensive’ and ‘offensive’ air missions carried out by the two sides left the spectators spell-bound with the aerial marvels.

USAF F-15's and IAF Su-30's during an exercise (

The missions involved (a) Offensive counter air (OCA) versus defensive counter air (DCA) missions, (b) Attack and protection of high value aerial asset (HVAA) and, (c) Air combat manoeuvering missions. Pilots of both sides practiced their fighter tactics and flew against each other on a one-on-one combat basis, as well as simulated combat scenarios. Simulated combat included “offensive counter air”, where a small number of F-15's would attempt to intercept an enemy strike aircraft en route to a target that was guarded by a larger number of Indian fighters. In the defensive counter air missions, the F-15's would attempt to defend a target against Indian fighters. The Four F-15's were outnumbered, usually flying against ten or twelve of the same model Indian fighters.

USAF F-15's and IAF Mig-21's during an exercise (

Each engagement series lasted about 30 minutes over the training range, and two series are scheduled each flying day. During nearly all these simulated combat sorties, the F-15's protected ground targets against advancing Indian aircraft - the two swapped roles during one series. Combined pre- and post-flight briefings set the stage and evaluated the scoring for each engagement. These large and complicated missions required lengthy briefing and even more exhaustive debriefs. This was necessary to ensure the safe conduct of the exercises. Many thought provoking ideas and lessons emerged from these missions.

Officers being briefed before a mission (

One challenge for US airmen was that Russian-made aircraft use metric measurements. But careful exercise planning and familiarization flights led to safe aircraft maneuvering during the engagement series. Another challenge for USAF was the subtle language differences. "Although all the Indian airmen participating in the exercise speak fluent English, their speech is quicker, and the musical quality of their voices is something American ears here must quickly adjust to," USAF officials said. "We've agreed to use U.S. communication terms during radio calls throughout the air engagements since the Indian air force will be participating in Cooperative Cope Thunder exercise later this year," Capt. Mark Snowden, US exercise project officer said.

A USAF F-15 and two IAF Su-30's during an exercise (

On February 25, a large gathering of the media took place. The press were impressed on seeing the launch and recovery of a large number of combat aircraft participating in the exercises. A static display of all participating aircraft was planned during the day. Commanding Officers of all the units and a few participants exchanged their views with the media.

A static display of Indian and US aircraft (pic:

"It’s a fruitful interaction and heralded a beginning in joint air operations", said Air Marshal Ajit Bhavanani, Senior Air Staff Officer, Central Air Command, Allahabad. "With rapid developments in aerial warfare, the IAF has to review its techniques from time to time. This exercise enabled the men-in-blue to evaluate themselves against one of the best airforces in the world. The USAF is very advanced but at a tactical level we are a rough match. In air-to-air and in beyond-visual- range combat, however, the Americans have lots of experience, and we are learning from them."

Media briefing in progress (pic:

Air Cmde. S.P. Rajguru, AOC, Air Force Station, Gwalior, said he was pleased with the flying operations, "We are at par with each other. Especially, our aerial tactics do match with theirs. The exchanges are very, very frank, both on the work side and otherwise. The United States Air Force is a very modern air force and has global experience of flying and exercising with many countries in the world. So, obviously any fighter pilot would like to interact closely to understand their operating philosophy.”

Senior Airman Joshua Frederick cleans an F-15's canopy following the day's missions (pic:

Colonel F. Greg Neubeck said the aircrew of both sides learnt each other’s operating philosophy. When questioned on the capabilities of IAF pilots, he said, "The pilots are as aggressive as our pilots. They are excellent aviators; they work very hard at mission planning; they try to get as much out of a mission or sortie as possible, just like us. From one fighter pilot to another, there's really not that much difference in how we prepare for a mission and what we want to get out of it. What we’ve seen in the last two weeks is, the IAF can stand toe-to-toe with best AF in the world. I pity the pilot who has to face the IAF and chances the day to underestimate him; because he won’t be going home. Indian hospitality from everyone has been truly overwhelming. The greatest compliment we heard from an IAF pilot – "You American pilots are just like us, simply down to earth people". We depart India with great respect for the Indian Air Force. Your pilots, maintenance and support crew are exceptional professionals."

Todd Pederson and Robert Roe wait near the flightline as an F-15 Eagle flies overhead. Both sergeants are Mobile Aircraft Arresting System technicians (pic:

The participants also looked upbeat after their missions. "These missions brought us closer", said Flt Lt Ashish Sharma who looked content with his interaction with the USAF pilots. The US participants appeared enamoured with the arsenal of the IAF. With a beaming face, Capt Dave Skalicky, who had earlier participated in joint operations with countries like Japan, England, France and Canada, disclosed that given a chance he would be interested to fly the Su-30.

Senior Airman Colleen Clark (right) discusses emergency fuel shutdown procedures and other F-15 Eagle maintenance issues with Indian air force maintenance workers (pic:

Senior Airman Joel Mejia, TALCE aerial port journeyman, said his first trip to India had already been exciting and educational. “I love the warm weather here and the people are so friendly,” he said. “The food is spicy, but it’s just right for me. I love it.” According to Mejia, the chance to meet and work with people from a different culture has been the most valuable portion of the deployment. “While working with the Indian air force, I found that even though we are from different parts of the world, we are all the same,” he said.

Airman 1st Class A.J. McGee removes the raydome cover off an AIM-9X Sidewinder on an F-15 Eagle prior to takeoff (pic:

On February 26, various presentations and lectures on a wide variety of aviation-related topics took place. The team exchanged their past experiences on various operational, admin and maintenance aspects of both air forces. A farewell dinner was organised in the evening, with the Americans getting a short glimpse of Indian tradition and culture during a brief cultural programme put up by a local group from Gwalior city. Mementos and pleasantries were exchanged during the dinner.

On February 27, the exercises came to an end. The USAF fighters were ferried back to their bases in Alaska. The transport support followed soon after and the IAF bid farewell to all USAF personnel.

A USAF F-15 taxis for takeoff (

Not long had the exercises finished when the media in both countries painted the exercises as a 'rude shock' for the USAF and the Washington establishment. According to respected media reports, Indian pilots outflew the Americans, right through the exercise. “On the first day all four American planes were shot down. Never once did the Indians come off second”. According to United States media, the F-15C's were defeated more than 90 percent of the time in direct combat exercises against the IAF. It should be noted that the IAF did not field its newest “near fifth-generation” Sukhoi-30MKI air-dominance fighters and if it did so, the results may have been even more favourable to the IAF. Nevertheless the IAF had the benefit of operating the two-seater Sukhoi-30MK/K “four plus-plus-generation” fighters.

Wing Commander U Rakhura , CO 24 Squadron 'The Hawks' prepares Capt. Pete Fesler for a SU-30K Flanker flight (pic:

USAF officers said India's Su-30's had a clear advantage over the F-15 in long-range flights, and even though the US and Indian pilots were "seeing" each other at the same time on their radars, the Indian pilots were able to "fire" the simulated first shot with their R-27 (AA-10 Alamo) AAMs (Air-to-Air Missiles) and often winning the long-range BVR engagements. This, they said, meant that the Indian radars were more advanced, which came as a real shocker for the USAF. It should be noted that Sukhoi-30's inherently have a very respectable internal fuel capacity to enable them to make generous use of afterburners and establish kinematics advantage. Similar advantage is enjoyed by the Russian R-27 (AA-10 Alamo) series of BVR AAMs with powerful motors, especially the 130 kilometres extended-ranged models.

Sgt. Dave Thomas (left), a medical technician, treats F-15 Eagle pilot Capt. Dave Skalicky as Indian air force Sgt. G. Singh assists during a downed-pilot exercise (pic:

While the superb performances of the Sukhoi-30's were somewhat anticipated, the performance of the MiG-21 Bisons came as a major “unpleasant surprise” to USAF officials. The Bison with new powerful R-25 engines, latest radar, missiles and EW (Electronic Warfare) were credited with “jackrabbit” acceleration and great dog-fighting ability. It also validated the claim of Russian officials that they are capable of successfully converting “second generation” late-model MiG-21 bis fighters into “fourth generation combat platforms”.

Capt. David Skalicky gives a tour of an F-15 Eagle to IAF officers (pic:

Col. F. Greg Neubeck USAF exercise director for Cope India, emphasized the fact that US forces were always outnumbered in these exercise scenarios, but said the missions proved more difficult than expected. “What we faced were superior numbers, and an IAF pilot who was very proficient in his aircraft and smart on tactics. That combination was tough for us to overcome. One reason the Indian pilots proved so formidable is that their training regimen does not include a concept of 'red air'. Instead, they fly pretty much 'blue-on-blue' - a full-up airplane with no restrictions against somebody else’s airplane with no restrictions, and that leads to more proficiency with your aircraft. The service probably needs to take off the handcuffs that we put on our red air training aids and allow them to be more aggressive and make the red air tougher than we have in the past.”

USAF F-15's and IAF Mig-27's during an exercise (pic:

Gen. Hal M. Hornburg, commander of USAF Air Combat Command, said the results of that exercise are classified, but he admitted they raised some concern. "It’s sobering when we find that some of our advantages aren’t as great as we thought they might be. Such an event leads me to remind people we need to continue to modernize our air-to-air capability. We have been saying for a long time that we need newer fighters to do more things. There is no doubt that some foreign aircraft are nearing the capability of ours, and that we’re going to be fighting a larger and more capable surface-to-air threat. We need stealth technology and other capabilities of the type that will be provided by the F/A-22 'Raptors' and F-35 'Joint Strike Fighter'."

USAF F-15's and IAF Su-30's during an exercise (

General Hornburg said the USAF's current F-15's and F-16's were still very good, but they were becoming dated. He warned that the Cope India exercise was, "a reminder that the first thing that needs to happen in a combat situation is [to gain] control of the air. If we want air superiority, it doesn’t come cheap, and it’s not automatic. I see air forces across the spectrum and across the world becoming better and better as each year passes. That just means that we have to do the same thing. With air superiority, everything is possible. Without it, hardly anything's possible. People jump to the conclusion that it is ours just because we go [to war]. And that's blatantly false."

Squadron Leader (Dr.) M.S. Nataraja, flight surgeon for the Indian Air Force's 7th Squadron, discusses F-15 related aeromedical issues with Maj. Tim McGraw, 19th Fighter Squadron flight surgeon

Neutral media reports point out that the Americans had deployed ageing aircraft that were part of the USAF frontline, but cannot be said to be at the cutting edge, technologically. The high performance F-16's and F/A-18 'Hornets' did not participate in the exercises. Also the USAF pilots are usually trained to operate in close cooperation with Boeing E-3B ‘Sentry’, Grumman E-2C ‘Hawkeye’ AWACS (Airborne Warning And Control System) and other ISR (Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance) platforms and their absence proved to be a great handicap.

Two USAF F-15's during a mission (

Interestingly the greatest benefactors of Indo-US Cope India 2004 may turn out to be the US Aerospace giants Lockheed Martin and Boeing. Their product the F/A-22 'Raptor' fifth-generation air superiority fighter may get an extended production run to retain the American "technological dominance". USAF chief Gen John Jumper is pushing for the quick induction of F/A- 22, the next generation fighter to replace the F-15, calling the 'Cope India 04' exercises "a wake-up call".

Whatever the results of the exercises, both sides benefited from the experience. Despite a vast difference in culture and traditions, there was complete synergy and understanding of minds, and of concepts in the air and on the ground. The mutual respect and bonhomie that developed between members of the two sides have cemented a firm foundation for moving ahead towards higher bilateralism.

The Indian Air Force next meets the USAF in Alaska during Ex Cope Thunder-04.

1. Cope India 2004 : Asia Pacific Defense Forum
2. Cope India 2004 – An Analysis : India Defence Consultants
3. Cope India 2004 : Bharat Rakshak
4. Cope India 04 begins : Air Force Link
5. Cope India brings out fighter ops : Air Force Link
6. Cope India 04 - Friendly Fights : Sainik Samachar
7. Exercise Cope India 04 : Official IAF site
8. Indian Exercises Showed Need For Changes In Training : Hampton Stephens
9. PACAF troops participate in Cope India : PACAF website
10. US Held 4 Joint Military Exercises Since 9-11 : Indolink
11. U.S. warned it could lose air supremacy : CNN

Further Reading
1. 3rd Wing Explains 'Cope India' Exercise : Aviation Week & Space Technology