T Nation

Indian Air Force Gives US a Run


Can this be propaganda to intimidate Pakistan?


Indian Air Force, in war games, gives US a run
Foreign fighter jets performed well against F-16s in recent exercises.

By Scott Baldauf | Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

NEW DELHI - 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."
F-16s 'got their clocks cleaned'

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."
US fighter prowess slipping

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.
Indian training surprises US

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 [2004] 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."


Where's Tom Cruise when you need him?


They didn't face the Amraam or the F-22. F-16's are getting old.

They are getting better though. They match up well with Pakistan which is good.

In a no rules engagement with the US Air Force/Navy fighter pilots, using current weapons, I think the US still sweeps the skies.

From James Dunnigan:

India versus Americans

December 8, 2005:

There have been several joint training exercises held recently between the U.S. Air Force and the Indian Air Force. The Indians have used their new, Russian designed, Su-30s (an improved model of the Su-27, which is the Russian answer to the U.S. F-15). The Indians have gone up against American F-15s and F-16s. The Indian pilots have been quite successful in these mock dogfights, and very eager to let everyone know about it.

What isn?t usually included in these battle descriptions is the fact that the ground rules deliberately prevented the American pilots from winning every engagement. These days, American pilots use close in dog fighting (with heat seeking Sidewinder missiles) as a fall back tactic. The main air-to-air weapon of the U.S. Air Force is now the long range (over 50 kilometers) AMRAAM missile, and superior radar equipment.

This is nothing new, the United States has been working on this tactic for nearly half a century, and in the last decade, they have finally gotten missiles, radars, tactics and pilots able to make it work consistently. For a long time, pilots were not enthusiastic about BVR (Beyond Visual Range) engagements, and the early missiles (the AIM-7 Sparrow) were not all that accurate. But after decades of trying, they finally have a winning combination with the AMRAAM and a new generation of radars and electronic gear.

So when American fighter pilots go train with foreign air forces, they have to take their BVR tactics off the table, since under those conditions, the ?enemy? force would not have much of a chance.

But there?s also the security aspect. Other air forces also have BVR missiles (usually Russian), and the American pilots don?t want to give away the electronic tricks and tactics they would use to defeat the Russian missiles, and ensure that AMRAAM would succeed. So the American pilots have to fall back on the older dog fighting tactics, which many foreign fighter pilots are good at (since they don?t train much, if at all, with BVR missiles.) For the Indian Air Force, such training exercises are good because it allows them to train against F-16s (which their long time foe, Pakistan, has).

For the American pilots, they get to operate against Su-30s (which China has.) For all concerned, it?s a chance to fight against pilots from a different culture, who may use different, and sometimes superior, tactics and methods.


Hahaha... this right here shows what the author of the article knows about the state of air-to-air combat.

The F-16 is kind of the world's most expensive air-to-air target. Also, if foreign pilots were flying them as the article suggested, they would have been stripped down versions anyway. We don't share that sort of tactical information, even with our allies.

The F-15 and F-22 are really where it's at with American avionics, but then, we wouldn't let anyone come near an updated model of those.



This is old news (although Hedo's is dated recently.)

I have read that the rules were slanted to favor the Indians in quite a few ways.

Basically we get to pick up info on airplanes we may have to oppose in the future without giving away any of our real tactics or secrets.

Brilliant move.


I agree. I also think it's more like advertisement to other countries, these birds are getting old and they need to make room for the new ones, south american countries are still buying tomcats.


From someone that consults with the Air Force, including the F-16 Systems Group and the Fighter/Attack Systems Wing at Wright-Patterson AFB, trust me when I tell you that the USAF has the best equipment, tactics and training in the world. I apologize for the length of this...

Someone else already pointed out that the F-16 is getting a bit old. However, it's still expected to perform through 2020 and probably beyond. The F-15 is even older technology, but has two engines to the F-16's single engine, so an F-15 "equivalent" aircraft would be faster than an F-16. F-16s are considered to be more manueverable, which is why the Thunderbirds fly F-16s. It's also much more affordable, which is why it's flown by 23 different nations. And no, the other countries don't all get the same weapons technology as our USAF F-16s.

A few other bits of information: The F-15 will eventually be replaced by the F-22. The F-16 is supposed to be phased out/replaced by the F-35, the Air Force version of the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF). The JSF is another "more affordable" program, using a common airframe between the Air Force, Navy and Marines.

Now to address the article, let me post some quotes first - from the original article:

"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."

From the James Dunnigan response:

"The Indians have used their new, Russian designed, Su-30s (an improved model of the Su-27, which is the Russian answer to the U.S. F-15)."


"So when American fighter pilots go train with foreign air forces, they have to take their BVR tactics off the table, since under those conditions, the "enemy" force would not have much of a chance."


"For the American pilots, they get to operate against Su-30s (which China has.) For all concerned, it's a chance to fight against pilots from a different culture, who may use different, and sometimes superior, tactics and methods."

BVR is the air-to-ar tactic of the future, based on powerful radar systems and reduced radar signatures (stealth technology). In a real battle, each pilot won't see the other aircraft with their own eyes. And one of the two opposing pilots will be crapping his pants when a missile appears out of nowhere, locked on his ass. Most likely that pilot will not be wearing a US flag on his jumpsuit.

So when we do training exercises with other countries, a training approach that helps our pilots learn what they never could learn any other way, we go back to old tactics - dogfighting. If Indian pilots are better than USAF pilots at dogfighting, well congratulations - they've mastered 20th century tactics. The fact that our guys still can dogfight with countries that specialize in it, I think that's pretty good, because then they'll be ready for the one or two lucky bastards that make through the BVR attack.

When it comes to Air Superiority, we already have it. We're just working to maintain it (and maybe extend it some).



Good post and informative.


Yeah, thanks for that. I did some research on the F-16 for a think tank internship about a year and a half back, and the amount of upgrades and changes to the F-16 in the 20-odd years since it was first introduced is staggering. What we use, especially in terms of the avionics, is much different from what we sell to Latin America or the Gulf States, as I'm sure you know.

I'm wondering what you think of the two new fighter planes on the horizon though. The F-22, the Air Force's answer for everything, is supposed to be incredible and all that, but the cost per plane has been climbing seemingly by the month. I don't have the numbers on me, but the size of the buy has dropped a ton hasn't it?

Doesn't a much smaller number of these planes (given the obvious needs of the Army and Marines and plans to increase the size of the surface fleet) bode badly for U.S. air superiority in the future? Someone, can't remember who, recently made the point that in spite of Air Force obsession with technology, the U.S. has in the past established air superiority due to both the numbers and skill of its pilots. A small number of available F-22s would seem to run counter to this.

And if you have the time, what's your reaction to the possibility of the Air Force version of the F-35 getting cancelled?:



As a guy who works for the company that puts jet engines into the F-15, F-16, F-22 and Joint Strike Fighter, this whole thread is just giving me the warm-fuzzies. Thank you, gents.


I would think the US Military would want to force a war in a predominantly BVR (beyond visual range) enviroment which relies on their strengths: advanced avionics, organization of resources on the ground and air to coordinate the interceptions (AWACS ect) and good situation awareness, and that seems to give you the real edge in achieving air superiority rather than dogfighting skills.

The AMRAAM is probably a better investment in itself than a highly maneuvarable plane in the modern air combat enviroment. Well coordinated teams of AWACS + F15's/F16s configured to use AMRAAMS would still dominate the skies in a real war.

My opinion.


For all the reasons mentioned above about technology and limits on ROE's for the exercise, this article is inconsequential. I do however, want to give props to the Indian Air Force. In my API class, we had the first group of Indian students participate in our training. They are a good bunch of fellows and very dedicated.

A lot smarter then I am to, but that's not saying much. They aren't too hot at swimming though. Anyway, just wanted to say that if these guys are a standard representation of who they've got, I'm not surprised that they would do well in a joint forces exercise.

It is a very exciting time to be going into aviation. With all the new advancements, not only in jets and targeting systems, but helos, and the Osprey, I don't think there has been as exciting of a time since the Golden Age of aviation. I can't wait for the AH-1Z.


Alright AH-1Z.....what's that??


the new Cobra coming out. We currently use the AH-1W. Makes you wonder what happened to X&Y.
It should be coming out right around the same time that I'm hitting the fleet. With any luck, I'll be behind the stick.


Attack Helicopter-1Z = Z model Cobra helicopter. Isn't the current version the Sierra?




While the F-16 may be a bit long in the tooth, it's still the backbone of the US, and it's allies, air force. And it will remain so for at least a decade.

Twin engines do not a better air superiority fighter make.


You're absolutely right about the upgrades that have already been put into the F-16. For comparison, look at the B-52 - upgrades have kept that airframe in service for over twice its original intended lifespan.

As for the F-22, it's going to be the Air Force's premier fighter, and will be for a loooong time, so they're trying to get the best they possibly can. The nature of the military aircraft industry has significantly changed from back in the 60's - 80's. The technology is allowing the airframes to last longer, so lifecycles are much longer. Where they used to say a certain capability was good enough, we'll be buying the next model in 5 years, now they're saying this aircraft has to last the next 30-40 years, possibly longer. And there's limits to how much you can upgrade an airframe. A B-52 will never have the small radar signature of a B-2 and the F-16 will look like an elephant to the F-22's gnat on a radar screen. I think the future of F-16s will include more Close Air Support type roles (the A-10's territory). F-16s are currently being used to help take out insurgents in Iraq.

Another aspect of the military aircraft industry is that the U.S. is down to two airframe manufacturers: Lockheed Martin and Boeing. And at this point, L-M makes the fighters and Boeing makes the larger Tankers/Transport aircraft. The last competition between two U.S. companies was the Joint Strike Fighter. I recommend the PBS show (Nova?) that covered the JSF competition. After Boeing lost, they basically were out of the fighter business. If we have a competition in the future, it will have to involve a foriegn manufacturer. Look at the Tanker Replacement Program, where the Air Force is planning to buy some new tankers to replace some of the old KC-135s. The competition is Boeing and Airbus. Airbus has teamed with Northrop Grumman, established a U.S.-based subsidiary and promised to build a production plant in Alabama, but it's still a European company.

As for the concern about the reduced buy of F-22s due to cost overruns, the question goes to the nature of air warfare. Someone else mentioned missiles, which I didn't give enough credit to. U.S. missile technology is a major part that makes the BVR tactic workable. So a single F-22, basically invisible to the enemy, loaded with superior missiles and superior radar could take out a number of enemy aircraft. So do we need a lot?

And then there's the Unmanned aircraft. I think a large part of the future of air warfare will be driven by unmanned technology. The elimination of the pilot/crew provides for a lot of cost-savings, allowing for lower costs and shorter lifecyles. Shorter lifecycles means new technology can be integrated faster. Or, on the other hand, the cost and weight savings from eliminating the pilot/crew can be used for additional capability or weaponry.

As for the F-35 article - wow, I've never read such a strongly opinionated article about military aviation acquisition before. I have a hard time believing the Air Force JSF will be cancelled, especially in favor of the Navy version. It would significantly hurt the "affordability" aspect of the JSF which was the main driver for a "joint" aircraft purchase in the first place.

I realize I've written a lot here and could go on and on, but it's late.