While there has been loud silence here about the outcome and lessons of the US-India Air Forces exercise code-named ‘‘Cope India’’ last February, the United States Air Force has been ‘‘shaken by the results’’ from the exercise according to headlines in professional military publications abroad. In fact, the leader of the F-15C team that tangled in mock air combat with Indian Air Force had said in his parting speech that ‘‘I pity the pilot who faces the IAF... anyone underestimating him will not go home.’’
This is a long way from the time four decades ago when the British Air Force came here for Exercise Shiksha, an exercise, as the code-name indicated, to teach the Indians how to defend our skies after the 1962 war, waged at the political level to teach India a lesson, in which only helicopters and transport aircraft were used and the fighters and bombers were ordered to stay on the ground!
Not surprisingly, the US Air Force and those of other countries are now keen to train with the Indians. While the reports on both sides remain classified, enough is known in the public domain to form a broad assessment of the exercise. The actual flights paths, tactics and results of air combat training engagements were tracked by state of the art electronic systems so as to get to facts and eliminate opinions so commonly prevalent on such issues.
According to the premier American professional weekly, Aviation Week & Space Technology (AW&ST), the pilots of the Indian Su-30 multi-role combat aircraft and American F-15C air superiority fighters (equipped with latest avionics) located each other ‘‘at the same time with their radars, but the Indian pilots were getting off the simulated first shot with their AA-10 Alamo missiles and often winning the long-range (beyond visual range) engagements.’’ The results, I believe, was an exchange ratio of seven American fighters killed for every three Indian fighters. The Su-30K ‘‘shooting down’’ all the four F-15C in one engagement was bad enough, but what seems to have shaken the Americans even more was a venerable MiG-21, so often derided here, getting a ‘‘kill’’ on an F-15C which is the top of the line fighter of the US Air Force.
Both sides no doubt are learning new lessons and re-learning and un-learning some old ones. The commander of the US Air Combat Command, General Hal M Hornburg, was quoted to caution, ‘‘We may not be far ahead of the rest of the world as we thought we were.’’ The caution against complacency applies to us too since it can be the biggest enemy of progress.
There is no doubt that our military professional capabilities at the operational and tactical level in all three services is one of the best in the world. What we need to concurrently place greater focus on is the strategic level of development of military capabilities for future needs. This is as much a challenge of technological modernisation as that of intellectual activity. Both require a long-term perspective which gets pushed into the background by the urgency of current issues and routine.
It may be recalled that a decade ago a RAND study had concluded that Indians do not think strategically. In specific, in its examination of the Indian Air Force, which it had assessed as a professional force, the RAND study had concluded that the ‘‘IAF has not figured prominently in Indian thinking about defence’’ and that the Air Force ‘‘did not take the initiative in pushing concepts of air power or an air plan for the defence of India.’’
What we would need is to look ahead and see the balance of air power in the coming years if we (the Air Force and the Government) are to ensure that we do not lag behind to a situation where the fighting men may be asked to compensate for the failures of the planning people. The Government had agreed in principle to a force level of 64 squadrons in 1961 while restricting immediate raisings to 45 squadrons (with 35 combat squadrons). In future we would require such a force, although shortage of combat aircraft is actually shrinking.
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