Over the next couple of months, there will be extended discussions of COPE INDIA, the annual exercise between the U.S Air Force and its Indian counterpart.
COPE INDIA began in 2004, with mock dogfights between USAF F-15 EAGLES and Indian Air Force SU-27 FLANKERs. The results of COPE INDIA were surprising, not because the FLANKERs and their air-to-air missiles provded to be technically advanced (we already knew that), but because the Indian pilots proved to be more tactically advanced than we had originally assessed. Indian FLANKER pilots effectively employed their aircraft against the F-15s, proving more than a match for their American counterparts.
I haven't seen any official reports on the latest COPE INDIA exercise, which pitted Indian FLANKERs against U.S. F-16CJs from Misawa AB, Japan. According to a recent article in the Christian Science Monitor, some Indian sources are claiming they gained the upper hand, while others are making more guarded assessments.
The Monitor article is disappointing in a couple of respects. First, it bases much of its assessment on comments from military chatrooms and bulletin boards, which may (or may not) be accurate. Secondly, some of article's observations should be placed in a more accurate context. For example, Monitor reporter Scott Baldauf notes that U.S. fighter prowress is slipping, based on the results of COPE INDIA, and the introduction of newer Russian and French aircraft, with technical capabilities similar to our F-15s and F-16s.
It's worth noting that the American fighters now being "matched" by other countries were first introduced in the 1970s, and the versions that flew in COPE INDIA are almost 20 years old. In other words, foreign designers are just now matching U.S. technology that appeared decades ago. Additionally, Mr. Baldauf fails to note that the U.S. has significantly raised the bar for fighter technology, with the introduction of the F/A-22 Raptor. The F/A-22 has never appeared at COPE INDIA and likely never will, given the advanced (and sensitive) technology associated with that airframe. With its advanced stealth capabilities, the Raptor can acquire, engage and destroy other aircraft without being detected. That's a tremendous capability, one that no other Air Force can match.
It is also dangerous to translate the Indian example to other nations that operate the SU-27. The Indian Air Force is one of only a handful of third-world air forces that can fully exploit the capabilities of an advanced fighter. China may have 400 FLANKERs, but its tactics are well behind those of the U.S., most NATO air forces, Japan, South Korea, India, and Singapore, just to name a few. Flying a SU-27 like an older MiG-23 FLOGGER or MiG-21 FISHBED makes no tactical sense, but the tactics of many FLANKER operators are antiquated, to say the least.
The Indians deserve credit for developing the tactics and training programs required to fully employ their advanced aircraft. But describing COPE INDIA as an Indian Air Force rout is premature at best, and a likely exaggeration of what actually transpired. The exercise provided valuable training for both sides, and for U.S. pilots , exposure to aircraft and missiles they may see in combat in the near future. Flying against those threats--in the hands of skilled IAF pilots--makes COPE INDIA a valuable exercise, indeed.