The U.S. and Indian air forces began a 12-day joint exercise in India on Nov. 7. Cope India 2005, as the exercise is called, will test Indian pilots' ability to operate in an environment controlled by airborne warning and control system aircraft. The last time the two forces held joint exercises, the Indians proved to be a tougher opponent than expected, reportedly embarrassing U.S. flyers on several occasions. Should this happen again, the exercise will illustrate the narrowing gap between the powerful U.S. Air Force and the increasingly sophisticated air forces of other countries.
A 12-day military exercise began Nov. 7 between a squadron of U.S. Air Force F-16s from Misawa Air Base in Japan and pilots from the Indian air force at the Kalaikunda air base in India's West Bengal state. The exercise, called Cope India 2005, aims to foster closer military ties between Washington and New Delhi, and test Indian pilots' ability to operate in an combat environment controlled by airborne warning and control system (AWACS) aircraft. In February 2004, the last time the U.S. Air Force participated in Cope India exercises, the Indian pilots bested U.S. flyers in several mock-combat engagements. As other countries — friend and foe — better train and equip their air forces, the United States' near-total air dominance could erode. Washington's foreign policy relies on U.S. air superiority throughout the world. Once a country's air force is eliminated from the battlefield, U.S. planes can penetrate its airspace almost at will to attack enemy leadership, air defense targets and command-and-control facilities. By controlling the air, the U.S. military can operate more freely on the ground without having to worry about significant casualties, even during a major military operation. Having this superiority makes it easier for Washington to consider taking the military option in a crisis. U.S. air dominance is due in large part to pilots' ability to engage and destroy enemy aircraft beyond visual range (BVR) — meaning they can engage and shoot down enemy aircraft before their opponents even see them. BVR capability reduces the chance that an enemy can shoot down U.S. planes — and thus kill or capture pilots. Another important factor is the AIM-120 advanced medium-range air-to-air missile. Equipped with its own active radar system and capable of tracking a target on its own, the missile can be fired a long distance from the enemy. The Indian air force is equipped with the Russian-built Su-30 MKI Flanker, a powerful fighter capable of performance equal to that of the U.S. F-15C. Even more threatening to U.S. air dominance than advanced combat aircraft, however, are the advanced weapons they deploy. In recent years, the proliferation of modern weapons has narrowed the gap between the U.S. Air Force and some of the world's other air forces. Powerful avionics such as those in the Su-30 and India's French-built Mirage 2000 have given other countries BVR combat capability. The key to successful air combat against ground targets or other aircraft is situational awareness — a pilot's ability to know what is going on in the air and on the ground around him. Given the speed of modern aircraft and of missiles fired both from the ground and from other aircraft, every second counts. Victory in air combat generally goes to the pilot who spots the enemy first. Now, however, pilots whose planes are equipped with up-to-date sensors have nearly the same level of situational awareness as U.S. pilots. Moreover, air-to-air missiles with active radar, such as the Russian-built AA-12 Adder and the French-built MICA RF, have given other air forces the same advantages as U.S. pilots. For closer-range combat, advanced heat-seeking missiles are available on the international arms market. The Israeli-made Python currently is the most advanced heat-seeking air-to-air missile available, and can be fired at an aircraft flying in a different direction, increasing a pilot's targeting opportunities. This is done in conjunction with a High Off-Bore Sight targeting system — essentially a sight mounted in the pilot's helmet — that allows the pilot to select a target just by looking at it. Helmet-mounted sights have been standard equipment on Russian-made MiG-29 Fulcrums and Flankers, as well as the Mirage 2000 for years. The United States, however, only began to field its helmet-mounted sight in 2003. Active Radar missiles such as the AA-12, MICA RF, combined with heat-seekers such as the Python 4, allow pilots to shave seconds off their reaction time, which can make the critical difference between life and death in air combat. India's neighbor to the north, China, also operates a large arsenal of the formidable Su-30 MKK. China also has earlier versions of the Python missile and is developing its own version of the AA-12. Military budget cuts meant to offset the financial burden of operations in Iraq and Afghanistan are a prime hindrance to U.S. efforts to maintain its air dominance. For example, orders for the new $250 million F/A-22 Raptor stealth fighter, which began reaching squadron service in 2005, have been cut twice from an original order of 750 in 1991 to 276 in 2005. The last time the U.S. and Indian air forces met in mock combat, U.S. pilots in F-15s lost several engagements with Indian Su-30 MKI Flankers, which were equipped with AA-12s and flown by expert pilots. This time, the United States might be "stacking the deck" by bringing along an AWACS aircraft — giving American pilots greater situational awareness than their adversaries. Without air dominance, the U.S. military cannot count on overwhelming success — with few or no casualties — on the battlefield. Moreover, as other countries narrow the gap between U.S. capabilities in the air and their own, they might be encouraged to adopt a more confrontational stance toward the United States. Unless U.S. air superiority is maintained, the decision-makers might have to think twice before opting for battle.