When Group Captain S.J. Nanodkar lands in Alaska with his magnificent men in their flying machines to go head-to-head against American, British, Japanese and German fighter pilots, all radars will try to lock on him. He has a reputation to defend—that Indian pilots are smarter, more skilled and steer some of the best aircraft.
Cold Alaska will be turning hot with anticipation, the Eielson Air Force Base buzzing and whirring not only with the Jaguars and F-15s, but with mind games. Will Nanodkar and his team win the contest again? The last time they met, Indian pilots outgunned the Americans, scored most of the "kills" and shook up the Pentagon chiefs. This time, however, the exercises involve other big boys of NATO.
At the invitation of the US Air Force (USAF), the Indian Air Force (IAF) is participating for the first time in multi-nation combat exercises, equipped with six Jaguars, two heavy lift IL-76 transport planes, two IL-78 tankers and a 200-strong team. Cooperative Cope Thunder 2004 is a tough test with multiple mock scenarios of assassinations, unrest, rescue and other emergencies. In other words, an imagined "real" world will come alive for 15 days with crises erupting and governments toppling.
At the height of the battle, up to 70 jets could be flying in the same airspace at one time. The IAF will be part of the "Blue" forces or the good guys, fighting off the "Reds" or the bad guys. No ideological compulsions here, the colours are simply a tradition coming down from World War II. The USAF has teams on both sides. Ground forces will be "White" or neutral, doing the umpiring and ensuring everyone’s safety.
It is serious business. Most units arrive a week early to get a feel of the 66,000 square miles of airspace, including high-altitude areas, spread over the US and Canada. They need to get acclimatised, learn about local flying restrictions (caution: watch for polar bears and people), and prepare mentally for the test. They may bring their yoga mats—in the two weeks, air crews will be subjected to every conceivable war threat and every nerve-wracking situation imaginable. Scenario builders are toughies. "
It is a very dynamic and fluid situation. It can vary from minute to minute. Scenarios are created to give advantage to some and you don’t know what the enemy will field," says Air Commodore Sumit Mukerji, air attache at the Indian embassy. You have to study the given info, anticipate your enemy’s moves in the air and plan your attack in the span of a few hours. And resolve the imponderables such as the decoding of the Yank accent or a southern Indian twister at high altitude with a missile on your tail. Or converting kilometres into miles if you are with the non-metric guys of the USAF.
Joint exercises are all about learning and improving, they say, but the last lesson was a bitter one—for the USAF. That they can’t take their air superiority for granted. The results of Cope India ’04, the first Indo-US combat exercises held in Gwalior, were a rude awakening for the Washington establishment. Indian pilots bested their US counterparts 90 per cent of the time in mock fights. This unsavoury detail, supposedly classified, was revealed shortly after by Congressman Duke Cunningham of California in a defence subcommittee hearing on Capitol Hill.
The top USAF generals then decided to go public and ever since they have been talking unusually frankly about their Indian summer. USAF chief Gen John Jumper told a Senate subcommittee in March that the results of Cope India were "very revealing". Two weeks ago, Gen Hal Hornburg, head of the air combat command, was more blunt when he told defence reporters, "We may not be as far ahead of the rest of the world as we once thought." He described Cope India as a "wake-up call".
Another commander called it a "reality check" and mused about the American tendency to routinely underrate the other side while devising training procedures". 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," said Col Greg Neubeck, exercise director.
Now the USAF is aggressively demanding the induction of F/A-22, the next generation fighter to replace the F-15C which lost to the Indian Su-30s and Mig-21 Bisons. "We were pleasantly surprised by IAF pilots. It was certainly a validation for us that we have to ensure we keep our edge in both skill and equipment," Col Jeffrey LeVault, an operations chief in the Pacific Air Forces, told Outlook in a telephone interview from Hawaii.
"We always see the need for changes in training and tactics. It was a great learning experience for our pilots," he added. The IAF came out tops in terms of both skill and equipment. India’s Su-30s had a clear advantage over the F-15C 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" first, sources said.
That means the Indian radars are more advanced, which came as a real shocker for the USAF. With China set to acquire the Su-30s, the Americans are clearly worried. From India’s perspective, a strong showing against the US unsettles Pakistan and China a bit and sends a fine signal. Since the Alaska exercises are a multi-nation affair, the idea is to be able to execute and cooperate in an emergency with a mixed team.
Can different military cultures and equipment work together and achieve "interoperability"? This is the first trans-Atlantic journey for the IAF aircraft, and their first foray out of South Asia. Both the US invitation as well as India’s acceptance are loaded with political and military significance. "It is part of our coming out.
India is such a large military but we have been insular. The US is always looking for interaction," comments C. Raja Mohan, professor of South Asian Studies at the Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi. "It is in our interest to engage and reach out. China is reaching out to NATO." The Indo-US military-to-military interaction has certainly shot off like a rocket ever since India lifted its veil and offered help after the 9/11 attacks. This is the fourth time in two years the two air forces will exercise together.
They have already done a pilot exchange programme, a US instructor is at the IAF training academy and air force surgeons are working together, says Col LeVault. The Alaska exercises will bring countries in the Pacific and Indian oceans closer as "we have mutual interests and concerns as democracies". Air Commodore Mukerji added that the "crux of the whole exercise is to work in partnership and create an understanding among friendly air forces".
Although he insisted that a real joint operation was "a political decision", he agreed it would be easier once the pilots had flown together and dined in the same hall. In the end, the Indian military seems eager for the experience and glad the political barriers are down for it to get some fresh air.