US Air Force pilots flying sophisticated F-16 jets were in for a few "surprises" when they squared off with their Indian counterparts in ageing MiG-21 fighters during an exercise at an airbase here.
Though senior Indian and US officials were at pains Thursday to emphasise Cope India 05 - the largest air force exercise between the two sides - was all about cooperation and not competition, others privately admitted the US pilots were often "amazed" by the performance of the Indians.
The nearly two-week-long wargame that began Nov 7 sparked angry demonstrations from Left parties opposed to New Delhi's growing military ties with Washington, but US and Indian pilots were unconcerned with such protests, focusing instead on training for possible joint missions in future.
Gen. D. Deptula, vice commander of the US Pacific Air Force, said the manoeuvres - which featured 12 F-16s flying alongside 26 Indian jets, including Su-30s, MiG-21s, MiG-29s and Mirage 2000s - led to increased mutual understanding that would help both countries respond to "unnamed and unknown" contingencies.
"As these unknown contingencies pop up, we can respond better without wasting time," Deptula told a news briefing.
Deptula and Air Marshal Fali Major, chief of the Indian Air Force's (IAF) Eastern Command, insisted that "kills" or successes during combat missions during Cope India 05 were not tallied or reported, but other officials from both sides privately said the Indians had often surprised the American pilots.
Major merely noted that the "home grown ingenuity and skill of IAF pilots has earned respect from different nations", but some Indian pilots admitted the performance of the ageing but refurbished MiG-21s had "dumbfounded" the Americans.
"This happened despite the fact that the Americans had an AWACS (airborne warning and control system) with them and we had little experience of operating in an AWACS environment," said an IAF pilot who did not want to be named.
Deptula brushed aside protests against the exercise by the Left parties that rule West Bengal state, remarking that the US and India were democracies whose militaries had to protect the rights of expression of all sections of society.
"That's what this is all about - protecting the people's right to articulate their feelings," he said.
Lt. Col. Pete Bastien, a fighter controller on the US E3Sentry AWACS sent from Japan for the exercise, had plenty of praise for India's Su-30 multi-role jets. "We had never flown in India and we had never operated with the IAF. The page was blank and we learnt a lot during this exercise," he said.
Capt. Ben Mosley, an F-16 pilot, was more forthright. "We're very proud to be allies with India and happy that we will work with the IAF," he said after a few training sorties with the Su-30s.
Cope India 05 also marked the return of US forces to Kalaikunda after nearly 60 years - the airbase was created specifically for US Army Air Force pilots to ferry supplies to China over the "hump" of the Himalayas during World War II.
The IAF recently refurbished the airbase for use in future joint exercise with foreign countries. It will also be "hired" by the Singapore Air Force early next year for training exercises, officials said.