The whole world knows that if you mess with U.S. Air Force pilots, you’re going down. Hard.
Except, someone forgot to send the memo to India, apparently. Because, in recent exercises, Indian flyboys in low-tech Russian and French jets defeated American F-15C pilots more than 90 percent of the time.
Now, granted, the Indians had the Americans outnumbered: usually 10 or 12 to 4, during the Cope India air combat exercise held last February around the Gwalior Air Force Station. But American officials also credited Indian pilots with being “very proficient in [their] aircraft[s] and smart on tactics. That combination was tough for us to overcome,” USAF Col. Greg Neubeck told Inside the Air Force. (The article is off-limits to those who don’t subscribe. But The Times of India is running major excerpts.)
“The adversaries are better than we thought,” Col. Mike Snodgrass added. “And in the case of the Indian Air Force both their training and some of their equipment was better than we anticipated.”
According to the magazine, “The Indians flew a number of different fighters, including the French-made Mirage 2000 and the Russian-made MIG-27 and MIG-29, but the two most formidable IAF aircraft proved to be the MIG-21 Bison, an upgraded version of the Russian-made baseline MIG-21, and the SU-30K Flanker, also made in Russia.”
The ability of these planes to “repeatedly defeat America’s best fighter is a troubling development. So troubling, in fact, that it calls into question a core assumption of the Bush Administration’s plans for military transformation,” says Loren Thompson, a defense analyst with the Lexington Institute.
That assumption, widely repeated by military reformers since the mid-1990’s, is that U.S. military power is so overwhelming the Pentagon can afford to take risks by delaying modernization of Cold War weapons while it pursues development of leap-ahead technologies. Examples cited by policymakers of areas where the U.S. lead is unassailable in the near term include heavy armor (tanks) and air superiority (fighters). We already know from the experience of the Iraq war that heavy tanks have proven far more important to occupation and counter-insurgency operations than anyone expected. Now comes news that third-world countries may be able to challenge U.S. command of the skies.
The Pentagon’s initial take on lessons learned from the Iraq war was so dismissive of traditional warfighting competencies that it barely mentioned air superiority. But even a cursory examination of how U.S. strategy for the conflict unfolded reveals a heavy reliance on air power to compensate for numerical deficiencies on the ground. The possibility of having to conquer some future Baghdad without air superiority should make every general in the Army pause and reflect on what victory might require in the way of casualties and resources.
“The actual story is not nearly as bad as it may seem,” Chirstopher Coglianese counters on the National Security Roundtable (NSRT) discussion group. “Remember that the Indians have two hostile nations on their border, both with credible air forces. Indian pilots actually fly almost twice as many hours a month as ours and much of it is under operational conditions. Even though equipped with Russian-designed aircraft, as the Air said to me, they ain’t the Russians (notorious for being undertrained).”
THERE’S MORE: The Cope India could actually work to promote a much-maligned Air Force project, now in development, one Defense Tech pal in the USAF notes.
Opponents of the F/A-22 stealth fighter plane say the jet is designed only for Cold War-era, mid-air dogfights. That’s a waste of billions, the logic goes, because “the USAF has (and would not have) no peer competitor in air superiority.”
“But the F-15 is the representative of that “air superiority,'” our pal points out. So “its poor outing against a country with improving technology and good tactics would seem to do damage to the argument that there is no need for a modern air superiority fighter.
But back over on the NSRT list, one poster responds: “At my age I’m entitled to be cynical so let me suggest this whole episode smells like Delhi on a hot day…What better way to keep an aerial boondoggle like the F-22 program healthy and sucking up funds needed to pay for light infantrymen than to let a bunch of INDIANS flying planes bought from the RUSSIANS win some aerial engagements over India.”
AND MORE: On the eDodo message board — often populated by Air Force types — some are saying that the results of Cope India are not quite what they seem.
USAF pilots were flying “Red Air” — meaning they were simulating the (presumably worse) tactics and (presumably lower) capabilities of enemy flyers.
That means they walked into the fight with their arms tied behind their backs. It makes for a good media coup in India… But in a full-up fight, I’d put ALL my money on the Alaska F-15C’s over the Indian Air Force…
They may have ‘lost the war’ in the excercise. But it was an excercise. In the real thing, our boys won’t be flying as ‘Red Air.’
AND MORE: “I have a hard time getting a justification for the F-22 from our planes losing to refurbished Mig-21s,” says Defense Tech reader MB. “What I get from that is look at how to upgrade the planes we have and take some of the money saved over F-22s to buy some more jet fuel so our guys can get some more flight time.”