June 24, 2004

IAF vs. USAF redux

The defense policy wonk-o-sphere is abuzz with the recent widely-reported results of Operation 'COPE INDIA' - a joint U.S./Indian Air Force exercise near the Indian base at Gwalior that took place in February. That it took place was not noteworthy - what is noteworthy is the degree of frankness with which U.S. Air Force personnel are admitting that they got a big ol' can of Subcontinental Whoop-Ass opened up on 'em. From the Associated Press: "'We may not be as far ahead of the rest of the world as we thought we were,' said Gen. Hal M. Hornburg, the chief of Air Combat Command, which oversees U.S. fighter and bomber wings." In general, it is being reported that in some contests, the Indian Air Force took up to 90% of the engagements.

The USAF is, predictably, harping with concern over the age of the F-15C (the fighter used in these competitions and the US's mainstay air superiority platform) and pointing to these results as evidence that recent lack of investment in US air superiority is coming due.

The most telling numbers I've seen on this issue is the comparison of training time - if the Indian Air Force receives almost twice the pilot-hours per month as the USAF, under more operational conditions, this result is hardly surprising.  One of the largest advantages the U.S. has enjoyed over its adversaries is in training.  Training and planes are expensive, and as has been true for some time, the U.S. has found it easy to outspend its opponents.  Note that training does, in fact, increase pilot proficiency; this is not meant as a slap at American pilots.

There are some tidbits that bear thinking about, IMHO.  Perhaps largest, for me, is the 'big picture' elephant that isn't in the room - the F-22.  Recent Air Force statements and reports have indicated that the USAF feels that the F-22 is a 'make or break' platform, one to which they are willing to sacrifice the R&D and even procurement of other platforms such as the V-22 and the JSF.  It represents the continuation of USAF technical superiority over notional adversaries.  The F-15 platform is, indeed, aging; therefore, it makes sense for the USAF to indicate that these recent contests might point out the need for a more advanced fighter.

Except for one thing: the prominent mention by several parties that one of the most effective aircraft in the Indian arsenal was not the vaunted MiG-29 or Su-27 variants, but the Bison - an upgraded MiG-21, which is originally of 1960s vintage.  The MiG-21 cannot in any way be called technologically superior (or even on a par with) the F-15C.  Therefore, it is somewhat strange to hear the USAF say that it needs a more modern fighter, as demonstrated by their defeat at the hands of a fighter significantly older than their own platform.

I realize this is speculation without data.  It is quite possible (likely, I think) that the main asset of the MiG-21, its high sprint speed, was utilized in concert with the capabilities of the other aircraft mentioned on the Indian team - Su-30, etc. - to create tactical situations which the less-numerous American forces were unable to defeat.  The MiG-21bis 'Fishbed N' (which I am assuming the Indians were using) was manufactured up to 1987 - it has an upgraded engine, more modern avionics and better arms than the original.  Most importantly, it remains a lightweight, high thrust airplane with a high top speed - better able than larger aircraft such as the MiG-29 and Su-27 to match the F-15C's high thrust-to-weight ratio and hence performance.

Nevertheless, it is difficult to see how the F-22 would better answer the problem than increased and revised training - especially since the F-22 will not be available in numbers even to match the F-15, suggesting that the outnumbered USAF teams were going to be rule rather than exception in the future.

An additional piece of information I would have appreciated is whether the engagements were fought 'open,' or were restricted to visual target range or fought from BVR.  I would suspect that the more maneuverable MiG-30 and zippier MiG-21s being singled out as stars indicate that close-in engagements negated much of the USAF's traditional electronic advantage and distance engagement experience.

This is all just noodling on my part, however.  It will be interesting to see how the USAF responds to this other than by asking for more F-22s...and to the Indian Air Force, congratulations and clear skies!  Getcha next time. :-) Posted by jbz at June 24, 2004 12:17 AM | TrackBack

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