Indian Su-30MKI and Rafale fighters will face USAF F-15E during Cope India 2023

Indian and US air forces will meet at Kalaikunda air base in India next week to resume the Cope India air exercise that will “further improve the operational capability and interoperability between the two air forces.”

The bilateral exercise will take place from April 10 to 21, highlighting training between fighters from both services. The Indian Air Force (IAF) will field French Rafale fighters, Russian Sukhoi Su-30MKI fighters, and Indian Tejas light fighters, as well as AEW&C (airborne early warning and control) aircraft, strategic airlift C -17 Globemaster-III and IL-78 in-flight tankers.

Cope India began in 2004 as a fighter training exercise held at Gwalior Air Station in India. The exercise evolved to incorporate subject matter expert exchanges, air mobility training, airdrop training, high force exercises, and fighter training exercises. The last edition of the exercise was held in 2019.  COVID-19 caused the exercise to be suspended for four years.

During the first edition of the exercise, Indian pilots achieved an impressive kill ratio of 9:1 against USAF F-15Cs, sending a blow to the American defense establishment.

American participants said the Indian pilots showed innovation and flexibility in their tactics. They also admitted that they went into the exercise underestimating the training and tactics of the pilots they faced. Rather than controlled ground interceptions in typical Cold War style, the Indians varied mixes of aircraft, altitudes, and formations. 

Indian air force planners never reinforced failure or repeated tactics that the United States easily repelled. Furthermore, IAF airborne commanders changed tactics as opportunities arose. The American riders also didn’t believe that they were only up against India’s best riders.

Indian Su-30MKI and Rafale fighters will face USAF F-15E during Cope India 2023
IAF Rafale Fighters

 Instead, USAF F-15C fighter pilots who participated in this exercise said that “the two most formidable aircraft in the IAF proved to be the MiG-21 Bison, an upgraded version of the Russian-made basic MiG-21, and the Su-30MK Flanker, also made in Russia.”

This year, the Indian Air Force will take delivery of US Air Force (USAF) F-15 Strike Eagle jets at Kalaikunda Air Base in West Bengal. The bilateral exercise will also include the participation of Japan, which will be an “observer.” The Cope India exercise will see “air combat and mobility elements” operating from various air bases such as Kalaikunda, Panagarh, Agra, and Hindon.

The timing of the exercise with the participation of the F-15 fighter is important, as the F-15EX is one of the candidates in the planned competition for the Indian Air Force’s 114 multi-role fighter competition.

Notably, the Indian Air Force participated in four overseas exercises. “The goal is to participate in various combat engagements and learn from the best practices of various air forces. It helps to understand the latest developments in airpower’s tactical and operational employment,” said an IAF official.

The exercises also helped build interoperability and increase cooperation. During them, the IAF also demonstrated improved outreach across continents, collaborating with force multipliers such as air-to-air tankers from friendly nations and pooling technical support equipment, he added.

The upcoming military exercise is significant as it comes at a time when India is embroiled in a three-year military confrontation with China in eastern Ladakh alongside the ongoing Russia-Ukraine war.

India and the US regularly hold various exercises, ranging from the bilateral `Yudh Abhyas’ land combat to the Malabar quadrilateral naval war games.