The first thing that emerges is that Indian planes simply did not perform well in the Beyond Visual Range (BVR) component of these exercises, confirming a pattern that has been obvious since the much vaunted 2004 ‘Cope-India’ exercises where the IAF reportedly “slaughtered” American planes. This is particularly disturbing because all modern air combat takes place at standoff ranges. The question is how do we know - reliably - that Indian planes lacked in BVR combat? For starters we have a plethora of official comments stating that the IAF performs “less successfully” in BVR engagements in almost every iteration of the India-UK ‘Indradhanush’ series, the France-India ‘Garuda’ series and the US-India ‘Cope India’ exercises. The exact quantification of “less successfully” is never revealed except through leaked videos of US servicemen giving some very damming debriefs to their colleagues. Even these videos do not seem to present a complete picture. The main reason has been that IAF Su-30s refuse to use their radars when abroad; ostensibly because of operational security reasons. Tellingly, in the 2004 “slaughter” of the US air force, the terms of the exercise forced the US planes to fly without turning on their radars and without support from AWACS aircraft. This was not just a highly unrealistic scenario but downright farcical.
This begs several questions. If an air force has performed “less successfully” repeatedly since 2004 in BVR combat why would in persist in going in for such exercises internationally while keeping its radar turned off? What exactly is the lesson they expect to learn here? It is also undeniable that the Sukhois can manoeuvre better than any existing western fighter though even here its performance has been variable as is the nature of WVR combat. So why exactly does the Air Force want to spend hundreds if not thousands of crores on exercises with the French, the Americans and the British to confirm a two facts that are already known; that the IAF rocks at WVR combat but sucks at BVR combat. More importantly what is the IAF doing to improve its BVR performance? Why is it not showing better results a full 11 years into these exercises? And how does the IAF hope to prove or test its BVR combat capabilities if it does not allow its pilots to turn on the single most important component of long range combat – its radar?
One could very easily be accused of having a “pro-white-man” bias here. After all why should we take the statements of UK pilots who laughed off Indian claims as “comical” not to mention several past claims to this effect by the US and UK pilots. The answer lies in the fact that US and UK statements when shorn of their rhetoric have been logically consistent while the IAF’s statements and press briefings have been anything but.
Consider the very first news report that came out on the subject on a major news channel. It contained references to the Sukhoi’s Infrared sensors and radars being a “distinct advantage” in dogfights. This was a glaring error, and no official tried to correct it. The problem is that these sensors are completely useless when you get into a dogfight where the only real tool you have are your eyes – with very little having changed in this regard since 1914. This is the main reason western air forces prefer to fight BVR where 21st century technology can be exploited to its fullest extent, and avoid getting into highly erratic World War 1 style WVR combat.
While the former could be put down to an overenthusiastic and misinformed reporter – the official statement cannot. That statement contained much verbiage and absolutely no information, save this one gem “there are no classic wins and losses as no weapons are fired as per their actual capability”. While the second part was accurate, the first part was anything but. In the absence of traditional dogfights, training exercise “kills” are highly valued by pilots. Almost every western aircraft that has scored a kill in these simulations has traditional kill markings on them. These markings – specifically on one German Eurofighter (Luftwaffe 30-29) are why we know the Eurofighter has bested the stealthy F-22 raptor on at least one occasion.
The Air Force, having been caught with its pants down – both in tactics and public relations, is in an unenviable position here. If it admits the Sukhoi did not perform well, heads will have to roll for saddling India with a white elephant. If the Air Force says the Sukhoi performed well, the question arises, why does it need the MMRCA (Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft), a plane it has supposedly thrashed in simulated combat, at a unit cost several times that of the Sukhoi? The very least the Air Force can focus on in the short term is having better media training, both for its pilots as well for those who draft official statements.