Exercise Cope India 04 was an Air Force level exercise between the USAF and the Indian Air Force (IAF) and marked a beginning of a new chapter in Indo-US bilateral relations. This was the first opportunity since 1963, for USAF fighters to operate from Indian soil.
The exercise brought together leading fighter combat aircraft and aircrew and ground crew of both air forces. The USAF flew in F-15Cs, while the IAF was represented by Mirage 2000, Su-30K, MiG-27s and MiG-21 (upgraded). The meeting ground provided a strong foundation and deep understanding towards developing a new relationship between the IAF and USAF for the future. Not only was the exercise a gathering of hi-tech, state of the art aircraft and systems of both air forces, but also proved to be an excellent meeting ground for the personnel of the two air forces to understand each other. Despite such a vast difference in culture and traditions, there was complete synergy and understanding of minds, and of concepts in the air and on the ground. The mutual respect and bonhomie that developed between members of the two sides have cemented a firm foundation for moving ahead towards higher bilateralism.
Planning for the exercise commenced during the IPC (Initial Planning Committee) at the Air HQ at New Delhi in the last week of Sep 2003. Various modalities for the smooth conduct of the exercise were chalked out during the IPC. Col Greg Neubeck, a senior F-15 pilot with flying experience of over 3000 hrs, led the USAF delegation. Sgt Mike Boden in-charge of administration helped to work out modalities concerning security and admin aspects. Once the IPC was conducted, a broad outline for planning was set into motion.
All aspects relating to operations, maintenance and administration were finalised and put in place during the discussions which took place subsequently between the two teams. Exchange visits by the participants of the two air forces took place. A team of Indian pilots, fighter controllers, ATCOs and AFSOs visited the US Air Force Base in Alaska. Likewise, a USAF team visited India to familiarise and acquaint themselves with the procedures followed by IAF.
AF Stn Gwalior, the host IAF airbase began preparations for the exercise in true earnest, almost three months prior to the Exercise. The Chief of Air Staff made a visit during the first week of February 2004, to check the arrangements for the Exercise. The operating complex of 7 Sqn "THE BATTLE AXES", which was the host Sqn, was further built up to accommodate USAF personnel and reflected itself as a model Indian Air Force Sqn.
By the first week of Feb 04, Gwalior Air Force Base was all geared up for the exercise. The first transport support aircraft of USAF, a C-5 Galaxy, arrived in the evening hours of 12th Feb 04. This was followed by a few more trips and the entire ground support facilities were in place by 14 Feb 04. The first two F-15 fighters, from the 19th Fighter Sqn "GAMECOCKS", arrived at Gwalior on 14 Feb. The next four F-15 were delayed due to technical reasons and arrived in the afternoon of 19 Feb 04.
The exercise began on 16 Feb, with the USAF pilots being familiarized with the airfield and local procedures and also of the diversionary airfields. USAF pilots got a chance to see the Taj Mahal at Agra and the mighty Himalayas from the air and they were visibly impressed by both.
Flying activity picked up pace in the next few days and missions went through as planned. The Americans soon became familiar with the famous Indian culture, hospitality and especially spicy Indian food, which was well appreciated. The growing friendship between the two teams was clearly visible by the fact that the airmen of both air forces were soon playing volleyball and football matches together during their spare time. The Americans showed a lot of interest in learning cricket and likewise the Indians in learning baseball!!
Flying activity continued at a brisk pace during the second week with large package missions being flown, which required lengthy briefing and even more exhaustive debriefs. Many thought provoking ideas and lessons emerged from these missions.
Besides flying activity, there was considerable social interaction during the fortnight. Welcome Cocktails at both Officers Mess and SNCOs Mess was organised on 16th Feb, so as to break the ice. This was followed by a "Roll - Call" on Friday evening, the 20th of Feb. This "Roll -Call" requires a special mention, as this was an interaction which set the grounds for strong bonds of friendship between members of both teams.
Interaction with the media was planned on the 25th Feb. The press were impressed on seeing the launch and recovery of a large number of combat aircraft participating in the exercises. A static display of all participating aircraft was planned during the day. Commanding Officers' of all the units and a few participants exchanged their views with the media.
On 26th Feb, various presentations and lectures on a wide variety of aviation-related topics took place. The team exchanged their past experiences on various operational, admin and maintenance aspects of both air forces.
A farewell dinner was organised on the evening of 26 February, with the Americans getting a short glimpse of Indian tradition and culture during a brief cultural programme put up by a local group from Gwalior city. Mementos and pleasantries were exchanged during the dinner.
The USAF fighters ferried back on 27th morning at 1100 hrs. The transport support followed soon after and the IAF bid farewell to all USAF personnel.
The exercise provided a stepping-stone to a new beginning in Indo-US military and bi-lateral ties. It provided a firm foundation for enhancing mutual operational understanding, and set the basis for future co-operation between the two air forces. Although this was the first meeting ground between the two air forces in a truly operational air combat environment, all initial hesitations vanished from Day One. The relationships which developed were indeed, excellent. A healthy professional respect was noticed on both sides in the air and on the ground.
When questioned on the capabilities of IAF pilots, Col Greg Newbech, USAF Team Leader made the following remarks: -
- What we've seen in the last two weeks is, the IAF can stand toe-to-toe with best AF in the world.
- I pity the pilot who has to face the IAF and chances the day to underestimate him; because he won't be going home.
- Indian hospitality from everyone has been truly overwhelming.
- The greatest compliment we heard from an IAF pilot - You American pilots are just like us, simply down to earth people.