| US Air Force personnel speak to an Indian Air Force trooper during a joint troop exercise at an air force station near Agra. (Reuters)
Air Force Station Agra, Oct. 22: Inside the cockpit of a Hercules C-130 US Air Force transporter, “Lootenant” Colonel Doug Sevier, the pilot, caresses the throttles, toys with the levers that control the rudders and runs his fingers across the instrument panels.
“I flew this bird in Operation Enduring Freedom, making sorties from Yokota in Japan to the Phillippines,” he recalls.
Behind him, the cavernous belly of the transporter is empty. There is no one on the bench for two “sticks” of paratroopers; nothing but cables and wiring on the walls and the ceilings, nothing on the floor, the aft loading ramp is shut. Lt. Colonel Sevier is held in reserve, he’s not flying today.
Minutes later, Lt. Col. Sevier is at the Malpura drop zone, the training area for the Indian Air Force transport base, watching six AN-32s of the air force flying in DTP — Displaced Trail Placement — formation, releasing from their rear hatches 52 paratroopers, the green of the nylon ballooning over their heads.
Beside him, Captain Adrienne Fleming watches intently as the AN-32s in the rear of the formation appear from the ground to be just scraping over the paratroopers. This is her third visit here in a year. As the coordinator for “Exercise Cope India 02”, it has been her job to plan the programme.
Five Hercules C-130s from the US Pacific Air Command, seven AN-32s and two IL-76s from the air force plus a total of 300 airforce personnel and paratroopers from the Indian Army’s 50th Independent Para Brigade go into making “Exercise Cope India 02” the “most significant Indo-US military interaction in 40 years”, as Colonel John Albert Hill, air attache with the US Embassy in New Delhi puts it.
Yet, as the US military exercises go, this must rank among the most elementary of wargames.
The US Pacific Air Command conducts more sophisticated exercises in Thailand and Singapore. Only last fortnight, the US Central Air Command was involved in exercises with the Pakistani Air Force whose aircraft such as the F-16s are US-made. (The Indian Air Force transporters are of Russian origin; its fighters, too, are mostly Russian, British and French).
Next month, the executive steering groups of the IAF and the USAF meet in New Delhi to chart a programme of exercises for next year. Colonel Jeffery LeVault, director of operations and exercise plans with the 13th air force, says he would expect that Indo-US air exercises would graduate to wargames involving fighters sooner rather than later.
In the American scheme of things, the games at Agra fall into the category of “airlift” exercises.
Air Force Station Agra was also home to the first Indo-US military exercise since the 1998 nuclear tests in May. Exercise Balance Iroquois was held as tensions on the border between India and Pakistan were peaking. Balance Iroquois was seen as a symbol that the Americans were trying to mollify an India that was angry that Washington had chosen Islamabad over New Delhi as the hub for Operation Enduring Freedom.
Now, the accent is on a stand-alone US-India military relationship that “will help evolve and develop joint procedures that may be required in future, for better ‘inter-operatibility’ between the air forces”, said Air Officer Commanding air force station Agra, Air Commodore T.K. Venugopal.
What that futuristic scenario is in which Indian and US air forces will operate jointly is left unstated.