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USAF B-1B Strategic Bombers Join Cope India 2023 Exercise at Kalaikunda – Taking the Fight to the PLA

On April 10, 2023, Gen Kenneth S Wilsbach, the commander of the US Pacific Air Forces, announced during a press conference in India that the USAF will deploy two B1 bombers, four to six F-15Es, one C-17, and two C130s in Phase 2 of the 11-day Cope India 2023 bilateral Air Exercise between the Indian Air Force (IAF) and the United States Air Force (USAF).

The B-1B, also known as “The Bone,” is a long-range, versatile bomber capable of carrying out missions worldwide from its bases in the United States and forward-deployed locations.

Cope India 2023, the ongoing edition of the exercise, is taking place at Air Force Stations Arjan Singh (Panagarh), Kalaikunda, and Agra, with the aim of promoting mutual understanding and sharing best practices between the two air forces.

Phase 1 of the exercise, which started on Monday, April 10, 2023, focuses on air mobility and involves transport aircraft and Special Forces assets from both air forces. Both sides have deployed C-130J and C-17 aircraft, with the USAF also including an MC-130J, a variant of the C-130 specially designed for special operations.

Phase 1 of Cope India 2023 builds upon the Yudh Abhyas exercise that took place in February 2023 at Hindon and Agra, involving the US Air Force’s 535th Airlift Squadron and the IAF’s No. 81 Squadron operating the Boeing C-17 Globemaster III. The training flights in Yudh Abhyas gradually increased in complexity, culminating in a GPS-degraded, single-ship flight conducted by US Air Force crews with IAF observers on board.

Gen Kenneth S Wilsbach explained the participation of the B-1B bombers in the exercise, stating, “We have an opportunity not only to showcase the aircraft to the public but also for the crews to train together and incorporate the bombers into various scenarios. This allows all sides to observe their operations and improve our tactics, techniques, and procedures.”

The inclusion of B-1B bombers in the exercise raises questions about the specific scenarios that Gen Wilsbach had in mind. It is possible that the IAF personnel will collaborate with the B-1B bombers to develop tactics, techniques, and procedures to counter the threat posed by PLAAF H-6 bombers carrying cruise missiles.

Additionally, the exercise could contribute to enhancing interoperability in case the US requests staging rights for its B-1B bombers in a potential conflict with China over Taiwan. Such collaboration would have a deterrent effect on the Chinese leadership.

The ongoing war in Ukraine has highlighted the need for modern bombers in aerial warfare. The IAF, considering the limitations of its current fleet, may also recognize the urgency of acquiring a cruise missile carrier. The retirement of 17 B-1B bombers from the USAF’s fleet presents an opportunity for India to lease or acquire a squadron of B-1B bombers and accompanying cruise missiles, which would significantly augment its strike power at a relatively low cost.

India and the US have already established agreements such as the Major Defense Partner designation, Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA), Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement (COMCASA), and Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement (BECA), which facilitate defense cooperation and technology transfer.

The reasons behind the participation of the B-1B bombers in Cope India 2023 are subject to speculation, but it is evident that their involvement is not arbitrary.

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