Remembering Cooperative Cope Thunder 2004

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Looking Back at Cooperative Cope Thunder 2004, Eielson AFB, Alaska

For the first time, Indian Air Force aircraft participated in this large force exercise within the expansive ranges of Alaska. The Cooperative Cope Thunder 2004-01 was the first of multiple exercises planned for 2004. The ten-day event during mid-July was operated from both Elmendorf and Eielson Air Force Bases, near the Alaskan cities of Anchorage and Fairbanks.

Participants in the flying portions of the exercise included U.S. Air Force, Air National Guard and Navy. Other nations’ aircraft came from Canada, Germany, Japan, Malaysia, Singapore, and the United Kingdom. Here’s a rundown of what flew:

Canada                          1 x CC-130E Transport (CFB Trenton)

Germany                      15  x Tornado IDS (Buchel)

India                              2 x IL-76MD Transports (Chandigarh AFS)
                                        2 x IL-78MKI Tankers (Agra AFS)
                                        6 x Jaguar IS (Gorakhpur and Ambala AFSs)

Japan                             1 x E-767 AWACS (Hamamatsu)
                                        6 x F-15J/DJ (Hyakuri)

Malaysia                        1 x C-130H (Labaun)

Singapore                      7 x F-16C/D (Cannon AFB)

United Kingdom          1 x Sentry AEW.1 AWACS (RAF Waddington)
                                        8 x Tornado GR.4 RAF Marham)

 

United States                1 x KC-10A Tanker (McGuire AFB)
                                         3 x C-130H Transports (3rd Wing from Elmendorf AFB)
                                         Multi x KC-135R/T (AK ANG and Kadena AFB)
                                         1 x E-3B AWACS (3rd Wing from Elmendorf AFB)
                                         Multi x F-15C/D (3rd Wing from Elmendorf AFB)
                                         Multi x F-15E (3rd Wing from Elmendorf AFB)
                                         8 x F-16C/D (CA ANG)
                                         7 x F/A-18F (VFA-41)

There were a few firsts… India’s participation in a Cooperative Cope Thunder, and their two new IL-78 tankers were the first and only two in service as well as their on their first deployment outside India. Japan’s new E-767 was at their first Cope Thunder exercise, and their F-15s were only on their second exercise away from their home island.

Here’s some information from a past USAF Fact Sheet (current during the 2004 exercise) which discussed the history of the Pacific Command’s exercises:

A Pacific Air Forces-sponsored exercise, Cope Thunder was moved to Eielson from Clark Air Base in the Philippines in 1992, when the eruption of Mount Pinatubo forced the curtailment of operations there. When the decision was made to relocate Cope Thunder, Air Force officials viewed Eielson as the most logical choice. That decision was based partly on the fact that Eielson’s 353 CTS already controlled and maintained three major military flight training ranges in Alaska.

Initiated in 1976, Cope Thunder was devised as a way to give aircrews their first taste of warfare and quickly grew into PACAF’s premier simulated combat airpower employment exercise. Before Operation Desert Storm, less than one-fifth of the U.S. Air Force’s primary fighter pilots had seen actual combat. While the percentage of combat-experienced pilots has increased in recent years, a high percentage of pilots haven’t been thrust into combat. Analysis indicates most combat losses occur during an aircrew’s first eight to 10 missions. The goal of Cope Thunder is to provide each aircrew with these first vital “missions,” increasing their chances of survival in real combat environments. On an average, more than 900 people and up to 60 aircraft deploy to Eielson AFB, and an additional 250 people and 20 aircraft deploy to Elmendorf AFB, for each Cope Thunder exercise. Most participating Cope Thunder units arrive a week before the exercise. During that time, aircrews may fly one or two range orientation flights, make physical and mental preparations, hone up on local flying restrictions, receive local safety and survival briefings, and work on developing orientation plans.

 

I was escorted onto the Eielson AFB tarmac to photograph operations during a launch on one of the first days of the exercise. RAF and German Air Force Tornados, Fresno and Cannon AFB-based F-16s, and the Indian Air Force’s Jaguars shared the ramp space. Further down the ramp were tankers, including the pair of new Indian IL-78MKI tankers, which launched before the fighters did.

The Indian Air Force had a long haul to get to Alaska. Evidently, their route of flight via Europe and Canada was longer, but Pacific weather threats between India and Alaska during the Northern Hemisphere’s summer was more difficult to deal with, and thus the westbound route was chosen, with stops in Qatar, Egypt, Italy, Portugal and Canada before arriving in Alaska. They reversed the route homeward too. If you look closely at the photos of Indian Jaguars, you won’t see weapons or countermeasure equipment. The weight and drag penalties were brought up in a blog, and it made sense to leave them back at their home bases.

The Cooperative Cope Thunder exercise was one of a few events that the U.S and India had worked together on during the previous couple of years. In the Spring of 2004, a group of USAF F-15s went to India and battled against some of the Indian Air Force’s new Russian-made SU-30 fighters and their best pilots. Although never officially announcing the results, the American aviators came home with much to review and improve upon, according to multiple unofficial sources. A transport exercise had been undertaken a few years before the Cope Thunder missions too, as sort of a stepping stone for this leap across the Atlantic.

After this 2004 exercise, more U.S./Indian joint exercises occurred, including their new fighter, the SU-30 MKI, taking part in a Red Flag exercise at Nellis AFB in 2008, and those same Jaguar and SU-30 fighters in a Red Flag Alaska exercise in 2016. Red Flag Alaska is now the new name and format that began with Cooperative Cope Thunder.

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Ken Kula

Assignment and Content Editor, writer and photographer A New Englander all of my life, I've lived in New Hampshire since 1981. My passion for all things aviation began at a very early age, and I coupled this with my interest of photography during college in the late 1970s. I spent 32 years in the air traffic control industry, and concurrently, enjoyed my aviation photography and writing adventures, which continue today. I've been quite fortunate to have been mentored by some generous and gifted individuals. I enjoy contributing to this great site, and working with some very knowledgeable and equally passionate aviation followers.

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