In what was one of the most outrageous Dissimilar Air Combat Training (DACT) opportunities of the decade, and the first time the F-22 Raptor made a SE Asia international exercise appearance, Cope Taufan brought the US and Malaysian air arms closer together in a wonderfully aggressive manner.
Cope Taufan is a biennial exercise between Malaysia and the US, and it has grown over the past few evolutions to become one of the premier multinational air combat exercises in the hemisphere. For 2014, America's most capable air-to-air fighters were deployed to take part, and sending the Raptor to Malaysia fired a strong message to potential foes and potential allies throughout the region.
The sheer mix of dissimilar fighter aircraft presented by Malaysia's small but potent air force makes sending America's best fighters and crews halfway around the world, at least when it comes to the Massachusetts Air National Guard and their F-15Cs, well worth the investment.
Malaysia has both of Russia's most feared fighter competitors currently in inventory, those being the MiG-29 and the Su-30. The MiG-29N is not the most advanced version of the type available, and it will probably only last in Malaysia's inventory another half decade or so, but it still represents the classic MiG-29 threat profile, which is a dangerous one.
This includes eye watering initial turning capability, high-off bore-sight A-11 Archer missile capability, and a capable infrared search and track system. For over two decades since the fall of the Soviet Union, US fighter pilots have been flying basic fighter maneuvers (BFM) against various MiG-29s and even with their many faults (poor rearward visibility, appalling range, a high cockpit workload, etc.) they remain deadly in the right hands.
Malaysia's 18 Russian-built Sukhoi Su-30MKMs are a whole different story. They represent a highly capable foe with eye-watering maneuverability via their three dimensional thrust vectoring exhaust nozzles and their canard fore-planes.
Additionally they have incredible endurance and a mix of both high-end Russian and Western avionics, including a capable phased array radar and powerful electronic warfare suite. All this along with the best missiles Russia has to offer on the export market makes the Su-30MKM just about as potent of bandit as you can currently find anywhere in the world.
See some of the SU-30MKM's "super maneuverability" in the videos below:
The F-22 in particular, which is also equipped with thrust vectoring although only in two dimensions (pitch only), may have much to learn from the Malaysia's Su-30s. In the past only limited engagements between the Raptor and the thrust vectoring Flankers have occurred. Maybe at Cope Taufan, Malaysia will allow their pilots to really open up the jet's full range of capabilities, including full use of its radar, and maybe the Raptor will be allowed to do the same, at least to some degree.
In so many ways, thrust vectoring introduces a whole new set of variables that modify the close aerial combat fundamentals that have been academically applied to traditional dogfights for decades. Ones where an aircraft's sustained turning capability and a pilot's energy management skills result in a more narrow range of potential outcomes when compared to fighting an aircraft that is equipped with thrust vectoring and a pilot that knows how to effectively employ it. These new variables are especially present when you are talking about a 1v1 fight where both aircraft can maneuver with confidence in the "post stall" flight regime via the use of thrust vectoring.
For more information on this fascinating and shadowy topic you can read this article and watch the little gem posted below that rocked the defense aerospace world a few years ago:
The Royal Malaysian Air Force also has western aircraft in its inventory, those being eight F/A-18D Night Attack configured Hornets, and a about a dozen BAe Hawk Mk.208 advanced trainers.
The Hornets, purchased alongside the MiG-29Ns in the early 1990s, are extremely capable precision strike aircraft and have seen many upgrades since their delivery. These upgrades make them roughly akin to the USMC's missionized F/A-18Ds assigned to all weather fighter-attack squadrons. They also wear a striking dark gray paint scheme which denoted their night-attack and deep interdiction mission.
The MiG-29 is often simulated here in the US by the F/A-18A/B/C/D, so having the Hornet in the mix alongside MiG-29s that they train with regularly may have been an interesting reality for American aircrews, even if just for comparative and tactics evaluation reasons.
Malaysia's Hawks are used to support their higher performance brethren, but also have rudimentary combat capabilities of their own. Furthermore, the Hawk still remains a potent subsonic dogfighter, and its small visual signature and high maneuverability can give even an advanced heavy fighter a run for its money. They also work great for flying as cost-effective high-speed targets for radar intercept training or to replicate cruise missiles. And we cannot forget that they are also fantastic advanced trainer aircraft in their own right.
This exercise may have also been a good opportunity for the USAF to test the Raptor-Eagle air dominance team, and the tactics that have been developed in relation to it, against a highly diverse and leading-edge foe. It is one thing developing and testing such tactics back in the states against aggressor squadrons that mimic the operations and aircraft of potential enemies, and a whole other thing testing those procedures against a totally unique air arm that possess the real adversary gear in question and intimately knows its advantages and disadvantages.
Although we don't exactly know the different rules of engagement or setups for each sortie during Cope Taufan (how many aircraft vs how many aircraft, what aircraft faced what aircraft, were they defense, offensive or neutral at the beginning of the engagement, what weapons and sensors could each side use etc), but what we do know is that this was a "large force employment" exercise. This means that beyond any strictly air-to-air sorties, there were larger, more complicated training objectives, where packages of dissimilar aircraft fought for or against a common goal. The whole idea is to learn from each other, and that does not mean just fighting each other in mock aerial combat, it means fighting with each other in mock aerial combat of of various forms.
Missions such as suppression and destruction of enemy air defenses, combat search and rescue, deep interdiction, close air support and others all took place during this exercise and advanced threat simulation assets were deployed for these exact purposes. Also, airlift was part of the exercise in which the C-17A's and C-130J's capabilities were featured, as well as special forces exercises on the ground. The special forces portion of the event were dubbed "Teak Mint" and "Balanced Mint."
In the end Cope Taufan set some precedents when it comes to the scope of a US backed exercise in that part of the world, as well as the advanced nature of the assets involved. The Raptor, after almost a decade of operational service, is now showing up around the globe in more international air combat events than ever before, and its presence in SE Asia is not a random assignment. It represents a clear message to China and other regional powers that America is building stronger ties than ever with countries that don't have a positive relationship with China and those who do, as is the case is with Malaysia.
Over the last century America has learned that sometimes the tightest connections between two nations exist militarily, not diplomatically. Even though America's much touted pivot towards the Pacific has been more of a shuffle, it is clear that the stakes are higher than they ever have been in the region and this means close military cooperation with a wide range of nations, all with varying allegiances to different parties in the region, will be a key feature of America's strategy going forward.
photos via Royal Malysian Air Force & USAF
Tyler Rogoway is a defense journalist and photographer that maintains the website Foxtrot Alpha for Jalopnik.com You can reach Tyler with story ideas or direct comments regarding this or any other defense topic via the email address Tyler@Jalopnik.com