updated 6/23/2004 3:31:41 PM ET 2004-06-23T19:31:41

The success of the Indian air force against American fighter planes in a recent exercise suggests other countries may soon be able to threaten U.S. military dominance of the skies, a top Air Force general said Wednesday.

“We may not be as far ahead of the rest of the world as we thought we were,” said Gen. Hal M. Hornburg, the chief of Air Combat Command, which oversees U.S. fighter and bomber wings.

The U.S.-India joint exercise, “Cope India,” took place in February near Gwalior in central, India. It pitted some F-15C Eagle fighters from the 3rd Wing at Elmendorf Air Force Base, Alaska, in mock combat against Indian MiG, Sukhoi and Mirage fighters.

The F-15Cs are the Air Force’s primary air superiority aircraft. The Indian fighters, of Russian and French design, are the type of planes U.S. fighters would most likely face in any overseas conflict.

Hornburg, speaking to reporters, called the results of the exercise “a wake-up call” in some respects, but he declined to provide details, other than to suggest the Indian air force scored several unexpected successes against the American planes.

For the last 15 years, the U.S. military has enjoyed almost total command of the air during conflicts. A few fighters and fighter-bombers have gone down, usually victims of surface-to-air missile fire, but in general, American planes have been able to target enemy ground forces at will.

In the most recent invasion of Iraq, Saddam Hussein’s air force stayed grounded.

World ‘starting to catch up’
Still, new tactics, better Russian fighters like the Su-30, and a new generation of surface-to-air missiles mean that U.S. dominance could be ending, said Loren Thompson, who follows military issues for the Lexington Institute, a Washington think tank.

“The United States has grown accustomed to having global air superiority, yet we haven’t put much very much money in the last generation into maintaining that advantage,” he said, noting the F-15 first flew in the 1970s.

“So, of course, the rest of the world is finally starting to catch up,” he said.

Hornburg said the exercise shows the need for some new Air Force fighters, particularly the F/A-22 Raptor, which is intended to replace the F-15C. But critics deride the aircraft as too expensive and built to counter a threat that hasn’t existed since the Soviet Union collapsed.

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