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Did India shoot down an F-16 of the Pakistan Air Force?

Pakistan says no, U.S. weighs in. Where does the truth lie?

April 13, 2019 09:34 pm | Updated April 14, 2019 12:24 pm IST

Defence forces officials displaying a portion of a missile that can be used only with F-16 aircrafts as evidence of their use by Pakistan to attack Indian military establishments. At South Block in New Delhi on 28.2.18. Pic : Kamal Narang

Defence forces officials displaying a portion of a missile that can be used only with F-16 aircrafts as evidence of their use by Pakistan to attack Indian military establishments. At South Block in New Delhi on 28.2.18. Pic : Kamal Narang

The story so far: In the early hours of February 26, the Indian Air Force (IAF) conducted precision air strikes on a Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM) training camp at Balakot in Pakistan. In response the next day, Pakistan Air Force (PAF) jets targeted Indian military installations across the Line of Control (LoC), but the attack was thwarted by IAF jets. In the engagement that followed, a MiG-21 of the IAF, piloted by Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman, was shot. India claimed that Wing Commander Varthaman, before he came down across the LoC, had brought down an F-16. Pakistan denied that an F-16 was targeted, and early this month a report in Foreign Policy , a prominent American magazine, said a U.S. count of the F-16s with Pakistan had found that none of them was “missing” and all the fighter planes were “accounted for.” Following this, the IAF released two radar images to support its claim that the F-16 was, indeed, shot down.

What happened on February 27?

On February 27, PAF fighter jets, comprising F-16s, JF-17s and Mirage III/Vs, tried to drop precision munitions on Indian military installations in the Naushera sector along the LoC. IAF officers claimed 24 PAF planes were involved, of which 11 were F-16s. However, they were intercepted and engaged by the IAF’s Su-30MKIs, Mirage-2000s and MiG-21 Bison fighters guided by ground radars and the Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) aircraft. This resulted in an engagement between the IAF and PAF jets. The IAF had stated that a PAF F-16 was shot down by a MiG-21. The Army managed to recover the tail units of the H4 glide bombs and pieces of the AMRAAM (Advanced Medium Range Air to Air Missile) fired by the F-16s. Among the PAF fighter fleet, only the F-16s can fire AMRAAMs.

What do Pakistan and others say?

Pakistan has denied losing any F-16 and released an image showing four missiles which it claimed as proof that the MiG-21 flown by Wing Commander Varthaman did not fire any missile. However, IAF officers stated that for one of the missiles in the picture only the front seeker and the end tail portion were present which means that the missile had hit the target, and the explosive had detonated. Last week, Foreign Policy quoted an unnamed U.S. defence official as saying that the U.S. had physically counted PAF F-16 planes and “all aircraft were present and accounted for.” Responding to questions on the issue later, a U.S. Defence Department spokesperson said they “weren’t aware” of any such investigation.

What has IAF claimed so far?

The IAF has consistently maintained that the PAF deployed its F-16s against India and fired AMRAAMs. Earlier this week, Air Vice-Marshal (AVM) R.G.K. Kapoor, Assistant Chief of Air Staff, Operations (Space), said there was “irrefutable evidence” to prove that the PAF had used F-16s and that an IAF MiG-21 Bison shot down a PAF F-16. The IAF released two images recorded by the AWACS. These show the tracks of the PAF jets and one IAF jet in combat and a PAF jet disappearing. AVM Kapoor had stated that the analysis of electronic emissions picked up by the AWACS and radio transcripts indicated F-16s in the area in front of Wing Commander Varthaman’s aircraft. The IAF said the F-16 that was hit fell in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. Explaining the technicalities, IAF officers said the radar of a jet has a distinct signature. By comparing electronic signatures, the aircraft could be identified. The IAF said Indian Army posts in the vicinity of the LoC in the Jhangar sector sighted two separate parachutes, the first in the Sabzkot area and the second in Tandar, both separated by 8-10 km. Further, AVM Kapoor said the IAF had more credible information and evidence that the PAF lost one F-16 but that could not be shared in the public domain owing to “security and confidentiality concerns.” Details of the bombs and the AMRAAM have been shared with the U.S.

What are the implications?

For Pakistan, the use of F-16s and the AMRAAMs is governed by the end-user monitoring agreement that the U.S. signs with all countries to which major weapons and weapon systems are sold. While Pakistan has claimed it targeted Indian positions in self-defence, it has so far shied away from formally acknowledging their use against India. However, the exact terms of use is not known. For India, shooting an advanced F-16 with a relatively less advanced and end-of-life MiG-21 and Su-30s evading several AMRAAMs is a shot in the arm for its tactics and the skills of the pilots, and also for its Russian equipment.

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