U.S. count of Pakistan’s F-16 fighter jets found none missing, claims American magazine

Foreign Policy report raises questions about India’s claim.

Updated - April 07, 2019 12:47 am IST

Published - April 05, 2019 10:20 am IST - Washington

Pakistan Air Force (PAF) Sherdils (Lion Heart) squad's fighter jet F-16 flies during Pakistan Day celebrations, Clifton beach, Karachi, Pakistan. File Photo.

Pakistan Air Force (PAF) Sherdils (Lion Heart) squad's fighter jet F-16 flies during Pakistan Day celebrations, Clifton beach, Karachi, Pakistan. File Photo.

Two U.S. officials have said they counted the F-16 aircraft in Pakistan and found none missing, throwing doubts on the Indian government’s claim that it had shot down an F-16 during an aerial engagement with Pakistan on February 27. The officials’ comments were made to U.S. magazine Foreign Policy .

The dogfight of February 27 resulted in an Indian aircraft being downed, and its pilot, Abhinandan Varthaman parachuting into the Pakistani territory, leading to his capture (and eventual release). Indian Air Force officials had said Wing Commander Varthaman had downed an F-16, based on his debriefing, when he was eventually released and returned to India. Various Indian government officials, including Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman, also repeated the claim that an F-16 was downed.

“The findings directly contradict the account of Indian Air Force officials, who said that Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman managed to shoot down a Pakistani F-16 before his own plane was downed by a Pakistani missile,” the report said, adding that it was possible that Wing Commander Varthaman, in the heat of combat, flying a vintage MiG-21 Bison, “got a lock on the Pakistani F-16, fired, and genuinely believed he scored a hit.” Wing Commander Varthaman has not directly and publicly said that he downed an F-16, the information was gleaned through IAF reports of his debrief.

“The pilot would later record in a debriefing that he saw his missile hit the retreating F-16 in the port rear section and that it was brought down,” Livefist, a defence news and commentary site, had said in early March, in an analysis of Mr Varthaman’s debriefing.

Following the engagement, India had presented evidence of an AAMRAAM air-to-air missile — a device that can only be fired by an F-16, following the skirmish, saying that it proved that Pakistan had used the aircraft. Pakistan had denied both — that an F-16 was used and that it was downed. The AAMRAAM evidence casts serious doubt on Pakistan’s claim that an F-16 was not used and the Foreign Policy story casts serious doubt on the Indian government’s claim that an F-16 was downed.

One senior official said Pakistan had invited U.S. officials to count its F-16s but some of the aircraft were not available at the time because of the conflict, the Foreign Policy report says.

The U.S. does not discuss the details of a defence contract publicly, officials had told The Hindu at various points after the aerial engagement between India and Pakistan at the end of February. However, generally, sales through the Foreign Military Sales (FMS) route have clauses that require that the U.S. be allowed to inspect whether equipment was used for stated purposes (in this case, not for offensive purposes).

India had asked the U.S. to investigate whether Pakistan had breached the terms of its F-16 deal with the Americans.

However, the count had now been completed and “all aircraft were present and accounted for,” the official told the magazine.

“Truth always prevails. Time for India to speak truth about false claims and actual losses on their side including the second aircraft shot down by Pakistan,” Pakistan military spokesperson Major General Asif Ghafoor said.

“Pakistan’s Afghanistan policy over the last decade has led many in the US government, especially in the US military, to conclude that US policy toward Pakistan is misguided. The US Congress is, if anything, more skeptical. If Pakistan truly lost an F-16, I believe that would be hard for the US to keep secret,” Christopher Clary, a professor of political science at the University of Albany told  The Hindu.

The Hindu has reached out to the Indian Embassy in Washington, DC, for a comment.

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