‘Abhinandan Varthaman is first IAF pilot to down an F-16’: Air Chief Marshal S Krishnaswamy
The nation is celebrating the return of Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman to India on Friday after two days in Pakistani custody. We wish him an early return to the cockpit for that is what he would want. He is the first combat pilot in the Indian Air Force (IAF) to shoot down an F-16. He flew the first MiG-21 to achieve this feat. Varthaman was part of an IAF team that, through timely intervention, repulsed a Pakistani air raid into the Indian side of the Line of Control in Kashmir on Wednesday. In the process, the IAF defenders also managed to destroy a valuable air asset of Pakistan, an F-16, possibly a two-seater that is hard to replace. Also, media reported that the pilot of the F-16 was killed. If true, that would be a great loss to the Pakistan Air Force.
The MiG-21 Bison, although the most advanced variant of the aircraft, is not a match against the F-16, designed as an ‘”Air Superiority Fighter.” For decades, the IAF has been conveying its concern to the government about the depleting strength of its combat squadrons. It had projected an urgent need for 100 combat aircraft , the acquisition of which is yet to be approved. IAF’s SU-30 MKIs are two decades old and require upgrading. Regrettably, a complex acquisition process and politicization of every acquisition has stalled the government from taking a decision. Pakistan, a much weaker economy, has managed it better. The belief that there won’t be any war seems to have made us complacent. When will the government decide and sign a contract? It would take at least five years after a contract is signed to get an upgrade. In the meanwhile, we have to manage with what we have, perhaps for another decade. The governments that stalled the process year after year and delayed our modernisation programme are directly responsible. At times, a significant portion of the budget allocated to modernisation is returned unspent. But today is not the time for o a blame game. We must have faith our current assets and our action plans.
On Wednesday’s dogfight over the LoC, the MiG-21 Bison is a potent weapon system that has nearly all the capabilities of the F-16, and in an air defence role, it carries similar weapons as the F-16 does. But, the Bison is less manoeuvrable than the F-16. BIison pilots practice combat against the Mirage-2000 and are tested periodically. On occasions, they get the opportunity of training against F-16s from friendly foreign air forces Our Bison operational pilots are a confident bunch and are well-trained. In addition, the Air Force has professional Institutions like the Tactics and Air Combat Development Establishment (TACDE) that oversees squadron training. Squadrons are evaluated annually for their skills and abilities.Any corrective actions that are needed are firmly implemented.
In an operational scenario, the Commander decides on the strategy and tactics to follow given the area of responsibility and the force at his disposal. Typically the plan would be to mix a highly manoeuvrable aircraft like the SU-30 MKI, the MiG-29 or the Mirage-2000 with the MiG-21 Bison in an air defence missions. They do combat in a coordinated manner in a fast developing aerial situation. The PAF also has a limited number of F-16 and had to combine the aircraft with others in its fleet in air missions. Air battles are usually intensely and are over in a matter of minutes. Decisions are made in split seconds. The LoC is a difficult terrain and from the air, the border between Pakistan-occupied Kashmir and Jammu and Kashmir is not easily distinguishable. While chasing enemy planes, it is possible to cross the LoC inadvertently. I believe that once a fighter pilot sets his eyes on his target, which is often hard to come by, he would not take his eyes off it. We do not know yet about what hit Varthaman’s aircraft. Was it ground fire? Or a surface-to-air missile? Or a missile launched in air? The AIM-120 missile evidence that Indian forces have picked shows that the missile had been fired. Quite likely that it was aimed at IAF aircraft. Now that Varthaman is back, the IAF would be eventually debriefing him on the details.
As observers and as citizens, we need to have patience and trust the government and our military to get on with what they ought to do. Public opinion would always prevail. For now, it must be supportive and not demoralize those who face the brunt.
(Air Chief Marshal S Krishnaswamy)