India shot no F-16, all of Pak’s planes intact: US report
US officials have counted the F-16s in the fleet of Pakistan Air Force (PAF) and found none missing, contrary to New Delhi’s claim that an Indian pilot flying a MiG-21 downed one of the fighter planes in a February 27 aerial skirmish, a US publication reported on Friday, citing two senior US defence officials with direct knowledge of the matter.
The Indian Air Force (IAF) rubbished the report in Foreign Policy magazine, saying Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman, who was at the controls of the Indian aircraft, out of which he ejected in the Pakistani side of the Line of Control before the Russian-designed plane crashed after taking a hit, had indeed shot down the plane and electronic signatures indicated that it was an F-16.
Foreign Policy quoted one of the senior US defence officials with direct knowledge of the count as saying Pakistan invited the US to physically count its F-16 planes after the incident as part of an end-user agreement signed when the foreign military sale was finalised.
It quoted the official as saying some of the PAF aircraft were not immediately available for inspection because of the conflict so it took US personnel several weeks to account for all of the planes.
Quoting the official, the report added that the count had been completed, and all F-16 aircraft were accounted for.
“It is possible that in the heat of combat, Varthaman, flying a vintage MiG-21 Bison, got a lock on the Pakistani F-16, fired, and genuinely believed he scored a hit. But the count, conducted by US authorities on the ground in Pakistan, sheds doubt on New Delhi’s version of events, suggesting that Indian authorities may have misled the international community about what happened that day,” Foreign Policy said.
The IAF denied this. “During the aerial engagement that followed (the interception of PAF jets by Indian fighters), one MiG-21 Bison of the IAF shot down an F-16 in Nowshera sector,” said IAF assistant chief of air staff operations (space) Air Vice Marshal RGK Kapoor.
Reading from a written statement, he said Indian forces confirmed sighting ejections at two different places separated by eight to 10 km. Two parachutes were sighted in Subzkot and Tandar in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir.
“One was an IAF MiG-21 Bison (flown by Varthaman) and the other a PAF aircraft. Electronic signatures gathered by us indicate the PAF aircraft was an F-16,” Kapoor said, rebutting the Foreign Policy report.
IAF officers with knowledge of the situation said on condition of anonymity that the air force had enough evidence in the form of airborne warning and control system (AWACS) radar images, radio-telephony intercepts of the PAF F-16 strike package and ground wireless intercepts to establish that an F-16 was shot down that day. This evidence has not been shared with the US.
“An AWACS radar image of the engagement area west of the Line of Control opposite Jhangar clearly establishes that there were a bunch of F-16s opposite Abhinandan. In a second image taken 10 seconds later, one of the F-16s has disappeared. That’s the F-16 the PAF lost,” one of the officers said. Hindustan Times has seen the AWACS radar images.
February 27 marked perhaps the first ever kill of an F-16 by a MiG-21 Bison, fighter jets of two different generations, experts have said.
The IAF officers cited above said that radio telephony intercepts of the F-16 package revealed that “one of the F-16s in the formation had not returned.”
On February 28, the IAF displayed remnants of an AIM-120 advanced medium range air-to-air missile (AMRAAM) that only the F-16s carry. Parts of the AMRAAM were recovered east of Rajouri.
The officers said wireless intercepts of Pakistan’s 7 Northern Light Infantry clearly established that two pilots had gone down that day.
“In one of the intercepts at 12.05 pm, a Pakistani soldier says, ‘Yeh joh enemy ke tabah hue hain doh parindey…unke donon parindey waalon ko pakad liya hai.’ (Two enemy fighters have been shot down and we have caught their pilots).”
In another wireless intercept at 12.42 pm, the 7 NLI says one of the pilots is with them while the other is with 658 Mujahid Battalion, the officers said. Yet another intercept at 3.20 pm reveals that the “doosra zakhmi” (the second injured) pilot has been moved to a military hospital, while Wing Commander Varthaman is in their custody, the officers said.
“The tweets by Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) on February 27 are on similar lines,” the sources said.
The IAF said its radars detected a package of around 24 Pakistani planes including 11 F-16s on February 27. The remaining were a mix of JF-17s and Mirages. The IAF’s Su-30s, Mirage 2000s and MiG-21 Bisons intercepted the hostile fighters, guided by the AWACS and the ground radars, Kapoor said.
He said the PAF attempted a “riposte” after the IAF bombed out a terror base at Balakot in Pakistan on February 26. The air strikes against the Jaish-e-Mohammed base were India’s retaliation for the Pulwama suicide car bomb attack in which 40 Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) men were killed on February 14.
More than a month after the Balakot strikes, the air force is still in its highest state of alert and prepared to scramble fighter jets from its forward bases within minutes, officials said.
On March 12, defence minister Nirmala Sitharaman said the IAF shot down a PAF F-16 on February 27 but Islamabad would never admit it as it has always been in “denial” about the losses suffered by it.
The Pakistani military on Friday said that it stood vindicated after a count of its F-16 fighter jets by US defence officials confirmed that no plane was missing.
The director general of ISPR Major General Asif Ghafoor tweeted, “Allah be praised, truth always prevails. Time for India to speak truth about false claims & actual losses on their side including the second aircraft shot down by Pakistan. India needs introspection especially over atrocities in IOK. Region needs peace, progress & prosperity.”