Security

IAF Refutes US Report on Pakistan's F-16 Jets, Says Radio Signature Confirms Downed Aircraft

A report in Foreign Policy asserted that all Pakistani F-16 jets were accounted for.

New Delhi: After high-resolution imagery last week poked holes in the Modi government’s assertion that it destroyed a Jaish-e-Mohammad camp in Balakot, a US count of its fleet has now countered the country’s claim of downing one Pakistani F-16 fighter jet in a February 27 aerial battle.

According to Foreign Policy, though India has repeatedly said that Wing Commander Abhinandan Vardhaman’s Mig-21 shot down an F-16 in a dogfight before his own plane went down, US personnel recently counted Islamabad’s F-16s – and found none missing.

The Indian Air Force has stuck to its guns, claiming that there were radio signatures and communication which showed that one of the two ejections sighted on February 27 was a Lockheed Martin F-16 aircraft of the Pakistan Air Force.

Following the air battle, which led to the capture of Vardhaman by Pakistani forces, the external affairs ministry had said that “one Pakistan Air Force fighter aircraft was shot down by a MiG 21 Bison of the Indian Air Force. The Pakistani aircraft was seen by ground forces falling from the sky on the Pakistan side.”

Pakistan’s military spokesman Major General Asif Ghafoor, however, denied that any F-16 had been shot and added that in the Pakistan Air Force operations that day, no F-16 had been deployed. The Pakistani claim that no F-16s had been deployed was refuted by India, which presented fragments of an AMRAAM air-to-air missile that had been recovered on the Indian side of the Line of Control. The AMRAAM can only be used by F-16s. However, India was unable to present any physical evidence to back up its claim of having downed an F-16.

Also read: New High Res Satellite Imagery Suggests Balakot Airstrike a ‘Very Precise Miss’

In the evening, news agency ANI quoted Indian Air Force sources as dismissing the central claim of the Foreign Policy article that a PAF F-16 aircraft was shot down.

Reiterating that Flight Lieutentant Varthaman had shot down the aircraft, IAF sources volunteered new information that the F-16 was hit about 7-8 kilometres inside Pakistan occupied area in Sabzkot area.

Further, they claimed that radio communication of Pakistan Air Force had been intercepted in which the speakers apparently stated that one of their F-16 aircraft had not yet returned to base.

In his debriefing upon his return to India, Vardhaman – who let off an R37 missile from his Mig-21 – said he saw a PAF F-16 going down on the other side of the border. As per a PTI report, the MEA also said in March there were eyewitness accounts and electronic evidence of this as well.

One possibility, Lara Seligman wrote, is that Vardhaman may have gotten a lock on the Pakistani F-16 and fired before his own plane was shot down. In the heat of the combat, he may have believed that he downed the Pakistani jet. However, a US inventory on the ground in Pakistan has not found any such planes missing, indicating that India may have misled the international community about the events of that day.

The Foreign Policy report further stated that a senior US defence official, who is in the know about the count, said that Pakistan had asked the US to take a physical inventory of the F-16 fighter jets. This was as per an end-user agreement signed when the foreign military sale was finalised. On why the count had taken several weeks to conduct, the official said that several jets were not immediately available for inspection due to the conflict.

However, now that the US personnel have completed the count, “all aircraft were present and accounted for,” the official told the magazine.

Later in the day, Seligman updated her story to answer a question many people were asking – whether the US count would include the F-16s Pakistan bought from Jordan.

Following the publication of the Foreign Policy report, Pakistan army spokesperson Asif Ghafoor issued a celebratory tweet on Friday afternoon.

In the evening, news agency ANI quoted Indian Air Force sources as dismissing the central claim of the Foreign Policy article that a PAF F-16 aircraft was shot down.

Reiterating that Wing Commander Vadthaman had shot down the aircraft, IAF sources volunteered new information that the F-16 was hit about 7-8 km inside the Pakistan-occupied area in Sabzkot.

As per the IAF, only F-16s were present where Vardhaman was engaged in a dogfight. They claimed that AWACS signatures showed that there was a F-16 aircraft which disappeared from the radar about 8-10 seconds during the dogfight.

Further, they claimed that radio communication of Pakistan Air Force had been intercepted in which the speakers apparently stated that one of their F-16 aircraft had not yet returned to base.

After the Indian response, Pakistan too stuck to its guns and said it had “more truth on this to share”.

On the day of the Pakistani airstrikes, India stated that a “Pakistani aircraft was seen by ground forces falling from the sky on the Pakistan side”. A day later, pieces of AMRAAM missile which can only be deployed from an F-16 plane, were displayed to the media.

It was on March 9 that the Ministry of External Affairs issued a press release that for the first time publicly claimed that Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman had made the kill of a F-16 aircraft. As per the press note, there were “eyewitness accounts and electronic evidence” for Pakistan’s deployment of F-16 aircraft and the downing of the aircraft.

The same press release also stated that India has asked the “United States to also examine whether the use of F-16 against India is in accordance with the terms and conditions of sale”. Indian foreign secretary Vijay Gokhale also had apparently raised this issue during his sojourn to Washington.

The US had also noted Indian concerns over Pakistan’s usage of F-16, but had refused to make any statements. “As a matter of policy, we do not publicly comment on the contents of bilateral agreements involving US defense technologies nor the communications we have about them,” said US state department deputy spokesperson, Robert Palladino.

Pakistan had slightly modified its position on the use of F-16 aircraft against India. While still maintaining that only JF-17s were used in the airstrikes, Pakistani military indicated that deployment of F-16 aircraft in the February 27 airstrikes would have been justified, as it was in “self-defence”.

In response, MEA spokesperson Raveesh Kumar said on Wednesday, “whether and under what circumstances F16 is or is not allowed will have to come from the US”. He added that it was it was a “fact” that F-16s were used. “…and we understand as per the understanding of the use of F-16 between Us and Pak, it should have not been done and we are why had flagged with the US,” he added.

On its part, Pakistan has also maintained that it had shot down two IAF planes during the aerial combat – a claim India has vociferously denied and asked for Islamabad to furnish proof. The country has, however, not provided any visual evidence of a second plane being downed.

Following the publication of Foreign Policy report, Pakistan army spokesperson Asif Ghafoor issued a celebratory tweet on Friday afternoon.

However, neither India nor the US have issued a statement on the claims in the article so far.

This story was updated to include the IAF’s response to the Foreign Policy article.