India’s claim that one of its fighter pilots shot down a Pakistani F-16 fighter jet in an aerial battle between the two states in February appears to have been dismissed by the latest report released by senior US defense officials. U.S. personnel recently counted Islamabad’s F-16s and found none missing.
These revelations come at a time when Prime Minister Modi, a few days shy of the April 11th general elections, politicized the February confrontations with Pakistan to propel his militarization of the India forces and by extension, his popularity as a nationalist leader to gain a strategic voter advantage in the elections.
According to the report, all the claims of Indian civil and military leadership appeared to be wrong as the count, conducted by US authorities on the ground in Pakistan negated New Delhi’s version of events, suggesting that Indian authorities may have misled the international community about what happened that day.
The conflict between the two nations escalated on Feb. 27, when India claimed that a group of Pakistani jets entered its airspace in response to the first Indian air raid on Pakistani territory since the 1971 war. Despite the Indian aircrafts scrambling the scene leading to a chase-and-run operation, in the aerial battle that ensued, a took a missile hit and ejected safely into Pakistani territory. He was captured by the Pakistani army and released a few days later on account of a joint civil-military decision in an effort to de-escalate the crisis.
It is pertinent to note that whether the F-16 was supposedly shot down or not remain side issues in the grander scheme of things. For the Indian public, the revelation highlights alarming internal lapses that had been guarded fiercely by a façade perpetrated by the sitting government; that the IAF (Indian Armed Forces) was not prepared for a quick counter-attack on Feb 27, that the Pakistan Armed Forces (PAF) sent a strong message to India when it breached Indian airspace in broad daylight when least expected, and perfectly timed the attack to the changeover of IAF AWAC patrols. The outnumbered IAF pilots (12 aircraft of three vastly different types), were left to scramble from various bases.
Indian defense analysts also point to the fact that Sukhoi-30s, the IAF’s most powerful air-superiority aircraft, were surprised by the PAF F-16s firing their American AMRAAM missiles from significant distances, so that India’s best fighter, which constitutes half of the IAF’s combat force, was outranged and outgunned.
The incidents and the recent revelations that have come out serve to highlight certain fundamental truths about the art and science of defense capabilities. Buying precision munitions off the shelf, no matter how technologically advanced or sound, is not enough. Despite the proliferation of precision weapons, the ability to execute such strikes requires practice and employing skills required in actual operations, rather than a theoretical base-line knowledge of the weapon itself.
The report, authored by magazine’s Pentagon Correspondent Lara Seligman, also went on to state that it is possible that in the heat of combat, Wing Commander Abhinandan, flying a vintage MiG-21 Bison, got a lock on the Pakistani F-16, fired, and genuinely believed he scored a hit.
However, the assessment of the Feb 27 events by the concerned US officials, confirmed that no Pakistani aircraft was hit.
Terming the revelation damaging for the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), Vipin Narang, an associate professor of political science at MIT, said the way the events have unfolded may affect India’s efforts to deter Pakistan in the future.
“As details come out, it looks worse and worse for the Indians,” Narang said. “It looks increasingly like India failed to impose significant costs on Pakistan, but lost a plane and a helicopter of its own in the process.”
When the incident occurred, Prime Minister Modi asked the U.S. government to investigate whether Pakistan’s use of the F-16 against India violated the terms of the foreign military sale agreements.
However, US defense officials have concluded that the agreement did not involve any terms limiting the use of the F-16s.
“It would be incredibly naive for us to believe that we could sell some type of equipment to Pakistan that they would not intend to use in a fight,” the official said.
In a strike system that consists of French jets, Israeli weapons, US GPS and a targeting system that potentially used GPS maps, it is telling that the Indian military was unable to execute any part of its military strategy during the February confrontations, offering the conclusion that proficiency, in the military domain, should not be taken for granted. It takes more than the weapon itself to launch a successful precision strike. And an even more astute political leadership to cover its tracks, if it has over dealt its propaganda campaign to the nation.