Indian Radar Data That Supposedly Proves They Downed An F-16 Is Far From "Irrefutable"
India's evidence doesn't come anywhere close to definitively proving what did and did not happen during the air battle over Kashmir in February.
The Indian Air Force claims radar data from an airborne early warning and control aircraft, along with other intelligence, shows that the Pakistani Air Force lost an F-16 Viper fighter jet during an aerial skirmish in February 2019, an already hotly debated event that The War Zone has covered in detail. This follows a highly circulated report based on unnamed sources from Foreign Policy stating that U.S. government officials inventoried Pakistan’s Viper fleet and found that none of them were missing.
Indian Air Force (IAF) Air Vice Marshal R.G.K. Kapoor laid out the new information in a press briefing on Apr. 8, 2019. Competing Indian and Pakistani claims regarding the aerial brawl over the contested Jammu and Kashmir region on Feb. 27, 2019, which followed Pakistani air strikes on various Indian bases in the area, continue to swirl more than a month after the incident, which reportedly brought the countries worryingly close to an all-out war. A major disputed part of the narrative remains whether or not IAF Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman, flying a MiG-21 Bison, shot down a Pakistani Air Force (PAF) F-16, before getting shot down himself.
Read our widely-read pointed takedown on all the bad information and naive assumptions swirling around that engagement at this link.
“The IAF has irrefutable evidence of not only the fact that F-16 were [sic] used by PAF on 27 Feb 19 but also that an IAF MiG21 Bison shot down a PAF F-16,” the IAF said in a written statement given to journalists during the press briefing. India has previously shown portions of an American-made AIM-120C-5 Advanced Medium-Range Air-to-Air Missile (AMRAAM) that the U.S. government sold to Pakistan as evidence that the F-16s were involved in some way. Pakistan has denied that its Vipers, which are its only aircraft capable of carrying AMRAAMs, participated in the battle, to begin with, and continues to deny that it lost any of those jets.
Kapoor first showed a radar image of the overall situation. An IAF airborne warning and control aircraft, either one of its A-50EIs or an EMB-145 Netra, operating in the area at the time was tracking three distinct groups of Pakistani jets, one to the north consisting of JF-17 Thunders, one in the middle with F-16s, and a third one to the south with F-16s. The IAF claims as many as 11 F-16s in total took part in the Pakistani strikes on targets in areas of Kashmir under Indian control.
Additional Indian MiG-21, Su-30MKI, and Mirage 2000 aircraft had also scrambled in the response to the Pakistani intrusion into Indian airspace. India has now officially claimed that Pakistani F-16s fired multiple AMRAAMs during the battle, but that Indian aircraft dodged the bulk of them thanks to unspecified countermeasures and evasive action, but offered no details to support this assertion.
The IAF officer then presented additional images he said showed the period shortly after Wing Commander Varthaman had moved to engage a portion of the enemy F-16s in the middle group. There were three Vipers specifically in the Indian pilot's "engagement zone," according to the press briefing. The Indian claim is that Varthaman was then able to shoot down one of these F-16s, before his plane succumbed to enemy fire.
The Indian Air Force says it has proven this because the airborne early warning and control aircraft on station had identified the F-16s and saw one of the tracks disappear from its screens completely. We have no way of knowing whether the images that Kapoor presented at the press briefing were taken directly from the radar outputs on AWACS, from a ground radar station or other integrated air defense network node, or were created from data from one or more of those sources specifically for the presentation.
When Varthaman purportedly shot down the F-16, there were supposedly separate reports from Indian Army outposts along the so-called Line of Control (LOC), which separate the areas of Kashmir under Indian and Pakistan control, that troops had seen multiple parachutes falling on the Pakistani side in different, distinct locations. The MiG-21 is a single-seat aircraft, but it also has a drogue chute, which could have deployed inadvertently before it crashed, leading to the sightings of an additional parachute.
Pakistan's existing official claims about the shootdowns are already confusing and conflicting. At first, Pakistani authorities said that, in addition to Varthaman, there were as many as two additional Indian pilots on the ground who it was searching for. Subsequent statements from the Pakistani Military's main public affairs office, known as Inter-Services Public Relations, said that a second, unnamed individual was in custody with no mention of a third pilot. There is no evidence to support any variation of these claims.
India now says these reports of additional Indian aviators in Pakistani detention were, in fact, the crew of the Pakistani F-16. The PAF has two-seat F-16Bs, BMs, and Ds, which would account for one plane crashing, but two pilots ejecting.
“This is corroborated by radio communications intercepts of Pakistan Army formations in the area,” the IAF’s written statement added. These “categorically state the capture of atleast [sic] two pilots, one of them being Wg Cdr Abhinandan and a second one being admitted to CMH [a Pakistani Combined Military Hospital].”
However, the IAF has similarly declined to share the intercepted radio communications themselves or a transcript thereof, making it impossible to independently verify the claims. "Due to security and confidentiality concerns, we are restricting the information being shared in public domain,” IAF Air Vice Marshal Kapoor said during the briefing.
India and Pakistan are in agreement now that Abhinandan Varthaman was the only Indian aviator ever in Pakistani custody following the skirmish. There are also confirmed photographs of the crash site of his MiG-21. It is worth noting that Varthaman landed, got attacked by a mob of Pakistani civilians before authorities arrived and detained him. They provided first aid and questioned the Indian pilot before moving him to a military hospital. It is very possible that there was some confusion and that the "second" individual admitted to the CMH was actually the Indian Wing Commander.
It's also worth pointing out that India has not provided any evidence of the F-16 shootdown beyond the radar track "vanishing." Kapoor only showed two still radar images, as well. Without having more data and context, we have no way of knowing conclusively that the contact disappeared and never reappeared or that it was an F-16, to begin with. Electronic warfare and the limitations of the airborne early warning and control system could have been factors, as well. The mountainous terrain and other ground clutter may have masked the Viper's radar signatures temporarily and the fighter could have dropped into the "doppler notch" of the airborne radar system. There are so many possible explanations that cannot be ruled out without more information and at the very least, full motion video of the tactical picture, not just a few hand-picked screenshots.
There is no indication that Pakistan launched any combat search and rescue effort to recover the crew of the purportedly downed F-16, which one might have expected to see, either. There is an unsubstantiated report that a group of civilians on the ground lynched a Pakistani pilot after his plane got shot down, mistaking him for an Indian aviator, but this is incredibly hard to believe.
Pakistan has also released images of portions of Russian-made R-73 Archer and R-77 Adder missiles it recovered from the MiG-21 crash site as evidence that Varthaman never got off a shot. The remains of one of the close-range R-73s, which numerous reports say was the weapon that brought down the F-16, consists of just elements of the rocket motor and seeker head, raising questions about this claim.
“The infrared seeker right in front is completely destroyed when it detonates. No part is left intact,” an unnamed senior IAF official declared to Asia Times. But the R-73's warhead section is relatively small and is supposed to detonate outward as the missile flies in close proximity to the target, showering it with shrapnel, not exploding straight forward as the weapon physically slams into a plane.
With this in mind, an R-73 missile missing its middle section is what one might expect to see if it had passed near its target and functioned as intended. Of course, the extensive damage may also have been a result of missiles hitting Varthaman’s MiG-21 or the fighter jet then crashing into the ground.
Not surprisingly, Pakistan has denied India's latest claims, while also reiterating their own unsubstantiated claim that Pakistani aircraft shot down a second Indian combat jet during the skirmish. There is no photographic or video evidence, even unconfirmed imagery from bystanders, of any other crash sites on either side of the LOC, beyond that of the MiG-21, in the aftermath of the battle. Pakistan does not claim to be responsible for bringing down an Indian Mi-17V5 transport helicopter, a separate incident that India has officially said was an accident, but which some posit may have been the result of friendly fire.
The Indian government under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who is facing an election at the end of this month, has been under increasing pressure to prove its claims about both the aerial skirmish on Feb. 27, 2019, and unprecedented air strikes near the Pakistani town of Balakot the day before, which precipitated the air battle. There has been mounting evidence that also calls into question India’s claims that its jets successfully destroyed their targets in the Feb. 26, 2019 aerial raid.
This latest IAF press briefing also follows the aforementioned report from Foreign Policy on Apr. 4, 2019, citing two unnamed U.S. defense officials, that the United States counted Pakistan’s F-16s and found that none of them were missing. Pakistan’s F-16s, including jets obtained second-hand from Jordan, are under heavy U.S. export controls, which could allow for American inspections of the jets at the U.S. government’s request.
There are reports that the export agreement also limited the functionality of key systems and the PAF’s ability to service major components independently. There have also been rumors of tracking devices or additional systems that would allow American authorities to remotely disable the aircraft or certain systems, if necessary.
Asia Times subsequently reported that Pakistani officials, also speaking on the condition of anonymity, had also said an American audit had taken place and involved sending all of the Vipers to PAF Base Mushaf in Sargodha, which is home of the PAF’s Central Air Command. After that report came out, Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan had taken to Twitter to slam India's claims of having shot down an F-16.
"BJP's attempt to win elections through whipping up war hysteria and false claims of downing a Pak F 16 has backfired with US Defence officials also confirming that no F16 was missing from Pakistan's fleet," Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan Tweeted out on Apr. 6, 2019, referring to Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) political party. "The truth always prevails and is always the best policy."
But sending all the F-16s to Mushaf would have been a major logistical undertaking. The PAF has around 76 Vipers total, including A/B, AM/BM, and C/D models. Even if they are all technically in service, it is, at best, statistically improbable that all of them are flyable at any one time. Some should have been undergoing major maintenance that would have made it even more difficult to return them to any sort of mission capable state or otherwise move them to the base in Sargodha.
In addition, the U.S. government has, so far, declined to officially confirm or deny that the F-16 count occurred or that it directly substantiated Pakistan’s claims. At the time of writing, the Pentagon had not yet responded to queries on the matter from The War Zone. The U.S. Department of Defense was not “aware of any investigation like that,” a spokesperson reportedly told India’s Hindustan Times on Apr. 6, 2019.
“As a matter of policy, the Department does not publicly comment on details of government-to-government agreements on end-use monitoring of U.S.-origin defense articles,” the U.S. State Department public affairs office wrote in a statement to The War Zone by Email. “It is important to note that since January 2018, the United States government has suspended security assistance to Pakistan.”
The Hindustan Times also received this same exact same statement from the State Department.
The comment about the suspension of military aid to Pakistan is notable. U.S.-Pakistani relations are at a recent low, with U.S. President Donald Trump’s Administration cutting military aid to the country after accusing Pakistan of not doing enough to combat terrorists within its territory who also operate in neighboring Afghanistan. The Trump Administration has also pushed for greater ties with India, which is Pakistan’s chief rival, including military-to-military cooperation.
In addition, there has been significant political opposition to selling F-16s to Pakistan at all from members of Congress over the years for various reasons, chiefly allegations that its state security apparatus is at least complicit in various terrorist activities if it is not supporting them outright. With this in mind, there have been suggestions that Pakistan has a sufficiently large number of political enemies in Washington, D.C. at present who would have leaked details about a lost Pakistani F-16 if the U.S. government was aware of it.
There is similarly nothing to back up conspiratorial rumors that the U.S. government is looking to conceal a Pakistani F-16 loss, especially to a heavily modernized MiG-21, for fear that it could impact future Viper or other American fighter jet sales abroad. F-16 manufacturer Lockheed Martin is presently trying to sell an advanced F-16 variant to India itself, rebranded the F-21. Such an outlandish conspiracy is preposterous, to begin with.
India’s Prime Minister Modi has used the Varthaman shoot down to publicly argue for speeding up purchases of French-made Rafales, a deal that opposition parties in India have accused of being rife with corruption and graft. Separately, Russia’s state media has used the incident to argue that the IAF should buy more Russian jets.
Regardless, the exact details of the aerial engagement that led to the Pakistanis shooting down the MiG-21 remain unclear. The truth is that air combat is a multi-faceted and extremely complex affair where the exact capabilities of two individual planes account for just a fraction of the many factors at play. You can read more about this in The War Zone’s previous deep analysis of the aerial skirmish on Feb. 27, 2019.
Furthermore, it's unclear why India waited more than a month to release this latest information, which still does not conclusively prove that the IAF shot down an F-16 in any tangible way. On Feb. 28, 2019, just a day after the aerial brawl, Indian authorities publicly showed the AIM-120C-5 fragment, which did offer compelling evidence that Pakistani Vipers had, at least, taken part in the operation overall.
India’s latest release of information is interesting, but it remains too circumstantial and limited to put the issue of whether or not the IAF shot down an F-16 to rest for good. The Indian government’s repeated claims, and the counter-claims of an audit of Pakistani Vipers, only seem to raise new questions about exactly what happened in the skies over Kashmir more than a month ago.
Contact the author: Tyler@thedrive.com