WASHINGTON: Claims and counterclaims continue to fly over India’s insistence that it shot down an F-16 during its skirmish with Pakistan following New Delhi’s retaliatory strike on Balakot.
While the Pentagon said on Friday it was “not aware” of any audit of Pakistan’s F-16 jets that a US journal said showed no missing aircraft, Pakistan released pictures of what it claimed are four missile seeker heads purportedly from India’s downed MiG 21, saying it showed the Indian pilot had not fired any missile at Pakistan’s F-16s.
A report in Foreign Policy magazine said that US defence officials had inventoried Pakistan’s F-16s and found none missing, which was not backed by Pentagon, also opened up questions about whether the Pakistan air force could have been flying F-16s loaned by or borrowed by some of its close allies, given the persistence with which the IAF maintained it had brought down an F-16 and the evidence it had produced to back this. The evidence includes electronic signatures, radio transmission intercepts, and sightings of two separate ejections several kilometres apart around the same time – one of the Indian MIG pilot, and the other, ostensibly, of the Pakistani F-16 pilot.
Several close allies of Pakistan also fly the F-16, and according to Indian experts, they enjoy an easy interoperability that India witnessed during its wars with Pakistan. “It’s a well known fact that the air forces of Pakistan, Jordan, Egypt and Turkey frequently exercise together and there are a few PAF pilots on deputation to those countries. It would serve US interests to rubbish India’s claims that would otherwise blemish an enviable combat record for the F-16,” a former IAF pilot said.
Adding another dimension to the controversy, another retired Indian military official wrote on Twitter: “For America, war is a multi-trillion dollar business & the F-16 is a global brand. There is no way the US can ever admit that a MIG 21 shot down an F-16. It will bury the brand forever & will raise questions on other US weapon systems. Embarrassing for US.”
The issue of audit of Pakistan’s F-16s itself came under a cloud, with the Trump administration declining to confirm the Foreign Policy journal report that the US had conducted an inventory check at Pakistan’s invitation. A Pentagon spokesman told The Hindustan Times that the Defence Department was not “aware of any investigation like that,” amid signs the Trump White House was keen to have New Delhi’s back. Earlier in the week, Nasa was also directed to reel back its criticism of India’s ASAT test following a White House directive.
The US refusal to confirm the audit report came even as India’s Army chief General Bipin Rawat concluded his three-day visit to the United States during which he met General Joseph F Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and General Mark A Milley, chief of staff of the US army “to discuss military cooperation issues of mutual interest.”
Outside the confines of guarded official pronouncement, a vigorous debate ensued about the veracity of Indian assertions and Pakistani denials, with experts not discounting the possibility that the pilot of India’s MIG 21 could have brought down an F-16 that was loaned to or borrowed by Pakistan, given the preponderance of evidence put forth by IAF. Analysts and commentators, including former government officials, point to the IAF downing Jordanian jets flown by Pakistani pilots during the 1965 war to underscore the interoperability Pakistan enjoyed with some its close allies to underscore the possibility that the PAF could have lost an F-16.
Even Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan jumped into the fray, attributing the Indian claim to the ruling party’s political compulsions. “The truth always prevails and is always the best policy. BJP’s attempt to win elections through whipping up war hysteria and false claims of downing a Pakistan F-16 has backfired with US defence officials also confirming that no F-16 was missing from Pakistan’s fleet,” he tweeted.
Except, the US defence department did not confirm any audit of the F-16s that was reported by Foreign Policy magazine.