As a country which would want the world to take it seriously, India could use the occasion to demonstrate tangible evidence about the shooting down of the F-16.
Exactly a month from today will mark the first anniversary of the airstrikes carried out by the Indian Air Force (IAF) on Pakistani terror camps located inside both Pakistan and Pakistan Occupied Jammu and Kashmir (POJK). The airstrikes, conducted by IAF pilots flying a dozen Mirage-2000 multi-role fighter aircraft imported from France over three decades ago, involved dropping deadly precision guided munitions on terror camps located in Muzaffarabad and Chakothi across the Line of Control in POJK and Balakot located across the International Border in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa on the early morning of 26 February. The strikes had been retaliation to 40 CRPF personnel killed in a terror attack carried out by a Jaish-e-Mohammed terrorist in Kashmir’s Pulwama district on 14 February.
The Pakistanis responded by launching a daytime airstrike the following day on Indian military installations in the Jammu region. While no damage was caused on the Indian side, the IAF lost a MiG-21 Bison fighter in an ensuing aerial fight, while at the same time announcing it had shot down a Pakistani Air Force F-16 fighter. Quite expectedly, Pakistan denied that the IAF’s airstrikes had made any impact and refuted claims of having lost an F-16. The media in both countries had understandably reported the events on expected nationalistic lines, with little actual investigation of what had really happened.
The airstrikes had been hailed with much cheer and celebration in the country and had gone on to subsequently figure prominently during the general elections held in May 2019.
Now, almost a year later, when passions and emotions have somewhat subsided, are we any wiser on the effectiveness of the airstrikes and on whether or not the IAF had indeed shot down the US-made F-16 multi-role fighter belonging to the Pakistan Air Force?
The media in our country has unfortunately been unable to go beyond official assertions even while both the media and some independent agencies in Western countries have consistently been denying Indian claims on both the effectiveness of the airstrikes and the shooting down of the Pakistani F-16 fighter. Yet, in the meantime, both the Pakistani Air Force and the Indian Air Force have honoured their pilot(s) with gallantry awards “for shooting down enemy aircraft”.
Besides, some fighter squadrons of the Air Forces in both countries have redrawn their badges to demonstrate their victory over the other. A Pakistan air force fighter squadron comprising the Chinese-made JF-17 Thunder has given itself the name of “MiG Killer”, while pictorially depicting a MiG-21 ensnared by a dragon (to depict the Chinese origin JF-17 fighter). The Pakistanis have accorded this “honour” to a Pakistani J-17 squadron to buttress their claim that they never deployed the US-supplied F-16 in their aerial strike. The Pakistani claim has been disproven following the discovery of debris of missiles fired from F-16s recovered from the Indian side of the Line of Control.
However, in response two IAF squadrons have done something similar. The IAF’s 51 Squadron, comprising MiG-21 fighters, which had effectively countered the Pakistani aerial strike, has redrawn its badge with the words “AMRAAN Dodger” and “Falcon Slayer”. Similarly, a Sukhoi-30MKI squadron also deployed to counter the next day’s Pakistani aerial attack has redrawn its badge with the words “AMRAAM Dodger”.
AMRAAM refers to US-supplied Advanced Medium-Range Air-to-Air Missile that are fitted on the F-16s while Falcon is the nickname given to an F-16.
Analysis of open-source satellite imagery by four agencies located across the United States, Europe and Australia identified as the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensics Laboratory, the San Francisco-based Planet Labs, the European Space Imaging and the Australian Strategic Policy Institute has concluded that India did not hit any targets of significance in Balakot. Owing to inclement weather in the morning of the airstrikes, the IAF was unable to fly certain specialised equipment that could have authenticated the strikes.
At a Military Literature Festival held in Chandigarh last month, Christine Fair, an American academic known for being openly critical of Pakistan, while simultaneously being supportive of India on Kashmir, took the audience and speakers by surprise when she publicly discounted India’a claim of having shot down the F-16, while otherwise asserting that India had the right to bomb Pakistan as it has been permitting its territory for use by terrorists. What is significant about her statement is that she stated this while sharing the stage with recently retired Air Chief Marshal B.S. Dhanoa, who had been Chief of Air Staff during the airstrikes.
Disputing the radar data and various videos of parachutes and debris used as evidence to back claims of the F-16 being shot down, Fair said the Pakistani aircraft did not have GE engines, whereas some Indian experts had claimed that the debris of GE engines had been recovered.
On the Balakot strikes, she said both sides were engaging in deception and exaggeration. “India has lost a lot of credibility in the ways that certain images have been deployed through social media that do not show what they show with the level of certainty that is asserted”, she had said while suggesting that the lessons of the Indian airstrikes must be empirically studied on the basis of facts and not on what one wanted to believe.
“Some claims being made by either side are far from real and need to be studied deeply for an objective assessment,” she had stressed, especially referring to Indian assertions of having caused extensive damage to terror camps in Balakot. She had gone on to compare Indian assertions to then US Secretary of State General Colin Powel showing pictures of aluminium tubes at the UN Security Council to tell the world that they have a nuclear programme when the US was building a case for a war on Iraq in 2003.
India has always been reluctant to publish its war histories and war accounts without which it is difficult for the armed forces to learn lessons and improve. A year later, we seem to be no wiser in whether the airstrikes did indeed inflict damage on the terror camps. In fact the discourse since last year has been so focused on terror camps of Balakot that it seems that no strikes were carried out in Chakothi and Muzaffarnagar. Neither had the media asked, nor has the government offered to voluntarily offer any information.
Similarly, there are still some questions about the Pakistani F-16. Have we been able to identify the Pakistani air force fighter squadron which lost the F-16 along with the name of the pilot(s) involved? Surely, this information should not be too difficult to obtain for our intelligence agencies. Rather, it would only add authenticity to Indian assertion and serve to repudiate Western and other claims to the contrary.
As a country which would want the world to take it seriously, India could make use of the occasion to demonstrate tangible evidence about the shooting down of the F-16 and other aspects of the unprecedented airstrike.
Dinesh Kumar is a senior journalist.