Was a Pakistani Air Force F-16 really shot down by Wing Commander Varthaman? A controversy grasps the country
Ever since the dramatic events of February 27, when fighter jets from the Indian Air Force (IAF) and the Pakistani side engaged across the Line of Control in the aftermath of India’s air strike on Jaish-e-Mohammad-operated terrorist camps in Balakot, some of them have fairly been well-recorded. A MiG-21 Bison being flown by Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman was shot down by Pakistan and while he ejected, his parachute floated into Pakistani-controlled territory. After that, the story got murky. As history has recorded, Pakistan claimed that it had shot down two IAF aircraft but India, which took its time to respond, said it had lost only one aircraft and indeed, so had Pakistan. The claim was made that Varthaman had managed to ‘kill’ a Pakistan Air Force F-16. Initially, our neighbour denied that it had even used F-16 fighters in the mission against India since that would lead to censure from the United States, before which it had curiously said it had only shot down one Indian jet from the earlier two. This led to speculation that Pakistan was trying to cover its tracks and even if it had lost a plane, it would never admit it.
While there has been much back and forth, with both sides showing images, IAF releasing visuals of AMRAAM missiles that can be delivered only by F-16s and Pakistan trotting out the missiles on Varthaman’s plane, though a couple of them showed significant damage, there have been many questions. Now an American magazine, Foreign Policy, has claimed that according to a count conducted recently, all of Pakistan’s F-16s, including some which the country acquired from Jordan, have been accounted for. The Pentagon, however, issued a statement earlier denying that the US had conducted any such ‘count.’ Could this piece of news then be a lobby effort to clear Pakistan and assign wrong-doing to India? Why else would the Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan immediately go on the offensive and repeat his old theory that India’s claim was a bid by the Modi government to whip up war hysteria before the general elections? Besides, there is no room for doubt as the IAF stuck to its stand that Wing Commander Varthaman did shoot down an F-16, communication intercepts and sightings had confirmed pilot ejection and loss of aircraft and the AMRAAM remains were more than confirmatory evidence. It is significant that the Foreign Policy piece names no senior US official but sources. Some strategic experts say the US might be reluctant to admit that an F-16 was shot down by an obsolete warplane like the MiG-21. Besides Pakistan, while welcoming journalists, has sealed access to the area of the Balakot strike, proof enough that something bad happened to the terrorists hiding there. It could have also punctured holes in India’s shoot-down theory by lining up all F-16s in public, which it has also refused to do. Because air force planes are an expensive taxpayer-funded asset, information about them and their tail-numbers is often public. Pakistan’s reticence is deeply puzzling because throughout, it has tried to stay ahead of the global public relations game, seemingly having learnt lessons from the likes of Al Qaeda and the Islamic State. So its assertion without proof should always be taken with a pinch of salt. Whatever happened in those dramatic hours and the two days will be studied for years to come.
Courtesy: The Pioneer