The clash between India and Pakistan involving their respective air forces last week has led to claims and counter-claims from the two South Asian rivals. While India claimed its air force entered Pakistan air space in the early hours of February 26, Pakistan claimed a similar air attack on Indian positions a day later.

However, one claim from India has taken a bizarre turn. In response to the Pakistan air raid in the morning on February 27, Indian fighter jets gave chase as part of the air defense measures. While the Pakistan jets turned back in a matter of seconds, an Indian MiG-21 gave chase and crossed into Pakistan’s air space. It was brought down by Pakistan’s air defense surface-to-air missiles and the pilot was captured.

However, Indian Air Force (IAF) officials were quick to claim that before being shot down, Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman managed to shoot down a Pakistani F-16. The IAF also put out a series of tweets claiming that an F-16 had been shot down.

Did India down an F-16?

However, by March 1, rumors started flying that Abhinandan had shot down a Pakistan Air Force (PAF) pilot named Shahaz-ud-Din, who was from 19 Squadron, also known as the sher-dils, or lion-hearted. On March 2, FirstPost, a well-known Indian news website, published a story written by consulting editor Praveen Swami, claiming: “The news that Shahaz-ud-Din’s plane was shot down was first reported by London-based lawyer Khalid Umar, who says he received it privately, from individuals related to the F-16 pilot’s family.”

Quoting Umar’s Facebook post, Swami also reported that the pilot had ejected “possibly in the Laam Valley” and had been mistaken for an Indian pilot by locals on the ground. They allegedly lynched him, and Swami wrote that “Shahaz-ud-Din, Umar has claimed, was hospitalized, but succumbed to his injuries.”

Swami also claimed that both the downed pilots, Varthaman and Shahaz-d-Din, were sons of Air Marshals in the IAF and PAF. “Shahaz-ud-Din’s father, Waseem-ud-Din, is also an Air Marshal of the Pakistan Air Force, who has flown F-16 and Mirages,” he wrote.

However, an investigation by Asia Times revealed that while Air Marshal Wasimuddin did serve in the PAF before retiring, he did not have a son named Shahaz-ud-Din.

Non-existent pilot

Air Marshal Wasimuddin has two sons, Aleem Uddin and Waqar Uddin. Waqar is studying in Warwickshire in the United Kingdom, while Aleem, who has studied at Royal Holloway, the University of London, works in the telecom sector.

“I have only two sons and neither of them has been a part of the PAF, nor has either ever flown a plane,” he said. “I have not considered any legal action [against the Indian media reports]. I actually laughed them off. My sons have been abroad for years. Unfortunately, they have been needlessly dragged into all this,” Wasimuddin said.

Air Marshal Wasimuddin (center) with his son Waqar (left) and Aseem. Photo: Courtesy Kunwar Khuldune Shahid/Asia Times

PAF officials confirmed that the retired air marshal had been asked to record a video as a rebuttal to claims in the India media. However, Wasimuddin said he wanted to avoid it because he did not want any undue attention on him or his family given the current crisis.

This raises a set of bigger questions.

If there is no “Wing Commander Shahaz-ud-Din” in the PAF, then who was piloting the F-16 that was allegedly shot down by the IAF? Or did the IAf really shoot down an F-16?

Air Commodore Kaiser Tufail is a former F-16 fighter pilot in the PAF and the author of Great Air Battles of Pakistan Air Force, a seminal book on its wartime history. He believes the Indian claim has no merit.

“It is relatively easy to provide incontrovertible evidence for such a kill by the IAF,” Tufail told Asia Times in several text messages in response to queries. “The MiG-21 pilot should have been in touch with his fighter controller on the ground. Also, the other Indian fighter aircraft engaging the PAF fighter jets would have been monitoring the situation. They would have the data that can prove if an F-16 was shot down. Why isn’t India releasing that data?”

“The trace of the ground and airborne radar scope is always recorded, and usually, all radars preserve this for up to 72 hours, before being overwritten,” he said. “These traces can easily provide the incoming aircraft. And the sudden disappearance of the blip from the (radar) scope of this incoming aircraft will imply a ‘kill.’ There couldn’t be better evidence than this.”

“The IAF can (also) provide audio recording(s) of the interception in which the (MiG-21) pilot must have transmitted to his flight controller. There would be ‘radar contact,’ ‘visual contact,’ target shot down.’ These recordings should be available with the ground radar as well as the airborne radar that was flying that day,” he added.

Indians lost face?

Asia Times spoke to multiple IAF fighter pilots both serving and retired to ascertain their version of events. Most agreed with Air Commodore Tufail’s analysis of the sequence of events.

“It is true that the MiG-21 pilot would have had made some recordings of the air engagement, both audio and video,” a former IAF fighter pilot said on condition of anonymity. “Right from the 1970s, MiG-21s had cameras in the gun and missile pods. Any launch is recorded and if there are any ‘kills’ it should have been recorded. This should also be available in the on-board avionics. But the Pakistanis have it now,” he said.

“However, even a radio transmission, as well as data from the Airborne Early Warning (AEW) that had taken off when the first PAF fighters were detected, should have some data, including the loss of a radar blip, if the MiG-21 had shot it down. Even Wing Commander Abhinandan’s radio transmissions should be available and we can check them to see if he did report a ‘kill’ before going down,” the Indian fighter pilot said.

Some IAF officials privately feel the loss of the MiG-21 was a major “loss of face.” Even though Wing Commander Abhinandan “displayed high professional acumen and took on an F-16 in his MiG-21, the fact that we lost it was very embarrassing a day after we took out a Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) terror camp deep inside Pakistan,” another senior IAF official told Asia Times.

A former IAF fighter pilot told Asia Times that unlike past analogous radars, the present Synthetic Display Radars (SDR) were incapable of distinguishing between aircraft. “The SDR would not be in a position to tell whether it was an F-16 or not. But the other data would have definitely recorded an F-16 ‘kill’ by the MiG-21.”

Confusing statements

What added to the confusion was Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) Director General Major General Asif Ghafoor’s press conference on Wednesday, where he mentioned that Pakistan had captured two Indian pilots. One was Wing Commander Varthaman and the other was taken to the Combined Military Hospital (CMH) after being severely injured.

That claim came after Ghafoor’s initial tweet suggested there were actually three Indian pilots on the Pakistani side of the Line of Control. This was also reported by prime minister Imran Khan in his address to the National Assembly.

Much later Ghafoor said only one pilot was in Pakistani custody. PAF officials told Asia Times they were planning a display of all their fighter jets for neutral observers as evidence that none of their aircraft had been taken down by the IAF.

According to a Pakistani official, on condition of anonymity, F-16s had indeed been used to strike targets inside Indian territory. “I don’t know why [Asif Ghafoor] said that. Perhaps it would’ve been better if an air force person was dealing with the briefing. Even if somebody had asked him [about the F-16s] during the presser it would’ve been best to say something open-ended and not something as categorical as what he said,” the official said.

Analysts think one of the reasons behind Ghafoor’s statement could be to address concerns by the American State Department over the use of US-made F-16 fighter jets.

While Indian officials have showcased parts of an AMRAAM missile as evidence that Pakistan did use an American-made F-16, PAF officials say that part of the missile being discovered was ‘conclusive evidence’ that the Pakistan jets were not shot down.

“AMRAAM only goes with the F-16, but what the Indians don’t seem to realize is how the AMRAAM got there. There’s a reason why no debris of the jet has been recovered and only the remains of the missile have been found,” said Air Commodore Kaiser Tufail, a former PAF F-16 fighter pilot.

An Indian Airforce officer stated, “When a missile hits a jet it breaks down into small pieces just like the aircraft it targets – it doesn’t vaporize. If it doesn’t hit the target, its rocket fuel finishes in 20-25 seconds, and it just falls down on the ground intact. So the fact that an AMRAAM piece was recovered proves that the F-16 did strike a target.”

Meanwhile, locals on the ground reiterated that no Pakistani pilot bailed out along with Wing Commander Varthaman. “Only the Indian pilot landed here, and while the locals initially did try to physically harm him, he was protected by Pakistan Army officials. There was no Pakistani pilot who parachuted along with him, let alone being killed by a mob,” Fiaz Mahmood, a local businessman in the Bhimber district of Pakistan-administered Kashmir, told Asia Times.

The episode has raised several questions about India’s deteriorating military capabilities due its faulty procurement policies and lack of political will. Last year India’s Vice-Chief of Army Staff told Parliament’s standing committee on defense that the Narendra Modi government’s financial squeeze had left the forces bereft of funds.