The US has confirmed that all of the Pakistan Air Force’s F-16s have been accounted for, according to a report in Foreign Policy, published on Friday, April 5. This confirms a March 5 Asia Times article outlining that there was no proof to support Indian claims that an Indian Air Force (IAF) MiG-21 had downed the F-16.

In the last week of February, Indian fighter jets hit a suspected terror camp in Balakot, Pakistan, leading to a sudden escalation in tensions between the nuclear-armed South Asian neighbors. The air attacks came in the aftermath of a suicide bomb attack on an Indian police convoy in Kashmir that killed 40 troopers. This led to the use of air power by both countries for the first time since the 1971 war.

Pakistan military sources told Asia Times that the F-16 fleet was assembled in at least two places — Pakistan Air Force (PAF) base Mushaf at Sarghoda and PAF base MM Alam at Mianwali, where the US officials conducted the count. The military sources further confirmed that while the images of the missile heads had been leaked a couple of weeks ago, the Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) was waiting for the US officials’ confirmation of the F-16 audit before formally releasing the picture.

Counter claims

All four missiles on board the Indian MiG-21 were recovered from the wreckage after it was shot down by Pakistan air defense, inquiries by Asia Times revealed. The pilot, wing commander Abhinandan Varthaman, was captured by Pakistani authorities but released the next day after the US, UAE and Saudi Arabia intervened. The release led to a de-escalation of tensions between India and Pakistan.

Pakistan’s military spokesperson released pictures of the missiles on board the downed Indian MiG-21. Photo: Courtesy Pakistan DGISPR

The image of the four missiles officially released by Pakistan shows debris from two R-77 Adder and two R-73 Archer missiles recovered from the MiG-21. “If all the missiles are accounted for, then how can the Indians claim that one was fired by Wing Commander Abhinandan that took out an F-16,” a senior Pakistani air force official told Asia Times.

The image shows two missiles, one R-73 and one R-77, slightly more damaged than the other two. Given that both wings of the crashed MiG-21 had a pair of missiles underneath it, aviation experts say that the two missiles that are more damaged are likely to have hit the ground when the MiG-21 crashed. Each of these missiles has four components – guidance and control section, warhead, fuse and rocket motor.

Pakistani military sources familiar with the matter confirmed that the sections broke into their four segments upon impact with the ground. The rocket motor of two missiles was burnt in the ensuing fire.

While there were claims that the burnt motors signify that the missiles were fired, experts say that given that the rocket motor’s tube is only broken into pieces – not destroyed – it’s unlikely that the missiles were launched. “If a rocket motor has fired its tube remains intact unless it collides with another plane and explodes – that portion is completely missing in these missiles. That’s because the two lower wing missiles exploded after ground impact after the plane caught fire,” a senior PAF official told Asia Times.

India has claimed that its MiG-21 destroyed the F-16 before the pilot ejected. They have cited Abhinandan’s last radio transmission saying that he is “locked on” as evidence of their claims. They also briefed a few Indian journalists and apparently showed them radar images after the Foreign Policy report was published, quoting two Pentagon officials who were familiar with the audit of the Pakistani F-16s.

Ironically, Indian authorities had approached the US pointing out that the use of F-16s by the Pakistan Air Force (PAF), was a violation of the end-user agreements. This led the US to carry out the audit of the F-16s that revealed that all the combat jets, including those that were acquired from Jordan, were accounted for. A strict third-party-transfer (TPT) agreement covers the jets sold by Jordan to Pakistan.

However, some have questioned the image released by Pakistan stating that only the front portion of the R-73 Archer missile was on display, suggesting it could have been launched and brought down the F-16. However, according to senior IAF pilots, the R-73 missile has a proximity fuse, that detonates the entire missile when it homes in on the target. “…The infrared seeker right in front is completely destroyed when it detonates. No part is left intact,” the senior IAF official told Asia Times.

No Black Box

Lockheed Martin, the manufacturer of the F-16, said the company had not received any contact from Pakistan over the F-16. “Usually, the original equipment manufacturer is immediately contacted when their aircraft goes down. However, there was no inquiry sent from Pakistan,” a senior official said. “This adds further credence that no F-16 was lost.”

Officials pointed out that the MiG-21 had a black box, which is now in Pakistan’s possession. Indian air force officials contend it cannot be deciphered by Pakistan. However, the black box could have been sent to Lockheed Martin to check Indian claims that wing commander Abhinandan had fired a missile. “However, since there is no such discussion, and since no black box was sent to Lockheed Martin by Pakistan, it is safe to assume that no F-16 was shot down,” the official said. An official spokesperson of Lockheed Martin stated that “the comments attributed to sources in Lockheed Martin were not the company’s official position in any manner.”

Others have argued that Lockheed Martin’s bid to sell more combat jets to India could be influenced if Indian claims were proven true. However, officials said that the very fact that India claimed the F-16 kill, would make it difficult for India to explore the purchase of 114 modern combat jets through Lockheed Martin. India had rejected the F-16 more than a decade ago and favored the French Rafale combat jet.

Pakistani confusion

In the early hours of February 27, when Indian jets flew into Pakistan chasing the country’s jets, a spokesperson of the Pakistani military stated that “two pilots” had been recovered. This was repeated by Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan. However, it has also been pointed out that there were two Pakistani military units that had seen the aircraft crash and the pilot eject.

Both the Pakistani military units, the 7th battalion of the Northern Light Infantry and the 658 Mujahid Battalion simultaneously rushed towards the downed Indian pilot. Apparently, both reported capturing the pilot, leading to the confusion in Rawalpindi that they had captured two pilots. However, Asia Times could not independently confirm this version.

India claims to have intercepted communications between two Pakistani military units speaking about capturing two pilots. India insists that one of the two was the F-16 pilot and the Pakistani troops on the ground had detained him as a case of “mistaken identity.” However, Pakistan officials point out that their troops can easily make out the identity of either pilot from the squadron patches and flags on the G-suit of the fighter pilots. Either way, this confusion has never been fully explained by either side.

(The copy has been updated to add more detail about the Pakistan Air base where a US inspection was carried out, and an official response from Lockheed Martin India Private Limited)