On 27 February, when the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) tried to target Indian military installations a day after Indian Air Force’s (IAF’s) strike on a Jaish-e-Mohammed terror camp in Balakot, the two air forces engaged in an air battle of the kind not witnessed since the 1971 war, not even during the Kargil conflict.
During the air engagement, multiple Pakistani F-16s fired their air to air missiles towards two Su-30MKIs of the IAF which were on Combat Air Patrol in the region. Tha air skirmish between the PAF and the IAF ended with a MiG-21 Bison of the latter being shot down over Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir (PoK) and the former losing an F-16. While the Indian pilot, Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman, ejected and found himself in Pakistani custody, what fate the Pakistani pilot(s) met remains unknown as the PAF refuses to accept the loss of a fighter jet.
Beyond this, little is known about the air engagement of 27 February. However, a former Mirage-2000 pilot of the IAF, Sameer Joshi, has now put out an authoritative account of the air skirmish between the IAF and the PAF.
Joshi, who had recently explained — in an article that went viral — how the IAF struck the Jaish camp in Balakote using Spice-2000 bombs, says that the PAF used three strike groups for its mission on 27 February. The first group (labelled north axis in the map below), the northernmost package, consisted of four J-17 fighters. The second group, which he calls the central axis, had eight F-16s, a combination of four Mirage IIIs and Vs, and four JF-17 fighters. The third group, labelled south axis, had a combination of four Mirage IIIs and Vs. While the fighters in the north and south axes of the PAF were decoys, used to distract the IAF, those in the central axis were part of the main thrust.
According to Joshi, the F-16s were equipped with 1000 pound Laser Guided Bombs, the JF-17s carried general purpose bomb equipped with range-extension kits (REKs) and the Mirage IIIs/Vs had H2/H4 Stand-Off Weapon.
On the Indian side, Joshi says, were two Mirage 2000s and two Su-30 MKIs. While the Mirage 2000s were in northern Kashmir, the Su-30 MKIs were approaching from the south. When the IAF noted that a large number of PAF fighters were flying towards the Line of Control (LoC), it scrambled two pairs of MiG-21 Bisons ( four in all). Wing Commander Varthaman was flying one of these MiG-21s.
Unlike what was initially believed, India did not have an Airborne Early Warning and Control (AEW&C) aircraft in the region. The PAF, however, had its Saab 2000 AEW&C aircraft in air around Islamabad. The Pakistani AEW&C, flying at 30,000 feet, controlled the battle space over much of Jammu and Kashmir.
Therefore, in all, Pakistan had at least 24 fighter jets aided by an AEW&C aircraft while the IAF had only eight fighters, including the four Mig-21s which reportedly got airborne from airbases in Srinagar and Awantipora.
The PAF’s northern package of JF-17s engaged the Mirage-2000s. The main job of this package, Joshi says, was to keep the Mirage-2000s tied up in the north while the fighters in the central axis undertake the bombing mission.
“The JF-17 vs Mirage 2000 engagement took place North of J&K as the JF-17s tried to 'push' the M2000s in a 'Red on Red'. The JF-17's NRIET KLJ-7 PD radar did not do well against the M2000s. The JF-17s main job was to keep the M2000s tied up and not move south,” the former Mirage-2000 pilot notes.
“The PAF communication intercepted on the ERIEYE showed that the PAF was vary of the upgraded M2000s moving south,” he adds.
In the central axis, he suggests, four JF-17s and four Mirage IIIs/Vs of the PAF hurriedly deployed the payload they were carrying due to the threat from IAF’s two Mirage-2000s in northern Kashmir. The four JF-17s of the PAF’s northern package were not able to engage the Mirage-2000s effectively. Meanwhile, out of the eight F-16s in the central package, four climbed up to 40,000 feet and went supersonic, and the remaining four were at 10,000-15,000 feet.
The PAF’s plan, Joshi says, was to use the four F-16s flying at 40,000 feet to fire the first volley of air-to-air missiles at the Su-30 MKIs which were approaching from the south. And while the Su-30 MKIs will carry out evasive maneuvers, the remaining foru F-16s were to fire a second volley of air-to-air missiles.
Explaining how the Su-30 MKIs responded, he says: “The Su-30MKIs picked up the higher pair of F-16s at 35-40,000 feet and anticipated the launch in a 'Red on Red', also cautioned by the GC, the Su-30s cranked to reduce their forward travel and being in a position to outrun the AMRAAM's kinematics”.
“The timely cranking and the chaff helped the Su-30MKIs outmaneuver the AMRAAMs. 5 AIM-120C-5 s were fired on the Sukhois with no hit,” he adds.
As other experts also suggest, the F-16s may have fired their Advanced Medium-Range Air-to-Air Missile (AMRAAMs) from the edge of their range. As a result, the missiles did not hit Su-30 MKIs when they maneuvered or ‘turned cold’.
“The Su-30MKIs did not get a launch command on their own R27 and RVV-AE air-to-air missiles due the differential in the snap up launch, with the F-16s going cold after launching their AMRAAMs,” Joshi suggests.
Meanwhile, the MiG-21s of Wing Commander Varthaman and his number two moved to tackle the other four F-16s which were now climbing to 25,000 feet (from 10,000-15,000 feet) to target the Su-30 MKIs of the IAF.
Wing Commander Varthaman’s MiG-21 was picked up by the PAF fighters, but he pressed on and manually locked on his R-73 air-to-air missile to an F-16. He shot down the Pakistani fighter and turned back, but was hit by another F-16.
According to Joshi, three parachutes were seen coming down after this engagement, out of which only one had Indian colors.
“Abhinandan's act of engaging the lower pair of F-16s disrupted their plan to shoot down an IAF Sukhoi. Abhi scored the first F-16 kill by a Mig-21,” Joshi notes.
By the time an AEW&C aircraft of the IAF became available and guided two MiG-29s and more Su-30 MKIs towards the area, the PAF “had turned turtle, leaving in a jiffy after the F16 loss”, the former IAF pilot says.
Prakhar Gupta is a senior editor at Swarajya. He tweets @prakharkgupta.
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