Indian air force conducted a surgical air strike on 26 Feb 2019 in Balokot, in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province of Pakistan. This was the first time the IAF had crossed LoC since 1971. On the very next day PAF responded by sending a strike package consisting of F-16 Falcon, JF-17 Thunder & Mirage 5.
IAF Radars picked up almost 22 PAF fighter jets at around 10:00 AM. Most of the fighter jets from the strike package were used for deception. They quickly turned when intercepted by Sukhoi 30 MKI and Mirage 2000. However 3 F-16’s headed towards Naushera sector of Rajouri district. Two MiG 21 Bison from 51 Squadron that took off from Srinagar Air Force Station intercepted the F-16 over Naushera sector near LoC. The first dogfight between IAF & PAF just started. One of the MiG 21 Bison was flown by Wg Cdr Abhinandan Varthaman.
MiG 21 Bison is highly upgraded version of MiG 21 Bis and the most advanced MiG 21 currently in service.
The MiG 21 Bison used by IAF is not an archaic cold war era fighter but is highly upgraded version capable of engaging 4th generation aircrafts. The upgrade was done by HAL in late 90’s and early 2000’s which included Phazotron Kopyo radar, an Israeli ELTA EL/L 8222 ECM (Electronic Counter Measure) pod, capability to fire HOBS R73 (±45) close combat missile and R77 BVR missiles. It also featured bubble canopy for better visibility unlike the framed ones found on older generation MiG 21. The
HMTDS (Helmet Mounted Target Designation System) provided pilot to lock on to its target by just looking at it.
When F-16’s entered the Indian air space they could have fired their AIM 120 AMRAAM Beyond Visual Range (BVR) missile towards the intercepting MiG 21’s. But violating air space of a sovereign nation and shooting down its fighter aircraft would have been catastrophic as it would be treated as an official act of war by India. This might be the reason why MiG 21 and F-16 ended up in a Within Visual Range (WVR) combat over Naushera.
The MiG 21 Bisons having High Off-Bore sight R73 (±45 deg) heat seaking missile combined with HMTDS (Helmet Mounted Target Designation System) proved to be a deadly combination. Wg Cdr Abhinandan Varthaman having the target in sight went to score his kill by flying into the hostile air space despite being advised by the controller to fall back. As soon as the R73 was fired from MiG 21 another F-16, probably wingman of the targeted F-16 fired 2 AIM 120 AMRAAM radar guided missile. One of the missile hit Wg Cdr Abhinandan Varthaman’s MiG and the second missile failed to hit its target – another MiG 21 that was in the vicinity, and ended up in Indian territory.
Wg Cdr Abhinandan Varthaman ejected over PoK and was caught by the Pakistani Army.
There are conflicting reports about F-16 being shot down by the IAF. Pakistan completely denied using their F-16’s in the air operations against India. There is no plausible evidence of F-16 being actually shot down by the MiG 21. But two important questions go unanswered.
- PAF inventory of fighter jets consists of F-16, JF-17, Mirage III, Mirage 5 and F-7 (Chinese version of MiG 21). None of these air crafts except F-16 is capable of firing AIM 120. It is not compatible with any other air crafts. Then how did AIM 120 ended up on Indian soil close to the place where dogfight was fought? This proves that F-16 was used in the offensive air operation.
- Pakistani PM Mr Imran Khan did a press conference at about 11:00 AM and said:
Do Hindustan ke MiGs ne Pakistan ki retaliation mein border cross kiya, unhe shoot down kiya gaya. Aur mein ye bhi aaj kehna chahta hoon ki pilots humare saath hai.
(Two Indian MiGs crossed the border in retaliation of Pakistan and were shot down. I also want to say that pilots are with us)
The official twitter handle of Pakistan Armed Forces @DGISPR tweeted that one pilot is captured and other two are in the area.
Although there is no concrete evidence there are pieces of information which when put together gives a high probability that F-16 was indeed shot down by and Indian MiG 21 Bison aircraft.
As per Indian claim only one air craft was shot down all other air crafts returned safely to their respective air bases. Only one pilot i.e Wg Cdr Abhinandan Varthaman was captured by Pakistani army. Then who were the two other pilots that PM and @DGISPR were talking about? This curious case of the two anonymous pilots is still to be answered.
With a credible evidence of the AIM 120 and two other anonymous pilots, It can be logically assumed that the two pilots were indeed Pakistani pilots flying twin seater F16 B/D. There were reports that one of the pilot Wg Cdr Shahzaz Ud Din was lynched by the Pakistani mob who mistook him for an Indian Pilot. He was later rescued by the Pak Army and taken to hospital but succumbed to his injuries.
Read: All New F-16 aka F-21
So if you ask- Can a MiG 21 Bison shoot down an F-16? then the answer would be- MiG 21 Bison can be threatening to an F-22 Raptor as well if engaged in close combat (given than the F-22 had already lost all its Beyond Visual Range advantage)
To answer whether or not MiG 21 shot F-16 in the Dogfight of Naushera we have to factor in a lot of data such as what was the RoE, what was the situational awareness of both the pilots, was communication intact, what offensive and defensive tactics were employed by both the pilots, how effective and experienced both the pilots were in piloting their respective air craft and so on.
The answer cannot be given with certainty, but the probability of MiG 21 shooting down F-16 seems to be high.