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February Skirmish: Aftermath of the India-Pakistan Air Battle (Part 1)

Note: Nothing in this article comes from confidential sources. Everything cited as fact is verifiable using open channels, the remainder is an analysis of potential post-conflict outcomes.

On 27 February 2019, Pakistan’s Inter Services Public Relations (ISPR) had announced that the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) shot down two Indian Air Force (IAF) fighter aircraft. The Indian Ministry of Defence (MoD) and IAF countered by claiming the latter shot down a PAF F-16B.

Thus far, only the loss of the one IAF MiG-21bis was openly verified, with other claims – such as the PAF’s and IAF’s respective claims about the F-16B and the Su-30MKI – still yet to be corroborated.

Nonetheless, with India’s Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, asserting that the IAF would have succeeded in its objectives (or remained unscathed) had it received the Dassault Rafale, the air-to-air encounter could have lasting effects on the respective air doctrines of both countries.

Summary of the Air Battle

The only confirmed kill in the engagement is that of the lone IAF MiG-21bis and, separately, the loss of an IAF Mi-17V5 near Srinagar. Given that this is the only information that Quwa can verify by using open, corroborated sources, this will be its tentative assessment until additional information emerges.

For example, we are not taking media photos or stories about the alleged F-16 downing. Such information was not officially endorsed by the IAF nor was it genuine (Bellingcat’s analysis determined it as MiG-21bis wreckage).

Interestingly, based on this Asia Times article, both India and Pakistan are capable of proving their claims by referring to their respective radar data and communications between their fighters and radars. Neither has currently committed to releasing that information.

Moreover, the PAF is in possession of the IAF MiG-21bis’ recording equipment, which could also have that information (at least in terms of the pilot’s communications).

That aside, the IAF also showed the fragments of an AIM-120C5 AMRAAM (Advanced Medium Range Air-to-Air Missile), arguing that the AMRAAM wreckage is proof that the PAF used its F-16s in the battle. This contradicts the ISPR’s initial claims about the PAF not using the F-16s in the engagement. On the other hand, the AMRAAM wreckage must have landed in India, indicating that whatever it hit ended up in India, and that would include a kill (if the damaged aircraft went down).

Though there has been some dispute about the origin of the missile wreckage with observers stating that the contract number is from a lot for Taiwan, Quwa does not believe the contract is restricted to Taiwan.

Rather, based on Quwa’s reading of the available information, the contract number – i.e., FA8675-05-C-0070 – is a parent contract that involves multiple countries. Under that, there is P00028, which refers to the Pakistani AMRAAM lot. In other words, C0070 does not limit the contract to Taiwan.

Source: US Department of Defense Archives

It must be noted that the PAF itself has not officially commented on the AMRAAM wreckage. However, a number of retired PAF officers stated that the matter is immaterial as Pakistan reserves the right to utilize its F-16s for its defensive interests. Indeed, the PAF can simply point to India’s own admission of using the SPICE precision-guided bomb (PGB) in an attempted cross-border strike as proof of a threat that needed to be stopped, so the F-16s served in a defensive role.

Moreover, the IAF’s recovery of the AMRAAM wreckage is intriguing. It would indicate that the wreckage fell on India’s side of the Line-of-Control and, from Pakistan’s reading, strengthen tis claims about downing a second IAF jet. However, the IAF can counter by claiming the wreckage is of a missed shot.

Nonetheless, the PAF’s ‘loss’ in case its F-16 use is confirmed is that it would weaken claims about the JF-17 scoring its first kill(s). To the PAF, that situation would have been cause for elation on multiple levels:

First, it would have bolstered morale of the general force. The JF-17 is becoming the PAF’s backbone multi-role fighter, and a confirmed kill – especially against a costlier aircraft such as the Su-30MKI – would have embellished the platform’s narrative, even though it is a relatively young program.

Second, Pakistan Aeronautical Complex (PAC) and the Aviation Industry Corporation of China (AVIC) would have promoted that information to prospective customers.

For India, the loss of the MiG-21bis has raised multiple questions.

First, why is it that despite investing billions of dollars on the newer generation Su-30MKI, is the IAF still flying a legacy platform for a crucial frontline role? It is not just an issue of facing specific PAF aircraft, such as the F-16 or JF-17, but the reality of sending the MiG-21bis against an enemy that can (though it has not officially been confirmed by the PAF) on paper employ a network-enabled force.

Yes, a funding shortfall had capped the Medium Multi-Role Aircraft (MMRCA) program, but why was that program pivoted to a high-tier platform (instead of the Mirage 2000-5 or MiG-29M/M2)? Why was so much funding spent on the Su-30MKI and, instead, not divided with a lower-cost, lightweight aircraft? Or in this specific case, why not were the IAF’s Mirage 2000H and MiG-29s not available as first options?

In part-two Quwa will examine a key facet of this skirmish, i.e., the use of stand-off range weapons (SOW) and, ostensibly, beyond-visual-range air-to-air missiles (BVRAAM). This is likely to alter how both the PAF and IAF approach their respective air warfare doctrines moving forward.

Note: Part-2 will be published tomorrow, Saturday 09 March 2019. 

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