The air action on February 27 — which took place the day after the Indian airstrike on the Jaish-e-Mohammad camp in Balakot in Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province — in Nowshera sector near the Line of Control (LoC) remains mired in controversy.
There are three major questions — first, whether the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) used an American F-16 fighter jet during the air action; second, whether this usage amounted to a violation of American sale conditions for the F-16 aircraft; and third, whether Pakistan lost an F-16 in the dogfight.
Use of F-16
Although the director-general of Pakistan’s Inter Services Public Relations had initially said that Pakistan did not use the F-16 in the air action, it has now been established that the PAF did, in fact, use the American-made warjet that morning. India had presented evidence that included the wreckage of a fired AIM-120 AMRAAM missile that fell on the Indian side of the LoC that shows the use of F-16 aircraft. Among all the aircraft in PAF’s inventory, only the F-16 is capable of firing the beyond-visual-range air-to-air missile, which was supplied to it by the US in 2011.
The IAF also had electronic signatures and radio intercepts which proved that F-16s were part of the big package of PAF fighter jets that bombed military installations in Rajouri sector. Faced with overwhelming evidence, Pakistan issued a long-winded statement last month, indirectly conceding that it had used the F-16 during that air action.
The PAF’s use of the F-16 in the attack is contentious because certain restrictions were imposed on the use of these aircraft when they were sold by the US to Pakistan. Those conditions, which are part of the End User Monitoring Agreement (EUMA) or Extended End User Monitoring Agreement (EEUMA) signed at the time of the sale of the aircraft, have not been made public.
There were few restrictions on the F-16 sold in the late 1980s to Pakistan, but it is believed that once they were upgraded in Turkey a few years ago, certain conditions may have been imposed on them. As far as the F-16 C/D Block 52 fighter received by Pakistan during the Global War on Terror are concerned, these were paid for with American money and the sale conditions were extensively debated in the US Congress. It is believed that certain restrictions were imposed on their use, including on modifying them for the delivery of nuclear weapons.
US sources have said that the American sale conditions specify that the use of the F-16s must be limited to self-defence. However, such terms, unless explicitly and clearly defined, are vague and open to interpretation. Pakistan could argue that it used the F-16 in a self-defence role after India launched the airstrike on Balakot, or that even when employed in the aerial attack on Rajouri, the F-16s were used only for self-defence. Such a claim would make it very difficult for the US to impose a penalty on Pakistan.
The final question is about the IAF claim that Wing Commander Abhinandan shot down an F-16 before he was himself shot down and taken captive. India has officially claimed this “kill” while Pakistan has denied it from the day of the air action. India’s claim is based on circumstantial evidence, which includes contradictory official Pakistani statements, the electronic signature of the PAF aircraft, images from Electronic Support Measures of AWACS, crash site debris which showed parts that did not belong to the Mig-21 Bison that Wg Cdr Abhinandan was flying, radio telephony intercepts which showed that one aircraft did not return, and wireless intercepts of Pakistani army units by the Army. Any conclusive proof that a F-16 was shot down — the camera and radar image — was lost with the crash of Wg Cdr Abhinandan’s Mig-21 Bison that crashed on the Pakistani side of the LoC.
An article published in Foreign Policy magazine Friday claimed that the US had counted the F-16 aircraft with the PAF and found none of these jets in its inventory missing. The report cited unnamed Pentagon officials as saying that the counting was done on Pakistan’s request as part of the end user agreement, and took some time as the aircraft were deployed. The report also quoted US officials as saying Pakistan did not violate any sale conditions of the F-16 by using them against India on February 27.
But on Saturday, a Pentagon spokesperson was quoted as having said that the US Defence Department “weren’t aware of any investigation like that”, while referring the query to the US State Department. The State Department, however, was quoted as having said that “As a matter of policy, the Department does not publicly comment on details of government-to-government agreements on end-use monitoring of US-origin defence articles.”