R-73 Missile carried by MiG-21 Bison flown By WC Abhinandan Varthaman that downed a Pakistani F-16 Jet on Feb 27
India launched its five MiG Bisons, two SU 30 MK 1, two Mirage 2000 and one Israeli Airborne Early Warning and Control System (AWACS) to counter this air ingress. During ensuing air combat/dog fight, an Indian MiG-21 Bison was shot down and its pilot, Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman, was taken as Prisoner by Pakistan. He was returned to India in remarkably good shape within 60 hours.
Claims that India shot down a Pakistani F16 during same incident quickly followed. What has come as a result of all this has been a full on information assault and total denial from Pakistan. India has, thereafter, officially claimed that they shot down a Pakistani F16 and that Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman was the one who did it just before he himself got shot down.
Modern air combat is not a Hollywood blockbuster movie or an arcade game. There are so many factors that go into every single air to air engagement. MiG21 Bison that India flies, with well over 100 operational in its inventory, is not the 'Fishbed' of the Cold War era. The aircraft was updated/upgraded with 4th generation fighter avionics and sensors in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
MiG-21 already sports certain advantages like small radar and visual signatures from certain aspects, as well as the ability to make hard instantaneous turns and fast supersonic dashes. But when you pair the Bison with creative tactics and networking, as well as a host of other aircraft and an experienced pilot, it becomes far more lethal than the sum of its parts.
The USAF found this out the hard way during one of the most beneficial learning moments in modern air combat training history. Cope India 2004 and 2005 saw American F15C (Eagles), paired off against India's wildly diverse Air Force. Although India’s Russian SU30 MK1 and French-built Mirage 2000s were certainly not to be discounted, the most surprising star of the exercises was the insidious little Bison.
During the air combat training drills, Indian Air Force SU30 MK1s would use their powerful radars to build-up situational awareness and then data-link their ‘picture’ to other aircraft in the airborne force, which seemed to include the upgraded MiG 21s. Either way, the SU 30 MK1 pilots could also use radio communications to inform the Bisons of threats and tactical opportunities.
The Bison pilots, running with their radars off and emitting few to no electronic emissions that could alert the F15 crew as to their whereabouts, would use this situational information to their advantage.
With their Elta8222 jamming pods fired up and wreaking havoc on the F15C’s legendarily powerful AN/APG 63 radar, combined with their already small radar and visual signature, the Bisons would come screaming in out of nowhere to within visual range of the Eagles. They would proceed to shoot the F15s in the face with their infrared, guided R-73 missiles before blasting by. And even if the Eagles noticed the Bisons at the last moment, the Bison pilots could negate the raw performance of the hulking F15s by employing the ‘fire and forget’ R 73 nearly 90 degrees of the centerline of their noses using their helmet-mounted targeting system. Wing Commander Abhnandan Vathaman was one of the beneficiaries of those air combat exercises.
Overall, during that historic 2004 and 2005 Cope India exercises, F15 pilots found themselves; having to react to rapidly changing tactics as the Indian airborne force constantly morphed reactions to the Eagles’ moves by entering into visual fights, just after picking up the Indian fighters that were already right on top of them on radar. By then the Indians were also locked on, as well. It was a notoriously brutal, but highly beneficial learning experience for the Air Force. To that end; rules of engagement for these exercises were set to fulfill certain training goals for pilots of both countries.
This included limiting the F 15s from firing their simulated AIM-120 AMRAAMs in active radar homing mode and only engaging with those missiles in their degraded state. America did it so because she has not lost a F16 since inception during wars of 1992 in Kuwait, 2001 in Afghanistan or 2004/5 in Iraq. So this loss of Pakistani F16 is a stigma on her erstwhile clean record.
Bison can be a wily and capable threat when paired with other aerial assets, advanced electronic warfare, and creative tactics. This appears to be just how the aircraft was used during the shoot down of Pakistani F16 in last air combat/dog fight.
In other words, those constantly morphing tactics and the unique employment of the Bison would have been only more potent over a decade and a half after Cope India 2004-5 via the help of the IAF’s new advanced AWAC aircraft.
Off course, this is an assessment of this particular air combat/dog fight by an Infantry Officer trained as Forward Air Observation and directing officer and more experienced Fighter Pilots of IAF would be able to comment on it more objectively. To my mind, the clear and true picture of this Air Combat/Dog Fight would emerge when India and Pakistan answer /confirm certain observations/doubts as to: (a) what was the quality of both pilots’ situational awareness at the time?; (b) what was the electronic warfare environment like?; (c) were communications flowing freely or were they degraded?; (d) what was the intelligence picture before the sorties were even launched?; (e) what was the exact position of the Bison in relation to F 16 and the fighter/anti-aircraft gun position that shot down Varthaman?; (f) was the Bison flying at low-level, using the mountainous terrain to mask its radar signature?; (g) what was the opposing aircraft's mission; offensive or defensive counter-air?; (h) were the Pakistanis baiting the Indians knowing full well how they employ their fighter aircraft: in other words ‘was it an air combat trap’?; (i) what was the real-time intelligence picture on both sides; (j) did Pakistan had intelligence aircraft airborne and sharing info with its fighters?; (k) who knew what was where and when?; (l) what weapons were available on both aircraft?; (m) what was the exact visibility conditions at the altitude in which the engagement occurred?;(n) what type of plane actually shot down the Bison? If it was an F-16, was it one of Pakistan's plentiful upgraded F-16A/Bs or was it one of the handful of advanced Block 52 F-16C/Ds in their possession? And lastly but most importantly, (o) what were the rules of engagement?
But I am sure that none of them would answer any of these, “Now or Ever”.
With all above in mind, Pakistan’s fallacy that he has not lost a F 16 because how a relatively low performance aircraft like MiG 21 Bison shoot down much more advanced aircraft like F 16 lay exposed. Could one say with conviction that an Indian MiG 21 Bison shot down a Pakistani F 16? “Of course, YES” because Indian/IAF claim, that the Bison got off an R-73 shot just before being shot down, fits exactly within the gambit of Bison's sneaky tactics dating back to Cope India 2004/05.
In addition to this, networking coupled with tactics would be decisive factor along with experience, electronic warfare and supporting airborne early warning and control aircraft capabilities. Old and relatively low performance MiG 21 Bison with updated avionics can pose a threat by employing surprising tactics while operating as part of a large integrated air combat team that has strength in numbers, as was done in this case. Side with the more capable sensor and networking architecture and most potent electronic warfare capabilities, as well as a creative tactics and experience to leverage it, can have a far greater advantage regardless of ‘airframe versus airframe’ performance differentials.
Loss of one aircraft, on either or both sides, in a highly complex battle field, in a region boiling over with aggression is likely to be buried deep in ‘the fog of war’. But one thing is certain, America, Russia, China and Israel will try their best to find answers to all above quarries. America, because she is stung by the fact that its advance aircraft has been shot down by Russian aircraft and its possible adverse fallout in sale of F16.
Russia, because she wants to ascertain that MiG Bison can really measure up with F 16 and thereby increase its sale. China, because she would want to know why her JF17 did not participate in air combat. Israel, because she will have to revise her air tactics against MiGBisons/JF 17s supplied to Arab countries surrounding her. In any case, it would be a ‘win win situation’ for us.