Did they or didn’t they?Confusion reigns over Pakistan’s use of F-16 jets against India

Last weekend, the Indian Air Force (IAF) alleged that Pakistan used F-16 fighter jets to target military bases in India. This escalation followed the terrorist attack at Pulwama by the Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM) and retaliatory strike by the IAF in Balakot.

The IAF said that on February 27, a large package of Pakistani Air Force (PAF) jets entered Indian airspace, but were intercepted by the IAF’s MiG-21Bison, Su-30MKI, and Mirage-2000 jets.

Now, the United States has announced that it is monitoring Pakistan’s alleged use of F-16s, because Pakistan might be in violation of a previous agreement signed with the US.

However, in general, there is a lack of clarity on whether or not Pakistan used F-16s in the first place.

What does the IAF say?

The IAF said that Pakistan used F-16 jets to strike Indian military bases.

At around 10 am on February 27, 2019, the IAF says that they scrambled jets to the west of Rajauri in the Sunderbani area to respond to incoming Pakistani aircraft.

Although the Pakistani fleet was disrupted, the IAF says that “PAF bombs have fallen in the Indian Army Formation compounds”. But, these bases escaped without any serious damage.

The IAF added that one PAF F-16 was shot down and crashed in Pakistan-occupied Jammu and Kashmir.

It is in this dogfight, that IAF Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman was captured. He has since been released back to India.

The IAF also refutes Pakistan’s claim that no F-16 jets were used in this incident.

“There is enough evidence to show that F-16s were used in this mission and Pakistan is trying to hide this fact”, says the IAF.

As proof, the IAF also released photographs of recovered parts of AMRAAM Air to Air Missiles that can only be carried on F-16s.

NDTV says that these AMRAAM missiles can be used in all types of weather and at any time of the day on targets that are beyond visual range.

Such missiles are advantageous because they allow pilots to shoot at long-range targets and move away from enemy sight as soon as the missile is launched.

In a joint briefing between all three branches of the Indian armed forces, the IAF also displayed pieces of that missile.

The issue with Pakistan using F-16s

NDTV reports that the US has a defence agreement with Pakistan wherein it supplied Pakistan with F-16 jets that can only be used in counter-terrorism activities.

Reuters explains that Pakistan acquired these F-16s and other military hardware around 2001, when it was aiding the US in its “War on terror” in Afghanistan.

These F-16s were assembled by Lockheed Martin Corp in Washington before the US stopped sending military aid to Pakistan in 2016 after it decided that its aid was not being put to effective use in combating terrorism.

The signed agreement between US and Pakistan states that these F-16s cannot be used against another country.

Additionally, Pakistan also needs permission from the US before it can use certain weapons that are fitted on these jets.

The Guardian quotes a “senior Pakistani military official” who said that the US-supplied F-16s could be used legitimately for “defensive” purposes. However, “offensive use is a problem, definitely”, he added.

Whether Pakistan used F-16s in an act of “offence” or “self-defence” is a debate yet to be had.

As of now, Pakistani officials deny any the use of F-16s.

Director of Pakistan’s Information Minister’s office Danyal Gilani said in a tweet that Lockheed Martin will be filing a lawsuit against India for making fictitious claims that Pakistan used F-16s.

This tweet has since been deleted.

The company clarified saying, “Lockheed Martin has made no such comments.”

In response, Gilani said that he picked up the  statement from a website, but acknowledges that statement was wrongly attributed to the company.

“However, I stand by Govt.of #India’s failure to prove it downed a #Pakistan F-16. Indian media & journalists have caught #Indian govt disinformation”.

The Guardian reports that Pakistan used Chinese-made JF-17 in the strike, but has not provided concrete evidence of this.

But an image released by the IAF shows an old label that reads “Derived from AMRAAM” and “Dated 01 April 2000”, which puts this aircraft at the timeframe the US was supplying Pakistan with warplanes.

US response

In a press briefing, US Department of State Deputy Spokesperson Robert Palladino addressed the issue of Pakistan’s usage of F-16s.

He said, “As a matter of policy, we don’t publicly comment on the contents of bilateral agreements that we have in this regard involving U.S. defense technologies, nor the communications that we have with other countries about that.”

He added that the US has been following reports on the situation and will continue to do so.

These conflicting accounts are not unusual, especially in a social media world where news—often unverified—travels at lightning speed.

Moreover, the confusion serves both, Indian and Pakistani governments, who want to sway the narrative against the other, especially with accusations of lies.

While the uncertainty may pause military tensions between the two, it can also escalate it, depending on the mood of social media users and news coverage this incident gets.

Rhea Arora is a staff writer at Qrius