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Friday, April 12, 2024

Revisiting Operation Swift Retort

On 27 February 2019, the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) conducted six airstrikes at multiple locations in Indian-administered Jammu and Kashmir (J&K). The airstrikes were part of the PAF military operation codenamed Operation Swift Retort and were conducted in retaliation to the Indian Air Force (IAF) airstrike in Balakot just a day before on 26 February.

A media war of sorts, mostly involving keyboard warriors, is going on since 27th February 2019 when, in retaliation to an IAF foray across the LoC a night earlier, PAF launched an attack against six Indian military targets in Indian Held Kashmir. Pakistan claimed having downed two Indian aircraft that day, a MiG21 Bis piloted by Wing Commander Abhinandan, and an SU30 MKI. Whereas the wreckage of MiG21 fell inside Pakistani territory and the pilot was apprehended, the SU30 and its pilot(s) remain elusive.

In their counterclaim, IAF insisted that Abhinandan, before getting shot down, had locked his air-to-air missile on a PAF F-16 and shot it down. This was the F-16, they claimed, whose wreckage had also fallen inside Pakistani territory. The F-16 pilot, they speculate, might have been mistaken for an Indian pilot and smothered by the locals. This, they contend, explains the mystery of the second injured Indian pilot taken prisoner according to the initial Pakistani reports.

Read more: Pak Army honors nation’s resilience on 4th anniversary of Operation Swift Retort

Understanding the matter better

On 28th February, India’s defense spokesman displayed the remains of an American-made missile as ‘absolute proof’ that IAF had shot down a PAF- F16 the day before, claiming that the missile could only have been launched by an F-16. The wreckage displayed by the Indian spokesman identified the missile as an AIM 120C-5 AMRAAM. Markings on the wreckage also identified the contract serial number of the missile as FA8675-05-C-0070.

A cyber search done by a Pakistani newspaper, The Express Tribune, revealed that contract number FA-8675-05-C 0070 corresponded to a batch of AIM-120C-5 AMRAAM missiles supplied to Taiwan in a Foreign Military Sale worth $2.38 million. Pakistan does not have diplomatic relations with Taiwan and considers Taiwan a province of China. A version of the report can be found on the official website of the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition and Sustainment.

Almost a month after the clash, the same Indian defense spokesman held another press briefing in which he displayed the electronic imagery of an IAF AWAC aircraft (A-50EI Il-76 fitted with the EL/W-2090 Israeli airborne Phalcon radar). He cited it as proof that on 27th February at least three PAF F-16s were present in the area of engagement and that one of the F-16s suddenly disappeared from the radar screen. The imagery was not the original electronic image sent by the IAF AWAC. It was a photoshopped version of the original imagery. This, explained the spokesman, was due to security reasons.

Transcript of Discussion on an Indian TV Channel

Indian media claimed the wreckage of a Pakistani F-16 was shot down by them. To substantiate the claim, the Indian media brought in an expert for his opinion. The following conversation took place between anchor Rahul Kanwal and Abhijeet,  the expert:-

Rahul: Shown here (on the screen, sic) is the same part coming absolutely out of an F-16. Your comments!

Abhijeet: That part is a MiG-21 part because the engine being shown is (F110) GE-100. PDF F16 is fitted with Pratt&Whitney (F100- PW-220/220E afterburning turbofan, sic) which has a diamond pattern. It could neither be the engine cowling there nor the ribs that hold the engine.

 At that time, I wrote:

Lockheed Martin is not going to take the IAF claim lying down. In due course of time, Lockheed Martin will carry out its investigation and come out with the facts. Till then, keep your fingers crossed, IAF!

Lockheed Martin did reply eventually

Given below is the transcript of Indian analyst Shekhar Gupta’s video talk. The talk was aired on his channel “Cut the Clutter” and can be viewed on YouTube:

We discover that the story we thought now had ended and was behind us had once again appeared on our headlines, and that is the story about Balakot and what happened the day after in the Rajouri, Mendhar, Nowshera area – the air skirmish which now is beginning to look more and more like a melee with lots of aircraft.

This has happened because a fairly well-known, reputed Pentagon journalist –Lara Seligman, has written a source-based article for Foreign Policy magazine. She is a reputed journalist who covers Pentagon for a long time and has good contacts.

Foreign Policy is a reputed magazine which is edited by an Indian now – Abhi Agarwal. She said her sources have told her that Pakistanis invited American diplomats to inspect all their F-16s and the Americans have counted and confirmed that all Pakistani F-16s are on the ground. On the ground means they have counted them and found that not one of them has been lost in the battle or a crash recently.

What they mean is that if the story is correct then the IAF claim that Wing Commander Abhinandan shot down one F-16 in the skirmish on the morning of February 27 cannot be right. This article is based on sources, but she has not quoted those officials. At the same time, hers is a weighty byline. Also, it has appeared in a credible publication. You cannot dismiss it out of hand.

But other questions arise. Questions like – Did the Americans also count all the Jordanian F-16s that the Pakistanis bought? They could have because that sale was approved by the Americans. But we do not know for sure if the Americans have oversight on those (F-16s) also.

Second, if this is the case, why aren’t the Americans also saying it? This is leading to many conspiracy theories, one (of them is) that Americans can’t accept that an F-16 was shot down by a MiG-21Bis, particularly when F-16 or a new version of F-16(F-21) is likely to be a bidder in the next MMRCA contract for 114 fighter aircraft for IAF.

These theories are farfetched because, in a melee, anybody can shoot down anybody. This is not a classical, perfect case dog-fighting situation in which lots of aircraft are in the air and whosoever gets the chance exploits it. Obviously, in the case of PAF pilots also, whoever shot down Abhinandan’s plane, was an opportunity that presented itself, and (the Pakistani pilot) was successful. I do not think that it is such an ego issue with the manufacturers of F-16 or the Pentagon.

Do Indians have a psychological problem with the F-16?

F-16 was inducted into PAF in 1983, during the Afghan War. At that time the government of Indira Gandhi had strongly opposed Ronald Reagan’s decision to “Arm Pakistan with sophisticated weapon systems which would threaten peace in the Subcontinent”. Having failed to stop the U.S. from arming PAF with F-16s, India had even tried to get the same aircraft for IAF.  The discussions failed because the U.S. had offered India F-16s with a less powerful engine than the F100-PW-200 engine fitted in the PAF F-16s (Back then, F-16s were manufactured by  General Dynamics).

India, it should be remembered, was a Soviet ally during the Cold War. Hiding behind the façade of Non-Alignment, India, besides the communist bloc, the Soviet client states and PLO, was the only other country that had supported the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Having failed to buy F-16 aircraft from the U.S., India turned to France and procured Mirage 2000 which was, at the time, not as advanced as F-16. Particularly, it lacked a look-down/shoot-down radar (A radar system has look-down/shoot-down capability if it can detect, track and guide a weapon to an air target moving below the horizon as seen by the radar).

Read more: Pakistani movie on Operation Swift Retort to release soon

Indians have a psychological problem with the F-16. They had felt insulted when the U.S.  refused to supply them with these aircraft during the 1980s. Tariq Aziz, a Pakistani TV anchor, having visited India during this period, had remarked that the Indians deeply resented two things; 1) Pakistani color TV (During the 80s, India’s Door darshan was still black and white); and 2) PAF F-16s.

In June 2017, almost two years before Balakot, U.S. aircraft giant Lockheed Martin and India’s Tata Advanced Systems Limited signed an agreement to make the F-16 Block 70 fighter aircraft in India meet the IAF’s single-engine jet requirements. The statement also said F-16 production in India would support thousands of Lockheed Martin and F-16 supplier jobs in the U.S. create new manufacturing jobs in India and position the Indian industry at the center of the most extensive fighter aircraft supply ecosystem in the world.

In September 2018, Lockheed Martin further announced that F-16 fighter jets will start flying with made-in-India wings in the next three years, provided the components made by its Indian strategic industry partner are certified by a U.S. agency. Tata Advanced Systems  Limited is Lockheed Martin’s strategic industry partner. Lockheed Martin is shutting down its production line in Fort Worth, Texas, and transferring it to India. The major reason to shift the production line to India is: With no more orders for the F-16 from the Pentagon, Lockheed plans to use its Fort Worth plant instead to produce the fifth generation F-35 Joint Strike Fighter that the U.S.AF and its allied air forces are transitioning to.

Earlier, Lockheed Martin had participated in a global tender to offer the F-16 as a replacement for the aging MiG 21, IAF’s workhorse since the 1960s. India had floated the deal to procure 126 multi-role medium combat aircraft for the IAF. It was a competition in which six global defense majors from 5 different countries participated. . Finally on 31 January 2012 it was announced that Dassault Rafale won the competition due to its lower life-cycle cost. It is said that IAF had overwhelmingly preferred Rafale over F-16.

During an official visit to France in April 2015, Modi announced that India would acquire 36 fully built Rafales citing “critical operational necessity”. In July 2015, the Indian defense minister informed the upper house of the Indian parliament that the tender for 126 aircraft had been withdrawn and negotiations for 36 aircraft had begun. The U.S. – India F-16 deal should be seen in this context.

But IAF does not want the F-16. Its eyes are set on the Rafale. Even if it does not get the Rafale in the required numbers, due to its prohibitively high cost, IAF would prefer the Swedish Saab JAS 79 Gripen over the F-16. Could it be that the  IAF claim to have shot down a PAF F-16 with a MiG 21 has a link with the Indian frustrations with the Fighting Falcon?


Saleem Akhtar Malik is a Pakistan Army veteran who writes on national and international affairs, defense, military history, and military technology. He Tweets at @saleemakhtar53. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space.