The Indian Air Force on Friday said it had proof that a Pakistani F-16 fighter jet was shot down in the February dogfight, as American news publication Foreign Policy contradicted India quoting unnamed US defence officials. "Two senior US defense officials with direct knowledge of the situation told Foreign Policy that U.S. personnel recently counted Islamabad's F-16s and found none missing," the publication says in a report published on Thursday.
In a statement, the Air Force said: "The Indian Forces have confirmed sighting ejections at two different places on that day. The two sightings were at places separated by at least 8-10 km. One was an IAF MiG 21 Bison and other a PAF aircraft. Electronic signatures gathered by us indicate that the PAF aircraft was a F-16."
The government had said that in an aerial duel on February 27 - a day after India sent fighter jets to Pakistan's Balakot to strike a terror training camp - Indian Air Force pilot Abhinandan Varthaman had engaged with one of the Pakistani fighter jets that tried to target Indian military facilities and shot it down before he was hit and forced to eject. Abhinandan Varthaman landed across the Line of Control and was in Pakistani custody for three days before he was returned to India amid attempts to de-escalate the crisis between the two sides.
The Air Force said radio intercepts proved that two pilots had ejected, not just one.
Journalists were shown the radar tracks of the air battle that took place across the LoC near Jhangar, which lies between Rajouri and Nowshera.
The radar tracks recorded by airborne warning and control aircraft show the presence of an F-16 aircraft in the vicinity of Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman's MiG-21 Bison. In the very next frame of the AWACS picture, eight seconds later, the symbol for the PAF F-16 aircraft is missing indicating what IAF sources say is a shootdown of the jet. IAF controllers monitoring the air battle on the AWACS aircraft were also monitoring the radio communication between pilots in the Pakistan F-16 formation. They say communication from one F-16 aircraft abruptly ended which they believe is further confirmation that one Pakistan Air Force jet did not return. However, journalists were not showcased a recording of the audio communication that was taking place on security grounds.
According to the Foreign Policy magazine, Pakistan invited the United States to physically count its F-16 planes after the incident as part of an end-user agreement signed when the foreign military sale was finalized.
"A US count of Pakistan's F-16 fleet has found that all the jets are present and accounted for, a direct contradiction to India's claim that it shot down one of the fighter jets during a February clash," Lara Seligman of the magazine reported.
The count has been completed, and "all aircraft were present and accounted for", an unnamed official is quoted as saying.
"It is possible that in the heat of combat, Varthaman, flying a vintage MiG-21 Bison, got a lock on the Pakistani F-16, fired, and genuinely believed he scored a hit. But the count, conducted by U.S. authorities on the ground in Pakistan, sheds doubt on New Delhi's version of events, suggesting that Indian authorities may have misled the international community about what happened that day," says Foreign Policy.
The report comes days before voting starts for the April-May national election. Prime Minister Narendra Modi and other top BJP leaders have been accused by the opposition of using the Balakot air strike, which was in response to the February 14 Pulwama terror attack, in their campaign speeches.
In an interview to India Today, the Defence Minister, Nirmala Sitharaman had said: ''We are definitely saying that an F-16 was knocked out by us and initially, the Pakistan Prime Minister claimed that two pilots were with them. One of the pilots was ours and returned as per the norms. Who is the other pilot?''