The missing F 16

Harsha Kakar
Over the last few weeks India and Pak have been sparring over the downing of the F 16 aircraft in the dogfight post the Balakote strike. While India has given multiple proof on its actions and even credited Wing Commander Abhinandan for the same, Pak has been at pains aiming to deflect the downing. The icing on the cake was the claim by a US journalist who wrote in an article that the US had counted the F 16s and found them all intact. She claimed that the counting took weeks as the aircraft had not returned to their bases.
It is surprising that for a country like the US, with satellites of less than a meter resolution, monitoring all activities of the region, the ready availability of drones flying at great heights with the ability to assess pinpoint accuracy, it still takes weeks before it completes the count of aircraft held by a country. This could have been done in a day, if the US was serious about its intentions. Hence, the claim is either fake or planted.
After all, aircraft are not small toys which could be hidden in a locker and kept out of sight from prying eyes, unless the US was checking the undercarriages of each aircraft. Further, F 16s in the Pak inventory have come from the US and Jordan. The role of the US in ensuring the use of the aircraft even with second sale remains unclear.
The fact that Pak had employed F 16s in a counter to India is well established. The missile fired could only be employed by an F 16, not any other aircraft. Thus, its claim of having employed the Chinese built J series of aircraft is fake. So also, is its initial claim of having downed two aircraft and arrested two pilots, one of whom was claimed to be in a hospital. With India having lost one aircraft, the mystery of which was the second continues to be hidden by Pak. All these statements have subsequently been ignored by Pak.
India as an open democracy can never hide its casualties. For the Indian press to catch the government and the military on the wrong foot boosts its TRPs and hence would never let such an opportunity go unpublished. Pak on the other hand has been known to hide realities of its true casualties. It knows that it lacks military power, while still controls the country and its press, hence would only have its public know what it desires.
For Pak, accepting the loss of an F 16 would have multiple impacts within. Firstly, it would break the invincibility of the superior aircraft. Secondly, Pak would lose the upper hand which it continues to project in any attack by India. Finally, for its manufacturers, it is a setback on the ability of the aircraft. What has been missed is that such incidents always happen. It is the man behind the gun and not the gun which alone produces results.
An error by any pilot at a crucial juncture can lead to a loss of aircraft and should be accepted as normal. However, ignoring granting credit to the brave pilot who died, is demoralizing for the entire Pak air force, which is aware of the truth, which of course hardly concerns the deep state, desperate to retain its image.
The visit by a selection of international journalists, mostly based in India to Balakote, a month after the strike to debunk Indian claims was another joke. The Madrassa was shown as functional and none of the journalists could ask any embarrassing questions. If the craters remained and the buildings were intact, then why did it wait a month? There was no logical answer given by the Pak DG ISPR for this.
However, for India to strike deep within Pak was a message by itself. Imran Khan also attempted to justify the same to foreign journalists when he stated that Pak opted for a measured response and bombed an empty area just across the Indian border. ‘They hit our trees, so we thought we’d hit their stones,’ he said.The reality was otherwise. They had attempted to hit a military installation but retreated on the sight of Indian aircraft.
Within India, there was truly no need for the air force to go to great depths to prove its success, either in striking Balakote or in downing the F 16. For the doubting Thomas’s within the country, no matter how much proof you provide, they will always question its success. Some Thomas’s exist for political reasons, while for others, it is their nature. With elections close, the number of doubting Thomas’s would be larger.
For most others, who respect their armed forces and are aware of its dedication and service to the country, no proof is required. They believe the armed forces on its word and need no proof. Repeated harping degrades the word of the air force. It has done its job, let the other side struggle to prove them wrong.
The world is aware of the truth. The message to Pak has been sent. Pak which had till recently been threatening India in every forum against attempting any action has suddenly changed tone. Every politician, from Imran downwards, has been advocating talks and conflict resolution. They are also claiming that they are not in an arms race with India. This is suddenly a scared Pak, aware of the Indian might.
The reaction by the UN security council to bypass the UN 1267 sanctions committee and directly process for listing Azar Masood as a global terrorist, despite objections by China, is evidence that they are aware that India is willing to up the ante in case of any terrorist strike. Hence, are acting to pacify India. China remains the only stumbling block only because of its own strategic interests and desire to continue promoting Indo-Pak enmity. India has hit Pak where it hurts, and the world is aware. The Indian air force has done its job and should not seek to justify.
(The author is Major General (Retd)