Indian pilot awarded for a feat against Pakistan that never happened
On Monday, India conferred a gallantry award on a fighter pilot, Abhinandan Varthaman, for shooting down a Pakistani F-16 jet during a 2019 dogfight over the disputed Kashmir territory. The problem is that India has yet to share convincing evidence proving that an enemy aircraft was truly brought down during the skirmish.
Instead, it was actually the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) jet that hit Wing Commander Abhinandan’s MiG-21 Bison on February 27, 2019.
Abhinandan - now famous for his long moustache - was captured on the Pakistani side of Kashmir after he ejected from his damaged, Russian-made aircraft.
He was handed over to India a few days later as part of Islamabad’s bid to ease tensions between the nuclear-armed neighbours. The two rivals have fought multiple wars and engaged in skirmishes on Kashmir's de-facto border, known as the Line of Control.
US officials, independent researchers and Islamabad have all confirmed that none of the 76 US-made F-16s in Pakistan’s inventory were lost in the skirmish. The incident followed an Indian air strike across the border at a place called Balakot, in Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province.
“The citation of the award to the downed Indian pilot is a classic case of Indian fabrications and pure fantasy to appease (its) domestic audience and hide the embarrassment,” Pakistan’s foreign office said in a statement.
Abhinandan, who has since been promoted to Group Captain, was awarded the Vir Chakra — the third highest gallantry commendation in India — by President Ram Nath Kovind. The glamorous ceremony was attended by Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
The event was widely covered by Indian news outlets. None mentioned the fact that international observers do not agree with India’s account of the air engagement.
Pakistani social media users had a field day trolling Abhinandan and his supporters.
What really happened?
Within weeks of the dogfight, US officials were in Pakistan to count the F-16s. America’s strict defence regulations call for periodic checks of its military equipment used by other countries.
At the time, the Foreign Policy magazine disputed India’s claim. It cited US government sources, which confirmed that all F-16s in Pakistan’s possession were accounted for.
Misinformation was peddled widely to substantiate the Indian claim. For instance, soon after the skirmish, pictures were circulated on social media that showed the General Electric-made engine of the downed F-16.
But as this analysis points out, Pakistan has only used Pratt & Whitney engines on its F-16s.
Indian officials have maintained they had credible information to prove that an F-16 was indeed brought down by Abhinandan.
In a press briefing on April 8, 2019, Indian Air Force (IAF) Air Vice Marshal R.G.K. Kapoor claimed that Pakistan F-16s fired multiple American-made AMRAAM missiles.
Experts believe that the information Kapoor released more than a month after the skirmish isn’t enough to back New Delhi’s side of the story.
India was never able to verify the name of the squadron to which the F-16 belonged. Neither could the government identify the Pakistani pilot who, as per India’s claims, had ejected after being hit by Abhinandan.
The dogfight occurred months before national elections in India. Pakistan accuses Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) of whipping up nationalistic fervour to win votes. BJP won the May election in 2019.
What led to the air skimirsh was a February 14, 2019, suicide attack in Indian-administered Kashmir, in a region called Pulwama, in which 40 soldiers were killed.
The attack was allegedly carried out by a local Kashmiri militant but New Delhi pointed fingers at Pakistan, accusing its archrival of orchestrating the deadly attack.
In what it claimed was retaliation, IAF jets dropped bombs in Balakot, Pakistan. Indian officials also said they had targeted and destroyed a militant training camp in which “large number of terrorists” were killed.
But several independent investigations using satellite imagery — including one conducted by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute — showed that those strikes had missed their target.