Visual. And locked. That was the final radio call from IAF pilot Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman’s MiG-21 Bison before he pushed a button on his stick, letting loose the only weapon fired by the eight Indian jets in the air at the time. The weapon he fired, a Vympel R-73, was seen hitting the jet he was pursuing across the Line of Control. His own radar warning receiver was blaring by this time, and while he said to have attempted countermeasures to ‘go cold’, his aircraft was struck by what is believed to be an AIM-20 AMRAAM missile, bringing him and his jet down across the Line of Control in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir.
The word ‘visual’ is, interestingly, US Air Force pilot-speak for ‘friendly aircraft in sight’, as opposed to ‘tally’, which denotes an enemy aircraft in visual range.
Livefist has had a chance to review select debrief data and speak with IAF officers familiar with the unprecedented aerial face-off on the morning of February 27.
On the morning of February 27 — a day after Indian air strikes in Balakot, Pakistan — the Indian Air Force had two standing combat air patrols in the Jammu & Kashmir area — a pair of upgraded Mirage 2000s and two Su-30 MKIs, along with a Netra airborne early warning and control jet and a Phalcon AWACS keeping watch. The initial ‘pick-up’ of the approaching Pakistan Air Force fighter package was by ground radars. The inbound force was a large one, comprising at least 24 PAF jets in separate loose formations. Among the jets were at least three Dassault Mirage III aircraft armed with strike weapons. When the formation crossed from Pakistan in airspace over PoK, the Indian Air Force scrambled six MiG-21 Bison interceptors — three from Srinagar and three from Avantipora.
The Pakistani jets were inbound from a west-south westerly direction. A very loose mixed formation of Mirage IIIs deployed H-4 stand-off precision guided glide bombs with penetrator warheads at Indian military installations in the Rajouri sector with some of them hitting military land, but not causing any damage to structures or establishment buildings. Livefist has had a chance to review photographs of the weapon remnants recovered on the Indian side, including the starboard fin section of an H-4 bomb bearing the serial number ‘P695’. The photographs, apparently refuting Pakistani claims that their strikes were deliberately mis-aimed only to send India a counter-message after the Balakot strikes, are part of an Indian Air Force dossier of the day’s proceedings that will be submitted to the government this week. The IAF’s official conclusion in this dossier is that the H-4 bombs were deployed specifically to cause damage.
As the stand-off strikes took place, an air-to-air battle commenced with the two Indian Su-30s reporting (in their debrief) repeated radar locks from what they say were Pakistani F-16s beyond visual range, and manoeuvering in the air to turn ‘cold’ on the weapon locks. IAF sources indicated to Livefist that the said F-16s were looking specifically to shoot down a Su-30 — something that would have been a major loss for the IAF. The Su-30s (and later, three of the MiG-21s) are said to have flown patterns to remain ‘kinematically safe’ against the repeated AMRAAM locks even as the distance between the Indian and Pakistani jets loosely closed over the Line of Control. The hot-cold radar lock sequence continued for several minutes, with the said PAF F-16s repeatedly attempting to sustain locks on the Su-30 MKIs long enough for meaningful shots. Sources say the three AMRAAMs were launched in DMAX-1, the dynamic attack zone where the missile is unleashed at the limits of its range. On all three occasions, the Su-30s used countermeasures to dodge the incoming weapons.
While the other jets, including the Mirage 2000s also recorded locks on them from the said F-16s, Wing Commander Abhinandan’s MiG-21 out front was also ‘hot’ on an AMRAAM. However, he was now fully within visual range of an F-16 that was turning away to speed back towards Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. Livefist has been given to understand that Wing Commander responded to two warnings from radar controllers to turn back (since he was minutes from crossing into hostile airspace) with radar calls saying he had an aircraft in visual range and was attempting a manual close combat lock. Moments later, with his lock confirmed, he gave a final call saying he had the lock tone, before launching a single Vympel R-73 heat seeking missile. The pilot would later record in a debriefing that he saw his missile hit the retreating F-16 in the port rear section and that it was brought down. Moments later Wing Commander Abhinandan initiated evasive maneouvers to defeat the incoming AMRAAM. It remains unclear though if the missile struck his MiG-21, or if his jet was hit by air defence gunfire from the ground, forcing the pilot to punch out.
The R-73 fired by Wing Commander Abhinandan was the only Indian weapon launched during the aerial engagement, leading the Indian Air Force to officially attribute the F-16 kill to him. None of the other jets launched weapons — IAF sources suggest this was owing to a lack of target solutions at beyond visual range, though this will be the subject of investigation. It is also likely that rules of engagement had been modified, though the IAF has refused to confirm or deny. Several such questions remain unanswered at this time, including just why even a large package of fighters were able to test the ‘air superiority’ capabilities of the Su-30 MKI, the flagship of the Indian Air Force.
Had Abhinandan’s MiG-21 not managed to bring down a PAF jet, the proceedings above Sunderbani sector on February 27 would likely attract far more sweeping scrutiny. Experts believe it still should.