‘Visual. And Locked’: Abhinandan’s Last Radio Call Before He Fired F-16 ‘Kill Shot’

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.

22 thoughts on “‘Visual. And Locked’: Abhinandan’s Last Radio Call Before He Fired F-16 ‘Kill Shot’”

  1. Rajinder Verma

    In the existing Air to Air missile regime, I seriously doubt whether a Aircraft can escape once locked +be. It can be quite difficult to predict the outcome …..

  2. So the Sukhoi(s) with better and bigger radar, supported by Netra AEWACS and Phalcon AWACS had to flow patterns repeatedly to remain Kinematically safe from sustained F-16 lock ons, whereas they failed to secure any target solution. Is this a tacit acceptance of the fact that Pak Air Force has better BVR capabilities with better Radars and early warning system? I mean one could understand if the Sukhois didn’t fire a single missile (stringent ROE), but to admit that it was our premier jets which had to keep avoiding been locked on while failing to achieve sustained lock ons on enemy F-16s the whole time is disappointing.
    Secondly, you have mentioned that that the Mirage IIIs fired H-4 SOWs. Wikipedia (which I understand might not be a reliable source) mentions that they are precision guided stand-off glide bombs with max operational range of 120kms. Which means two things. 1. Pakistan could have fired it comfortably from within their airspace (as the targets were very close to the LOC). 2. high chance of hitting the target (although it’s accuracy is not known). So my questions are: 1. if their targets were mere 3 to 5 kms inside our territory why breach the LOC? Was it to send a message? How could precision guided bombs miss all their targets (a question very similar to what they have raised about our air strike, and especially poignant in light of the statement that they deployed those bombs specifically to cause damage, which means the bombs have not been jettisoned)?
    Thirdly, both the IAF and PAF have confirmed about the deployment of JF-17s (Pak has denied the usage of F-16). What role did they play in this aerial battle?
    Lastly, I have to admit that I am one of those innumerable keyboard think tanks with very limited knowledge and understanding, but nonetheless very inquisitive and exited about these matters. So please pardon me if my understanding of the issue and the questions I have raised come off as naive.

    1. Ms.Gupta,
      It is extremely simple for us civilians to ask these questions based on Data available on the internet, however, many of these details are classified and we can only speculate as to what the facts could be. The F16s were firing the AMRAAMs at maximum range. When this happens the Sukhois have no option but to turn and run so as to increase the distance between them. The AMRAAM in a tail chase has an effective range of just 20Km . Same goes for the R77 BVR missiles carried by the Su30. The Mirages which were armed by the MICA missile (An improved European version of the AMRAAM possibly) were able to get a lock on the Mirage 3s and JF17s across the border by which they turned back. The F16s had a height advantage. You cannot fire a BVR missile against an F16 at 20000 ft from a Sukhoi at 10000 ft. The missile would lose energy halfway. The idea is to lessen the distance until you reach within visual range. Or get lucky and score a BVR hit. Once in visual range no aircraft in the PAF inventory can outfly or out turn an SU30. The Mig21 was probably ignored as they were too busy trying to get a Sukhoi. Plus with all the tactics and the pilot skill, the 21s were able to get up close and personal and fire an all aspect SRM against the F16. Again all this is probability …..No one would know until these are declassified.

  3. “It is also likely that rules of engagement had been modified, though the IAF has refused to confirm or deny.”
    what does this mean?
    The article is great though a bit technical for civilians!

  4. there are contradictory reports so far on F-16 being shot down…assuming PAF will never come out clean on this..will we ever be able to know the exact truth…International Media is ridiculing IAF..

  5. Muhammad shahrukh

    Whatever the Indian let buy the 100 rafeel jet but they can’t do anything of Pakistan India don’t know about our strength of Pakistan what we are we are waiting for this day I means say war war war Pakistan zindabad

  6. Rajinder Verma

    Is the author suggesting that a fair mix of 2*SU30MKIs, 4*Mirage 2000 and 6*MiG Bison could have staved off a determined packet of 24*F16, JF17s etc…… The IAF is good but to suggest that they are not vulnerable is over stating it. The IAF case for a major upgrade to Tejas MK 2 and quicker induction of AWACs just got more reasonable. India no doubt is loosing the combat edge and it is directly proportional to the level of Pakistan festered terrorism in J&K. The Pakistanis are snug under the impression that the Indian Armed Forces are simply not overwhelming enough to deter their determined push in to Kashmir. The Government must remedy this adverse situation soonest !!!

  7. As a defense enthusiast – reading this sequence of events makes me question the IAF’s response to the PAF . The fact that despite the IAF possessing a significant arsenal of BVR weapons and aircraft with radars with range to penetrate deep into enemy airspace there was broad passivity in their reaction is disturbing. The IAF Air Marshall flippantly informed us that Mig 21’s are there to be “used”. I wonder why then his force is conserving BVR missiles ?

    ANY AMRAAM fired into Indian airspace should have immediately been retaliated with a barrage of BVR missiles into POK airspace essentially making it unsafe for PAF to operate in. Yet we see that the PAF has been using POK Airspace to launch stand-off munitions into J&K giving the tactical advantage to the PAF to encroach and contest Indian Air dominance in J&K.

    The sukhois have ALL the weaponry and technology required to neutralize the F16 and its AMRAAMS while delivering a far more lethal response. We KNOW that IAF pilots are trained to exacting standards. The ONLY question to ask then is WHY did the IAF not respond in kind ?

    It is clear beyond doubt that the IAF brass owes the nation an explanation for its insufficient response to being targeted and attacked INSIDE Indian Air Space by an inferior air force. 25 aircraft is less than 2 squadrons and the IAF has enough air assets for both numerical and technological air superiority over the PAF. Yet the engagement’s details reveal a unsatisfactory sequence of events.

  8. My thoughts on what might have happened going by what you posted here

    Why Abhinandan used the R-73 if at all he did it?
    1. He was within Visual Range.
    2. An IR missile WVR has the best kill probability
    3. He fired when he was very close and the F-16 was in the no escape zone of the missile
    4. While trying evasive manoeuvre immediately after his aircraft was hit by debris from the F-16
    5. He was working in an environment which was filled with ECM/ECCM.
    6. No way he could have been hit by an AMRAAM as he was very close to the F-16.
    7.Even if the PAF says no missiles were fired by Abhi , chances are one of their AMRAAM shot down their own F-16 when Abhi manoeuvred close to the F-16 and the AMRAAM got a lock on the F-16.
    Regarding the Su-30 mki not being shot down
    ——————————————————————————-
    The Su-30 MKI may have been using DRFM jammers to jam the F-16 radar

    The fact that the PAF F-16 were launching AMRAAM from max range decreases the chance of a kill at the end game of the missile where the rocket motor will be out of fuel and they will be flying blind till their own active radar gets turned on.
    That could explain the Mi-17 going down as it cannot outmanoeuvre the AMRAAM and fly out of the missile kill envelope while the Su-30 can.
    —————————————————————————————————-

  9. The likely reason why Su 30 did not fire is because PAF had the advantage of “Announcing hostilities” and being the first to take shots. Once you have been fired upon you would be engaged in taking evasive measures until the threat has subsided and cannot maintain a lock on the enemy to guide your own BVR missiles. Remember the enemy missile will reach you first.
    Also as pre IAF ” Jammer can work only when the radar does not operate.”
    Source- http://164.100.47.193/lsscommittee/Public%20Accounts/16_Public_Accounts_114.pdf

    1. Hi Harpreet,

      the fact is the Su-30 were operating in conjunction with the Nethra and Phalcon AWACS.That frees them to use the jammers on the PAK f-16 . since they are being attacked it is reasonable to expect them to return fire with IR and Radar guided missiles which can get their guidance from the awacs.

  10. “None of the other (Indian) jets launched weapons — IAF sources suggest this was owing to a lack of target solutions at beyond visual range…” Surely it is a cause of worry that the Su30s could not lock on to the F16s and other PAF aircraft, whereas the latter did achieve locks on to the Su30s, albeit for brief periods not sufficient to launch weapons?

  11. And … why only 2 CAPS of 4 a/c total over Kashmir, and just 6 MiG21s scrambled to intercept 24-strong PAF force approaching? Sounds very uneven odds, especially given the numerical superiority of the IAF over PAF?

  12. But f16 locked su30 4-5 times, that means hostility started, then why su30 cant fire missile at f16..anyway they crossed loc sonobody can blame India.. I think IAF missed opportunity or more alarmingly their radars could not lock f16..which is serious weakness….

  13. Shrirang thakur

    It’s baffling to understand, IAF jets were constantly getting locked by PAF fighters. How couldn’t powerful Radars of Sukhoi or Mirage lock of PAKI fighters. BARS & RDY are known to be quite powerful Radars than PAKI jets radar

  14. Most likely Su 30 did not engage as its BVR capability may not be as good as F 16s given the latter had access to tried and tested AIM 120C BVR missiles.

    1. None of the Indian jets actually engaged as even Abhinandans plane has all of its missiles attached on it it has been on display by the army and international sources confirmed all the missiles were still attached, also a US count of Pakistani f16s showed Pakistan didn’t lose any. But other than that all of the Jets missiles were still relatively intact when they were found by the people

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  16. Hmm…looks like the F16s had locked on IAF…so their BVR radars were more better. That needs to change for the better in Indias favor. We need to be able to have longer BVR radar locks and missiles than the Pakis.

  17. With all due respect to IAF it has been exposed badly by this encounter. They could not fire a single BVR missile. All kinds of excuses are given bottom line is they could not protect countries borders in blatant day attack. What happened great radar capabilities of SU 30 MKI? Clearly lack of leadership and foresight at IAF, defence ministry has caused this situation.

    Clearly we don’t have any offensive capabilities vs Pakistan if SU 30 MKI is useless against F16.

  18. Yeah except all of Abhinandans missiles were still attached to his jet when it was found and it was even displayed and confirmed by international sources and US counts confirmed Pakistan still has all of its f16s

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