I have never seen such a large and diverse mess of misinformation spouted and parroted with wild abandon about a military skirmish than what has come out of the short spate of Pakistani-Indian air battles that occurred in late February. But one aspect of those operations, in particular, has been so ridiculously mischaracterized by the media, so-called analysts, and the public in general, that the majority of narratives surrounding it have to be called out for what they are—total bullshit.
During a Pakistani Air Force counterstrike operation on February 27th, one that came in response to India’s air raid into their territory on February 26th, an Indian MiG-21 Bison was shot down and its pilot, Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman, captured. He was returned to India in remarkably good shape not long after. Claims that India shot down a Pakistani F-16 during that same incident quickly followed.
What has come as a result of all this has been a full-on information assault of laughably childish narratives that lack any understanding of modern air combat and appear to be largely driven by blind nationalism, political spin, or straight-up stupidity, not reality or fact.
India now officially claims that they shot down a Pakistani F-16 and that Wing Commander Varthaman was the one who did it just before he himself got shot down. I have to make clear that we have zero evidence that a Pakistani F-16 was lost in combat. None. That does not mean it didn’t happen, it just means that at this time we have no reason to believe it beyond taking India’s word for it.
The videos and images being passed around online that supposedly support the downed F-16 claim are pure misinformation made up of repackaged old media from past incidents or blatant mistruths peddled by “open source intelligence” social media congregators and nationalist pundit accounts supporting the Indian side of the long and sad standoff between the two nuclear-armed neighbors.
Maybe the most notorious piece of media being used to push the F-16 shoot down narrative is a set of pictures of aircraft wreckage showing what some claim is the outer casing of a GE-F110 turbofan engine. There are many issues with the photos to begin with—Bellingcat even did a big and totally unnecessary write up on it—but one needs to look no further than the simple fact that Pakistan has never operated a single F-16A/B/C/D with a General Electric engine. All of the country’s F-16s have run F100 series Pratt & Whitney engines since Pakistan first acquired the type decades ago.
So, case closed when it comes to one of the most prolific examples of the garbage mound of ‘evidence’ swirling around the incident. Once again, throngs of people, including major news outlets from around the globe, arguing about a subject they know nothing about.
But the question of if a seemingly archaic MiG-21 shot down a Pakistani F-16 really isn’t the issue here. The problem is that so many have said that such a loss would have been near impossible or a sign of some sort of super embarrassing blunder by an incompetent Pakistani Air Force, or even that the F-16’s value and capabilities as a modern combat aircraft should be discounted due to the purported loss. This is all absolute and total swill.
Modern air combat is not a Hollywood blockbuster movie or an arcade game folks! There are so many factors that go into every single air-to-air engagement—even those that occur in a relatively sterile vacuum for training—that acting as if the loss of a more modern and capable airframe to an older and less capable one is some sort of unheard of and damning evidence as to the latter’s relevance and effectiveness on the modern battlefield is absolutely inaccurate.
First off, the MiG-21 Bison that India flies, with well over 100 operational in its inventory, is not the ‘Fishbed’ of the Cold War era. The aircraft was updated with 4th generation fighter avionics and sensors in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
This upgrade included a glass cockpit, radar warning receiver, and a helmet mounted cueing system for firing the high off-boresight R-73 short-range air-to-air missile. Although it isn’t disclosed, it seems to include a data-link terminal, as well.
A Phazatron Kopyo (“Spear”) lightweight multi-mode radar was installed in the jet’s nosecone that also allowed it to employ the R-77 beyond-visual-range air-to-air missile. That upgraded radar may also have received certain tweaks that have improved its performance or it may have been replaced with an even more capable foreign radar set altogether. Other additions included a bubble canopy with far superior visibility compared to the MiG-21’s original smaller and more densely framed one. Expansive countermeasures dispensers were installed as well.
With the ability to carry smarter weapons, the Bison also received a very important piece of equipment from Israel, the bolt-on Elta-8222 self-protection electronic warfare pod. This was cutting edge tech in the early 2000s, but even today it is still amazingly formidable and is capable of wreaking absolute havoc on enemy radar systems—especially mechanically-scanned array fire control radars found on most 4th generation fighters.
All this adds up to a potent little package for not a lot of money and the MiG-21 already sports certain advantages like small radar and visual signatures from certain aspects, as well as the ability to make hard instantaneous turns and fast supersonic dashes. But when you pair the Bison package with creative tactics and networking, as well as a host of other aircraft and an experienced pilot, it becomes far more lethal than the sum of its parts.
You don’t have to take Tyler Rogoway’s word for this. The USAF found this out the hard way during one of the most beneficial learning moments in modern air combat training history. Cope India 2004 saw American F-15Cs paired off against the pointy-end of India’s wildly diverse Air Force. Although India’s Su-30Ks were close to the best thing Russia had to export at the time, and their French-built Mirage 2000s were certainly not to be discounted, the most surprising star of the exercise was the insidious little Bison.
During the air combat training drills, Indian Air Force Su-30Ks would use their powerful radars to build-up situational awareness and then data-link their ‘picture’ to other aircraft in the airborne force, which seemed to include the upgraded MiG-21s. Either way, the Su-30 pilots could also use radio communications to inform the Bisons of threats and tactical opportunities. The Bison pilots, running with their radars off and emitting few to no electronic emissions that could alert the F-15 crews as to their whereabouts, would use this situational information to their advantage.
With their Elta-8222 jamming pods fired up and wreaking havoc on the F-15C’s legendarily powerful AN/APG-63 radar, combined with their already small radar and visual signature, the Bisons would come screaming in out of nowhere to within visual range of the Eagles. They would proceed to shoot the F-15s in the face with their infrared-guided R-73 missiles before blasting by. And even if the Eagles noticed the Bisons at the last moment, the Bison pilots could negate the raw performance of the hulking F-15s by employing the ‘fire and forget’ R-73 nearly 90 degrees of the centerline of their noses using their helmet-mounted targeting system.
To put it metaphorically, the Bison wasn’t a cavalry soldier or a scout, it was a ninja.
Overall, during that historic 2004 Cope India exercise, F-15 pilots found themselves having to react to rapidly changing tactics as the Indian airborne force constantly morphed their playbook in reaction to the Eagles’ moves and entering into visual fights just after picking up the Indian fighters that were already right on top of them on radar. By then the Indians were also locked on, as well.
It was a notoriously brutal, but highly beneficial learning experience for the Air Force. And yes, rules of engagement for the exercise were set purposely to fulfill certain training goals and push the Eagle force hard. This included limiting the F-15s from firing their simulated AIM-120 AMRAAMs in active mode radar homing mode and only engaging at 20 miles or less with those missiles in their degraded state.
The Eagles were also outnumbered—at times as much as three to one—but that wasn’t entirely uncommon for the F-15C/D force. The U.S. flying contingent was also made up of fleet pilots from an active squadron flying against a composite force of India’s most advanced aviators. But most of all, the Americans lacked their E-3 Sentry Airborne Warning And Control System (AWACS)—a staple of USAF air combat doctrine that traditionally enhanced the F-15’s situational awareness and survivability dramatically by acting as their high-powered eyes and ears on high.
But still, the message was clear—future enemies may be far more tactically resourceful than previously realized, regardless of the quality of their equipment. The Pentagon had to react fast if it wanted to retain its air combat edge.
Realizing and facing the shortcomings of equipment and tactics through high-quality training and experimentation, and attempting to remediate those shortcomings as much as possible, is the hallmark of a great flying force, not a poor one.
The Joint Helmet Mounted Cueing System (JHMCS), which was already slated for the F-15C/D community, would soon find its way on many other American fighters as well. The push to get Active Electronic Scanned Array (AESA) radars that are far more capable than their mechanically scanned array predecessors—and especially more adept at spotting small radar cross-section targets moving fast in the ground clutter even in dense electronic warfare combat environments— was accelerated for the F-15C/D community.
Other upgrades that are still in the works, including for the F-15 force, were spurred by the Cope India’s after-action findings. For instance, the F-15C/Ds infrared search and track system, which is just in the process of being procured now, would have helped greatly when it came to detecting the Bisons at beyond visual ranges regardless of the electronic warfare systems being employed against the Eagles. You can read all about this and IRSTs in general in this past feature of mine.
And what do you know? American aggressor aircraft were soon spotted packing Elta-8222 electronic warfare pods. In fact, Cope India 2004, and Cope India 2005 that produced similarly dismal results, were key factors in enhancing the way American aggressors did business, as well as some of the kit they had to help them replicate contemporary threats.
In essence, thank goodness for the Bison and the tactics employed by the Indian Air Force during Cope India 2004/2005. It gave those in the USAF that were frustrated with the snail’s pace of key upgrade programs the evidence they needed to get prioritized funding.
As I have described in great detail before, the fact that U.S. fighters received an air-to-air dogfight missile with high-off boresight engagement capabilities—the AIM-9X—and a helmet mounted-sight/display with which to target it—decades after the Russians had fielded a similar capability, is still a bewildering and somewhat frightening fact to comprehend. In fact, the F-22, America’s supreme air-to-air weapon, still doesn’t have a helmet mounted sight/display system.
So yes, the Bison can be a wily and capable threat when paired with other aerial assets, advanced electronic warfare, and a playbook of guileful and downright creative tactics.
This appears to be just how the aircraft was used during the shoot down in late February. According to reports, the Bison was in the air with Mirage 2000, Su-30MKIs, and maybe most important, the Embraer 145 based DRDO Airborne Early Warning and Control System. This aircraft is not only able to get a ‘God’s eye’ view of the battlespace, including spotting low-flying bogeys and detecting and geolocating the enemy’s radar and communications emissions, but it can share what it sees via data-link or voice direction with Indian fighters. In other words, those constantly morphing tactics and the unique employment of the Bison would have been only more potent over a decade and a half after Cope India 2004 via the help of the IAF’s new advanced airborne early warning and control aircraft.
So now that we have painted the big picture regarding the Bison, its capabilities, and how India has employed it in the past, it has to be made clear that we have very few hard facts about the engagement that brought the Bison down and supposedly did the same to the F-16.
What was the quality of both pilots’ situational awareness at the time? What was the electronic warfare environment like? Were communications flowing freely or were they degraded? What was the intelligence picture before the sorties even launched? What was the exact position of the Bison in relation to the fighter that shot it down and what was the experience level of the pilot onboard that aircraft?
Was the Bison flying at low-level, using the mountainous terrain to mask its radar signature? What was the opposing aircraft’s mission? Was it offensive or defense counter-air? Were the Pakistanis baiting the Indians knowing full well how they employ their fighter aircraft? What was the real-time intelligence picture on both sides? Did Pakistan have intelligence aircraft airborne and sharing info with its fighters? Who knew what was where and when? What weapons were available on both aircraft? What was the exact visibility conditions at the altitude in which the engagement occurred? Was everything working on both jets? What type of plane actually shot down the Bison? If it was an F-16, was it one of Pakistan’s plentiful upgraded F-16A/Bs or was it one of the handful of advanced Block 52 F-16C/Ds in their possession? Maybe most importantly, what were the rules of engagement and the general intent of both parties at the time of the engagement?
And the list goes on and on. So, if you are looking for some definitive account of the engagement itself, you won’t find it here as it doesn’t exist at this time. Not even remotely close.
With all this in mind, is it possible that a MiG-21 Bison shot down a Pakistani F-16?
Of course it is.
In fact, India’s claim that the Bison got off an R-73 shot just before being shot down fits exactly with what we know about the Bison’s sneaky tactics dating back to Cope India 2004.
Does this mean the Bison is superior or equal to the F-16? Or does this put into question the F-16’s capabilities? Absolutely not. Networking alone could have been the decisive factor, along with tactics, experience, and electronic warfare, and especially supporting airborne early warning and control aircraft capabilities.
This is not just true for the Bison. The Navy and Marines have 45 aggressor F-5N/Fs that are far less capable than the Bison, yet they fly against fleet pilots daily. We are talking about these old jets standing off against Super Hornets that are packed with AESA radars, Joint Helmet Mounted Cueing Systems, advanced data-links, and sometimes even benefitting from E-2D airborne early warning and control support.
These F-5N/Fs now have internal electronic warfare suites and other aircraft in their formations during large training drills, like contracted aggressors or Topgun/NAWDC F-16s and F/A-18s, pack advanced electronic warfare pods. But they lack a decent radar, helmet mounted sight and a missile to use it with, and don’t have a data-link for coordinated operations without the use of voice communications, among other deficiencies. Yet just like the Bison, these even less capable F-5s still rack up kills on the mighty Super Hornets. It happens far more often than most would believe.
In fact, the Navy just selected a private contractor with F-5s upgraded to a similar, but even more advanced standard than the Bison as their ‘4th generation’ threat replication provider for NAS Fallon Nevada, the home of Topgun. Their competition was offering F-16s. Cost played a major part in the decision, which you can read all about here, but it underscores how sensors, avionics, tactics, and electronic warfare can be more important than the raw performance or age of the platform itself when it comes to modern air combat.
Obviously, this rule diminishes greatly when low-observability (stealth) is factored in for 5th generation fighter aircraft. But even with such advanced fighters, old and relatively low-performance aircraft with updated avionics can still pose a threat, especially when employing similarly surprising tactics as the Indians used and when operating as part of a large integrated air combat team that has strength in numbers.
In the end, the avalanche of recent direct comparisons of the MiG-21 Bison versus F-16 Viper and who would win in some fictional and largely irrelevant one versus one dogfight carry next to no relevance in regards to recent events, and in general, to a large degree. Anyone who pushes that type of childish analysis—usually paired with a sensationalized headline—as some sort of pathway toward a definitive conclusion on these matters should be viewed as an untrustworthy source.
In other words, read for entertainment value only.
The fact is, the side with the more capable sensor and networking architecture and most potent electronic warfare capabilities, as well as a creative tactics playbook and experience to leverage it, can have a far greater advantage regardless of ‘airframe versus airframe’ performance differentials.
Above all else, the loss of one aircraft, on either or both sides, in a highly complex battlespace, in a region boiling over with aggression and likely buried deep in ‘the fog of war,’ is not indicative of the quality of an entire nation’s air arm or its overall capabilities and the relevancy of its equipment in any tangible way. Both sides have very capable aviators and a mix of varyingly potent weapon systems at their disposal, each with their unique advantages and disadvantages.
So, to those who have been pushing totally unsubstantiated ‘takes,’ peddling fake evidence, spinning what little info is available for political or monetary gain, and/or making grand claims and conclusions backed by a weak knowledge base and childish assumptions about what happened in the skies near the Line of Control late last February, take your often nationalistic and deeply skewed narratives and stuff them up your tailpipes.
Contact the author: Tyler@thedrive.com