Abhinandan’s last radio message said he had locked on to Pak F-16


NEW DELHI: “R-73 selected,” was the last radio transmission of Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman from his MiG-21 “Bison” fighter jet. He then let loose the Vympel R-73 air-to-air missile at the Pakistani F-16 fighter in his cross-hairs before he himself was shot down.

The high-altitude dogfight between supersonic Indian and Pakistani fighters, after the latter breached Indian airspace west of Rajouri in Sunderbani area just after 10 am on February 27, transfixed the nation after Varthaman ended up in Pakistan’s custody after parachuting down in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir.

A day after the IAF air strikes at the Balakot terror facility in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa region, Pakistan sought to retaliate by deploying F-16s, JF-17s and Mirage-5 attack jets in “a large strike package” to target Indian military installations across the LoC, ranging from the brigade headquarters at Bhimber Gali to an ammunition dump at Narian.

Varthaman was among the six MiG-21 pilots who scrambled from Srinagar, apart from Sukhoi-30MKIs, Mirage-2000s and MiG-29s being deployed from other airbases, to intercept the Pakistani fighters. “We knew they would react after our Balakot strikes, but did not expect them to retaliate so soon,” said an officer.

The rival fighters were soon chasing each other in the ensuing dogfight, with the entire air battle lasting for around 15 minutes from beginning to finish. Varthaman in his MiG-21, which has a design vintage of the 1960s, managed to “lock on” to a much more modern Pakistani F-16. At such close-quarters, the short-ranger R-73 missile is preferred over the longer range RVV-AE medium-range air-to-air missiles also carried by MiG-21s.

“The R-73 is better in such a melee. This is probably the first time a Russian-origin MiG-21 has shot down an American F-16 anywhere in the world,” said another officer. Pakistan, of course, went blue in the face to deny it had deployed F-16s in the air intrusion, leave alone having lost one of the planes.

But IAF radars picked up “electronic signatures” of the F-16s. To clinch the case, Indian forces later recovered parts of an AIM-120C advanced medium-range air-to-air missile (AMRAAM), which is only carried by F-16s in Pakistan’s combat fleet, from east of Rajouri in J&K.

“IAF fighters managed to thwart the attempt by Pakistani fighters to target Indian military installations through laser-guided bombs. The bombs fell in compounds of Indian Army formations, without causing any significant damage, due to IAF’s swift response,” said another officer.


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