New Delhi: As the fog of war clears, a number of questions have arisen about what exactly happened on 27 February — the day pilot Abhinandan Varthaman was captured by Pakistan, whose F-16 was shot down, and the Indian Air Force lost a MiG-21 Bison fighter jet and an Mi-17 V5 helicopter. The latter incident resulted in the deaths of six service personnel.
IAF officers, including Air Chief Marshal B.S. Dhanoa, have maintained that the operations are ongoing, and so they would not be able to get into the operational aspects of what happened on that day.
Indian fighters like the Mirage 2000 continue to be deployed at forward bases, and air defence systems are on full operational alert, including the Combat Air Patrol.
Here are all the facts that have come to light in the past week, and the questions that have been raised.
How developments unfolded on 27 February
A day after the IAF carried out strikes on a Jaish-e-Mohammed terror camp in Balakot, Pakistan, the first indication of something being amiss came in the form of videos and pictures from Budgam, Kashmir, claiming that a “fighter jet” had crashed.
While news outlets were focused on the crash, which later turned out to involve an Mi-17 V5 chopper, information trickled in of an air space violation by the Pakistan Air Force, which dropped payloads targeting Indian military installations.
Pakistan media, as well as associated Twitter handles, soon floated footage of a burning helicopter, claiming that it was an IAF aircraft downed near Budgam. It caused confusion as the combat zone is more than 100 km away. In the course of time, it was clarified that it was a helicopter and not any aircraft involved in combat.
Details remain sketchy. The only official word so far is that that the Pakistan Air Force was unsuccessful in its attempt to target military locations, including brigade headquarters, and that it used the American F-16 fighter jets in the attack. No bomb hit the target.
It is also officially recorded by India that Pakistan lost a fighter aircraft in the dogfight. However, multiple questions continue to linger on.
Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan and the official military spokesperson later claimed they never intended to hit anything, just display their capabilities.
How did the Mi-17 V-5 chopper crash?
The helicopter crashed around the time IAF fighters were engaged in a dogfight with Pakistan Air Force planes along the Line of Control in the Nowshera sector, about 100 km away from Budgam. Indian air defence systems were put on operational alert.
The crash site was too far for even the outside possibility of a stray Beyond Visual Range Missile hitting it.
There has been immense speculation from the day of the crash about the circumstances that led to it. The helicopter took off and crashed within the same 10-minute period the air skirmish was on 100 km away, and the region’s airbases and military installations were on high-trigger alert.
With a formal Court of Inquiry ordered into the incident, the investigators will look into the exact circumstances that led to the crash, which sources had initially said was due to possible “technical fault”.
The Economic Times reported Wednesday that “(a) defence source said all possible angles will be probed, including the possibility of the chopper taking ground fire hit, as air defence systems near Srinagar were operational at the time of the crash. IAF has said it was too early to comment on the crash”.
What aircraft was used by Pakistan Air Force?
Pakistan has claimed it used only JF-17 aircraft, which has been clearly established as a lie. Indian authorities have recovered parts of an AMRAAM missile, which can only be fired by F-16s among the aircraft in Pakistan’s inventory.
Parts of the missile fell in an area east of Rajouri in J&K, injuring a civilian on the ground.
Following the skirmish, images on social media also showed the remains of a Denel Raptor 2/H-4 SOW bomb in Bhimber, Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. These are South African Denel smart glide bombs but Pakistan produces them, and they are carried by the Mirage aircraft of the Pakistan Air Force. The photos indicate that these were used too and that the Pakistan Air Force planes most likely dumped their payload while escaping.
How did the air battle unfold?
Around 9.30 am on 27 February, the Indian air defence system, on full alert, noticed a build-up of Pakistan Air Force aircraft across the LoC.
The IAF has issued a statement saying that the Pakistan Air Force package was noticed “in time” and additional aircraft were scrambled “to tackle the adversary”.
“In their attempt to attack our ground targets, PAF aircraft were engaged effectively,” the IAF statement read.
It added that Mirage 2000, Sukhoi Su-30MKI and MiG-21 Bison aircraft were involved in the engagement.
Pakistan Air Force aircraft were forced to withdraw in a hurry, which is also evident from large missed distances of the weapons dropped by them, it said.
Did Pakistani planes cross over to the Indian side?
According to an agreement between India and Pakistan, any movement of fighter aircraft within 10 kilometres of the LoC would be considered an air space violation.
However, it is not clear if the Pakistan Air Force aircraft did indeed cross the LoC. Sources have said three planes did cross over, came about 5-7 km further, and were forced to fly back after being challenged.
However, the official statement from the IAF only talks about the build-up in “their airspace” and is silent on whether the aircraft actually crossed over or not.
The IAF statement also said that, during combat, the use of F-16s by the Pakistan Air Force and multiple launches of AMRAAM (AIM-120 advanced medium-range air-to-air missile), which it said targeted the Su-30s, were conclusively observed.
The missiles fired by the F-16s have a maximum range of about 70 km, which means they can be fired at Indian aircraft from Pakistani air space itself.
News agency ANI reported Wednesday that F-16s fired four to five American AMRAAMs from a distance of 40-50 km at the Indian aircraft, including the Su-30 and the MiG-21 Bison.
Did the Su-30s fire back?
The Su-30 MKIs are India’s frontline fighter aircraft. Even though Pakistan’s F-16s fired air-to-air missiles targeting them, it is not clear if they fired back.
The IAF statement notes that “prompt and correct tactical action by Su-30 aircraft, in response to AMRAAM launch, defeated the missile”.
It is not clear whether they did fire back, with sources indicating that they were not given the permission to engage since the F-16s, at that point of time, were still quite deep inside Pakistani air space.