MiG 21 Bison aircraft | Commons
MiG 21 Bison aircraft | Commons
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To this touchy question — touchy for political and legal reasons — the answer is that it scarcely matters. Either aircraft, the US supplied F-16 or the Chinese origin JF-17, was equally capable of downing the Soviet era Mig-21 Bison piloted by Wing Commander Abhinandan Varathaman. The French supplied Mirage-V, of which Pakistan has plenty, could have done this too. These days the air platform matters relatively little; in the Bison case one set of avionics and air-to-air missiles had clearly worked as intended. Hence Pakistan ended with a 1-0 kill in its favour, albeit one that India denies.

Was pilot skill important? In this electronic age this is secondary but might still have mattered. Having flown more sorties than Indians, Pakistani pilots are better trained. Indeed, there was massive use of fighter aircraft for ground support during the Zarb-i-Azb operation, and earlier against Baloch separatists. These were ideal for pilot training since there was little danger of being shot down.

Yet it is easily possible to make too much of the Bison’s downing. Knowing some key facts about modern air combat can help one arrive at a more balanced view. This makes possible a more clinical management of Indian and Pakistani testosterone levels which, after India’s botched Balakot attack, had shot sky high on both sides. Even reasonable Pakistani columnists — who generally tend to keep an even keel — had briefly tipped over. One likened the post-Balakot aerial skirmish to the Battle of Britain.


Also read: In PAF lies & subterfuge, an F-16 tail number & a PAF pilot  —  both hidden to serve a myth


Reflecting upon modern air combat here has a second purpose: to raise a warning flag. People everywhere tend to live in the past and most appear unaware that modern weaponry has changed the nature of war itself. They still search for heroes when, in fact, the role of valour is well on its way out. Wars of the future, particularly aerial wars, will be entirely hero-less and fundamentally technology driven. 

Nobody could have anticipated this at the beginning of aerial warfare in around 1914. During the early months of the First World War, German and British pilots would simply wave to each other while carrying out reconnaissance missions across enemy lines. Then some started carrying bricks to throw at the plane flying just below. Grenades followed, graduating to pistols and revolvers. By the war’s end fighter planes like the Sopwith Camel and Fokker D-VII were equipped with machine guns and could zip along at nearly 180 kilometres per hour — then a huge speed! 

Over the following decades — and particularly during the Second World War — aircraft manoeuvred to shoot each other out of the sky. Their dogfights created grand spectacles for those on the ground. Fighter aces, defined as those with 5+ kills, became known for their derring-do and were worshipped by publics everywhere. 

As an exuberant 14-year old, I too had plastered my room with pictures of the Red Baron (Manfred von Richtofen), Douglas Bader (of Battle of Britain fame) and, of course, my ace hero M.M. Alam who brought down five Indian Hawker Hunters in just one sortie during the 1965 war. Almost as awesome was ‘8-Pass Charlie’, a Pakistani B-58 pilot so nicknamed by an Indian fighter pilot who described him as “a cool dude and a professional of the highest order”. 8-Pass Charlie routinely made eight passes over Adampur air base in Indian Punjab, each time dropping his bombs after carefully choosing his target. 


Also read: Haven’t counted Pakistan’s F-16s, says Pentagon after US magazine claimed it did


That age of grudging admiration for the enemy’s valour ultimately closed as warfare became increasingly depersonalised. Eye-to-eye air combat is unimaginable today! In today’s jargon, fighter aircraft are designed to primarily engage in BVR (Beyond Visual Range) mode. In fact, all reasonably advanced fighters — US, Russian, Chinese, or French — can detect an enemy using BVR Doppler radar and then deploy air-to-air missiles from as far as 50-100 km. This means having the supporting infrastructure of radars, data-links, self-defence jammers, and helmet-mounted sights.

Once a missile’s radar locks onto its target, the options for that unfortunate pilot are only a few. He could try a fast climb and hope to exhaust the missile’s kinetic energy, or turn tightly and risk high G’s with subsequent blackout. But the more capable a missile, the smaller his chances of survival. 

Fifth generation aircraft — such as the F-35 stealth fighter — have tilted an already tilted playing field much further. In Atlantic war exercises these fighters have been repeatedly tested against the kind of third- and fourth-generation fighters like those currently in the Pakistani and Indian air fleets. While kill ratios are secret, they are sometimes leaked. Assuming the leaks are correct, in some hypothetical war just two squadrons of American F-35s could knock down the combined might of the PAF and IAF fleets fighting together for the loss of just one F-35 — or perhaps none.

That’s here and now, not some hypothetical future! But what lies in decades hence? Most probably things will be unrecognisably different from the present. One can guess that lasers or heavy ion beams will become powerful enough to instantly zap planes out of the sky. Fighter aircraft — if they then still exist — will be flown by robots situationally informed by deep neural nets. The human pilot, who can sustain only so many G’s and whose responses are slow and bumbling, will become redundant.


Also read: This is the MiG-21 Bison, the fighter jet Wg Cdr Abhinandan flew to take on Pakistan’s F-16s


Back in the days of face-to-face fighting, it made sense to talk of courage and gallantry. But technology is rapidly dispensing with the need to walk through the trenches or to smell the blood. Future battles will be fought by button pushers using their silicon chips against the adversary’s silicon chips. There can be no heroes and martyrs — just victims. 

Nevertheless even young people remain locked into old modes of thinking. India’s Balakot adventure, followed by an episode of aerial dogfighting, has led to today’s astonishing situation where, on either side of the border, most people are soundly convinced that their side won and the other was ‘taught a lesson’. Heroic actions on one’s own side are still being sought and extolled. Gullible masses are readily falling for their respective national narrative; surely something has gone dreadfully wrong. Particularly between nuclear rivals, nationalism and war are now lethal anachronisms.

The writer teaches physics in Lahore and Islamabad.

This article was first publishedin Dawn.

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64 COMMENTS

  1. It’s high time to wind up this type of medias who propogate pakistani agendas in India by accepting money from ISI.

  2. So now Shekhar Kapoor will publish Pakistani authors articles, to fulfil his anti Modi agenda ??? How low are you guys going to get ??

  3. Though I appreciate the knowledge of Mr Pervez Hoodboy on the WWII Pilots, MM Alam etc, these were the pilots trained under British and Indian trainers that’s the reason they were good, as of today nobody can touch Indian pilot and there skills, give them a P51D Mustang or a supermarine spitfire and probably they will bring down a jet fighter with there skills. Man to man without missiles only guns IAF Pilots will beat the shit of any one that’s the skill and training they get and I stand by them.

  4. After reading this article, I must congratulate Parvez that he so successfully described the meaning of nonsense by writing such a nonsensical article as above. He does not know an iota of air combat and look he is professing upon the mighty IAF! Anyways, I understand he has to live in Pakistan and earn his daily bread too, which in itself is a herculean task in Pakistan! Poor guy does not have a choice. He has to make do with whatever comes out of his walnut size brain to keep his body and soul together.

    • I love the Indian propoganda where every Pakistani is struggling to eat. You conveniently forget that a third of India’s population lives below the poverty line, huge swathes live in slums and there are no toilets in India. Add to that the fanaticism and illiteracy what with belief in Monkey god and Elephant god how can the world take Indians seriously.

  5. It has been proven two times when IAF beat USAF in cope India exercise where kill ratio was 9:1. India killed 9 of US counterparts. They used MiG-21 bison and Sukhoi air craft. So there is no doubt what Pakistani professor says and in turn print says. IAF pilot are best in world.

  6. As days are going by, it is becoming clearer that indeed a PAF F16 was downed by an Indian Mig 21. The fact that Sq. Ld Avinandan had a lock on one of the f 16 is irrefutable from radio intercept data, falcon AWACs also used used by Isrealis which can easily detect F16 radar signature. Some have been made public by IAF already. Credit goes to our pilot and air traffic controller who guided him to a comfortable position.
    What makes shameful for Pakistan is that it was dual seat F16 both pilots ejected and landed on the Pakistani side, one of them died in hospital after beaten by village who mistakenly took him as an Indian pilot. If it was the indian side, they had been caught and handed over by police.
    The USA is also hand in glove since it is an embarrassment of thier technology. Lockheed Martin builds f16 and they want to sell it to India. So they will not accept it. Pakistan is lying , no doubt about it.
    I also protest against The Print editorial board who spread such false news and endorse negative viewpoints about IAF and India.

  7. Dear writer, before writing something so technical, at least educate yourself to assume technical terms. You wrote on a highly technical matter with laymen’s knowledge

    BVR Doppler radar. Seriously? Are you even aware what BVR or Doppler means? If you are then you would know that All radars are BVR so they are not called BVR(beyond visual range). This term is associated with Air to Air missiles.

    You don’t even know which bombs Indian used. Spice 2000.
    Which bombs paki used? H4
    Which missiles used by F16? AMRAAM.

    And you believe that fairy tale of one Paki pilot downing 5 hunter aircraft in 23 second. Ha ha. Your own forces don’t think so. Just search about the life of that pilot after war. You will know that such gossips are good for public morale but professional forces don’t believe such nonsense.

    Again. Don’t try to wrote on subjects on which you don’t possess even rudimentary knowledge. And ‘The Print’ will do better by staying away from such gossip writers. And such misleading titles.

  8. Didn’t expect a one eyed article like this from ThePrint. This author has more fantasy, than logics.
    He believes that, next wars will be machine vs machine. Please, don’t be so dumb. War is the creation of human. And it was/is/will be controlled by human, machines are part of it.
    He believes that, in this era, electronics is important and training isn’t. And he writes that, PAF has better training. Ok, let’s just revise some history. Up to 2004, Americans (because of their business) believed that, their planes are better than Russian. Logic behind it , was the experience of Israel-Syria war. So, Americans came to Gwalior for the first time for air exercise. It was dogfight between MiG-21 vs F-15c Cope India 2004. Result was 9:1 in favour of MiG-21. And the Americans could not believe the result. They came next year again. This time, it was Sukhoi-30 vs F-16. Result was the same. So, the author could get enlightenment about training quality of IAF.
    And electronics? MiG-21 is not the same , what it was in 2004. It is upgraded now. You were talking about Helmet mounted vision? Yes, upgraded Bison has it. It is not run by analog electronics but digital.

    This article couldn’t be taken seriously, when it gives example of F-35. This kind of childish examples are unforgivable. Writer could be a romantic poet, who is happy with Vertical Landing but not a technology expert, who relied on performance.

    For the information of the author, Sukhoi-30MKI variant is already near 5th Gen fighter. It only lacks Stealth Mode.

  9. I have a respect for Mr. Hoodbhoy. At the same time in this case, i can clearly see that he had come in the trap of pakistani propoganda. Mr. Hoodbhoy , please try to think of one thing. In the skies of Balakote, the locals saw three parachutes, add was evident from their interviews shown immediately after attack. One was the indian pilot, driving a single sitter plane. Who was using the other two?

  10. This article was written sometime back. Hoodbhoy could not find anyone to publish it. So, obviously a Modi baiter Shekhar Gupta would do . it. I have first hand knowledge about this.

  11. I knew MM Alam was in Kolkata in British India. His name pattern is similar to Bengali Muslims. Is He a Bengali? What is his role in 1971 war?

  12. Im amazed at the hatred indian folks have instilled in themselves. I suppose it will be best for both nations to get into a nuke war and get it over with. With few million dead on both sides, years of ravage to follow, perhaps a new beginning may take form.

  13. I was actually baffled by the ignorance and stupidity of this Pervez fellow. Now some say he is a physist and I really wonder about the quality of education in Pakistan. Am sure the standards must be a tad better than the madrasa..!!
    Now I’m also guessing that this Pervez fellow has gone personally to Balakot to that exact same place where IAF struck havoc. Without of course an official guide from the Pakistani establishment. He has personally seen that the alleged buildings were completely intact and it was business as usual there.. Right the next day?? And i also suppose that the Print has verified all the evidence provided by this Pervez fellow before printing..??
    There’s one thing that intrigues me.. PAF has a huge shortage of ATF.. So how much do their planes and pilots actually fly??

  14. This author prof. Hoodboy whom I know verywell is paradoxical n totally selfconfused. He thinks that he is an intellectual. Anyhow, among the blinds, one eyed man becomes the king.

  15. The JF 17 is a Pakistani made fighter jet, it was manufactured by Chengdu Aircraft Industry Group/Pakistan Aeronautical Complex

  16. Dr. Parvez Hoodbhoy has impeccable credentials as a physicist. He used to be a rare and highly respected voice of sanity and rationality among hordes of self-styled ‘intellectuals’ and political and social ‘analysts’ in Pakistan. He used to be highly critical of Pakistani establishment and would often warn them against sponsoring domestic and international terrorism.

    I strongly believe that, like most of the other critics inside Pakistan, his voice has been smothered and he is. Being forced to toe the official line of Pakistani establishment.

  17. Please apni Pakistani Munger I Lal ke haseen sapne dekhte rahein aur hamare Desh ki kammom mein tang na adayein. Na ye kabhi Jeet paayenge na hum kabhi in he harana chahte hain. Terrorist na bheje to Kashmir ka masla 2 din mein sulazh jayega aur zindagi wapis as jayega. Mout ke soudagaron suno

  18. Hahaha, look the title of this article …. US F-16 or China JF-17 …. Dear author, for your reference JF-17 made by Pakistan …..

  19. We Indians believe the IAF. Their expertise is above the expertise of US airforce and they are quick analysts. Hoodbhoy thinks when he can plant doubt about a genuine will undermine India, is a joke. The Print is a broke channel and publishes articles of such third rate professors for a fee.

    • Don’t kid yourself IAF expertise above USAF? you must be seriously joking? IAF belongs to some museum. They are antiquated and a bunch liars just like the rest of the Indian security forces. They flopped in Balakot and then got rear ends thoroughly kicked by PAF in Broad daylight.

  20. Can’t understand one thing….how the indians r shamelessly speaking….thy claimed to b 4th largest airforce in the world…even thre media usually say….Pakistan is not evn born in front of India…so as per thre claimes India should shot a 5-7 Pakistani jets…but wht thy did …. foolish ppl of foolish nation5are 66

    • When a street dog enters in to your house gate , what you would do, you run after it to get it away from your gate, after the dog rans away and enter its own territory, still do you run after it to beat it . would you beat a escaping dog or you would like to see the dog to move away from your house. Same thing happened on Feb 27 , 24 pak f16 entered indian territory , and tried to destroy indian military installations, upon seeing 12 indian sukhoi jets, those pak jets ran away, hence indian air force did not shot them as they were fleeing back to their country, except one pilot wing commander Mr.Abhinandan varthaman that too he shot pak jet in pak territory, because that f16 lured him to enter pak territory, by running away from IAF.

      Don’t try to write as like as your wish , without knowing the facts just as if a dog barks upon its wish.

  21. Mr. Hoodbhouy ‘s article is not neutral. He seems to bear anti India grudges. There is no evidence of Indian MIG 21 being shot down by F16 or J17. It is also possible that it might have been downed by ground based anti aircraft fire. Besides there is enough evidence to show that F16 was shot down by MIG 21.

  22. Had indian strikes been a blotched operation of indian Airforce, Pakistan would have upped its tail thumped it’s chest and invited world media to see how Indians failed. But the cover up cordoning of entire jungle area, Not allowing any journalist or its own people to that area is proof beyond any doubts for any hard core fool who has doubts on India’s claim.

  23. Jo bhi hua ho…. Par un bhukhe nange logon ka view india mai chhapne ki kya jarurat hai….. Terrorist country wale terrorist hi rahenge hamesha. Ye unke khoon mai hai.

  24. I am unable to visualise as to why this article has been borrowed and published in The Print. A cheap way garner readers.
    Coming back to the better training of PAF, do they have adequate budget for this blissful thinking? Whole world knows that PAF sends its pilots to other countries on deputation for the reasons again known to the world.

  25. Really unwanted doubts have now surfaced both in and out of country over heroic deeds done by IAF
    As a professional IAF did what it wanted according to its expertise acumen warfare why it pinched all of us about the mode manner and materials used in combat
    We should be proud of IAF
    Human psychology is that immediate action or reaction after event has always a truth beyond doubt and discussion but we have been critically examining the event as non professional
    Brothers avoid doubts and discussions let bury beneath your conscience and be proud of valour of our brethrens in IAF
    It is said that to conceal one lie humans use ninety lies but truth remained what we did we did to safeguard ourselves
    Stop discussions to get any political mileage
    Thanks

  26. Now the writer is trying to impress training credentials of pak pilots by their experience in bombing balochis and their bad Taliban.. seriously!!

    Hope these professors and opinion makers spin stories like these more…they are the real well wishers of India…they are creating a society in Pakistan that will implode on it’s own….

  27. Mr Amjad Hussain, yes we Hindus always crying for nation and nationalism. But what about you people always killing in the name of Jihad. Better luck, you people has support of THE PRINT, WIRE, NDTV.

    • Hi Ho, are you Chinese. If so you are partly surviving on our money. Why don’t you mind your business with selling cheap goods and surviving.

  28. Dr. Hoodbhoy was disappointing in this article. He, of all people, has also fallen prey to the jingoistic spiel that Nationalistic propaganda machines churn out.
    That he believes in the fiction of the Bengali pilot MM Alam shooting down 5 IAF Hunters in one sortie (10 seconds if one were to believe the PAF), is evidence of the depth of impact propaganda can have on even seemingly intelligent and fair minded people.

  29. I was expecting a more neutral article from Prof. Hoodbhouy. I believe a person of his stature must not celebrate wars and heros. He is right that in the era of drones, f-16 and migs are old tech. A relic of cold war era. Currently no one can fight the US. It’s surprising that Pak used airforce on its own people as practice..its sad. In the modern era defeats would be strategic..and conquest will be brought through economic strangles. War is not good for anyone. You may have f-16 and pilots but do you have fuel?

  30. The thing is . India came up with evidence as soon as the incidence took place. Where as Pakistan took their time .. fabricated stuff , convinced US, Fabricated more stuff , then took people to the site and then suddenly started shouting that India was wrong all along . The bad part here is IAF has significant evidence that F-16 was downed, but somehow US is not moved by it ( because they want more arms deal with Pakistan) . And thats where India is falling short. India should question the USA directly .

  31. Circumcised Pakis are fantasizing. IAF Mig 21 Bison was not shot down by PAF but gone down due to engine failur/ jet wash cause Verthaman sodomised the Paki Viper with two massive R-73s together not consecutively, which was structuraly to much wake from departing heavy exhausts of 2 missile right in front of intake cone of Mig21 for a single Mig21 of 60’s design made around municule R-3s.Otherwise thier SAAB Ereye AWACS was in command in Air the pakis would have published shown thier Radar intercept recording of that day’s aireal fiasco

  32. Is the print an indian paper or paki.?. Shame on you supporting these rubbish news.. Why are u publishing this.. Whats the matter with u?

    • Pakistanis will always deny they used F16.
      Just like they denied whereabouts of Osama bin Laden hiding in Pakistan ( close to an army camp). There way of life.

  33. Saying it doesn’t matter is not entirely true. If pakistan used f16s then that means that they violated the contract with America they made in order the get the f16s, which is not to use the f16s in attacks without permission.

  34. AIR CAPABILITIES ARE FOR SUPPORTING THE GROUND FORCES SO THAT THEIR ADVANCEMENT IS NOT JEOPARDISED. THE ACTUAL BATTLE/WAR IS FOUGHT ON GROUND. OFCOURSE THERE ALSO THE TECHNOLOGICAL DEVELOPMENTS PLAYS ITS OWN ROLE AND WHICH IS VERY FAST AND OBSOLESCENCE IS VERY FAST. IN THIS AGE OF SCIENTIFIC DEVELOPMENTS HUMAN BEINGS SHOULD NOT THINK OF BATTLES/WARS.NONE OF THE SIDE WILL GET ANYTHING.IT WILL BE A LIOSE_ LOOSE SITUATION AND DESTRUCTION ALL AROUND ON BOTH THE. SIDES. BUT SUBJECT TO PROVISO THAT BOTH SIDES MUST MAINTAIN SANITY AND POISE AND MUST NOT BE PREJUDICED BY THE PAST HISTORY .THE SOLUTIONS WILL AUTOMATICALLY ROLL IN.NO COUNTRY SHOULD ATTEMPT TO BULLDOZE THE OTHER SOVEREIGN COUNTRY AND ATTEMPT TO. BULLY OTHER SOVEREIGN COUNTRY RO TO ESTABLISH ITS HEGEMONY DOR SERVING ITS OWN SELF INTERESTS.WE CAN EASILY SEE IT FROM THE PAST INTERNATIONAL EVENTS
    ALAS POWER PHYSICAL/ECONOMICAL.BLINDS THE FORESIGHT OF POLITICAL LEADERSHIP AND THAT RESULTS INTO DESTRUCTION.
    SO FAR THE DOGFIGHT IN THE AIR BETWEEN INDIA AND PAKISTAN IS CONCERNED IT SHOULD HAVE BEEN LEFT THEN AND THERE.

  35. Hopefully, Pakistanis don’t get adventurous after reading this article from a well known physicist! If that happens, next stage of attack by India using missiles or Navy will not be far away, as surgical strikes by army and airforce are done. It can escalate perhaps but then who knows tomorrow anyway. It’s not the question of India fighting Pakistan; it is the question of Pakistan supporting terrorist and being punished for it. Hopefully, everyone understands.

  36. Good to see Mr. HOODBHOY writing for The Print. But Article content is not as per his standard. Shall wait to see more thought provoking writing from him.

  37. Sir FYI PAF Fighter jet was also shot down and mauled to death by your own country men. SO please correct your article that PAF did not lose an aircraft.Also neither Indian Government nor IAF say that no IAF aircraft was lost.We lost one and we acknowledge .An advice for you and your countrymen do not mess with India in any way or will you cry till you do not have any tears left.India will single handly take care of your country and the world will just sit back and enjoy (Not even china )

    • Fake news my friend…as is common in India.
      Indian media reported that pilot to.be the son of a senior PAY officer.
      That officer released a statement with a picture with his sons saying they have never flown a plane in their life.
      So please don’t trust your media

      • Reply to Mr. Yash’s advice,
        What u Hav handled single handedly V can see that,
        Ek kashmir tum sy sambhalny hota ni what to talk of Tamil nado &, sikh movmnt in Punjab.
        You ppl being killed like stray/mad dogs,
        Leave aside PAKISTAN,
        V know how to deal with mad dogs.

        • o pakistanis please read history since 1948. that time you had sabre jets and sherman tanks on ground but you pilots and tank drivers just peed (urinated) on your own planes and tanks 🤣🤣. and still you guys speak!!..AND WHO IS THIS REPORTER WHO SAYS THAT TODAY PILOT SKILL IS SECONDARY BUT THIS IS NORMAL AND EXPECTED FROM THR ILLITERATE PAKISTANIS.

          FYI- DURING WORLD WAR 2 1945, GERMANY USED ME-262 fighter JETS AGAINST THE ALLIED PISTON ENGINE PLANES NOT EVEN JETS. BUT THAT SUPERIOR TECHNOLOGY DID NOTHING AS IT IS THE PILOT THAT ALWAYS MATTERS NOT THE TECH AS THE MASTER OF THAT TECH WILL ALWAYS BE AN INDIAN. AND REMEMBER YOUR LUCK WAS GOOD THIS TIME AS YOU WERE NOT ATTACKED BY OUR SUKHOI 30 MKI FIGHTERS.
          PLEASE GO AND READ HISTORY HOW PAKISTAN FLED EVERYTIME IN FEAR AND YOUR PAKISTAN DOES NOT EVEN RECOGNISE YOUR OWN SOLDIERS. SHAME!!..MOREOVER WHY YOUR ISPR SAID THEY CAPTURED 2 INDIAN PILOTS?

          THE TRUTH IS ANOTHER PILOT WAS THAT PAKISTANI PILOT OF THE F-16 or JF-17 WHICH THE SHAMELESS PAKISTAN EVEN DENIED TO RECOGNISE AS ITS OWN. SHAME AS STILL ITS CITIZENS SUPPORT IT.
          YOUR COUNTRY DOES NOT EVEN HAVE THE GUTS TO RECOGNIZE YOUR OWNS AND STILL YOU SPEAK YOU FILTHY COWARDS!!

    • Seems like you were high after a few shots of THARRA and referred your Mi-17 shot down by IndIan SAM as Pakistani plane. BTW we are always ready to serve tea.

  38. Some media houses joined congres to loot
    Nations wealth otherwise how they compare
    Modi’s ability and wisdom with that of Rahu’s.

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