Falcon down: Why Pakistan is desperate to fake the F-16 dogfight

Refusal to analyse these setbacks will continue to cost its armed forces dearly in future wars.

By Rakesh Krishnan  
Sunday, April 7, 2019

The Pakistani military sucks at fighting - it has lost all four wars against India - but when it comes to lying, it's in a league of its own. Throughout its short history Pakistan has attempted to hide its quite considerable war losses while making highly exaggerated claims about imaginary victories notched up by its armed forces. After decades of Islamist indoctrination, the Pakistani military establishment has become so deeply infected with the virus of jihad that it will never admit losing to India. In this backdrop, the February 27 downing of a Pakistan Air Force F-16 Falcon over Kashmir by Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman is unlikely to be acknowledged by Islamabad.

The reason why it clings to lies and fakery is that for all its size the Pakistan military machine is a paper tiger that cannot fight India for more than a few days. To shore up morale - and to keep up the myth of the invincibility of the Pakistani soldier against the Indian - the military has to present defeats as victory and at the same time claim to have routed Indian forces. Although many Pakistani military officers and media commentators now agree that India defeated Pakistan in all four wars, the gullible masses of that country remain convinced that Pakistan has never been defeated.

The Pakistanis know their claims will get traction in the West. Because most of Pakistan's war fighting equipment is of Western origin, Islamabad has plenty of supporters in the West, especially in the Pentagon - the US Defence Department - and the virulently anti-Indian left liberal media. The ingratiating behaviour of Pakistan Army generals has also endeared them to Westerners who back up their stories by offering 'expert' analysis. Such analysis is gamed from the start because these so-called experts are at best company men or at worst charlatans. However, they have one thing in common - they work for Western interests and are by no means neutral or unbiased.

The latest instance of Western 'experts' trying to bolster the Pakistani narrative comes from Foreign Policy magazine which quotes two anonymous American military officials on the F-16 shooting. The magazine reports that US defence personnel conducted a physical count of Pakistan's F-16 fleet and found none missing. The difference this time was that the Pentagon quickly declared it wasn't aware of such an investigation.

Limits of lying

Truth is the first casualty of conflict. All countries take advantage of the fog of war to hide one's own setbacks while also denying the enemy's victories. Since wars are a mind game, there is little incentive to hand the enemy any information that could give him an advantage or boost its morale.

On March 21, 2011 an American F-15 fighter enforcing a no-fly zone was shot down by a Libyan air defence unit. The US Air Force declared the cause of the crash as "lead ingestion".

During the 1991 Gulf War, President George H. Bush boasted the Patriot 3 missile system had a 95 per cent interception rate. A year later, Theodore Postol of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Reuven Pedatzur of Tel Aviv University testified before a US House Committee that according to their independent analysis of video tapes, the Patriot system very likely had a zero success rate.

Also read: Pakistan PM Imran Khan accuses BJP of war hysteria over downed F-16 claim; says truth always prevails

On November 26, 1943 a Luftwaffe aircraft launched an Hs-293 glide bomb at the British troop transport ship Rohna, killing 1,149 American soldiers. It was not until the 1960s that US authorities even admitted that Rohna had been sunk by a guided missile rather than conventional weapons.

However, with Pakistan the equation is different. The Pakistani military leadership operates like a totalitarian state where domestic opinion is all that matters. The population must be kept in the dark about the failings of the military. In order to convince the masses they are in good strong hands, the Pakistani military establishment indulges in what can only be described as the theatre of the absurd.

1965 War drama

One of the biggest lies peddled by Pakistan was the "30 seconds over Sargodha" incident. On September 7, at the height of the 1965 War, Mohammed Alam, a Pakistan Air Force squadron leader, claimed he had shot down as many as five Indian Hunter aircraft in only 23 seconds.

British writer John Fricker was commissioned by the PAF to write a book, in which Fricker eulogised the Pakistanis. His 'Battle for Pakistan - The Air War of 1965' made it to the stores only in 1979 as he couldn't find a publisher. Because he couldn't narrate his tales soon enough, Fricker wrote an article titled "30 Seconds Over Sargodha" which was published in 'Aeroplane' magazine.

Fricker's article popularised Alam's claim in the West, where they gleefully accepted such fiction as truth. There was a huge sense of satisfaction in the West at India's apparent failure. Cold War and colonial biases had trumped logic and military aerodynamics.

However, highly credible research by military historian Pushpinder Singh Chopra and others has shown that Alam was exaggerating. In an article titled 'Laying the Sargodha Ghost to Rest' Singh explained why the PAF backed Alam's claims: "The people of Pakistan had to be re-assured their air force's super image, carefully cultivated over the years, was restored by examples of daring-do and glory."

Not all Pakistanis, however, are delusional. Retired PAF air commodore S. Sajad Haider has demolished Alam's claims in his exhaustive book 'Flight of the Falcon: Demolishing Myths of the 1965 War'. Referring to Alam as a "very unprofessional" pilot, Haider says, "It is tactically and mathematically very difficult to resurrect the incident in which all five Hunters in a hard turn were claimed to have been shot down in a 270-degree turn in 23 seconds."

Alam had said he had blown away all five aircraft and that none of the pilots were able to eject. On this Haider adds, "Logically, since the five were claimed to have been shot down in 23 seconds, then they should all have crashed in close proximity. The conjecture that all the rest could have crashed after 8-9 minutes of flying is superfluous and unworthy of the official PAF history."

Even the PAF is having trouble swallowing such a blatant lie. According to Bharat Rakshak, "While the PAF's 1982 history accepts Alam's story as told by Fricker, the PAF's 1988 history is surprisingly silent about the names. In fact, the PAF's 1988 history does not even list the names of the five IAF pilots."

Also read: Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale to give proof of Pakistan's misuse of F-16s to top US officials

This is not to say the Pakistanis were chumps. On the contrary, due to superior training as part of Pakistan's membership in Western military alliances, some were excellent flyers and gunners. The PAF also had large numbers of the latest F-104 and F-86 jets whereas the IAF - thanks to Jawaharlal Nehru and Defence Minister Krishna Menon's neglect of the armed forces - was flying outdated World War II aircraft. However, PAF pilots seemed to have underestimated the IAF's resolve; they also believed their President Ayub Khan's claim that one Pakistani was equal to three Indians. In fact, Ayub had assured the military: "As a general rule, Hindu morale would not stand for more than a couple of hard blows delivered at the right time and the right place."

Religious fanaticism was also seen rearing its ugly head in the PAF, with many pilots believing they were under divine protection. Alam, for instance, became an Islamic fundamentalist and berated his fellow officers and seniors who consumed alcohol. Not surprisingly, he was sidelined on the rather amusing allegation that he could not read or write. Post retirement, he lived like a mullah, a virtual recluse. Had he been a real war hero, he would not have been treated in so humiliating a manner.

Tank battle flip

"Pakistan Victorious" screamed the headline in The Australian, dated September 14, 1965, followed by this intro: "Pakistani forces have repulsed a massive Indian armoured assault in the greatest tank battle since the African desert campaign of World War II."

The Australian media were, at worse, liars or, at best, parroting a lie. In fact, everything about the report was false. Firstly, the greatest tank battle since World War II was the Battle of Asal Uttar where the Indian Army destroyed 70 Pakistani tanks. India also captured 25 tanks which were abandoned by panic stricken Pakistani soldiers in the face of withering Indian fire. So basically, the West flipped the report of a massive Indian victory into a Pakistani win.

Secondly, the greatest tank battle of World War II was not in Africa, but in Kursk, Russia, where the Red Army hammered the Germans. This is an instance of the Anglo-American media not wanting to acknowledge a massive Russian victory.

The point is that in some sections in the West there is a great desire to see India fail. It was like that during the Cold War when Pakistan was a loyal sidekick and India a hated ally of Moscow; and it is so today. Nothing's changed. The credibility of the "anonymous" experts cited by Foreign Policy magazine must be viewed in this backdrop.

1971 War: PAF caught fudging losses

This incident is eerily similar to Foreign Policy's unsubstantiated F-16 count. During the 1971 War the IAF notched up a large number of air-to-air kills, particularly of the Mirage-III fighter. After the war ended, in order to dent India's claims, the Pakistanis said they had received 24 Mirages from France and that that all of them were intact.

The PAF conducted a major PR exercise, lining up 22 Mirage-III jets to show that none had been lost in combat. Plus, the PAF claimed that one Mirage was written off in a training sortie prior to the war and another was undergoing repairs.

Also read: US officials say no Pakistani F-16s missing raising doubts over India's claim: report

However, in a major embarrassment to Pakistan, the French aircraft maker Dassault revealed that the PAF had taken delivery of no less than 28 Mirage-IIIs in and not 24 Mirages as claimed by the PAF. Further, Chris Bishop writes in The Encyclopedia of 20th Century Air Warfare (2001 edition) that six Mirages were supplied to the PAF during wartime by Libya. Since the IAF only claimed one or two Mirage-IIIs confirmed as destroyed on the ground and one shot down by anti-aircraft artillery, it is quite likely that the Mirage did suffer a number of air-to-air losses at the hands of IAF fighters.

Western bias: Chuck Yeager's intolerable hatred

India won the 1971 War so decisively that most Pakistanis do not dispute their entire defence forces capitulated in a matter of days. Over 93,000 Pakistan Army soldiers and officers were held for a year in Indian POW camps - cowering in fear from Bengali mobs - and it remains the single most humiliating episode in Pakistan's history. It was also the largest capitulation in history - greater than the surrender at Stalingrad of 91,000 German soldiers of General Paulus' Sixth Army. And yet a decorated American general claims that Pakistan won that war.

Chuck Yeager, a WW II fighter pilot and the first person to travel faster than the speed of sound, is so besotted with Pakistan that he claimed in a tweet on September 8, 2016: "...Pakistan won. They are a sovereign nation. India did not annex them."

Yeager's hostility goes a long way. In his autobiography, he wrote a lot of nasty things about Indians, including downright lies about the IAF's performance. Among the things he wrote was the air war lasted two weeks and the Pakistanis "kicked the Indians' ass", scoring a three-to-one kill ratio, knocking out 102 Russian-made Indian jets and losing 34 airplanes of their own.

The reality is that it took the IAF just over a week to achieve complete domination of the subcontinent's skies. A measure of the IAF's air supremacy was the million-man open air rallies held by the Indian Prime Minister in northern Indian cities, a week into the war. This couldn't have been possible if Pakistani planes were still airborne.

The IAF did lose a slightly larger number of aircraft (75 vs 58) but this was mainly because the Indians were flying a broad range of missions. While Pakistani pilots were obsessed with aerial combat, IAF tactics were highly sophisticated in nature, involving bomber escorts, tactical recce, ground attack and decoy runs to divert Pakistani interceptors away from the main targets. Plus, the IAF had to reckon with the dozens of modern aircraft being supplied to Pakistan by Muslim countries like Jordan, Turkey and the UAE.

Also read: IAF refutes US report on F-16s, says shot one down during Feb 27 dogfight

Most missions flown by Indian pilots were conducted by day and at low level, with the pilots making repeated attacks on well defended targets. Indian aircraft flew into Pakistani skies thick with flak, virtually non-stop during the 14-day war. Many Bengali guerrillas later told the victorious Indian Army that it was the sight of epic air battles fought over their skies by IAF pilots and the sight of Indian aircraft diving in on Pakistani positions that inspired them to fight.

Indeed, Indian military historians like Chopra have painstakingly gathered the details of virtually every sortie undertaken by the IAF and PAF and have tabulated the losses and kills on both sides, in order to nail the outrageous lies that were peddled by the PAF and later gleefully published by Western writers.

In reality the 1971 air war was a complete and utter rout for the PAF. According to a report by Indranil Banerjie, Rupak Chattopadhyay and Air Marshal (retired) C.V. Gole titled '1971 India-Pakistan War: The Air War', "By the end of the first week of the war, PAF fighters in the west appeared to have lost their will to fight. By this time, the IAF was repeatedly hitting secondary targets including railway yards, cantonments, bridges and other installations as well as providing close air support to the army wherever it was required. The most dangerous were the close air support missions which involved flying low and exposing aircraft to intense ground fire. The IAF lost the most aircraft on these missions as is proved by the high losses suffered by IAF Sukhoi-7 and Hunter squadrons. But their pilots flew sortie after sortie keeping up with the army and disrupting enemy troop and tank concentrations."

Once it was known that the Indian Army was knocking at the gates of Dhaka, the PAF in the west virtually gave up flying. "During the last few days of the war, the IAF brass ordered attacks on PAF airfields with the sole purpose of drawing out their aircraft. But that rarely succeeded as the PAF aircraft for the most part remained secured inside their pens, refusing to come out and fight."

Even the Pakistanis agree that the PAF was too scared to fight. Lt. Gen. A.A.K. Niazi, the commander of the Pakistan Army in East Pakistan, wrote in his book The Betrayal of East Pakistan: "While the enemy was free to fly over our territory, Air Marshal M. Rahim Khan kept himself and his air force hidden during the conflict."

On December 11, with the PAF almost neutralised and the Indian Army scything through East Pakistan towards Dhaka, here's what Pakistan's Morning News published on its front page: "Indian forces in East Wing suffer significant losses." The blatant lying continued even after Niazi and his 93,000 soldiers were in Indian custody and Bengalis were celebrating the birth of Bangladesh. On December 17, the day after Pakistani forces had surrendered and the fighting had ended, here's what the newspaper Dawn headlined: "War Till Victory."

You get the picture: the Pakistani military leadership and civilian elites will never admit they have lost to India. They need to assure the masses that the country is in safe hands and that India has been checkmated. Unfortunately, the jihadi fervour of the average Pakistani and the hatred of India and Hindus that is drilled into every Pakistani from childhood ensure that the people of Pakistan rarely question their military's competence - or the lack of it.

The danger for Pakistan is that the complete denial of past defeats - and the refusal to analyse these setbacks - will continue to cost its armed forces dearly in future wars.

(The author is a New Zealand-based defence and foreign affairs analyst)

Also read: Indian Air Force shoots down Pakistan F-16 fighter jet: report

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