‘Pak Once Disproved Indian Kill Claims By Flaunting All Its Mirages, Why Not Now With F-16s?’

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JAGAN PILLARISETTI is an air war historian, author of two seminal books on India’s aerial conflicts in 1965 and 1971, and one of the country’s foremost aviation watchers. As the force behind the air force section of the pioneering Bharat Rakshak website, he lives in the United States, but remains fully plugged into Indian military aviation. For his book on the 1965 air war, he received the Chief of Air Staff’s Commendation in 2007.

We invited Jagan to give us his thoughts on the February 26 IAF airstrikes in Balakot and the aerial battle between IAF and PAF fighters the following morning. And then we tossed him some questions. It’s over to Jagan… 

The Indian Government’s willingness to cross the LoC — nay — the International Border to conduct strikes on the “sovereign” (not sovereign if terrorists are using it) soil of another nation is a tectonic shift, a ground breaking event (and all the cliche phrases that go along with it). India has never struck across the International Border since independence without open hostilities between the armed forces of both sides. (1947 was limited to Kashmir, 1965 was limited to Kashmir and the frontline and in 1971, we didn’t strike back till we got struck first).

The air strike shows the changed rules of engagement, India is not going to sit back and simply whine while the terrorists try to wage of war of thousand pricks. Imagine the next big terrorist attack that is being planned. I don’t think the ISI would have the stomach to encourage their terror instruments to go ahead with their plans. Also, imagine that in India there is another party that comes to power. This strike has made it easier — it sets both the precedence for the next government to act in the face of terrorist provocation — and pressure on it if it doesn’t act.

The only regret is the amount of bandwidth everyone wasted on the results. I was quite impressed with the selection of the target at Jaba Top — away from civilian residential areas and secluded and isolated enough to deliver the message. But I wish that place was razed to the ground with some bunker busters and saved us all this painful discussion on penetrators versus missed for the woods discussions that we endured for the past month. For me the sole proof that the IAF was on the mark was the absence of any reporting from the target area — no reporters or photos from ground zero — i.e that campus with those buildings have surfaced. How is that possible in this world of social media? Unless there was a clampdown by the military? By now I am certain they would have posted photos of these buildings from inside out by now if no damage was done. This is not some top secret military installation. So what’s stopping the reporting from ground zero?

Now coming to the aerial battle. Phew! I am glad I live in the US currently because I slept through all the action and just caught up on the end reports by the time I woke up. My heart wouldn’t have stood a chance going through the various social media updates/action! The aerial battle was the first aerial battle that happened in our lifetimes — not counting the one-sided Atlantique shoot down of 1999. Having studied and written about the 65 air war, this was watching history repeat itself after so many years — both sides pitting formations against each other this was like I got transported back in time. (Yes war is a nasty thing, lives being lost etc., but let me continue in the spirit of the aviation nerdiness that we have adopted as a hobby).

The claims, counterclaims and counter-counterclaims have also proven that we haven’t progressed much since 1965. Both sides have secrets. Pakistanis being very secretive about their formation composition, targets, pilots involved, denying F-16 involvement and many more. I am waiting for someone like Alan Warnes to visit Peshawar and being spoonfed an account that will appear in due time. (For those who don’t know – Alan Warnes, is now the defacto PAF historian – who brings out the PAF histories every ten years – with full support and sanction of the PAF ).

The history is not complete — much is left to uncover — I read a response from a distinguished Air Marshal, that despite all our capabilities, we could claim only one F-16? Why wasn’t force met with overwhelming force? How did Abhinandan end up crossing the LoC? What did our ATC/fighter controllers communicate/warn? What were the wingman’s observations? Did he heed a warning and stay back while Abhinandan pursued? What did the pilots of the Sukhois observe/do/achieve? And the Mi-17 that was lost? Lots of questions — but someday we will know only through future reporting or through work of historians. In the US, details that satisfy questions will come up after 3-4 years of investigative journalism effort. I wonder how long it will take in India. And are we ready for that kind of honest reporting?

Now to the question of the F-16 kill. All observations in my capacity as an amateur historian (you are not a professional till you start making a living out of it — and I am not). Let me stick my neck out and say I am still on the fence about it. It’s a probable kill — not a confirmed kill. Students of WW2 air battles will know what I am talking about. A probable kill is where the circumstances point to the aircraft going down. Pilot claiming to have fired (check), a visual confirmation of a hit (Check?). Radiotelephony intercepts (do they exist? probably encrypted?) eye witness accounts of parachutes (check!). Pakistani ISPR claims about multiple pilots parachuting and having been captured (check!). Heck, this is right in the territory of a confirmed kill if I take the ISPR announcements. But one thing that stops me from treating this as a confirmed kill so far is 1) lack of identified wreckage on the ground, 2) lack of social media coverage, 3) knowing the tail number and the name of the pilot — unfortunately this is how we historians operate. Probable kills can turn into confirmed kills — maybe we will know in ten years or twenty years time.

Same goes for the Pakistanis. Why was there denial about the usage of F-16s and about AMRAAMS being fired? Who were the pilots, tail numbers? I suspect there are many details that will be awkward for the PAF that they are not sharing right now. The 1971 war is nearly 50 years old and we are finding new information on losses and damages even today. And still, the amount of historical data is not as complete as we would want it to be.

It is also very easy to disprove the kill claim if the PAF wants to. Just line up their F-16s a-la in the past when they lined up their Mirages, and let independent observers take notes. They’ve done this in the past — why not do it now and settle the question once and for all? If a Nur Khan was leading the PAF now, he would have trolled the IAF by flying all their F-16s within days.

Despite all the doubts and claims, only the verification of airframes, tail numbers etc will settle this question. And it may take a while. I don’t have expectations from the Pakistani press so I am not even going to ask on what they plan to do.

The press did both admirable things as well as stuff that is worthy of jeering in this era. There were some excellent reports – some giving details on the combat, post-action analysis, coverage on the ground etc. But, on some of the stories, we did not cover ourselves with glory. For example — not questioning the 200-300 killed claim by some minister in the first place. Everything was lapped up and repeated without questioning (till a few days later). Same was the question of the now debunked story of the Pakistani pilot claimed to have been killed — it took a really long time before a good piece was done on the lack of credibility of that story. (By the way, we still don’t know who the genius was behind that PAF pilot story — he should be recruited into our psyops wing asap). When I compare what the press organisations in the US are doing by the way of fact-checking, we have some way to go in India. It has become a common expectation here that claims are fact-checked and statements are sourced. Again, I sympathise — a mere attempt at fact checking invites calls of being anti-national by others in power. But we need to look beyond that and just report on the facts.

Also, the press is very keen to report on the positive sides of our efforts — is the environment in India mature enough that a defence journalist can report on negative aspects of the story and not get shouted down? I do not know. If anything I do understand that defence journalists walk a tight rope on occasions like this — but simple mistakes will blow up their credibility if they are not careful.

LIVEFIST: What’s the chief emotion you feel looking at the current phase of India’s fighter modernisation effort?

This I can answer — Pain. Pain at the slow grinding pace, the changing parameters of any acquisition effort, then the negotiations and sometimes the political noise surrounding it. In the case of Rafale – Remember us watching the MRCA selling efforts that started in the mid-2000s with the Aero India venue. It’s almost 15 years since that first attempt was made – and that’s a third of my life for this deal to be conceived and we are yet to see an aircraft on strength. So much has changed since then, since the user trials, technology has changed in the intervening years since the deal was signed, before we know it, another round of acquisitions will commence.

LIVEFIST: You’ve got the power to prescribe 5 acquisition fixes for the Indian Air Force. Go.

Ouch. totally wrong person to ask. But I will try one – Standardize – French aircraft, Russian Aircraft, American aircraft and do not forget – Indian fighters too. It’s not easy for the aircrew to switch cockpits easily. We are ending up making “specialist” aviators.

LIVEFIST: As a historian, does it feel like events repeat themselves when it comes to Indian military modernization and the politics surrounding it?

A leading question that I have to agree with. I remember reading about the Jeep Scandal (in Nehru’s era) and it has been ever growing. I got a solution, just invite the key players from the opposition parties to be part of the negotiations assuming you have a reasonable level headed leader in them. we will save much noise.

LIVEFIST: Based on everything you know and understand, your views on the raging storm over India’s 2016 Rafale jet deal?

Much ado over nothing? Let’s believe the professionals in the air force and leave it at that?

LIVEFIST: You’ve studied the Indian Air Force over the decades. Has it learned enough from the conflicts it has been involved in? How?

The question will probably best answered by the professionals in the IAF who train and study these lessons for applications in future conflicts. But I will take the opportunity to give my amateur historical analysis/interpretation. My take is that the lessons of yesteryear need to be institutionalized – and it should also be recognized that those lessons will keep changing due to the rapid pace of technology.

if you compare the operations that the IAF fought in, it took the lessons of 65 into 71 and addressed many of the gaps and shortcomings. The gap between those two wars was too small that the lessons were still valid. Compare 1971 and 1999 – due to the gap, the lessons we may have learnt in the 71 war – operating Vampires in an offensive role in mountains of Kargil did not apply due to the changing technological environments – faster jets, Manpads, smart bombs. Eg: The MiG-27 was allegedly lost because it flamed out due to gun gas ingestion – MiG-27s were about 15 years old into service, but have probably never fired their cannon at such a high altitude till Kargil and no one could have predicted the possibility of engine flame-out due to gun firing could happen. The experience of 1971 did not help us in predicting how faster aircraft would have behaved at a higher altitude.

I wonder how much of the previous war’s lessons would still help us in the future. Imagine fighting the war of 1971 – the invasion of East Pakistan with the technology that would be available today – Thermal imagers, guided weapons, mini-drones, mobile telephony. It would have been shorter and probably less bloody as well.

LIVEFIST: Much is made of jointmanship and efficiencies, but the IAF and Army still haven’t figured out what to do with attack helicopters. What would you recommend?

I will skip this question under the 2nd point i mentioned above – i.e 2. I would feel like a fraud giving chairborne advice when there are professionals out there. One of my acquaintances and friends is Wg Cdr Unni Kartha – also known as Cyclic – known for his well written and articulate thoughts on helicopters. He has now settled in my hometown of Hyderabad. Wg Cdr Kartha spent a hell of a lot of time operating Mi-24s/Mi-35s, commanded one unit (unofficially commanded two units at one time). He had submitted papers and ideas when he was in service. Unni sir would laugh me out of our next sitting – And did i mention that with professionals like him and others out there in the IAF – anything i say will be hot air…. so I will skip answering this one.

LIVEFIST: After a troubled history, is the LCA Tejas in your view a success?

Its a success as an example of our indigenous design and manufacturing abilities. We have been able to produce a fighter aircraft that may be worthy of combat. But as a weapon system, it will be a success when it gets used in a conflict and has a long service. When it ends up with a long career in the IAF. The MiG-21 is an unqualified success — having served 50+ years and 12-20 units and flying with hundreds of pilots. We used to call the Marut a success but history would suggest otherwise. Only three squadrons used it – the aircraft was a delight to fly for the pilots but had a patchy record in 1971 with the two units that flew it. It went on to serve about 14-15 years before being retired. HAL support, quality of manufacture and the IAF’s own procurement policies sounded the curtains for its relatively short career. (Offnote, self-advertisement, invite you to visit this page http://www.bharat-rakshak.com/IAF/aircraft/specs/1138-timeline.html that shows the timelines of IAF aircraft being active – this is still generous as it counts the development time as well. )

It is too early for the Tejas to be called a success. It’s one unit today. When it lasts a couple of decades (maybe a decade and a half ) and serves with half a dozen squadrons – then we have some ground to call it a success. In another two years, it will be 20 years since its first flight. How much has changed since then — how did the IAF’s ASRs change? Has the aircraft changed in between? we will know when it flies with more units and with more pilots.

LIVEFIST: For all the work that came its way, why in your view hasn’t HAL become a full-fledged creator of aircraft?

Manpower, right pay, management, building a pipeline of design engineers and keeping them happy in this fast-paced competitive corporate world. Provide salaries and opportunities that can beat the IT jobs available for the youth. I have known some seriously talented individuals who spent years in these establishments who got weaned away by the lucrative IT industry. I wonder if it has changed.

When you read about WW2 it is fascinating that a country like the UK or Germany were able to have the design houses that churned out so many fixed-wing aircraft types in a short time frame. There was a period in the 50s and 60s in which HAL was getting into that mode with many designs and copies that were successful. but since the 70s it has lost the plot. What was the last HAL fixed wing design that actually got manufactured in large numbers? Was it the Basant? (The Swati, Hansa, Saras are NAL – but the number manufactured are not really encouraging either). Remember the hype about the IJT when it did the first flight? the HAL chairman even got a book out on the IJT. Later it turned out that there were too many problems with the roll rate and spin characteristics that its employment with training young pilots in the near future is pretty much in question. I haven’t heard updates on it for a while.

HAL did do better with its rotary-wing designs. The Dhruv comes to mind. But I will expand beyond HAL and talk about aircraft manufacturing in India. General Aviation in India is so small compared to the western countries. a friend of mine who wanted to do a homebuilt aircraft recently wrote about the pain he went through dealing with the bureaucracy of DGCA. He is now doing something about it and formed the first EAA Chapter in India to provide guidance around homebuilt aircraft.

Things may be changing but it will take us decades (And dare I say a century?) before we reach the level that the UK and US were in the 1940s. (2040 is just twenty years away… sooooo it could well be a century)

LIVEFIST: Your work as an aviation historian was recently embroiled in controversy when you accused a newspaper journalist of plagiarism. How angry are you & what do you plan to do?

It was disappointing to not get any response from the publisher or the author after my main article went online at Newslaundry. I think the readers saw for themselves the blatant lifting of content from my article into a published book. Initially, the publisher tried to brush it under the carpet saying it was three paragraphs or limited in scope. After I had shown in my article that the occurrences are more than a dozen – the publisher went into radio silence mode. The author never came out of radio silence at all. I guess the strategy was if you do not respond then it will blow over. The book is still selling on Amazon and other sites, earning revenues for both of them — with nary a word of acknowledgement to the original sources. Military history writers are a small community. Everyone knows everyone else by first name basis. Both the writer and publisher need to ask themselves if losing your reputation is worth it? Respect matters more than money or the number of copies sold.

One good thing that came out of it — I think enough dust was raised that all upcoming authors and future authors and publishers will take enough care about acknowledgement and copyrights. I have thought of pursuing legal options and have started conversations here. I believe I have a fairly strong case to prove my claim. When the time comes it will be apparent.

LIVEFIST: You’ve got a vault full of photographs and aircraft stories. Tell us a favourite aircraft tale from the past.

There are so many — where should I start? I will start with the late M P Anil Kumar’s story about Ranbir Singh Bira – who survived a MiG-21 CFIT Accident.

Stories that stand out in my memory are what I call “Both sides of the Coin”. An example, I published a story on 20 Squadron in 1971 on Bharat Rakshak, it prompted a response by a Pakistani pilot who was on the other side of the combat. The back and forth between the PAF pilot and the IAF CO with me being the conduit was fun and it uncovered many new facts.

Another favourite story is the one I wrote about in Eagles Over Bangladesh. A PAF pilot on the ground at Dacca after their sabres were grounded watched in frustration as a MiG-21 did victory rolls over their airfield, whereas in reality, it was Wg Cdr Bishnoi who was taking photographs of the runway by flying his aircraft upside down to get a clear view.

Even recently, Gp Capt G S Samra wrote about his ejection in Chammb in 1971, and this prompted a response from a Pakistani Army General who visited the crash site and took photographs (available on BR now). It’s amazing what the internet can do to bring two former foes together telling the same story.

Thanks to the internet, Facebook and Whatsapp, we have so many stories being told that we are suffering from peak IAF history — we are getting more material than we are able to read and track, process and use. I hope this trend continues and we figure out a way to archive the information and material in an appropriate way.

LIVEFIST: Defence journalism used to be the subject of a lot of jeering and hilarity a decade ago. Have things changed?

Was it really looked down upon long ago? I beg to differ. I grew up waiting for that one single “defence” category article in the print versions of India Today and Frontline. Waiting a fortnight for the issues was a bit too much in those days. Collected the physical copies for years. Defence Journalism was my next dream job if I couldn’t have got into the armed forces (Which I couldn’t, and that’s a different story). What I do as a historian is a bit similar in that I am writing stories of the past, while you guys write about the stories of the current era.

If you are referring to the jeering that was done on various defence forums including Bharat Rakshak, there was a time where the coverage of the Kargil conflict turned off old timers. Then there are other stories where it appeared that some journalists were pushing their private agendas. Deep down, some of us (At least I did!) envied the opportunities that the defence journalists had in covering the stories. I mean who wouldn’t love the various sorties you guys used to do at Aero India! Or visits to far off places. I would probably have given my right arm to go visit the MiG-25 Foxbats while they were in service. Hell yes!

Livefist’s Shiv Aroor with Jagan Pillarisetti at Aero India 2007

So don’t beat yourself up about it — we actually love what the journalists do — it provides us with the much-needed food/information that our military buff brains require. There was a time I used to subscribe to Sainik Samachar in the early 90s to get my dose of military journalism. Are we not fortunate today? Yes, we are. The jeering and hilarity still exist – to differentiate the serious ones from the pretenders – those who don’t do their due diligence. Your twitter thread on the misuse of aircraft photographs with articles is a case in point.

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‘Pak Once Disproved Indian Kill Claims By Flaunting All Its Mirages, Why Not Now With F-16s?’