Key Point: Recent aerial skirmishes highlight the important capabilities F-16s continue to provide Pakistan’s military.
During an aerial skirmish on February 27, 2019, an Indian Air Force MiG-21 Bison was shot down by a radar-guided missile. The Pakistani Air Force (PAF) claims the kill was scored by a JF-17 Thunder, a domestically-built fighter built with Chinese assistance.
However, India subsequently revealed fragments of an AIM-120C-5 missile—a U.S.-built weapon only compatible with the American-built F-16s in PAF service. Pakistan has incentives to deny the use of F-16s, as secret end-user agreements may restrict the aircraft’s use against India—despite that being an obvious application of the venerable fourth-generation jet. India, meanwhile, claims the MiG-21’s pilot managed to shoot down an F-16.
Air Cover for the Mujahideen
Pakistan’s F-16s have been no stranger to controversy for nearly four decades.
In response to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, Islamabad and Washington collaborated to train, organize and arm mujahideen resistance fighters in Afghan refugee camps in Pakistan. In retaliation, Afghan and Soviet warplanes began bombing the camps—and the PAF’s Chinese-made J-6 jets proved too slow to catch them.
Thus in 1981, Pakistan convinced the United States to sell it F-16 Fighting Falcon single-engine multi-role fighters—a then cutting-edge yet inexpensive-to-operate design with fly-by-wire controls affording it extraordinary maneuverability. The agile Falcon could attain speeds as high as Mach 2 and lug heavy weapons loads, though it did have a limited combat radius (around 350 miles) and early production models lacked beyond-visual-range missiles.