Here's what happened.
Weird: India Sent a Really Old MiG-21 to Battle an U.S. Made F-16. Why?
On Feb. 26, 2019 Indian planes crossed the line of control at India's border with Pakistan and bombed what New Dehli described as a terrorist training camp near Balakot.
(This first appeared in March 2019.)
Several days of aerial fighting followed the bombing raid. On Feb. 27, 2019, Pakistani F-16s and other planes crossed the line of control to attack Indian forces, New Delhi claimed.
Indian MiG-21s and other fighters intercepted the Pakistanis and shot down one F-16, killing its pilot, according to the Indian government. Islamabad claimed its forces shot down two MiG-21s, but New Delhi copped to losing just one jet.
Pakistani forces captured the MiG-21 pilot, Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman, and held him for two days before handing him over to Indian officials.
India's MiG-21s, while featuring some key upgrades, still are more than 30 years old. The Pakistani F-16 that the Indians shot down reportedly was a Block 52D model that Islamabad in 2005 ordered from the United States.
"The MiG-21 is in our inventory, why will we not use it?" Indian Air Chief Marshal BS Dhanoa rhetorically asked reporters when questioned about the aerial disparity.
To be fair, India in the 1990s upgraded its MiG-21s to the "Bison" standard with Western-style avionics, a new radar and radar warning receiver and compatibility with modern weapons. "[It] has got better weapons system, better air-to-air missiles," Dhanoa pointed out.
But the main reason India sent the MiG-21 into battle is that the type is still one of the most numerous in Indian air force service. "We fight with all the aircraft in our inventory," Dhanoa said.
Indeed, the aerial battle in which the MiG-21 and F-16 were shot down involved, on both sides, mixed formations of old and new fighters.
"The MiG-21 that was shot down on Feb. 27, 2019, was part of a formation of eight Indian fighters which included four Sukhoi 30s, two upgraded Mirage 2000s and two MiG-21 Bisons that were dispatched to engage a package of 24 [Pakistani air force] jets that included eight F-16s, four Mirage III aircraft, four JF-17 Thunders," David Cenciotti reported at The Aviationist.
India for years has been struggling to replace a large fleet of old, Russian-made warplanes. In 2018 the Indian air force operated 244 1960s-vintage MiG-21s and 84 MiG-27s that are only slightly younger.
The MiG-21s, in particular, are accident-prone. Since the first of 874 MiG-21s entered Indian service in 1963, around 490 have crashed, killing around 200 pilots.