'As details come out, it looks worse and worse for the Indians'
A United States count of the F-16s with Pakistan has found that none of them are missing, contradicting India's claim that one of its fighter jets shot down a Pakistani F-16 during an aerial dogfight on February 27, a leading American magazine reported on Thursday.
Two senior US defense officials with direct knowledge of the situation told the Foreign Policy magazine that American personnel recently counted Islamabad's F-16s and found none of the planes missing.
"The findings directly contradict the account of Indian Air Force officials, who said that Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman managed to shoot down a Pakistani F-16 before his own plane was downed by a Pakistani missile," the report said.
"It is possible that in the heat of combat, Varthaman, flying a vintage MiG-21 Bison, got a lock on the Pakistani F-16, fired, and genuinely believed he scored a hit," the report said.
The report said that evidence also suggests that Pakistan's F-16s were involved in the aerial battle with the Indian Air Force and only the F-16 can shoot a US-made AIM-120 air-to-air missile.
When the incident occurred, India asked the US government to investigate whether Pakistan's use of the F-16 against India violated the terms of the foreign military sale agreements.
The Indian Air Force on February 28 displayed pieces of the AMRAAM missile, fired by a Pakistani F-16, as evidence to "conclusively" prove that Pakistan deployed US-manufactured F-16 fighter jets during an aerial raid targeting Indian military installations in Kashmir.
According to the magazine, Pakistan invited the US to physically count its F-16 planes after the incident as part of an end-user agreement signed when the foreign military sale was finalised.
Some of the aircraft were not immediately available for inspection due to the conflict, so it took US personnel several weeks to account for all of the jets, one US official said.
But now the count has been completed, and "all aircraft were present and accounted for," the official said.
"A US count of Pakistan's F-16 fleet has found that all the jets are present and accounted for, a direct contradiction to India's claim that it shot down one of the fighter jets during a February clash," Lara Seligman of the magazine reported.
The count of the F-16 fighter planes in Pakistan has been completed, and "all aircraft were present and accounted for," an unnamed defence official was quoted as saying by the report.
The US Department of Defence did not immediately respond to a question on its count of F-16 fighter jets in Pakistan.
The US State Department and the Indian and Pakistani embassies declined to comment, the report said.
Pakistan had categorically said that no F-16 fighter jets were used and denied that one of its planes had been downed by the IAF.
But on April 1, Pakistan military spokesman Maj Gen Asif Ghafoor for the first time indicated that F-16s might have been used to hit Indian fighter jets during the aerial combat on February 27.
In a statement, he said Pakistan had the right to use "anything and everything" in its self defence.
He further said: "Even if F-16 have been used as at that point in time complete PAF was airborne including F16s, the fact remains that Pakistan Air Force shot down two Indian jets in self defence."
The report said the remnants of a US-made AIM-120 air-to-air missile was found near the site; out of all the aircraft involved, only the F-16 can shoot such a weapon.
"As details come out, it looks worse and worse for the Indians," Massachusetts Institute of Technology Professor Vipin Narang told the Foreign Policy magazine.
"It looks increasingly like India failed to impose significant costs on Pakistan, but lost a plane and a helicopter of its own in the process," he said.
Tensions between India and Pakistan escalated after a suicide bomber of Pakistan-based Jaish-e-Mohammed terror group killed 40 Central Reserve Police Force personnel in Jammu and Kashmir's Pulwama district on February 14.
India launched a counter-terror operation against a JeM training camp in Balakot.
The next day, Pakistan Air Force retaliated and downed a MiG-21 in an aerial combat and captured its pilot Wing Commander Varthaman, who was handed over to India on March 1 in an effort to de-escalate the crisis.