F-16 or JF-17 – which was it?

April 13, 2019

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The writer teaches physics in Lahore and Islamabad.
The writer teaches physics in Lahore and Islamabad.

TO this touchy question — touchy for political and legal reasons — the answer is that it scarcely matters. Either aircraft, the US supplied F-16 or the Chinese origin JF-17, was equally capable of downing the Soviet era Mig-21 Bison piloted by Wing Commander Abhinandan Varathaman. The French supplied Mirage-V, of which Pakistan has plenty, could have done this too. These days the air platform matters relatively little; in the Bison case one set of avionics and air-to-air missiles had clearly worked as intended. Hence Pakistan ended with a 1-0 kill in its favour, albeit one that India denies.

Was pilot skill important? In this electronic age this is secondary but might still have mattered. Having flown more sorties than Indians, Pakistani pilots are better trained. Indeed, there was massive use of fighter aircraft for ground support during the Zarb-i-Azb operation, and earlier against Baloch separatists. These were ideal for pilot training since there was little danger of being shot down.

Yet it is easily possible to make too much of the Bison’s downing. Knowing some key facts about modern air combat can help one arrive at a more balanced view. This makes possible a more clinical management of Indian and Pakistani testosterone levels which, after India’s botched Balakot attack, had shot sky high on both sides. Even reasonable Pakistani columnists — who generally tend to keep an even keel — had briefly tipped over. One likened the post-Balakot aerial skirmish to the Battle of Britain.

As silicon chips battle the adversary’s silicon chips the era of aerial dogfighting is closing down.

Reflecting upon modern air combat here has a second purpose: to raise a warning flag. People everywhere tend to live in the past and most appear unaware that modern weaponry has changed the nature of war itself. They still search for heroes when, in fact, the role of valour is well on its way out. Wars of the future, particularly aerial wars, will be entirely hero-less and fundamentally technology driven.

Nobody could have anticipated this at the beginning of aerial warfare in around 1914. During the early months of the First World War, German and British pilots would simply wave to each other while carrying out reconnaissance missions across enemy lines. Then some started carrying bricks to throw at the plane flying just below. Grenades followed, graduating to pistols and revolvers. By the war’s end fighter planes like the Sopwith Camel and Fokker D-VII were equipped with machine guns and could zip along at nearly 180 kilometres per hour — then a huge speed!

Over the following decades — and particularly during the Second World War — aircraft manoeuvred to shoot each other out of the sky. Their dogfights created grand spectacles for those on the ground. Fighter aces, defined as those with 5+ kills, became known for their derring-do and were worshipped by publics everywhere.

As an exuberant 14-year old, I too had plastered my room with pictures of the Red Baron (Manfred von Richtofen), Douglas Bader (of Battle of Britain fame) and, of course, my ace hero M.M. Alam who brought down five Indian Hawker Hunters in just one sortie during the 1965 war. Almost as awesome was ‘8-Pass Charlie’, a Pakistani B-58 pilot so nicknamed by an Indian fighter pilot who described him as “a cool dude and a professional of the highest order”. 8-Pass Charlie routinely made eight passes over Adampur air base in Indian Punjab, each time dropping his bombs after carefully choosing his target.

That age of grudging admiration for the enemy’s valour ultimately closed as warfare became increasingly depersonalised. Eye-to-eye air combat is unimaginable today! In today’s jargon, fighter aircraft are designed to primarily engage in BVR (Beyond Visual Range) mode. In fact, all reasonably advanced fighters — US, Russian, Chinese, or French — can detect an enemy using BVR Doppler radar and then deploy air-to-air missiles from as far as 50-100 km. This means having the supporting infrastructure of radars, data-links, self-defence jammers, and helmet-mounted sights.

Once a missile’s radar locks onto its target, the options for that unfortunate pilot are only a few. He could try a fast climb and hope to exhaust the missile’s kinetic energy, or turn tightly and risk high G’s with subsequent blackout. But the more capable a missile, the smaller his chances of survival.

Fifth generation aircraft — such as the F-35 stealth fighter — have tilted an already tilted playing field much further. In Atlantic war exercises these fighters have been repeatedly tested against the kind of third- and fourth-generation fighters like those currently in the Pakistani and Indian air fleets. While kill ratios are secret, they are sometimes leaked. Assuming the leaks are correct, in some hypothetical war just two squadrons of American F-35s could knock down the combined might of the PAF and IAF fleets fighting together for the loss of just one F-35 — or perhaps none.

That’s here and now, not some hypothetical future! But what lies in decades hence? Most probably things will be unrecognisably different from the present. One can guess that lasers or heavy ion beams will become powerful enough to instantly zap planes out of the sky. Fighter aircraft — if they then still exist — will be flown by robots situationally informed by deep neural nets. The human pilot, who can sustain only so many G’s and whose responses are slow and bumbling, will become redundant.

Back in the days of face-to-face fighting, it made sense to talk of courage and gallantry. But technology is rapidly dispensing with the need to walk through the trenches or to smell the blood. Future battles will be fought by button pushers using their silicon chips against the adversary’s silicon chips. There can be no heroes and martyrs — just victims.

Nevertheless even young people remain locked into old modes of thinking. India’s Balakot adventure, followed by an episode of aerial dogfighting, has led to today’s astonishing situation where, on either side of the border, most people are soundly convinced that their side won and the other was ‘taught a lesson’. Heroic actions on one’s own side are still being sought and extolled. Gullible masses are readily falling for their respective national narrative; surely something has gone dreadfully wrong. Particularly between nuclear rivals, nationalism and war are now lethal anachronisms.

The writer teaches physics in Lahore and Islamabad.

Published in Dawn, April 13th, 2019