Islamabad: Tackling the question as to which aircraft -- the US supplied F-16 or the Chinese origin JF-17 -- brought down the IAF's MiG-21 Bison piloted by Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman, Pakistani daily the Dawn said on Saturday that the answer hardly mattered as either of the aircraft was equally capable of downing the Soviet-era MiG.
The French supplied Mirage-V, of which Pakistan has plenty, could have done it too, wrote Pervez Hoodbhoy in his column for the Dawn titled "F-16 or JF-17 -- which was it?"
Hoodbhoy is a Pakistani nuclear physicist and activist associated with the Forman Christian College in Lahore.
An Indian Air Force (IAF) MiG-21 Bison, piloted by Varthaman, was shot down by a Pakistan Air Force fighter aircraft on February 27, a day after the IAF air strike in Balakot in retaliation to the February 14 Pulwama terror attack.
Calling it a "touchy question for political and legal reasons", Hoodbhoy said these days the air platform mattered 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," the Dawn write-up said.
The writer also raised the point, "was pilot skill important?" "In this electronic age this is secondary but might still have mattered," Hoodbhoy said.
"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," the Dawn write-up added.
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, the Dawn column said.
In today's jargon, Hoodbhoy said, fighter aircraft were designed to primarily engage in BVR (Beyond Visual Range) mode. In fact, all reasonably advanced fighters -- American, 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.
He attributed any tipping in the scale during a dogfight to "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 the pilot turns slim. He could try a fast climb and hope to exhaust the missile's kinetic energy... But the more capable a missile, the smaller his chances of survival, the Dawn column said.
It added that with 5th generation aircraft -- such as the F-35 stealth fighter -- the game was already tilted.
Hoodbhoy said: "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."