Did Pakistan use a Chinese-designed fighter jet to down an Indian MiG over Kashmir last month? That seems likely if, as Islamabad says, its air force wasn’t flying an American-made F-16.
The question is important because deployment of an F-16 in this context would probably constitute a violation of the defence contract deal signed between Pakistan and the US.
If the China-designed JF-17 was the aircraft in action it would also mark the first time the fighter has downed another manned jet.
The significance of a Chinese aircraft taking out an Indian-flown one will not be lost on military observers in Delhi and Beijing. India and China share a 3,500km border through the Himalayas, much of which is disputed. In the summer of 2017 troops from the two giants came into contact over a small stretch of frontier at Doklam, a remote valley that borders the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan.
Then there is the issue of relations with Pakistan: India’s traditional rival but China’s “all-weather friend”.
There were hopes that ties between Delhi and Islamabad would improve after former cricketer Imran Khan was elected as Pakistan’s prime minister in July last year. But a February 14 attack by a Pakistani-based terrorist group on Indian security forces has ratcheted up tensions in the region to levels not seen for decades.
At the heart of the argument is India’s accusation that the intelligence services in Pakistan support terrorist outfits like Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) – the group which claimed responsibility for the attack, in which 40 Indian security personnel perished.
Narendra Modi, India’s Hindu nationalist prime minister, has taken a harder line than his predecessors and the February 26 airstrike on targets on Pakistani soil marked the first time that India had launched aerial attacks against its neighbour since the two countries fought a war in 1971.
When Pakistani forces retaliated the following day India sent up fighter jets, including a Russian-built MiG-21 Bison. It was downed, leading to the capture of its pilot.
India says Pakistan deployed an F-16 and that it has part of a missile to prove it. Islamabad denies the claim but has refused to provide further evidence.
Investors in China are happy enough that the JF-17 has been getting the credit. Shares in Sichuan Chengfei Integration Technology, a sister company of Chengdu Aircraft Corporation (CAC), which makes the JF-17, climbed 10% in five minutes on the morning of February 27 – hitting the maximum daily increase. The shares logged another 10% rise the following day.
The trigger for the surge was probably a tweet by Sharif Latif, a retired Pakistan Air Marshal. “Proud to announce, I was project director for JF-17 Thunder programme jointly produced by Pakistan and China… Today, same jets targeted and shot down Indian jets which entered Pakistani airspace,” he crowed.
China’s collaboration with Pakistan goes back to the late 1960s when the Chinese delivered the Shenyang F-6 to take on India’s MiG-19. Pakistan and China began working on the JF-17 programme in the mid-1990s, with most of the design work contracted to the Chinese. The aircraft is a lightweight fighter with a single engine sourced from Russia. The planes are assembled in Pakistan and first went into service in 2010. Pakistan’s air force is said to have about 110 of them, although Islamabad may order more in a bid to be less dependent on the US-made F-16.
The MiG-21 Bison – a Soviet design – dates back to 1959 and is known as the “flying coffin” in Indian aviation circles for its terrible safety record.
In 2012 India’s then defence minister told parliament that more than half the 872 MiGs that had been purchased from the Russians had been lost in ‘accidents’ at a cost of over 200 lives. Many have questioned why they are still in use today.
The Chinese defence ministry did not respond when it was asked whether JF-17s were involved in the Pakistan-India clashes. Instead, a spokesman for the ministry called for both sides to show restraint. That said, the Chinese won’t mind that one of their aircraft designs does seem to have an edge over its counterpart in the Indian air force.
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