The Government of India awarded several serving personnel of the Indian military with gallantry awards in an investiture event organised on Monday. The event was organised at the Rashtrapati Bhavan. Renowned fighter pilot Group Captain Abhinandan Varthaman was also honoured with the Vir Chakra, the third highest wartime gallantry award, for his valour during the 2019 Indo-Pak aerial skirmish.
Group Captain Varthaman, then Wing Commander,was serving with the No 51 Squadron “Sword Arms”. Flying a MiG-21 Bison, Wg Cdr Abhinandan was posted at Srinagar Air Force station when the skirmishes broke out. On 27th February 2019, he was scrambled to intercept a wave of enemy fighters intruding the Indian airspace, when he managed to lock on a Pakistani F-16, and downed it using an R-73 missile. But as fate would have it, in the spur of the moment, Abhinandan’s MiG came under the crosshairs of another Pakistani pilot, who managed to shoot him down.
He was held captive by the Pakistan military for nearly 60 hours till his release on the orders of the Pakistan government. For his conspicuous act of gallantry, when faced with a superior enemy, the government of India formally declared in 2019 to honour Wg Cdr Abhinandan with Vir Chakra, the third highest gallantry award. The event was attended by a delegation of senior government officials, which included Prime Minister Modi and Defence Minister Rajnath Singh.
The citation for Gp Capt Abhinandan’s Vir Chakra reads as follows:
“Displaying exceptional air combat acumen and knowledge of the enemy’s tactics, Wing Commander Varthaman Abhinandan scanned the low altitude airspace with his Airborne Intercept (Al) radar and picked up an enemy aircraft that was flying low to ambush the Indian fighter interceptor aircraft,
Abhinandan alerted the other formation pilots towards this surprise threat. He then consolidated the riposte, by gathering his wingman in an offensive formation against the hostile Pakistani aircraft now dropping weapons on Indian Army positions. This audacious and aggressive manoeuvre forced the enemy aircraft into tactical chaos. All the enemy aircraft thereafter turned back including the rear echelon aircraft who were yet to launch their air to ground weapons,”
It further goes on to state that “Wing Commander Varthaman Abhinandan then pursued a retreating enemy fighter bomber aircraft, and in the ensuing aerial combat, shot down an F-16 aircraft with his on-board missile. However, in the melee, one of the enemy aircraft fired multiple advanced BVR missiles, one of which hit his aircraft forcing him to eject in enemy territory. Despite being captured by the enemy, he continued to display exceptional resolve in dealing with the adversary in a stoic, brave and dignified manner till he was repatriated on 01 March 2019. His actions raised the morale of the armed forces in general and the IAF in particular,”, adding that he also “showed conspicuous courage, demonstrated gallantry in the face of the enemy while disregarding personal Safety and displayed exceptional sense of duty”.
The action by Pakistan Air Force on Feb 27 is seen as retaliation for the surgical strikes which the Indian Air Force executed a day earlier. The airstrike targeted Jaish-e-Mohammad, a terrorist outfit based in Pakistan, at its biggest fortification situated atop the hills of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, near the town of Bakalot. The decision was taken after the country was hit by one of the most deadliest terror attacks of the decade, which happened on February 14 2019 when a suicide bomber detonated explosives after colliding with an Indian Army convoy at Jammu-Srinagar National Highway (44). The attack eventually caused 75+ casualties including 40 fatalities. Described as “pre-emptive” action, New Delhi claims that the fortification housed a large number of militants undergoing basic and advanced stages of training and therefore, it was necessary to carry out the operation in order to neutralize them, before they’d become a threat to India.
Islamabad, on the other hand, considers this as an “act of war” due to breaching of their authorized airspace by the Indian Air Force’s strike formation. The formation consisted 12 Mirage 2000, five of which dropped SPICE 2000 penetrator bombs on the target situated atop Jaba hill. A massive formation consisting of 24 jets, which included Mirage III/V, JF-17 A and F-16, Pakistan Air Force attempted to target several Indian military installations in Kashmir the next day. This is when the dogfight broke out, leading to Abhinandan’s ejection.
Since then, the diplomatic tensions between India and Pakistan escalated and deescalated on several occasions. However, the skirmish is still seen as a turning point in military modernisation programmes in both India and Pakistan, which changed its focus towards rectifying the shortcomings witnessed during the battle. Indian Air Force faced a major disadvantage in Beyond Visual (BVR) combat, fast tracked its procurement of advanced air-to-air missiles from Russia including RVV-SD and integration of new air-to-air missiles on Su-30MKI like Israeli I-Derby ER and French MICA. Additionally it also led to the operationalization of indigenous Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) Tejas with temporary deployment of No.45 “Flying Daggers” along the western border.