Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman's captivity in Pakistan came soon after he had shot down a Pakistani F-16 with a short-range R-73 missile during the fierce dogfight on Wednesday morning. The MiG-21 Bison that he was flying had crossed the Line of Control (LoC) to retain the locking on the target and got shot down either by a surface-to-air missile or another Pakistani jet. Abhinandan was subsequently held captive by Pakistani forces.

A report by The Economic Times cites sources which said that the engagement started when at least 10 Pakistan Air force (PAF) aircraft were seen heading for military along the LoC.

Pakistan's F-16 Jet which was shot down by Abhinandan's MiG-21 "Bison": Image: RepublicTV

Subsequently, a combat air patrol, with at least two MiG-21 fighter jets and Su-30MKI fighters, was launched from the Indian side to engage them. The jets were heading towards the Naushera sector in Jammu and Kashmir in a bid to target an Indian brigade headquarter and some other army installations.

Since Thursday evening, moments after news about Abhinandan's release was conveyed by Pakistan, the whole of India has been awaiting his return and perhaps shed light on what exactly happened that day, how he downed the jet or better yet, let people know if he was indeed treated well in the neighbouring country. For now, let's understand what is an R-73 missile that had brought down the Pakistani F-16.

R-73 Missile

An Indian Air Force Sukhoi Su-30MKI air dominance fighter carrying the Vympel R-73 missile

The short-range air-to-air missile was developed by Russian research and production firm Vympel NPO to replace the earlier R-60. This missile is an infrared homing (meaning it uses infrared light emission from a target to track and follow it) weapon with a minimum engagement range of 300 metres. It is employed against highly manoeuvrable targets by MiG-29, MiG-31, Su-27/33, Su-34 and Su-35. The advanced R-73 missile features Thrust Vectoring Control (TVC) that offers unprecedented manoeuvrability in air-to-air engagement. India is also looking to use the missile on their HAL Tejas.

On 24 February 1996, two Cessna 337s of the Brothers to the Rescue, the group known for its opposition to the Cuban government, were shot down while flying illegally over Cuban airspace by a Cuban Air Force MiG-29UB. Each of the aircraft was downed by an R-73 missile.

Again, during the Eritrean-Ethiopian War from May 1998 to June 2000, R-73 missiles were used in combat by both Ethiopian Su-27s and Eritrean MiG-29s. On 18 March 2008, a MiG-29 Fulcrum of the Russian Air Force intercepted a Georgian Elbit Hermes 450 UAV over Abkhazia. The MiG-29 destroyed the UAV with an R-73 missile.