Indian Air Force MiG-21 interceptor jet downed a PAF F-16 in an aerial dogfight over Kashmir

by Adam Garrie

Last week, US official sources debunked India’s un-evidenced claim that it downed a Pakistani F-16 during an aerial engagement following the Pulwama incident in February. In spite of the US pivoting its south-Asian strategy towards India, not least because India can be used as America’s anti-Chinese proxy in the region, the US does not want to burn all of its bridges with Pakistan due to Islamabad’s crucial war in the Afghan peace process. Even more importantly from the US perspective, as the world’s foremost seller of military hardware, the US could not sit back while India claimed that a comparatively ancient Soviet built MiG-21 (first flight 1956, ceased production 1985) could outmanoeuvre and down a contemporary American F-16.

Thus, far from the US “taking Pakistan’s side”, the US was exercising its own logical self-interest in rebuffing a claim by India that was always viewed as ludicrous among aviation experts who knew that a jet designed during the first full decade of the Cold War simply could not out-manoeuvre an F-16. In normal circumstances, the story would end there and India would have reciprocated America’s calm and quiet statement on the fact that no F-16 was lost, with an equally calm approach that simply let the issue die down naturally.

That being said, assuming that India’s government would take a logical approach to anything remotely relating to Pakistan during an election cycle would represent an incredibly false assumption. Sure enough, Indian officials doubled down on their F-16 downing claim and presented “evidence” indicating that their MiG-21 downed the F-16. The fact however that the “evidence” looked as though it was a 1980s computer drawing from an obsolete flight simulator has hardly served India’s purpose outside of domestic jingoistic media that habitually refuses to disbelieve any alleged Indian feat of strength.
Within the context of south Asian geopolitical relations, this is another example of India flogging yet another dead horse in an attempt to try and minimise the fact that Pakistan irrefutably downed an Indian jet, rescued its pilot and then peacefully released him within days – thus demonstrating a clear tactical victory for Pakistan, as well as establishing the fact that Pakistan adhered to the standards of international law and perhaps beyond in its hospitable treatment of the captured pilot.

But because India is implicitly challenging the honesty of its American partner, things are now about something more than India-Pakistan relations and domestic political grandstanding. In spite of its reputation for playing zero-sum games, when it comes to India, the US has been flexible in terms of soft power whilst cleverly exerting zero-sum pressures against India when it comes to getting what it wants.

America wants the following from India:

1. To act as a regional force exerting pressure against China
2. Ever more contracts for US built military hardware, thus cutting the Cold War era umbilical chord linking India’s defence sector to Moscow
3. To exploit India’s extreme anti-Pakistan political atmosphere in the event that Pakistan and the US have a disagreement that Washington deems to be critical

In each of these areas, India has thus far been a compliant partner, so much so that in spite of Donald Trump calling for higher tariffs against Indian imports, the fundamental military/strategic ties between the two will remain the same no matter how many Indian politicians complain about Trump doing to India what he has done to Canada, Mexico, China, South Korea and the EU in the context of America’s newfound ultra-protectionism.

Against this background, the US is happy for India to talk and act like an independent superpower. First of all, while the US realises that China does not for a second take India’s bravado as anything other than a verbal provocation, it helps the US cause among some of the more geopolitically ambivalent nations of Asia (particularly in ASEAN). This is the case because some such ambivalent nations might consider India as a preferable “superpower” partner to China if they believe New Delhi’s rhetoric without taking a more objective view.

Secondly and much more crucially, by allowing Indian politicians to act as though they’re more geopolitically important than they are and also more independent of American influence than they are, the US allows India to feed its own delusion, thus de facto silencing domestic criticisms of a lopsided partnership with the US that might have otherwise come to the fore in the India of yesteryear.

In each of these cases, America spends no money by allowing India to perpetuate its own delusions while the US stands to redress the balance of trade by selling New Delhi some of the world’s most expensive weapons while prohibiting cheap Indian goods from easy access to the US market. If one was a US strategist, the time for patting one’s self on the back would be forthcoming.

That being said, India’s brazen disregard of America’s debunking of the F-16 myth will certainly perk some ears in the US. The US already felt that India pushed things too far vis-a-vis Pakistan after Pulwama as Donald Trump himself indicated that it is in the US interest to see tensions de-escalate. The US might want to use India for its own advantage in the region, but when it comes to seeking the avoidance of another full scale war between India and Pakistan, the US is in agreement with both China and Russia in respect of sharing a desire to avoid one at all costs.

India has therefore twice pushed things too far in respect of “exercising its independence” – once when it aroused the concerns of the world about a potential nuclear India-Pakistan war in the 21st century and secondly when it presented comically absurd “evidence” in an attempt to deny Pakistan’s F-16 claims that remain supported by Washington.

When all is said and done, India’s behaviour in respect of the F-16 myth is not going to change the nature of India-US relations in a strategic sense. However, it could make the US more willing to entertain the possibility of a long term relationship with India that does not necessarily involve the BJP.

It is true that under Narendra Modi, relations with the US have progressed far quicker than they could have conceivably done under the mild mannered Prime Minister Manmohan Singh of the Congress party. And yet, because of the remarkable pace at which Modi’s government has pivoted into the US camp, as geopolitical expert Andrew Korybko recently wrote, the Indian “deep state” is now sufficiently aligned with American interests in the region that irrespective of who wins the current election (or the election after the current one), the US will not be particularly flummoxed.

In this sense, the more that India under BJP rule goes rogue in terms of saying and doing what the US finds disagreeable, the BJP is actually setting up the seemingly rudderless Congress opposition leader Rahul Gandhi to become a much easier leader for the US to work with in the medium term vis-a-vis the hot headed Modi.

Thus, in the medium term, one may be about to witness the irony of the BJP’s greatest achievement being a Congress party that does and says what the US wants, minus the more extreme aspects of the political melodrama that defines Modi’s government.