MiG-21 vs F-16 dogfight: Pakistani social media users circulate misleading image

MiG-21 Bison File (File) A MiG-21 Bison of the IAF on display; notice the R-77 missile fitted to the inner-wing hardpoint and the R-73 on the outer-wing hardpoint | Wikipedia Commons

It has been three weeks since the Indian Air Force announced that a MiG-21 Bison fighter, flown by Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman, had shot down a Pakistani F-16 near the Line of Control before crashing. The short engagement has continued to be the source of furious debate on social media as the Pakistan government has reiterated the F-16 never took part in the dogfight.

Early on Monday morning, several Pakistani users on Twitter and Facebook circulated an image showing the wreckage of two missiles. The wreckage was described as being two R-73 missiles carried by the MiG-21 flown by Varthaman, which crashed in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. Following the February 27 dogfight, the Indian Air Force had stated that an R-73 missile—which is a short-range infra-red guided weapon supplied by Russia—had shot down the Pakistani F-16.

Several Pakistani social media handles claimed that as the Indian Air Force MiG-21s could carry only two missiles, the image proved Varthaman could not have shot down an F-16.

However, a closer inspection of the image reveals the purported wreckage shows two different weapons, with distinct physical features. The weapon in the background resembles an R-73 missile, with its characteristic control fins near the seeker and above the exhaust. The missile in the foreground appears to have larger dimensions and has larger control fins in the mid-body section, which looks similar to the Russian-origin R-77 medium-range radar-guided missile. The R-73 missile, which has a length of about 2.9m, has a range of around 30km, while the R-77 is longer at 3.6m and has a range of over 80km.

The MiG-21 also has a total of five hardpoints to carry fuel tanks, bombs and missiles. The Indian Air Force has often displayed the MiG-21 Bison carrying two R-73 and R-77 missiles under its wings, negating the Pakistani social media claims of it being able to carry only two such weapons.

Not surprisingly, several Indian social media users and defence experts pointed out these discrepancies about the image being circulated. It appears the online dogfights on the 'MiG-21 versus F-16' debate will continue for a long time as Pakistan continues to remain guarded about the role and whereabouts of the F-16 fleet during the skirmish with India in late February.