Pakistan F-16s fought Soviet planes and shot down the future vice president of Russia
March 16, 2019
by Sebastien Roblin
In 1977, General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq overthrew the civilian president of Pakistan in a coup d’etat. He proceeded to institute Islamist hardline laws throughout Pakistan, and began rebuilding Pakistani military power after his humiliating defeat in a 1971 war with India.
After the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, Washington discovered that Zia’s policies fit conveniently with obtaining Pakistani assistance to support the Mujahideen insurgents fighting the communist forces. Therefore, Pakistani and American agents collaborated in the organization and armament of militants who proliferated in the Afghan refugee camps in Pakistan.
In retaliation, the bombers of the Soviet Air Force and the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan (DRAAF) began to cross the Pakistani airspace to exploit those refugee camps. The Pakistani army deployed J-6 fighters (MiG-19 clones built in China) capable of Mach 1 speed and two radars to defend the border, but these were too slow and the patrol and radar coverage too irregular, so none of the raids were intercepted
Thus, in 1981, Zia persuaded the Reagan administration to authorize the sale of forty F-16A and two F-16B of two positions, which would be received between 1983-1986. The last generation fighter of the fourth generation was affordable, extremely maneuverable due to its aerodynamically unstable design (compensated with cable flight controls), and could still reach high speeds and carry heavy loads.
However, the first production F-16 lacked the ability to fire radar-guided missiles beyond visual range. This meant that Pakistani hawks needed to approach their opponents to use their most advanced AIM-9P AIM-9L heat search missiles, or their 20 mm Vulcan cannons.
In 1986, the F-16s of the No. 9 Griffin of the PAF and the 14 Shaheen squadrons were finally ready to begin flying aerial combat patrols along the Afghan border. That year, Soviet and Afghan forces began a series of offensive attacks against Mujahideen bases in the Panshir Valley, supported by heavy bombardment of refugee camps.
On May 17, 1986, two F-16A vectorized toward two DRAAF Su-22M3K that penetrated the Pakistani airspace near Parachinar. The Sukhois were robust supersonic swing-wing combat bombers who often suffered heavy losses in the Cold War conflicts.
The F-16 of the PAF closed within a six-mile radius and Squad Leader Hameed Qadri launched a Sidewinder that he couldn’t hit. The Su-22 quickly returned to the Afghan border. Qadri fired a second AIM-9L that first flew away from the Sukhoi, then curled up and slammed into its target.
In an account published by the PAF, Qadri describes that he ran to the second Su-22, which faced a weapon:
“The other plane turned left. His turning radius and energy status gave me enough confidence to easily reach death parameters with both missiles and weapons. During the turn, I found myself hitting the edges of the AIM-9P missile. I made a high yoyo since I was in a totally offensive position. My goal was now in the nose down and in the direction of the Afghan territory. After aiming, I quickly backed away and fired a burst of three seconds on the Su-22 coming out. I stopped firing when a trail of smoke and flash of his plane confirmed a lethal death. Through an ‘S’ division, I headed east of Parachinar. “
However, the Afghan Air Force confirmed the loss of a single plane, although the confrontation led to a significant decrease in attacks on refugee camps. In addition, the Soviet VVS deployed MiG-23MLD fighters to protect the Afghan Su-22.
Qadri met the MiG a month later, but neither party opened fire. Almost a year later, on April 16, 1987, the F-16 chased the DRAAF Su-22 again near Thal, managing to overcome supersonic airplanes despite having to attack from a lower altitude. The Badar-us-Islam squad leader shot down Sukhoi from Lt. Col. Abdul Jameel, who was expelled and was captured on Pakistani soil.
By 1987, Soviet records indicate that Pakistani fighters had begun to roam Afghan airspace, particularly harassment efforts to provide air refueling to besieged garrisons such as Khost, just ten miles across the border.
On March 30, 1987, two F-16s intercepted an An-26 double turboprop cargo plane near Khost, each hitting it with a Sidewinder from just under a mile away. The heavy cargo plane crashed into the snowy mountains below, killing the 39 on board. In the course of the conflict, Pakistani F-16 pilots also claimed the destruction of several Mi-8 transport helicopters, another An-26 on a reconnaissance mission in 1989, and a deadly maneuver against an An-24 transport that actually I was trying to defect.
However, the fate of the Pakistani combat athlete changed two weeks later when two Squadrons No.9 F-16 ambushed four MiG-23s of the 120th Soviet Fighter Regiment while placing cluster bombs on mujahideen supply bases in Djaware, Pakistan. When Soviet Lieutenant Colonel Pochitalkin led his unit in evasive maneuvers, he saw a plane plummeting towards the burning earth beneath him.
This was not a MiG, but Lieutenant Shahi Sikander’s F-16, which had been inadvertently acquired by an AIM-9L shot by his assistant. Sikander parachuted to Afghan soil, where he and the remains of his plane were smuggled back to Pakistan by Mujahideen. Some Russian sources claim that Sikander was shot down by a Soviet plane, although the MiGs did not carry air-to-air missiles, or that they had somehow thrown themselves into the rain of cluster bombs.
In 1988, when Soviet ground forces withdrew from Afghanistan, DRAAF and Soviet aviation units began a new campaign of fierce bombing in a final effort to save the crumbling Afghan communist government.
On August 8, Colonel Alexander Rutskoy, commander of a slow but heavily armored Su-25 Frogfoot attack aircraft regiment, led a night raid on the Maranshah refugee camp when his four-ship flight was bounced by two F- 16A on day 14. combat squad. Rutskoy turned sharply towards the F-16s, perhaps trying to push them away, and believing that the missile in search of heat would lose its trail if the hot exhaust pipe of its plane was removed from it. But the AIM-9L was designed to attack targets from all aspects, and the detonations of its proximity warhead broke the “flying tank” in two.
Rutskoy expelled on Pakistani soil and was captured. Swapped back to Russia, he was decorated as a hero of the Soviet Union and became vice president of Russia under Boris Yeltsin, before leading a coup attempt in 1993.
A month after the demolition of Rutskoy, a formation of twelve Soviet MiG-23s, eight loaded with bombs and four with R-24 air-to-air missiles, sneaked into Pakistani airspace near the Kunar Valley at 32,000 feet, probably searching attract PAF F-16 in an ambush.
Obligatory, two F-16s ran towards the swing wing fighters at only 11,000 feet. However, Soviet radars could not detect the lowest F-16s in the middle of the land disorder. A Sidewinder shot at an angle pronounced by Squad Leader Khalid Mahmood managed to hit a MiG-23 with shrapnel, which limped back home for a forced landing. Two MiGs separated to face the F-16s in a dogfight. But while Pakistani pilots claimed two MiG-23 murders, Soviet records show that no additional planes were lost.
On November 3, 1988, PAF would pocket its last jet kill when Lt. Khalid Mahmood shot down a DRAAF Su-2M4K. Pakistan formally accredits its F-16 pilots with 10 deaths during the conflict, while Soviet records confirm the loss of three Su-22, one Su-25 and An-26. Some sources claim that the PAF shot down at least a dozen other planes during the Soviet war in Afghanistan, which apparently were not formally accredited because they involved violations of Afghan airspace. Those interested in a more extensive account of the Pakistani-Afghan air battles are recommended to consult the following compilations of Pakistani air combat narratives.
Sébastien Roblin has a master’s degree in conflict resolution from Georgetown University and served as a university instructor for the Peace Corps in China. He has also worked in education, editing and resettlement of refugees in France and the United States. He currently writes about security and military history for War Is Boring.