The government will, as it was expected to, announce military decorations for Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman for shooting down a Pakistani F-16 during a dogfight over the Line of Control on February 27 and the Mirage-2000 pilots involved in the operation a day before that to precision bomb a terror base in Pakistan’s Balakot, two officials familiar with the development said on Wednesday.
Varthaman is likely to be awarded a Vir Chakra for his exploits, and the five Mirage-2000 fighter aces who dropped bombs on the terror facility of the Jaish-e-Mohammed, the Vayu Sena Medal for gallantry, said one of the officials cited above. Hindustan Times was the first to report on April 20 that Varthaman and the Mirage-2000 pilots could get gallantry awards.
Varthaman, then 35, scripted military aviation history by downing an F-16, seconds before his own MiG-21 Bison was hit by a missile forcing him to eject. Experts hailed it as the first ever kill of an F-16 by a MiG-21 Bison, fighter jets of two different generations. Varthaman was captured after he bailed out of his aircraft, but Pakistan returned him to India on March 1 after holding him captive for almost 60 hours.
The February 27 dogfight took place a day after the Mirage-2000s struck targets in Balakot in response to the Pulwama suicide attack in Kashmir in which 40 Central Reserve Police Force men were killed on February 14.
Vir Chakra is India’s third-highest wartime gallantry award, after the Param Vir Chakra and the Maha Vir Chakra. Varthaman is recovering from ejection-related injuries and is likely to undergo a series of tests in the coming months at the Bengaluru-based Institute of Aerospace Medicine that will have to give him final clearance for flying again, the second official said.
He was earlier posted at the Srinagar air base with the air force’s No 51 squadron, also known as ‘Sword Arms’, but was moved to another base a few months ago for security reasons. He is currently carrying out administrative duties at his new base.
The Mirage pilots struck targets in Balakot with Israeli-origin Spice 2000 bombs with penetrator warheads that allowed them to pierce through the rooftops before exploding inside to cause maximum damage.
“If the awards are being announced on Independence Day, it will be an acknowledgement of the professionalism and courage displayed by the fighter pilots in missions where stakes were very high,” said Air Vice Marshal Manmohan Bahadur (retd), additional director general, Centre for Air Power Studies.