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F-16 Damaged by Taliban-Claimed Fire in Afghanistan

KABUL, Afghanistan -- An American F-16 fighter jet was hit by small-arms fire last week in eastern Afghanistan, forcing the pilot to jettison fuel tanks and weapons before safely landing at a base, the U.S. military confirmed on Monday.

The incident occurred in Paktia province Tuesday, when surface-to-air fire hit one of the aircraft's stabilizers and damaged one of the munitions a U.S. military official said in a statement.

"The pilot jettisoned two fuel tanks and three munitions before safely returning to base," the statement said. "The pilot received no injuries."

Officials did not comment on the warplane's mission.

Several American and other coalition helicopters have been shot down in the past by insurgents in Afghanistan, but hitting a multimillion-dollar supersonic jet like the F-16 is a rare feat. Most small arms have an effective range of a only few thousand yards, so the aircraft was likely flying low and slow.

The Taliban, who routinely issue exaggerated claims, had reported in a statement online that they had downed a jet last Tuesday, but U.S. military officials initially said that they had no information on such an incident until Agence France-Presse confronted them with photos of the jettisoned payload.

The photos, as described by the French news agency, showed masked militants standing around the weapons and external fuel tanks.

A police official in Paktia confirmed to Stars and Stripes that a jet had dropped its payload but said he did not know of any military operations in the area.

A contingent of F-16s with the 555th Expeditionary Fighter Squadron operates from Bagram Air Field, north of Kabul.

The U.S. has renewed its air campaign in Afghanistan as government forces have struggled to hold off determined Taliban assaults. American air power also increasingly has been called in to support U.S. special operations troops on the ground.

As of the end of September, U.S. warplanes had deployed 629 weapons during 328 sorties. That doesn't include October, when a multiday operation of 63 airstrikes targeted alleged al-Qaida training camps, and heavy bombing campaigns were conducted to back up Afghan forces in northern Afghanistan, where one U.S. airstrike killed at least 22 people after hitting a Doctors Without Borders hospital.

Zubair Babakarkhail contributed to this report.

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