A U.S. F-16 Fighting Falcon jet was hit by ground fire over Taliban-controlled territory in Afghanistan last week, forcing the pilot to jettison fuel tanks and bombs to make it back to base, the Pentagon said Monday.
The aircraft flying out of Bagram airbase north of Kabul was hit while on patrol over eastern Paktia province by what the Pentagon said was "small arms fire."
The caliber of the bullets and the type of weapon used was not immediately known, but a shoulder-fired anti-air missile had initially been ruled out, said Pentagon spokesman Capt. Jeff Davis.
Statements from U.S. Central Command said the pilot was uninjured and brought the aircraft back to Bagram safely.
Davis said that on Oct. 13 an F-16 "encountered small arms fire. That small arms fire did impact one of the aircraft’s stabilizers (on the tail section) and caused damage to one of the munitions it was carrying."
"As a precautionary measure, two of its fuel tanks and three of its munitions were jettisoned" before the F-16 returned safely to base, he said.
The Taliban later released photos purporting to show Afghan villagers and militants milling about amid the wreckage of the fuel tanks and what appeared to be unexploded bombs.
Jettisoning attached munitions and fuel tanks "is a pretty standard precaution," retired Marine Col. Stephen Ganyard, an aviation consultant for ABC News, said in a dispatch.
"This pilot would have had to have been flying below 5,000 feet and more likely below 2,000 feet," he said. "Bullets just don't travel that far vertically."
U.S. Air Forces Central Command said in a statement, "The F-16 was flying routine combat air patrols. F-16s regularly fly combat air patrols across Afghanistan in support of ground forces."
The damaging of the multiple-role aircraft deigned for both air combat and ground attack was the third major air incident in Afghanistan this month.
On Oct. 11, a Westland Puma HC Mk 2 helicopter crashed while attempting to land in Kabul, killing five of the 10 people on board.
On Oct. 2, an Air Force C-130J crashed on takeoff from Jalalabad airfield in eastern Afghanistan, killing all six airmen and 5 defense contractors aboard, and two people on the ground.
The U.S. has yet to lose a fixed-wing aircraft to ground fire but at least 23 coalition fixed-wing aircraft have crashed, according to the Defense Department. In addition, eight Marine AV-8B Harrier jets were destroyed on the ground in a September 2012 attack on Camp Bastion in Helmand province.
--Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@military.com.