A US F-16 was struck by enemy fire in eastern Afghanistan, military officials have confirmed to AFP, in a rare instance of an advanced fighter jet coming under a Taliban-claimed attack.
The multi-million-dollar jet sustained significant damage, forcing it to jettison its fuel tanks and munitions before returning to base, officials said.
The attack occurred last Tuesday in the Sayid Karam district of eastern Paktia province, much of which is under control of the Taliban, who have been waging an insurgency against US-led NATO forces and government troops since they were forced from power in 2001.
The militant group claimed they had downed the jet in a statement posted on Twitter that evening, but when contacted for comment, the US military initially said it had no “operational reporting to support the Taliban claims”.
Photographs of the site obtained by AFP and seen by J Chacko, an open-source military analyst based in London, indicated the jet had lost two “drop-tanks” (fuel tanks used to extend flight time), an air-to-ground missile, and two other unguided bombs.
They also show masked militants posing with the hardware.
When presented with the images, the US military confirmed in a statement to AFP late on Saturday: “On October 13, a US F-16 encountered small arms fire in the Paktia Province in Afghanistan. The surface-to-air fire impacted one of the aircraft’s stabilisers and caused damage to one of the munitions.
“The pilot jettisoned two fuel tanks and three munitions before safely returning to base. The pilot received no injuries and safely returned to base.”
The Taliban have shot down several military helicopters using small-arms fire, but never an F-16 — an advanced jet capable of supersonic speeds and reaching heights of 15,000 metres, which have been deployed in Afghanistan since the beginning of the US-led military in 2001.
Since the 2014 drawdown, the US Air Force has maintained one squadron of F-16s at Bagram Air Base.
The latest generation of the F-16 has a price tag of more than $US100 million per jet according to a deal reached with the Iraqi Air Force last year, which included spare parts and a support package.