The Pentagon confirmed that a U.S. F-16 aircraft was struck by small arms fire from enemy forces while flying over Afghanistan last Tuesday.
In a statement posted on Twitter on the evening that the plane was hit, Taliban insurgents claimed they had downed the multi-million-dollar fighter jet.
However, when contacted for comment, the U.S. military initially claimed it has no “operational reporting to support the Taliban claims,” notes Agence France-Presse (AFP).
“On October 13, a US F-16 encountered small arms fire in the Paktia Province in Afghanistan,” said the Pentagon in statement initially issued to AFP. “The surface to air fire impacted one of the aircraft’s stabilizers and caused damage to one of the munitions.”
“The pilot jettisoned two fuel tanks and three munitions before safely returning to base,” it added. “The pilot received no injuries and safely returned to base.”
AFP received that statement after it reportedly shared images with the Pentagon showing two fuel tanks, an air-to-ground missile, and two other unguided bombs that were allegedly dropped from the aircraft after it took fire.
The photographs “also show masked militants posing with the hardware,” notes AFP.
According to the U.S.-led NATO coalition, the F-16 landed safely at the Bagram Airfield, north of Kabul.
“Our pilots routinely face threats from the ground, however they are well-trained and prepared to respond to any threat or attack,” said U.S. Air Force Capt. Susan Harrington in a statement from the NATO coalition, reports CNN.
Various media reports pointed out that the attack took place in the Sayid Karam district of eastern Paktia province, an area that is largely under the control of the Taliban.
A recent assessment by the Long War Journal revealed that the Taliban controls 36 districts across Afghanistan’s 34 provinces and contests 35 others.
Afghanistan has been plagued by a surge in Taliban attacks since President Obama ended the U.S. combat mission in the country at the end of 2014, withdrawing most American troops.
“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 50,000 feet, which have been deployed in Afghanistan since the beginning of the US-led military in 2001,” reports AFP.
“Since the 2014 drawdown, the US Air Force has maintained one squadron of F-16s at Bagram Air Base,” it adds.
U.S. military officials have not yet confirmed if the Taliban was behind the attack on the plane.
AFP learned from Niaz Mohammad Khalil, district governor of Sayid Karam where the attack took place, “that neither U.S. nor Afghan forces had been conducting any operation in the area that would have necessitated the use of air cover at the time of the attack.”