The smoking remains of the chopper after it was shot down by an IAF missile near Budgam
By Ajai Shukla
Edited version in Business Standard, 27th April 19
The Indian Air Force (IAF) has been told to keep on hold the findings of a “court of inquiry” (CoI) that has conclusively determined that an IAF Mi-17V5 helicopter was shot down by an Indian missile battery that was guarding Srinagar air base.
A senior helicopter pilot, of the rank of air commodore, heads the CoI.
Six IAF personnel and a civilian on the ground died in that “friendly fire” incident on February 27. Top IAF sources say the incident happened after officers from the ground missile battery misidentified the IAF chopper as a Pakistani aircraft on a mission to attack Srinagar.
The disaster took place the day after IAF fighters had struck a Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM) terrorist camp in Pakistan to retaliate against a JeM suicide bomb attack 12 days earlier, which killed over 40 Indian troopers in Pulwama, near Srinagar.
The CoI has found that, with IAF and army units across Jammu & Kashmir (J&K) in a state of hair-trigger alert against expected Pakistani retaliation, two crucial omissions led to the missile battery opening fire and downing their own helicopter.
First, to guard against misidentification of aircraft in the prevailing state of alert, all IAF aircraft coming in to land in Srinagar were required to approach the air base only through a designated air corridor. Ground missile units would know that the aircraft approaching through the narrow “funnel” was a friendly aircraft.
For reasons that remain unclear, the Mi-17V5 helicopter was not in the safe corridor as it approached from the direction of Budgam, to the south of Srinagar. The ground missile units assumed the radar track they picked was that of a hostile aircraft.
Second, IAF aircraft are equipped with an electronic device called an Identification Friend or Foe (IFF) system, which beams out a coded signal that identifies the aircraft as a friendly one to all IAF radars and IFF receivers. The IFF system is required to be switched on, especially in a situation where ground missile units are on high alert.
For reasons that remain unclear, the CoI has found that the ill-fated helicopter’s IFF system was not switched on that day.
IAF officers say they are keen to serve justice quickly and make an example of those found guilty of operational lapses. However, they are held back by a “go-slow” order from above.
They say the reason is: With the Balakot bombing and the Pakistani response, including the alleged shooting down of a Pakistani F-16 fighter, being painted in election campaigning as a major Indian victory, admitting the loss of a helicopter and seven personnel due to friendly fire would present a bleaker picture.
On February 27, the downing of the helicopter was obscured by the media attention on the downing of an IAF MiG-21 Bison fighter and the capture of Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman.
The IAF has declined to comment, stating: “The CoI is still in progress”. Asked specifically about the delay in finalising the findings of the CoI, the IAF said: “The time line of any CoI cannot be predicted.”
It is learned that the missile that was fired was an Israeli short-range surface to air missile (SR-SAM), which can engage incoming targets at ranges out to 20 kilometres. While engaging targets at those ranges, there is no scope for visual identification. Aircraft are merely a blip on a radar.
The incoming helicopter was engaged with the permission of the Base Air Defence Officer at Srinagar, who was required to satisfy himself that targets being engaged were indeed hostile.
In response to this article, the Indian Air Force tweeted at 10:26 a.m. on April 27:
“Today in an article written by Ajai Shukla he has incorrectly speculated that the IAF Court of Inquiry constituted to investigate the Mi-17 V5 crash at Srinagar on 27 Feb has been put on hold. This is his imagination and IAF categorically denies this.”
“CoI of aircraft accidents are meticulous & time consuming. All past inquiries of aircraft accidents bear testimony to this. Proceedings of a CoI are not commented upon by IAF till completion of the inquiry in all cases. There is no connection between elections & completion of CoI.”
Ajai Shukla responds:
This corespondent contacted the Indian Air Force for comments before publishing the article. The report carried their comments: "The CoI is still in progress” and “The time line of any CoI cannot be predicted.”
The IAF accepts the article's basic point: that, two months after the deaths of seven persons in a "friendly fire" incident, the CoI has not been finalised.
None of the other details in the report, about how and why an IAF missile battery shot down an IAF helicopter, are being rebutted by the IAF.
The IAF claims that a two-month delay in finalising a CoI relating to an operational debacle is normal. However, top IAF officers say the delay in finalising the CoI has been imposed from above.
I stand by the report, which is based on inputs from two highly credible IAF officers.