New Delhi: The Indian Air Force (IAF) has admitted that the Mi-17 helicopter that crashed on February 27 was brought down by friendly fire. The chopper was brought down a day after India conducted airstrikes in Balakot, when Pakistani jets invaded Indian airspace and were engaged in a dogfight. Six IAF officers and a civilian were killed in the crash.
Defence analyst Ajai Shukla had reported in April that the IAF was under political pressure to delay the Court of Inquiry’s (CoI) final report from being submitted. The Balakot airstrike was politicised by the BJP and Prime Minister Narendra Modi during the run-up to the general elections as a strong response to the Pulwama terror attack.
Though the Air Force denied that there was any pressure, just days after the final phase of polling ended in May, it moved to press charges against officers found guilty of lapses that led to the downing of the chopper.
On Friday, Air Chief Marshal Rakesh Kumar Singh Bhadauria described the crash as a “big mistake”. He said that the CoI has submitted its report and the IAF is taking punitive action against two officers found guilty of lapses.
The probe concluded that a surface-to-air missile of the Air Force brought down the Mi-17 aircraft in Kashmir’s Budgam on the morning of February 27 when the Indian and Pakistani air forces were engaged in a fierce dogfight. The chopper may have been shot down under the impression that it was an unmanned Pakistani aerial vehicle.
The Air Chief Marshal reiterated that Pakistan lost an F-16 during the dogfight, a claim that the country has denied. He also said India lost a MiG-21 in aerial engagement with the Pakistan Air Force, which led to the capture and subsequent release of Wing Commander Abhinandan.
One of the officers who is believed to have been found guilty in the friendly fire incident is the senior-most officer of the Srinagar air force base – the Air Officer Commanding (AOC) – when the incident occurred. The officer was subsequently removed from the position.
The other officer who was under scrutiny was the Terminal Weapons Director (TWD), as the person who cleared the missile’s launch. An Economic Times report said the CoI was trying to verify if the TWD was present at the control room when the command to fire the missile was issued, or if he relayed it over a hand-held transmitter.
Previous reports suggested that there had been several lapses contributing to the catastrophe. According to the Hindustan Times, air traffic control asked the chopper to return to base while Indian and Pakistani jets were engaged. “Ideally, the helicopter should have been sent away to a safer zone instead of being called back to the base,” a senior defence ministry official said.
Reports also said that the helicopter was not marked a “red target” by the IAF’s Integrated Air Command and Control System (IACCS) – which monitors incoming aircraft from Pakistan – at Barnala, Punjab.
Another lapse that contributed to the missile being fired was that the helicopter Identification Friend or Foe (IFF) system was switched off. The IFF beams a coded signal that helps IAF radars identify the aircraft.
‘Operational preparedness very high’
Despite the admission that the chopper was brought down by friendly fire, Air Chief Marshal Bhadauria said the “operational preparedness of the IAF has been of a very high order”. He said the IAF had achieved a number of operational milestones last year, including the Balakot strikes. He was addressing the Air Force’s annual press conference.
He said the IAF is prepared to meet any contingency and does not rest on past laurels. Ahead of the press conference, the IAF also showed representational video clips of the Balakot strikes.
#WATCH Indian Air Force showcases the story of the Balakot aerial strikes in a promotional video at the annual Air Force Day press conference by Air Force Chief Air Chief Marshal Rakesh Kumar Singh Bhadauria. pic.twitter.com/GBRWwWe6sJ
— ANI (@ANI) October 4, 2019
Bhadauria also said acquisition of Rafale aircraft and S400 air defence systems will greatly enhance IAF’s operational capabilities.
The IAF chief said the issue of Pakistan using small drones is “a new threat and some procurements are already in process to tackle the issue”.
(With PTI inputs)