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Full potential of assets cannot be exploited unless there is flawless coordination among the different weapons systems deployed especially in high intensity operational environment
On February 27 this year, a disaster struck the Indian Air Force (IAF) when a Mi-17 V5 helicopter, one of the latest models in this category to be inducted into service, crashed near Srinagar. This brand new platform with six IAF personnel on board, had taken off from the airport at Srinagar on a mission, but unfortunately, it crashed just ten minutes after takeoff killing all on board and one civilian on the ground. As is often the case, the immediate reaction from agencies responsible for operations and flight safety, is to suspect and even attribute the episode to technical failure or pilot error. But very soon, the IAF realised that the crash was not at all attributable to a technical fault on the machine, but to failure of the air defence system that led to the helicopter being shot down by an Israeli made Spyder Surface-to-Air missile fired by an air defence unit of the IAF deployed at Srinagar airbase. The Spyder is a mediumrange mobile air defence system that is among the newest and most advanced in the arsenal of the IAF.
This sordid episode is related to the air strike undertaken during the early hours of February 26, 2019 by a fleet of 12 Mirage 2000 aircraft of the IAF to destroy terrorist training camps and infrastructure in Balakot located in the Khyber Pukhtunkhwa province of Pakistan. While the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) was taken by surprise in the strike against targets in Balakot, it responded next morning at ten o’clock with a fleet of 24 of its fighter aircraft which included the Lockheed Martin F-16 and the JF-17 Thunder, the latter manufactured by the Chinese aerospace industry in a facility set up by them in Pakistan. The fighters of the PAF crossed the Line of Control in Jammu and Kashmir and attacked Indian Army positions along it. The air defence organisation of the IAF responded immediately getting into a high state of alert and scrambling as many as eight combat aircraft of the IAF to intercept the intruding PAF aircraft.
It was at this time when the Indian and Pakistani jets were engaged in a dogfight in the Nowshera sector that the Mi-17 helicopter of the IAF took off from Srinagar airbase on a logistic mission. The agency at the IAF base at Srinagar responsible for controlling flight operations by IAF aircraft soon realised the airbase had suddenly moved into a high state of operational alert to take on enemy aircraft and under these circumstances, routine logistic missions ought not to have been permitted. The helicopter was immediately recalled and was ordered to land back at base. But apparently, it was too late as the air defence unit equipped with air defence radars and air defence missiles deployed for the protection of the airbase, was not in the network and hence was not aware of the movement of the Mi-17 helicopter. When the air defence radar at Srinagar airport picked up a low flying aircraft on its screen, the senior officer manning the post of the Terminal Weapons Director ordered the air defence unit to fire at the target that had not been positively identified. This was on account of the fact that slow flying target did not have its Identification, Friend or Foe (IFF) transponder switched on possibly on account of a serious lapse on the part of the pilot or there is a possibility that the IFF system was unserviceable which is a serious lapse on the part of the maintenance staff. The IFF system onboard the Mi-17 helicopter is designed to receive the “interrogation signal” from the ground and then respond with a unique signal which identifies it as a “friendly”. The system is specifically designed to ensure that friendly aircraft are not fired upon during the heat of battle. It is unclear if the IAF helicopter’s IFF was switched off deliberately or was not functioning at the time when the helicopter was fired upon. Unfortunately, on account of the raid by PAF fighter aircraft, the air defence organisation across the Srinagar valley had moved into a very high state of alert with surface-to-air missile units in a state of readiness to engage any aircraft of the enemy intruding into Indian air space.
It should be clear from the above that the different elements of the IAF meant for offensive or defensive roles, are individually well trained and are endowed with high degree of operational capability. But the tragic episode of downing of the Mi-17 helicopter by our own air defence missile system is being seen as a blunder of the highest magnitude. The episode clearly reveals that there was near total lack of coordination among the different elements in the IAF deployed in the valley. This led to the tragic loss of the Mi-17 helicopter along with seven innocent lives.
The lesson from the episode is that full potential of assets cannot be exploited unless there is flawless coordination among the different weapons systems deployed especially in high intensity operational environment.