The story so far: On the morning of February 27, 2019, as jets of the Indian Air Force (IAF) and Pakistan Air Force were engaged in a dog fight over the Naushera sector in Jammu and Kashmir, an IAF Mi-17 helicopter with two pilots and four personnel took off from Srinagar air base. It crashed within 10 minutes at Budgam killing all the personnel and a civilian on the ground. As the fog settled, it was suspected that the Mi-17 may have been shot down by friendly fire. A Court of Inquiry (CoI) was ordered to ascertain the facts of the incident.
How are aircraft identified?
There are a range of methods used to identify friendly aircraft. These include visual sightings, radio transmission, designated entry and exit points for friendly aircraft and a transponder-based Identification Friend or Foe (IFF) system. With supersonic aircraft and long range radars, the IFF system is the predominant method used in both civilian and military aviation to identify aircraft. The IFF is a transponder-based identification device that communicates with ground radars and exchanges encrypted codes to indicate that the aircraft is a friendly one. Some modes of transponders also indicate the speed and specific coordinates of the aircraft which are used by civil air traffic controllers to identify commercial aircraft. In addition, there are designated air corridors marked safe for friendly aircraft to fly. This is because during a combat situation, air defences in sensitive areas are free to fire at any violator.
What went wrong with the helicopter?
The Mi-17 had crashed in an inhabited area and the Flight Data Recorder (FDR), commonly referred to as the black box and the most crucial thing in case of any air accident, was lost. It could not be traced and officials said it may have been taken away by civilians who thronged to the helicopter. The absence of the FDR has delayed the inquiry process. In the absence of the black box which would have provided answers to most questions, the CoI had to pursue circumstantial evidence and rule out options to draw likely conclusions. Preliminary indications are that the Mi-17 was shot down by the IAF’s Israeli-origin Surface-to-air PYthon and DERby, or SPYDER defence missile system. The CoI has found several procedural violations. The biggest of them is that the IFF system was switched off, especially when there was a high alert, and an aerial engagement was under way close by. Due to this, in the midst of the air battle over the skies close by, the Mi-17 was mistakenly identified as belonging to the adversary. In fact, last year, the IAF had issued a directive that all aircraft coming in to land should have the IFF system switched on. But contrary orders seem to have been issued at the Srinagar air base which the CoI would confirm in its report. In addition, it is not clear why the Mi-17 was called back after taking off and not diverted to a safe corridor instead.
As the investigation progressed, the Air Officer Commanding (AOC) of the Srinagar air base under whose watch the incident occurred was transferred in early May.
What happens next?
The CoI is expected to submit its report in two weeks. However, a CoI is a fact-finding body ordered by the assembling authority. Ascertaining blame is only the first step in a long process. Also, a CoI has no legal standing. After completion of the CoI, the court based on its findings makes several recommendations. Recommending action against personnel found guilty on certain counts is one of them.
Based on the facts of the case and recommendations, the authorities may go for administrative action or disciplinary action. If disciplinary action is intended, a charge sheet is framed and a summary of evidence may then be ordered. Based on it, authorities may again take a call on a court martial or other action. For instance, an error of judgement can be awarded administrative action, but a gross violation will be given a court martial. A legal branch gives its final recommendation on the punishment and the file is then sent to the Air Headquarters for final decision. . A punishment under the Indian Penal Code can also be awarded. IPC is read under Section 71 of the Air Force Act.
However, with clear indications of serious procedural violations leading to loss of life, senior IAF officials have said that criminal proceedings are likely to be initiated against those responsible as soon the report comes in.