IAF Chopper Crash: Commanding Officer Removed, Could Face Criminal Charges
A preliminary investigation in the IAF’s Mi-17 helicopter crash which killed six airmen and one civilian on February 27, has revealed several violations of standard operating procedures. The Indian Air Force (IAF) has reportedly ‘removed’ the Air Officer Commanding (AOC) the Srinagar Air Base following the findings, as the missile was launched under his watch.
According to media reports, the IAF is mulling to charge senior officers concerned with culpable homicide, not amounting to murder. However, an official statement from IAF is still awaited. On record, IAF has reiterated that an investigation is still underway and refused to comment on the matter.
What The Investigation Reveals
The investigation put rumours about the chopper being hit by the Pakistani forces and that of faults in the helicopter to rest. It revealed that the chopper was indeed hit by a surface-to-air missile (Israeli-origin Spyder air defence system) from the Srinagar Air Base. The inquiry further revealed that several standard operating procedures were not followed- the air traffic controller had asked the chopper to return as Indian and Pakistani jets were engaged in a dog fight following the Pulwama terror attack.
A senior official in the defence ministry requesting anonymity told media, that the chopper should have been directed towards a pre-designated zone (safe zone). He further said that missile system and the air defence guns are free to engage with an aircraft which does not identify itself as a ‘friendly aircraft’.
The Court-of-Inquiry investigating the matter has also found out that Identify Friend or Foe (IFF) system, which is used to detect a friendly aircraft was turned off in the chopper.
After a “near-air-miss” incident between C-130J and Su-30 fighter aircraft in Jammu and Kashmir in 2018, the IAF Headquarters had instructed all aircraft preparing to land, to have their IFF systems on. It is yet to be understood as to why the IFF systems in the Mi-17 were turned off.
According to media reports, the inquiry will move to the next step of ‘summary of evidence’ which is similar to a charge sheet in civil proceedings. After that, if found guilty, the formal court-martial will be served to the officers. They might face termination of service and even imprisonment. Senior officials familiar with the case told media organisations that IAF will not spare anyone found guilty.
“There will be no tolerance of lapses”, a Senior officer was quoted by an English daily. The officer further added, “ unprecedented as it might be, IAF leadership is clear that such lapses are not repeated.”
The investigators are also probing the role of Terminal Weapons Director (TWD) of the airbase who directs the launch of the missile. According to sources, AOC and Chief Operations Officer (COO) take turns to clear the launch of the missile. On that particular day, the COO was acting TWD.
The IAF’s Barnala- based Integrated Air Command & Control System (IACCS) which monitors the incoming aircraft from Pakistan did not designate the chopper as a ‘Red’ target. Sources said that the order to fire was issued under the impression that the aircraft was an unmanned aerial vehicle. The proceedings might go on for months as every minute detail has to be scrutinised, considering the seriousness of the charges.
What Happened On Feb 27?
IAF Spokesperson and Public Relations Officer Anupam Banerjee on February 27 confirmed that the aircraft crashed in Budgam, 27 km away from Srinagar. The incident happened on the same day as the Wing Commander Abhinandan’s plane crash.
The Indian Air Force in a press release said, “On 27 February 2019, one Mi-17 V5 helicopter of Indian Air Force got airborne from Srinagar airfield at 1000 hrs for a routine mission. The helicopter crashed around 1010 hrs near Budgam, J&K. All six air warriors on board the helicopter, suffered fatal injuries. A court of inquiry has been ordered to investigate the accident.”