Polls over, IAF confirms friendly fire brought down Budgam helicopter
The Indian Air Force (IAF) has unofficially admitted that it had shot down its own helicopter killing seven Indians when Indian fighter planes were engaging Pakistani intruders on the day Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman’s jet was downed in Pakistan’s territory.
Six IAF personnel and a civilian were killed at Budgam in Kashmir when a missile blew up their Mi-17 helicopter on February 27, a day after India had launched the Balakot air strikes in retaliation to the Pulwama massacre. The chopper tragedy took place when Pakistani fighters launched an attack and India responded.
Although former Jammu and Kashmir chief minister Farooq Abdullah and some media reports had suggested friendly fire might have brought the helicopter down, the government and the IAF have not explicitly said so, preferring to wait for an internal probe to be over.
The capture and release of the wing commander had overshadowed the chopper tragedy. The IAF later had ordered a court of inquiry into the chopper incident.
Details of the preliminary probe began to leak soon after the general election, prompting accusations that feet were dragged deliberately to ensure that Narendra Modi’s plank of Balakot-driven muscular nationalism is not undermined.
The strike on the chopper is probably the biggest “friendly-fire” tragedy in India and any official confirmation would have stirred several uncomfortable questions.
Senior IAF officials refused to comment on reports suggesting that the air force may slap criminal charges, including “culpable homicide not amounting to murder”, against one officer and three personnel.
The IAF’s preliminary inquiry report has apparently revealed serious lapses and violation of standard operating procedure in connection with the crash of the Mi-17 helicopter.
An official who requested anonymity said “the issue was kept a closely guarded secret till the Lok Sabha elections were over as it could have embarrassed the government”.
“Now that the election is over and exit polls have indicated the return of the Modi government, some senior officials are leaking the preliminary findings of the inquiry, which has revealed that the helicopter was downed by a surface-to-air missile of the IAF, which mistook the helicopter to be hostile. The crash was the result of friendly fire,” the official said.
“The very admission that India had shot down its own helicopter in a friendly fire would have embarrassed the Modi government. So, it had been kept a closely guarded secret till now,” the official added.
Asked, IAF spokesperson Group Captain Anupam Banerjee said: “The court of inquiry is still under way. It’s premature to say anything now.”
Asked why the air force has not denied media reports quoting unnamed IAF sources as saying that the helicopter was shot down in friendly fire, he said: “Let them write whatever they want.”
Usually, the IAF or the defence ministry quickly issue rebuttals if they find media reports to be untrue. But they are yet to issue any denial on such a sensitive issue.
The IAF has already removed the Air Officer Commanding (AOC) of the Srinagar air base — the senior-most officer of the base — as the crash had happened on his watch.
The inquiry has revealed that the identification or the Friend or Foe (IFF) system on the Mi-17 helicopter was switched off, a grave violation. The IFF is a system on board a helicopter or plane that transmits a unique identification signal which helps identify it as a “friend”.