Did an Israeli missile destroy an Indian helicopter during Pakistan skirmish?

Updated March 30, 2019

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Indian soldiers and onlookers stand near the remains of an Indian Air Force helicopter after it crashed in occupied Kashmir's Budgam district, outside Srinagar on February 27, 2019. — AFP/File
Indian soldiers and onlookers stand near the remains of an Indian Air Force helicopter after it crashed in occupied Kashmir's Budgam district, outside Srinagar on February 27, 2019. — AFP/File

NEW DELHI: Investigators have found that an Indian air defence missile, possibly made in Israel, was fired shortly before the crash of an Mi17 V5 helicopter at Budgam, near Srinagar, on Feb 27 that resulted in the deaths of six air force personnel and a citizen on the ground, The Economic Times said on Friday.

The investigators are examining the sequence of events which preceded the crash around the time of an air skirmish with Pakistani planes.

Manu Pubby, considered an informed Indian defence correspondent, reported that the final moments preceding the crash, including if the IFF (Identity, Friend or Foe) systems were switched on or not, are being carefully looked at to determine what went wrong.

The paper quoted unnamed highly placed sources as saying that the air force brass has made it clear that they would not shy away from initiating court martial proceedings against personnel if they are found blameworthy in the inquiry.

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The newspaper said it had learnt that the focus of the investigation now was to determine if multiple layers of safeguards meant to protect assets from friendly fire failed and how systems need to be improved to prevent any such incident in the future.

The Economic Times quoted its sources as saying that the missile — believed to be of Israeli origin — was activated after an air defence alert was sounded over India-held Jammu and Kashmir, besides other parts of the border, “after over 25 Pakistani air force jets were detected along the border on the morning of February 27”.

The alert, sources said, “indicated that Pakistani jets may be trying to breach the border for a strike on Indian military targets and there were concerns that armed UAVs available with that country may also have been deployed”.

A slow-moving target like the Mi17 V5 helicopter could potentially be mistaken for a low-flying armed UAV homing in on an airbase, according to these sources. “When an air defence alert is sounded, several things take place. There are a set of rules that transport aircraft and helicopters need to follow and there are set entry and egress routes demarcated for aircraft flying. Also, aircraft are to switch on their IFF systems,” sources told the paper.

They added that all angles are being probed to determine if lapses took place and where. A senior officer is conducting the court of inquiry into the crash and has been given access to all inputs available with ground controllers as well as the actions of the helicopter in the ten minutes that it was in the air.

“As reported by ET, the chopper crashed in the 10-minute span when IAF jets were engaged in an aerial battle with the Pakistan Air Force fighters, along the Line of Control in the Nowshera sector, and air defence systems were on operational alert. Command and control systems were under immense pressure as reports of attempted intrusions were sounded along the border,” the paper said.

It said the Indian side officially acknowledged the crash but has not mentioned it in official statements on the aerial battle “and the current conflict with Pakistan”.

In its official statement, the Pakistani military acknowledged the aerial battle over Nowshera but said its fighters were not involved in the chopper incident.

“Mi17 V5 is one of the sturdiest choppers in service across the world and is not usually prone to technical faults of catastrophic nature. Eyewitness reported that a loud explosion was heard in the air before the chopper crashed in a trail of smoke, indicating a possible catastrophic external event contributed to the incident,” the leading Indian business newspaper reported.

Published in Dawn, March 30th, 2019