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RAJIV TYAGI | 31 MARCH, 2019

Fratricide? When a Mi 17 V5 Helicopter Fell to the Death of Six IAF Personnel on Board on Feb 27

The events of Feb 27


Editors Note: On February 27, the day of aerial war between India and Pakistan, a helicopter M1 17 V5 crashed in Budgam, near Srinagar. Six Air Force personnel on board died along with a civilian on ground. The news barely made it in the Balakote obsessed media, with just Kashmiris gathering on the site with a few local photographers recording the crash.

On March 29 The Economic Times, quoting sources, reported that investigators had found that an Indian air defence missile was fired shortly before the crash of the Mi 177 V5 helicopter. The final moments preceding the crash, including if the Identity, Friend or Foe (IFF) systems were switched on or not, are being investigated, ET reported. The IAF, according to the report, “will not shy away from initiating court martial proceedings against personnel if they are found blameworthy in the inquiry.” The newspaper has further maintained that the missile--believed to be of Israeli origin was activated after an air defence alert was sound over Jammu and Kashmir after over 25 Pakistani air force jets were detected along the border on the morning of Feb 27. According to the report a slow moving target like the M1 17 V5 helicopter could potentially be mistaken for a low flying armed UAC homing into an air base.

The helicopter had crashed in the ten minute span when IAF jets were engaged in an aerial battle with the Pakistan Air Force fighters long the Line of Control in the Nowshera sector, and air defence systems were on operation alert.

Former IAF fighter pilot RAJIV TYAGI pieces together the background to the “crash”:


On February 27, in a pre-dawn strike, 12 Mirage 2000 aircraft of the Indian Air Force, took off from Gwalior, the Mirage 2000 base, sank below radar and made their way to Balakot, across the border, in a retaliatory strike against terrorist assets based across the border in Pakistan.

The Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) had been briefed, not to query any track they picked up along a ‘dark corridor’ created for the strike mission.

The strike mission was however, being followed and monitored by an Airborne Warning and Controls System (AWACS) mounted on an Embraer business jet, which was following the strike mission.

The Embraer business jet, essentially a civilian aircraft modified for military use, has an Automatic Dependence Surveillance-Broadcast (ADS-B) transponder, which makes it possible for civilian jet aircraft to be tracked by open ADS-B receivers based all around the world. The aircraft ADS-B transponder ‘squawks’ at regular intervals, reporting its position, altitude and other flight information. This allows ground based controls and airborne aircraft to develop a situational awareness of their environment.

The Embrarer following the strike, forgot to switch off its ADS-B transponder, for it kept the transponder on, on other days, so that Air Traffic Control at various locations would be aware of its patrolling in the Indian skies. ADS-B hobbyists and enthusiasts, who recognize the Embraer AWACS as ‘Sona’, use software to track and store its position, as they do for so many other aircraft. ADS-B enthusiasts also communicate among themselves, warning about VIP aircraft movements and aircraft describing enormous alphabets across continental distances, for example.

So it was, that an ADS-B enthusiast called me on the evening of February 27 and sent me the track of the AWACS during the early morning of the same day. He also asked if I could confirm whether the Mi-17 crash was a ‘self-goal’, as he put it. When I asked how he came to ask such a question, he said he had just analyzed the vector of the crash from Srinagar airport and read eyewitness accounts that said the Mi-17 had broken into two pieces in the air, typical of a missile hit, and wondered if the helicopter had been shot down by our own combat air patrol (CAP) or by air defence (AD)! So much for secrecy and our assumption that military domain knowledge is hard to get by!

War for the Air Force and the Navy is not the idea of war that the common citizen has. The Air Force and Navy fight. what is more accurately described as a largely video-game war. There is no eye-ball-to-eye-ball confrontation. You acquire targets as synthetic displays on computer monitors, take cognizance of various other inputs and press a launch button! That’s it.

The centre of all this action is an operations room, which is wired to radar feeds and wireless networks carrying coded human intelligence. Inputs from the dozens of information sources, is plotted on an illuminated board inside the nerve centre of the base, where the Station Commander, his Chief of Operations, the Operations Adjutant and various other operatives, close to a dozen other people, constantly acquire information from their designated sources and transfer the information to the display in the ops room. The Station Commander and the (Chief Operating Officer) COO then evaluate the information and take decisions thereon.

Offensive weapons, like air defence guns, missile batteries and aircraft on CAP, are theoretically supposed to carry IFF (Identification Friend or Foe) equipment. This equipment automatically transmits encrypted interrogatory data frames to a target it has locked on to. A friendly target is expected to respond with a complementary encrypted data frame which can identify it as friendly, to the offensive weapon system.

But this sort of IFF system is not interoperable between weapon systems bought from multifarious vendors from many nations. We have Russian, Israeli, French and American offensive weaponry and none of them, to my knowledge, have IFF that interoperate among each other. As a result, we have to carry out the famous Indian ‘jugaad’ to enforce a rudimentary IFF, which is successful and effective when everyone understands its nuances.

As part of the IFF ‘jugaad’ typically, among many others, an outgoing strike would inform the Base Operations Centre that it will be returning from the raid along a specific vector, within a temporal window. The Base Ops is therefore expecting a ‘friendly’ track along the specified vector, within that temporal window. If, by a stroke of happenstance, an enemy raid were to enter the same vector in space and time, it would receive a free passage to our base, with all air defence systems on hold, assuming the incoming tracks as friendly.

Also, with the increasingly longer range of fighter aircraft, tactical situations may warrant a change in return vector, thereby suddenly running the risk of being declared a hostile track and being brought down by one’s own air defence network.

Things have become much better since the acquisition of AWACS, as a heightened situational awareness is now available, which was missing earlier. But the heightened situational awareness cannot still plug all the holes that exist, on account of our incapacity to deploy an integrated IFF system. My suggestion is, that all weapon systems we acquire, should be fitted with Indian developed IFF systems, as part of the negotiation of weapon system purchase from any nation.

I now imagine the night of Feb 27, when a sudden war-like environment was created, on account of a political compulsion.

The decision to strike across the border was certainly expected to be responded to, offensively. All our air defence systems would have been stand to. Fighter pilots at Srinagar and other Air Force airfields along the border, up to Gujarat, would have been on standby 2, strapped-in inside their cockpits, battery trolleys connected, aircraft power on, waiting to press the start button.

Fighter aircraft jet engines can start up within as much as 40 seconds. The aircraft, already parked at the dumbell of a runway, would take about 20-30 seconds to line up, engage afterburners, roll down the runway and take off in another 30-40 seconds and reach tactical speed to engage an enemy, within 2 minutes from pressing the start button.

In all of this, a Mi-17 is chugging along on a routine flight, like they do all the time, unmindful of the fact that a war is on. For all you know, the track of the helicopter is not even being fed to Base Ops. Neither is there a return vector, a temporal window or even a call to say “Hey don’t shoot”.

The Base Ops has just this one small piece of information missing from the decision matrix available to the Stn Cdr and COO. Which leads to the helicopter track being designated hostile. It takes just a few seconds for a missile to reach its target at supersonic speeds.

That is why, it is the opinion of this author, that the concept of ‘cold-start’, floated by the Indian Army is dangerous and needs much more study, while learning from our experience of Feb 27.
 

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