The inquiry into the Budgam incident, in which a Mi-17 V-5 helicopter of the Indian Air Force crashed close to the Srinagar airfield on February 27, is believed to have revealed several violations of standard operating procedures. Further, the role of a senior officer who ordered a ground-based missile to be fired is also said to have come under scrutiny, according to persons familiar with the developments.
The probe will also look at why the Identify Friend or Foe (IFF) system — that is supposed to be on the helicopter — didn’t work.
The inquiry into the incident — now being seen as a case of friendly fire — will shortly move to the next step of ‘summary of evidence’, in which more than one officer could potentially be charged with culpable homicide, not amounting to murder.
On February 27, a Mi-17 V-5 chopper of the Srinagar-based 154 Helicopter Unit crashed within 10 minutes of taking off even as a dogfight raged over 100 km away between intruding Pakistani jets and the IAF, in which Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman was involved. Six IAF personnel on board and a civilian on the ground had lost their lives in the crash.
The ‘summary of evidence’ is akin to a chargesheet in civil proceedings. The next step could be a formal court martial in which officers, if found guilty, would face termination of service and rigorous imprisonment.
The IAF brass is clear that no one found guilty is to be spared and will have to face the punishment mandated under law. As many as four officers involved in the decision to launch the ground-based missile may face charges of varying degrees.
For the record, the air force says the court of inquiry is still on and that test results from laboratories are awaited. Hence, it says, no comments can be shared till the matter comes to a conclusion.
Sources told ET that the Mi-17 V-5 helicopter was on a routine shuttle flight from the Srinagar airbase when it was shot down by an Israeliorigin Spyder air defence system.ET has learnt there are several eyewitness accounts of the missile system — deployed to protect the airbase — being fired.
The inquiry has raised questions on the role of the Terminal Weapons Director (TWD) of the airbase, who cleared the launch of the missile. The position of TWD rotates between the Air Officer Commanding of a base and the second-in-charge, the Chief Operations Officer (COO). In this case, sources told ET, the TWD on duty was the COO.
The inquiry is determining whether the officer in question was present inside the control room when the command to fire the missile was issued, or whether he was on a tour of the airbase and relayed the order over a hand-held transmitter.
Sources said the helicopter was in the local flying area (LFA) of the airbase and was in radio contact with ground controllers moments before it crashed. The chopper did not deploy any countermeasures as it did not perceive any threat in the area and received no warning before the missile was fired.
Importantly, the helicopter was not designated a ‘Red’ target by IAF’s Barnala-based Integrated Air Command & Control System (IACCS) that is tasked with monitoring incoming aircraft from Pakistan. “A Spyder unit reported a lock-on and the order to fire was issued, possibly under the impression that the target was an incoming unmanned aerial vehicle,” an officer aware of the incident told ET. Completing the proceedings into the incident could take several more months, or even close to a year, given that the investigation team will need to meticulously collect data and evidence, in view of the gravity of charges.