31 May 2020 04:17 AM



Balakot and After: The Big Cover Up

Balakot and After: The Big Cover Up

A media report indicates that IAF is in the process of finalising the Court of Inquiry (CoI) into the Mi-17V5 helicopter accident at Budgam near Srinagar on 27th Feb 2019. Some military officials could face charges of culpable homicide.

The report quotes ‘sources’ that the accident is most likely a result of ‘friendly fire’. In other words, ‘fratricide’ or ‘blue on blue’.

We are expected to maintain silence and not speculate on such events till the Court of Inquiry (CoI) is completed and proceedings are approved by higher formations. Disciplinary and remedial action will follow, which may include General Court Martial (GCM) under applicable military acts.

In the military, there’s an old saying that a thin red line separates gallantry awards & court martial. The same line, at a different level, in Sam Manekshaw’s words, also decides whether you become a Field Marshal or get dismissed. When the stakes are high, imponderables – your decision, which side you turn, if or when you press the trigger – often decides which side of the red line you find yourself.

Air Officer Commanding (AOC) Srinagar may just be the fall guy answering to a long chain of ‘thin line’ failures at several levels.

CoIs are meant to be fact-finding scientific inquiries that investigate into circumstances leading to an incident or accident and make remedial recommendations. As such, they are not a legal authority for apportioning blame or establishing culpability. That role rests with the administrative authority through follow-on actions such as collection of Summary of Evidence (SoE) & GCM / summary trial.

If sources are to be believed, AOC of Srinagar base has been posted out and collection of SoE will soon follow. This indicates the CoI has prima facie found culpability of a serious nature. That the Mi-17V5 accident was caused due friendly fire is no breaking news for me. I am more worried about timing.

The timing of selective leaks and disclosures is as suspect as the events that unfolded with Balakot air strikes. The latest report comes just two days before announcement of election results where it will have no bearing on the outcome.

The jingoism – often banal over-the-top chest thumping – that followed Balakot is now making way for more sober, clinical analyses of what brought down the Mi17V5 helicopter, killing six crew members and one civilian on ground.

Tomorrow (23rd May 2019), India will be in raptures over election results. If pre-election season was all about peddling positive narratives (MiG21 shooting down an F16, IAF repulsing PAF reprisal, etc), one hopes that post-election season will bring closure to many sceptics and naysayers, me included.

However, I fear nothing of this sort will happen. Heads will roll at lower and middle levels (all military; none from the exalted tiers above). Then it will be business as usual.

If media brought Kargil War to our drawing rooms, Balakot and the skirmishes that followed were beamed into our phones via social media. Sane voices of reason and those asking reasonable questions were often derided and trolled, keeping with the times.

Now that the dust has settled and exit polls indicate that ‘#ayegatohmodihi‘, let’s hit the rewind button and replay sequence of events from Balakot onwards.

MEA announced that successful air strikes were undertaken by IAF on the biggest terrorist training camp of JeM in Balakot, as a preemptive measure, in the wee hours of February 26 2019. The entire nation celebrated, gripped by intense patriotism and conviction that, at last, we flexed our muscle against Pak-sponsored terror. Balakot is located in Mansehra district of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (KPK) province of Pakistan (read more here).

No conclusive evidence was presented, neither was any intent for such disclosure immediately forthcoming. The MEA press statement said “a very large number of JeM terrorists, trainers, senior commanders and groups of jihadis who were being trained for fidayeen action were eliminated”. The next paragraph of same statement read “as the strike has taken place only a short while ago, we are awaiting further details”.

Well, ‘very large number’ makes little sense to those who analyse such events objectively. Such ‘experts’, especially those circumspect, are still being derided – again, with no conclusive evidence.

Following any such military action, it can safely be assumed that the entire air defence machinery along the border would be activated expecting a reprisal (reportedly, it was). Nothing short of a ‘precautionary stage’ (imminent hostilities) should have been in force. IFF codes, war orders and special rules of engagement would come into force during such times.

Yet, a wave of (reportedly) 24 PAF fighters intruded across the LoC and struck, however unsuccessfully, Indian military installations – a fact acknowledged by official MoD sources. In the air battle that unfolded over Nowshera in Jammu and Kashmir, we lost a MiG-21 Bison across the border and a Mi17V5 hundred kms away at Budgam near Srinagar.

Even as we claimed successful ‘shoot down’ of a Pak F16 (minus any scientific inquiry), our pilot Abhinandan Varthaman was captured and taken POW. Videos of his humiliation circulated by Pakistani sources (and his grace & poise) went viral. Not an iota of any such clinching evidence in support of our air strikes or F16 shootdown were available in public space through official sources.

The entire machinery of Indian MoD, MEA and self-appointed Chowkidars went into overdrive to glorify the counterattack with no solid shred of evidence. A narrative was hammered into place, aptly suiting the nation’s mood in election season.

The same machinery underplayed the downing of Mi17V5. All questions were stonewalled with ‘wait for Court of Inquiry to establish the facts’. Surprisingly, no patience or appetite for scientific inquiry was evident in the premature ejaculation over how we shot down the Pak F16 or repulsed a marauding strike package from Pakistan.

Slowly, the nation moved into election campaign mode where claimed ‘successes’ and ‘heroes’ were exploited for electoral gains by the ruling dispensation. Meanwhile, dark secrets lay hidden under a cloak of secrecy even insiders could not breach. An IAF-appointed CoI sifted through the smouldering Mi-17’s wreckage. I am not sure whom they took orders from.

Experts can tell a helicopter shot down by a known Surface-to-Air-Missile (SAM) from any other accident with basic arithmetic skills and a scientific bent of mind. But who cares for such uncomfortable truths in a nation gloating over upgraded fighters claiming epic ‘kill’ in an ‘asymmetric’ duel?

Now that polling is over, inconvenient facts are slowly finding its way back into the discourse.

Once election results are announced, few unfortunate ‘survivors’ of the Mi17V5 episode will go the GCM way, band-aid gallantry awards will be announced to cover up for many blunders at higher level that set the stage for Balakot & beyond, Bison-vs-F16 story will go into history books, and, who knows, a 56-calibre sabre-rattler may warm the seat in 7, Racecourse Road again.

How convenient is that? Who wins who loses, only the next conflict will reveal.

I have some basic bones to pick with this kind of ‘storytelling’.

Firstly, how come we celebrate positive narratives without a shred of evidence while having unending patience and forbearance for CoIs to unearth blunders? How come nobody said ‘Houston, we’ve had a problem’ or ‘we have a possible shoot down of a PAF F16. Please await the CoI’?

The MoD press statement soon after Budgam crash said the Mi-17 was on a routine mission. Can there be a ‘routine mission’ in a semi-warzone where all air defence systems are on full alert?

Secondly, how did we let the ‘enemy’ get away after launching a full-blown counterattack on military installations following our pre-emptive Balakot strike on non-military targets (read the MEA press release here)? Wasn’t that a deliberate ‘act of war’ by Pakistan? If YES, why did we not strike back with overwhelming force? If NO, then what was that Pak attack all about? Terrorism from the skies?

Thirdly, let’s assume (properly) that the Balakot strike emerged out of a ‘Commander’s Estimate of the Situation (CES)’ – an analytical war-gaming tool (read here). If so, why didn’t we, as a nation, foresee or adequately fortify against a possible Pak counterattack?

Did the service chiefs or Chairman, Chief of Staff Committee advice PM Modi about the best timing for such an attack and possible Pakistani reprisal to same? Or was it ordered by some de facto CDS – a chair yet to be filled due political infidelity and internecine turf wars?

Fourthly, if military advice supported a counterattack with overwhelming force, why wasn’t such advice heeded by the government? Was it our weak POW position or the public sentiment around it? (deja vu, 1999 Kandahar hijack). Even if the advice was to flex muscle, get Abhinandan back, then launch fearsome attacks, why wasn’t that advice followed through?

Fifthly, if the advice was to de-escalate after Balakot, why so? After all, we had just launched our first-ever air strike on enemy camps. What could be more predictable or provocative than a committed reprisal by PAF? In the face of such an attack, should we just scramble eight-odd fighters, lose one and then celebrate exchange of a POW, while other services watch from the sidelines?

So let’s stop the gristly count now and ponder a bit.

Remember that a pre-emptive air strike by PAF on IAF’s border airfields (read here) set off a well-planned, joint blitzkrieg by Indian armed forces that eventually cleaved Pakistan and liberated Bangladesh. But those were days with leaders like Sam Manekshaw who could stand up to PM Indira Gandhi and her ill-informed cabinet ministers. Only one side of the equation stands true today.

History will judge us for snatching defeat from the jaws of success in February of 2019. Elections come and go. So do political leaders who are so bereft of ideas they now flex military muscle and drive us to the brink of war, only to withdraw and take to microphones and TV studios soon after.

When you add to this combustible mix, self-appointed ‘chowkidars’ shouting from rooftops, high ranking military officials cavorting with party members and peddling false narratives, the ‘graveyard spiral‘ may well have begun.

One more such misadventure may not yield same (election) results. Quoting from a previous article of mine, “we skirmish for two days, lose two aircraft, six crew, against a low-order adversary and still come out smelling of roses? What if it was China?”

The Indian Armed Forces – always apolitical and a beacon of hope in difficult times – are being perilously drawn into a battle they cannot win. That battle is best fought by local leaders in the hustings wearing a Gandhi cap or Modi jacket, not by polarising olive greens, blues & whites either side of a political divide with no clear military objective or foresight.

If we go down that path, brother will turn against brother. ACRs will soon be marked based on political affiliations. Promotions to higher office will become political appointments (if they aren’t already). Red watch, Blue watch & White watch the navy I know runs on might add ‘saffron’. No saying where this will end.

As a nation, our bark should never become worse than our bite.

Cdr KP Sanjeev Kumar is a former experimental test pilot with flight time on 24 types of aircraft and helicopters. He is an alumni of Defence Services Staff College and IIM Ahmedabad. His articles have appeared in national and international media and aerospace journals. Kaypius, as he is known in his circles, calls himself 'full-time aviator, part-time writer' and maintains a diligent blog at www.kaypius.com.