Pakistan helicopter enters Indian airspace: Shooting at every single stray chopper is not prudent strategy

Readers are likely to have viewed video footage on Sunday night of a civilian Pakistani helicopter intruding on Indian airspace and being fired upon with small arms by troops in the Gulpur segment of the Line of Control (LoC) in the Poonch sector of Jammu and Kashmir. That is an area in which I served 34 years ago and know like the back of my hand. I found insufficient informed commentary on the incident both on television and in the print media on Monday morning, and understandably so, because few people are fully aware of the rules of engagement at the LoC or experienced enough to comment on the incident.

Except for hardcore aviators of the Indian Air Force and Army Aviation officers, few have been very deeply involved in the issues of flying in the vicinity of the LoC, a hazardous activity at most times. However, I have to reiterate one of my oft-repeated lines here — and one I use too often for comfort — that there can be no black and white situations at the LoC; everything there is a guideline to be used with discretion based on judgment of the situation. There are life and death involved in these situations and often, potential triggers for escalation of none-too-stable an environment and we cannot treat them casually.

Pakistan helicopter enters Indian airspace: Shooting at every single stray chopper is not prudent strategy

A visual of the Pakistani helicopter in Indian airspace. Twitter @ani_news

The rule position as far as I can recall is that no fixed wing aircraft (combat/transport) or helicopter should fly within 10 kilometres and one kilometre from the LoC respectively, without intimation to the other side. Any dilution is to be conveyed to the other side by fastest means; usually through the DGMO, although there are other communication lines available, but none are particularly reliable where credible records can be maintained. At the LoC, the Indian Army takes care to construct helipads outside the one-kilometre space except a few that are designated purely for casualty evacuation (casevac) and used only for those contingencies in a 'no war no peace' situation (NWNP) — that too, after intimation.

However, there is an interesting aspect here that many a helicopter pilot will recall. It is not that one is driving to a helipad, one is flying to it and much depends on the wind pattern and other technical parameters of approaches in mountain flying. I have been so very often taken by our pilots almost right to the LoC to make a circuit of approach to land at an authorised helipad. I could have been shot down at any time if a black-and-white minded local junior Pakistan Army commander exercised the rules of engagement as per the book. Not a very pleasant thought.

In August 1995, a Pakistan Army Aviation helicopter was allegedly shot down in the Siala sub sector of the Northern Siachen Glacier; both pilots died. The helicopter used to make a daily foray into our territory and disregarded our visual warnings to keep away, a rogue act to my mind. In 1996, the Pakistani force commander, Northern Areas (FCNA) — a major-general — died when his helicopter was allegedly engaged by our troops. These are two past incidents I can recall. A third one in late 2011 was even more interesting.

An Indian Army Aviation helicopter on a flight from Leh to Kargil strayed across the LoC, flew fairly deep into PoK and actually landed at a Pakistani helipad (I cannot recall which one) under the mistaken impression that it was a helipad in Kargil. It is not very easy to discern from the air what the exact alignment of the LoC is in such areas, as there is no clear demarcation on the ground. Once a little disoriented, human errors can take place about understanding the alignment as many landmarks appear quite similar from the air. The helicopter was returned by the Pakistan side within a few hours without any efforts at intimidation or otherwise; it did promote a level of goodwill between the two armies. Pakistani officers I met later informed me that the then Pakistan army chief, General Parvez Kayani personally directed the early return of the helicopter.

As far as I can recall, there is no discrimination between military and civilian helicopters in the rules of flying at the LoC. So how does one view the 700-metre intrusion on Indian airspace (we can split hairs over the fact that PoK's air space is also Indian, but that won't be helpful here) by the civilian helicopter flying the PoK's so-called prime minister Raja Farooq Haider. Should the Indian troops, have fired upon it or not? A difficult question to answer, no doubt and as I stated earlier it isn't an easy situation to encounter where the time for response is extremely little. Obviously, the Pakistani helicopter was breaching the rules by flying so close in the first place and that too, not at the best of times when tensions between the two countries run so high.

In responsible appointments in Kashmir, there is an inherent fear with which I lived — that a rogue Pakistani terrorist outfit could get hold of a helicopter and attempt to do something quite unpredictable on our side of the LoC. To that extent, an unidentified helicopter on the Indian side of the LoC in the area of responsibility would, in my perception, spell a potentially unacceptable threat. That is the only reason I would justify the action by our troops to fire small arms on the straying helicopter. It was not written on it that it was carrying the so-called PoK prime minister. Yet, I go back to my earlier stance that there are inadvertent human errors that do occur in flying.

Given that, my experience would force me to view the intrusion as something potentially mischievous if the machine circled the area repeatedly and persisted in Indian territory for more than an 'acceptable' time frame (very difficult to define). This is not a sufficient explanation to cater to a potential terrorist-laden machine making a beeline to a quasi-strategic target, but then we cannot cater for everything.

Without pontificating, I reinforce what I stated, that rules are guidelines and every situation has its merits and demerits. No senior commanders must attempt to legislate black and white directions for such situations but train their officers and troops for the best possible decision in the grey environment and back them. That is what the unpredictability of conflict/NWNP is all about, and shooting down every stray helicopter is not, in my perception, a very prudent decision.

The author is a retired lieutenant-general and former general officer commanding 15 and 21 Corps

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Updated Date: Oct 01, 2018 14:07:51 IST

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