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How IAF shot down a Pakistani naval aircraft and killed 16 a month after Kargil in 1999

Pakistan is set to finally open its airspace when Air India One, carrying Narendra Modi, makes it way to Bishkek in Kyrgyzstan, where the prime minister is scheduled to attend the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) summit on 13 and 14 June.

It will mark the end of the airspace restriction that Pakistan had put in place after Indian air strikes on terror camps in Balakot on 26 February. The reopening of the airspace should come as a relief for Indian airlines flying westwards, as they had been losing large sums of money taking circuitous routes to circumvent the ban.

The hostilities in the air, however, nearly led to a tragedy in India. Last month, a Georgian cargo aircraft flying in from the Pakistani side was forced to land in Jaipur by two Su-30 fighter jets as it had flown in from the restricted airspace.


The cargo followed instructions from the Indian Air Force (IAF) and was escorted down to Jaipur. But some 20 years ago, just a month after the Kargil conflict, the IAF had shot down a maritime patrol aircraft of the Pakistani Navy after it entered Indian airspace under similar circumstances.

The Pakistani aircraft, Flight Atlantic-91, a French-built Breguet Atlantic plane, was shot down by the IAF on 10 August 1999. All 16 Pakistani personnel, including five officers, on board, were killed in the crash.

ThePrint recollects the two incidents — one that ended in tragedy and the other that nearly did.


A near-miss ::

The Georgian aircraft entered Indian airspace in North Gujarat Sector at 3.15 pm with its IFF (Identification, Friend or Foe) ‘on’. The aircraft did not follow the authorised Air Traffic Services (ATS) route and had not been responding to radio calls from Indian agencies.

Since ATS routes in the area were closed by Pakistan and the aircraft had entered Indian airspace from an unscheduled point, the IAF scrambled two Su-30s to investigate the flight.

On visual contact, the aircraft was identified as a Georgian An-12 flying at 27,000 feet. The aircraft had neither responded on the international distress frequency nor to visual signals during interception.

When challenged, however, the pilots informed Indian authorities that it was a non-scheduled An-12 aircraft that had got airborne from Tbilisi, Georgia, and was headed for Delhi via Karachi. The aircraft was shadowed and forced to land in Jaipur for necessary investigation. The aircraft and the pilots were later released.


The IAF action of 1999 ::

The Pakistani aircraft, Flight Atlantic-91, wasn’t so lucky with its intrusion just a month after the Kargil conflict had ceased.

At 10.51 am on 10 August 1999, IAF ground radars picked up an aircraft flight path near Badin inside the Sindh region of Pakistan. The aircraft was approaching the Indo-Pakistan international border (IB) on a south-easterly course.

The plane allegedly violated Indian airspace twice and also allegedly twice violated the 1991 air agreement between India and Pakistan, which requires all aircraft (other than helicopters) of the two countries to maintain a minimum distance of 10 km from the border.

The IAF scrambled its MiG-21s at 10.57 am and they were in the air by 10.59 am.

Squadron Leader Prashant Bundela was in one of the MiG-21s. The two pilots ventured close enough to recognise the alleged intruder as a French-built Atlantique with the Pakistan Navy insignia.

According to India’s explanation, Squadron Leader Bundela, following instructions from ground control, flew right beside the Pakistani Navy aircraft, close enough to signal to the pilots to follow him and land. Instead of doing what was told, Flight Atlantic-91 allegedly turned towards the Bundela’s MiG-21 in what is considered as a threatening manoeuvre.

The Atlantique had by then been declared a hostile aircraft as being a military plane it had entered Indian territory without permission. “Hostile” aircraft cannot return home. They have two options — follow instructions and land like the Georgian plane did or be shot down.

The Atlantique allegedly made a dash for the border but by then Bundela had got permission to shoot. He fired an R-60 air-to-air missile that hit the Atlantique’s left engine at around 11.17 am. The Pakistani aircraft was still 5 km south of the international border on the Indian side.


Routine mission, debris on our side: Pakistan ::

Pakistan dismissed India’s claims and said it was an unarmed aircraft on a routine training mission. Its argument was that the debris was also found on its side of the border and hence there was no violation of Indian airspace.

The IAF dismissed this argument on the grounds that the debris of a downed aircraft could fall over a wide radius and hence it was not surprising that some of it was on the Pakistani side. Another argument was that the aircraft was anyway headed towards Pakistani territory and hence there was enough forward thrust when the missile hit it.

The IAF had also recovered parts of the downed plane from Indian territory. It also questioned why a training mission flew so close to an international border since every country has demarcated training areas for flights well within their own territory.

The Indians had also argued that the Atlantique primarily operates over the sea and carrying out a training flight over land, deep inside foreign territory, indicated a surveillance mission.

Pakistan continued to deny it and also refuted the Indian display of parts of wreckage saying Indian helicopters had removed it from its side of the border.

The Indian defence ministry had then said such aircraft had been traced “intruding” the country’s airspace eight times between May and July. In a television interview, then defence minister George Fernandes said that Indian jets had scrambled to confront those planes but that they “ran away before our aircraft could reach them”.


Lawsuit ::

Pakistan then filed a lawsuit against India at the International Court of Justice on 21 September 1999. It sought about a $60 million compensation from India. While the cost of the plane was about $35 million, the rest of the money sought was for compensation of the families.

India’s then attorney general Soli Sorabjee, however, argued that the court did not have jurisdiction, citing an exemption it filed in 1974 to exclude disputes between India and the other Commonwealth States and disputes covered by multilateral treaties.

India also argued that Pakistan had violated the 1991 bilateral agreement. On 21 June 2000, the court upheld India’s submission that the court had no jurisdiction in this matter.

On 21 June 2000, the 15-judge bench headed by Gilbert Guillaume of France ruled — with a 14–2 verdict — that the court had no jurisdiction in the matter.

The bigger setback for Pakistan was that the court dropped its claims without recourse to appeal.

The ruling proved costly for the Pakistan government as it had spent close to about 25 million Pakistani rupees (approx. $400,000) preparing for the case.


Aftermath of the crash in India ::

In India, the incident made the two pilots of the MiG-21s instant heroes. On 8 October 2000, Squadron Leader Bundela was awarded the prestigious Vayu Sena Medal. Wing Commander V.S. Sharma, the flight controller who tracked the Atlantique, guided the pilot, and ordered him to attack the plane, also received the medal, as did Squadron Leader Pankaj Vishnoi, the helicopter pilot who recovered a part of the Atlantique’s debris from the border regions of the Rann.

Squadron Leader Bundela, who later rose to become a Wing Commander, was injured in a MiG-21 crash in April 2002 that left him paralysed below the neck. He died in August.

The shooting down of the aircraft came as a setback to then Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif who was already under attack in his country for agreeing to withdraw troops from Kargil.

Two months later, an army coup led by General Pervez Musharraf deposed him.

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