Thursday, February 2, 2023
HomeDefenceBefore BrahMos, there was Canberra — India-Pakistan’s history of peacetime airspace violations

Before BrahMos, there was Canberra — India-Pakistan’s history of peacetime airspace violations

India’s accidental firing of a missile into Pakistani territory Wednesday was just the latest incident in a long line of violations, from the 1950s to the aftermath of the Kargil War.

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New Delhi: India’s admission late Friday that it had “accidentally” fired a missile across the border into Pakistani territory was the subject of a great deal of public scrutiny and concern. 

However, this is far from the first time that a surprise cross-border incident has occurred between Indian and Pakistani airspace during peacetime. 

ThePrint takes a look at this chequered history of airspace disturbances and captures. 

Canberra & Toofani

On Eid on 10 April 1959, nearly 60 years prior to the capture and release of Indian Air Force (IAF) pilot Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman, a two-man IAF English Electric Canberra PR 57 aircraft erred across the border towards Gujrat in Pakistani Punjab. 

Deployed “to conduct a photo-reconnaissance over Jammu & Kashmir and Himachal Pradesh”, the Canberra had “experienced an oxygen problem”, according to a senior retired IAF officer. 

As a result, pilot Sqn Ldr J.C. Sengupta and navigator Flt Lt S.N. Rampal flew the Canberra at a lower altitude when returning to base, the officer had told ThePrint in 2019.

But the decreased altitude rendered the men vulnerable to attacks from the Pakistan Air Force (PAF), even though only a skeleton crew was stationed at Peshawar on the Eid holiday. 

Flying two F-86F Sabre 55-005 aircraft provided by the US, Flight Lieutenants Mohammad Yunis and Naseer Butt of the PAF’s 15 Squadron shot down the Canberra. Sengupta and Rampal ejected from the aircraft and were arrested upon landing in Pakistani soil, but were repatriated to India the following day

Six years later, in April 1965, an IAF Dassault Ouragan (nicknamed ‘Toofani’) crossed into Pakistani airspace, and was subsequently captured by a PAF Lockheed Martin F-104 Starfighter.

While Pakistan repatriated the Toofani’s pilot, it kept the aircraft on display as a trophy at the PAF museum in Peshawar, although it is unconfirmed whether it’s still there today. 

Manufactured by French firm Dassault, the Ouragan began operations in India in 1953 and was gradually phased out from IAF service following the 1965 India-Pakistan war. 

Deadly incident & a near miss

However, on 19 August 1999, a month after the end of the Kargil War, another such peacetime territorial incident led to the greatest number of casualties thus far.

A patrol aircraft owned by the Pakistan Navy called the Atlantique was shot down by an IAF MiG-21 aircraft piloted by Squadron Leader Prashant Bundela

The Atlantique was allegedly approaching Indian airspace from Pakistan’s Sindh province and was viewed as a threat by India, in light of past purported airspace violations and how the aircraft was observed “turning towards” Bundela’s MiG-21, ThePrint had reported

As a result, all 16 Pakistani crew members were killed. Pakistan’s position was that the aircraft had never violated Indian territory as its debris was found on the Pakistani side of the border, and the country filed a lawsuit against India at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) that September. 

The ICJ dismissed Pakistan’s suit in 2000 and stated that it had “no jurisdiction to entertain” the case, but several judges on the bench offered separate and dissenting opinions. 

But the latest such airspace incident, which took place in May 2019, did not involve an Indian aircraft making an unauthorised entry into Pakistan or vice versa.

Rather, as reported by ThePrint at the time, a Georgian An-12 cargo aircraft entered Indian airspace’s North Gujarat Sector from Pakistani airspace without following the authorised Air Traffic Services route or responding to India’s radio calls.

“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,” ThePrint had reported.

(Edited by Rohan Manoj)

Also read: How India beat Pakistan to gain control of the world’s highest battlefield 34 years ago


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