A senior Indian Air Force (IAF) officer and three other personnel of the Srinagar Air Base could be booked for “culpable homicide not amounting to murder” in the 27 February downing of an Mi-17 helicopter that killed six IAF personnel and a civilian. The Mi-17 chopper, which crashed in Jammu and Kashmir’s Budgam district, was reportedly a result of a friendly fire.
ThePrint asks: Budgam friendly fire: Should charge of culpable homicide be on the table in the fog of war?
Societies that understand war & conflict have taken fratricide in their stride
Retd Air Vice Marshal and visiting professor, Ashoka University
The deafening noise over the IAF Mi-17 crash possibly in a friendly fire will likely die down once the IAF releases adequate information on what went wrong on the morning of 27 February.
Casualties due to friendly fire or fratricide is among the most tragic occurrences in war, sub-conventional operations or even less-than war situations.
It occurs due to a variety of reasons – decision dilemmas that lead to error in judgement, negligence and panic, or just the impact of the ‘fog of war’.
Highly trained special forces, crack snipers, ace fighter pilots and air defence gunners are among those who have brought down their own comrades and aircraft. Societies that understand war and conflict have taken such aberrations in their stride, an aspect that we seem to have failed to understand.
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Accountability and taking responsibility have always been a part of the justice cycle in case of such aberrations, but we must never forget that those who made the mistake will have to live with their errors in judgement for the rest of their lives.
Culpable homicide is alright if negligence and carelessness caused the friendly fire, but for anything else, we need to spare a thought for the guilty just as we need to remember that those who were downed were doing their duty in the line of fire.
While culpable homicide not amounting to murder is too harsh a charge, the act does deserve punishment
Air Marshal (retd)
There is a proper procedure that has to be followed before a helicopter is shot down. Personnel on the ground have to necessarily authenticate the identity of the individual in the aircraft by asking the codes. We don’t know whether the standard operating procedure was followed.
It doesn’t really matter if they were under attack by any enemy at that point. If they weren’t, then they had all the time to follow that procedure to a T. Helicopter would not have been airborne if airfield was under attack. They have allowed it to be airborne precisely because the region was not under attack. But whatever the case, the Court of Inquiry must establish whether or not standard operating procedure was followed. If it wasn’t, then a severe punishment must be meted out to the guilty. While culpable homicide not amounting to murder is still too harsh a charge, the act does deserve punishment.
In Air Force, no decision is in the heat of the moment, so that argument doesn’t hold. The only time a pilot makes a decision in the heat of the moment is when an enemy aircraft is in front. It couldn’t have been an enemy aircraft, because it takes hardly a minute or two to identify if the aircraft is enemy or not. It is impossible that someone would have misidentified a helicopter for an enemy helicopter. Perhaps everyone forgot to follow the procedure. But my guess is that the Identification Friend or Foe (IFF) was not working, or they had never used it before.
There could have been procedural lapse on either side– those who fired or those who were fired upon
Air Marshal (retd)
The court of inquiry is still on and there is a lot that is yet to be revealed.
The court of inquiry has to analyse whether the procedures were followed or not – not only by the people who were firing, but also those who were fired at. The latter too were bound by certain procedures.
It is being speculated that, in all probability, this is a case of fratricide, which happens often in the fog of war. But all of this is based purely on conjecture – and we are talking about people who have lost their lives. It’s a very sensitive matter.
If this is a case of fratricide, then culpable homicide not amounting to murder is the correct charge – but we must also look at the intent here. The firing took place in a situation when the nation was under attack, and so it could very well have been a case of misidentification.
Is it a case of misidentification because procedures were not followed either by those in the helicopter or by those on ground, or it is just a result of an incorrect decision taken in the heat of the moment?
The pensions of the those who lost their lives will be governed by the result of the Court of Inquiry. This will happen only in a time-bound manner and not until the inquiry findings are declared. So, there a number of issues at stake here – beyond how the aircraft was hit.
Mi-17 chopper downing was an error in judgment, not an act led by a criminal thought
Air vice-marshal (retd)
It is true that there must have been a serious lack of coordination, that led to the Mi-17 chopper crash. The inquiry is precisely to ascertain what led to such a grave lapse of judgment. The crash caused the death of six IAF personnel and a civilian. Even in the fog of war, how the officers mistook the aircraft as being the enemy’s, is an important question that must be raised.
This is why responsibility must be fixed, and blame apportioned. But, the charge of culpable homicide sounds too harsh. Punishment awarded shouldn’t be such that it becomes a hindrance in the decision making abilities of any officer in the future. Officers should be able to trust their discretion and make decisions accordingly; this will surely weigh in the minds of the authorities when a final call is taken.
This was an error in judgment, but it was certainly not a criminal thought that led to it. It is undeniable that the incident was a professional failure, and bad for optics — but culpable homicide may not be the right punishment for it.
That said, the procedural lapses should indeed be looked into and we must ensure they never happen again. For that to happen, we need to conduct a serious investigation into the incident. Results of this investigation will reveal further details. The legality of it, is of course, an entirely different domain.
IAF officer can’t be booked for culpable homicide when decision was taken in split second
Snehesh Alex Philip
Senior associate editor for defence, ThePrint
“Shit happens” is what a top uniformed officer told me on 27 February when I called up to confirm a source-based information that the Mi-17 chopper was shot down by an Indian missile.
Yes, a lot happens in the fog of war and friendly fire is a bane across nations. However, even the thought of booking officials for culpable homicide not amounting to murder is stretching it a bit too far.
Yes, the family needs closure and the people responsible for the death of six IAF personnel and one civilian should face the music. There is no doubt about it.
While the Court of Inquiry probing into the entire incident is yet to submit its report, it is more or less established that the chopper was indeed shot down in friendly fire.
Sad is the fact that the pilot was in touch with the Air Traffic Control seconds before his chopper was hit by Israeli air defence system Spyder.
There is no doubt that coordination was missing but then people cannot be booked for culpable homicide not amounting to murder when a decision was taken in split second to shoot down an approaching flying object which was not identified as own.
Just imagine the consequences if there was a delay in decision-making and it was a Pakistani armed drone instead of the Mi-17 chopper. The havoc it could have created in such a crucial air base would be unimaginable.
By Fatima Khan, journalist at ThePrint.
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