On this day a year ago, amidst a tense air battle over the Rajouri sector in Jammu & Kashmir, the Indian Air Force made a catastrophic error, the wounds of which are still fresh. A missile from one of the IAF’s Israeli-built SpyDer systems went screaming up from Srinagar in the tragically mistaken view that the target was an intruding Pakistani aircraft or drone.
As documented in the last one year, including just days after the incident here on Livefist, the SpyDer’s Python-5 missile smashed into ZP-5220, an IAF Mi-17-V5 of the 154 Helicopter Unit over Budgam. All six on board, including pilots Squadron Leader Siddharth Vashisht and Squadron Leader Ninad Mandavgane, perished in the crash.
The incident would be declared a ‘big mistake’ by the IAF’s next chief when he took over seven months later. While a deeply troubling inquiry has sought to get to the root of the monumental air defence loop failure that resulted in the Budgam shoot-down, disciplinary action against six officers is near complete, with Court Martial proceedings against two of them in the final stage. Findings of the inquiry report will never be formally released given the sensitive nature of the sensor-shooter-loop failure.
The inquiry has gone into all aspects of the catastrophe, including the violation of standard operating procedures at the Srinagar air defence centre, the functioning of transponder equipment on board the Mi-17 and why the IAF’s Barnala-based Integrated Air Command & Control System (IACCS) was ignored when its input on target identity would have been crucial for such a shoot-down.
A year after the tragedy, both the Indian Air Force as well as the families of six men on board ZP-5220 still deal with the ironic, overwhelming loss. For a highly professional force, there are no easy answers — and there probably won’t ever be even beyond the inquiry and action against officers.
“A day before, the Balakot incident had happened and I was already disturbed due to that as somewhere in my mind I knew how hard it is to do all this,” says Meenakshi Vashisht, a cousin who grew up with Siddharth Vashisht. “The ones who are sitting at the borders and are playing with their lives just to protect us. On Feb 27, I reached office around 11 and one of my colleagues was showing me the news and I was completely ignoring it and asking people to work rather than talk about the strike. After an hour almost I got the call from the home but I cut that as was busy. When my mother called me continuously I got scared and came out to call her. She picked my phone and just said “Bunny” (Siddharth’s nick name). I stopped her from saying anything after that as I wasn’t ready to believe it.”
The initial moments after the Mi-17 shootdown were typically filled with confusion. By this time, an IAF MiG-21 had been shot down over Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, and theories swirled over weather the Mi-17 had been shot down by an enemy missile or had simply crashed from an internal technical failure.
“It became clear to me the next day that this was a friendly fire incident,” says Meenakshi, who lives and works in India’s national capital. “The day after the incident, there were images of the missile pieces which were visible on social media. Even one of my friends shared with me. But when they started hiding it and when we didn’t have access to the court of inquiry report, it become quite clear that this terrible reality is what was being hidden from us. For 5 months, we were waiting to know something we were already aware of. We just wanted an official stamp on the IAF’s friendly fire. Finally the IAF declared him a martyr but Haryana Government has yet to put a stamp on it.”
The family has still to come to terms with the horror. Siddharth’s wife, also an IAF officer, still serves. They have a young son, Angad. A year after the Haryana government visited the family, it has yet to deliver on benefits promised to the family of the young Squadron Leader.
“Personally, I haven’t been able to reconcile myself with how such a thing could happen,” says Meenakshi. “Siddharth may have thought differently. He was a warrior. He is a son and a grandson of Army men so he knew the responsibility of a defence personnel very well. But I’m sure he had never thought of it literally either. He used to love to enjoy life and help others. He was the best son, brother, husband, father one can think of. Our lives are incomplete without him. We all are alive but not living. We still feel he is somewhere around and will come back to us soon.”