On the morning of August 30, air traffic controllers at Lahore were startled to find that an “Indian military aircraft” had entered the Pakistan airspace. They were confused, too, as according to the flight plan and identification by the pilot, it was a civilian Boeing 737 plane but was transmitting the code of a military aircraft. They asked the pilot to hold the aircraft and alerted the Pakistan Air Force, which sent two F-16 fighter jets to escort it for about half an hour till it exited the country’s air space.
As things turned out, it was actually a SpiceJet flight with 120 passengers on board heading to Kabul from Delhi. The reason for the mistaken identity was a clerical error by an official of India’s aviation regulator, which assigned a military code while registering the SpiceJet aircraft. The unprecedented situation, barely a month after Pakistan had reopened its airspace post-Balakot air strike tension, prompted the Prime Minister’s Office to step in. Soon after, an official of the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) was suspended.
In a warm gesture, civil aviation secretary Pradeep Singh Kharola thanked his Pakistani counterpart Sharukh Nusrat for handling the situation calmly. That done, the incident has forced DGCA to speed up its work on digitizing the aircraft records. The regulator recently selected Tata Consultancy Services (TCS) for the process.
Pakistan’s defense analysts have been mulling quietly for the last four weeks if there was an Indian intelligence plan to trap Pakistan Air Force (PAF) into shooting Indian commercial airliner on September 23?
There is, as yet, no clear answer to what happened. Ironically, this unusually dangerous situation had developed while both Pakistani and Indian premiers were in New York to address the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA), and Imran Khan, Pakistan’s Prime Minister, was all set to raise alarm bells about Indian actions in Kashmir.
According to the Indian Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) officials, a mistake happened while assigning the “call-sign” (IFF squawks) to the Spice Jet’s Boeing 737 aircraft and it was mistakenly given the electronic identification of a fighter plane. Indian media reports that this was a “goof up” on the part of the Indian aviation regulator and the official response has been suspended.
A few months ago, (26 Feb 2019) Indian planes had crossed the Line of Control and struck deep inside the Pakistani territory at Balakot (near Abbottabad, in the Pakistani province of Khyber Pakthunkhwa) prompting a counter-strike from Pakistan Air Force (PAF) on Feb, 27. In the ensuing dogfight, according to Pakistan India lost two planes (a Mig-21 and an advanced Russian built SU-30) and subsequently, Pakistan had closed its airspace to Indian planes for several weeks. Indian Pilot, Wing Commander Abhinandan, captured by the Pakistani forces, was released as a goodwill gesture by Pakistan.
Pakistani analysts, who have spoken to GVS, realize that while mistakes can certainly happen, this kind of lapse looks very strange in the kind of tense situation that prevails between India and Pakistan since the Indian actions in February (Balakot strike) and recent actions in Kashmir.
Indian Design to Trap Pakistan?
Pakistanis have reasons to be suspicious – Indian agencies have skillfully used deception to great advantage.
It is pertinent to recall that the Prime Minister of Imran Khan was scheduled to address the UNGA on 27 September, just 4 days after this apparent “mistake” was committed by a functionary of Indian Civil Aviation. The Pakistani Premier was all set to take a stand against the Indian actions in Kashmir. Analysts wonder what would have happened if the PAF did not react carefully.
How would have Pakistan presented its case to the world after mistakenly killing more than 100 innocent citizens?
How it would have convinced the world and Indian public that the tragedy that happened was the mistake of an Indian civil aviation functionary?
Given that the Indian Jet Spice plane was bound for Kabul, half its passengers would have been Afghan businessmen, traders, and officials giving another twist to the event.
Professor Ashok Swain, Director of the Programme of International Studies, Department of Peace and Conflict Research, Uppsala University, Sweden, praised the PAF for saving the lives of innocent people. “Pakistan Air Force reacted responsibly & professionally to the suicidal stupidity of assigning the military code to a civilian aircraft, so 120 Indian lives were saved!,” he said.
Pakistan Air Force reacted responsibly & professionally to the suicidal stupidity of assigning the military code to a civilian aircraft, so 120 Indian lives were saved! https://t.co/7h0HL5FTjZ
— Ashok Swain (@ashoswai) October 19, 2019
But for many defense experts in Pakistan, it is “surprising to see how calmly the Indian authorities are dealing with such a huge mistake” which further reinforces their fears that it might have been “a strategic trap” to demonize Pakistan, its institutions and its stand on Kashmir. There needs to be through investigation and all the facts should be brought before the world.
Disturbing History of Commercial Airliners Shot due to Mistaken Identity
Unfortunately, commercial airliners have been shot down under assumptions of mistaken identity or intentions – with tragic consequences leading to huge losses of innocent civilians including children and families.
On July 17, 2014, Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 (MH17) was shot down, by Surface to Air missiles, in Eastern Ukraine while flying from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur. All 283 passengers and 15 crew, on board this Boeing plane, a total of 298 innocent men, women and children were killed. Western governments blamed Russian supported Ukrainian insurgents and Russia while the Russian government blamed the western supported the Ukrainian government for letting the planes fly over disturbed territories. To this day situation is not 100% clear but it appears that Ukranian insurgents or their Russian supporters shot down the Malaysian plane considering it a plane of the Ukrainian government.
On July 3, 1988, US Navy warship, the USS Vincennes, shot down Iran Air Flight 655. The airliner, an Airbus 310, was flying over the Persian Gulf, from Tehran to Dubai, when it was targeted by the US, the surface to air missiles, killing all 290 on board including 66 children. According to the American version, the passenger plane, (Airbus 310) which was in Iranian airspace, had been incorrectly identified as a fighter jet (F-4 or F-14). But shocked Iranians pointed out that Airbus was on its designated route, it was within Iran’s territorial waters and the size of an Airbus 310 is much bigger than an F-4 or F-14.
On 23rd September 2019, this was precisely what drew the attention of PDF radar teams who carefully observed that while plane entering from India carries the IFF squawks of Indian Air Force (IAF) fighter planes but its size is bigger and shape different and PAF decided to scramble its jets to do an actual verification. It was a bold decision and showed the professionalism and sensitivity of PAF teams.
Tragic stories don’t end with the ill-fated Iranian flight, 655. On September 1, 1983, Korean Airlines (KAL) flight 007 was shot down by Russian planes, killing all 269 passengers. The ill-fated plane flying from New York to Seoul, via Alaska, had deviated from its route. Russian interceptors (SU-15s) confused it with an American surveillance plane and shot it. Russian authorities maintained that plane that deviated from its original planned route was passing through Soviet prohibited airspace. The incident dramatically increased tensions between the Soviet Union and the western world. But Russians suspected that US surveillance planes were also present in the area and the whole thing was orchestrated by the American establishment and Reagan Administration to demonize Soviet Union to show it as inherently evil.