Pakistan’s defense analysts have been mulling quietly for 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.
The Hindu, a prestigious Indian newspaper, reported on October 17 that, on 23rd September 2019, an Indian Spice Jet (a commercial airliner) carrying 120 passengers, on its way from New Delhi to Kabul carried an electronic identification (IFF squawks) of an Indian Air Force (IAF) fighter plane. Pakistan Airforce (PAF) scrambled its jets and two F-16s intercepted the Indian plane, asked it to reduce speed, and asked for its identification. After confirming physically that the aircraft was not a military jet (as was appearing from its electronic identification, IFF squawks) but a harmless civilian career, the PAF pilots escorted the Indian airliner out of the country’s airspace, the newspaper reported.
The safety of the plane and 120 passengers onboard were put in jeopardy as the plane was visible to Pakistan radars as an #IAF aircraft after the Indian aviation regulator assigned it an electronic code of a military plane. https://t.co/756s8FVa7Mhttps://t.co/wbTvwV1gdj
— The Hindu (@the_hindu) October 17, 2019
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 responsible has been suspended.
The hijackers were Hashim Qureshi and his cousin Ashraf Qureshi. The aircraft was flown to Lahore, Pakistan where the passengers and the crew were released, and the aircraft was burnt down by the hijackers
Pakistani officials on the other hand are concerned on the enormity of the situation that had developed and its implications. On September 23, Pakistani and Indian prime ministers along with the global leadership were in New York for United Nations General Assembly session – where Pakistani PM was determined to draw attention towards the recent Indian actions in Kashmir. Pakistan Foreign Office, its mission and Pakistani media were all focused on raising Kashmir situation (lock down of 8 million Kashmiri Muslims and RSS high handedness across India) Members of the Pakistani diaspora were demonstrating along with Sikhs, Jewish community, Indian liberals and anti-Hindutva academics in different parts of the United States.
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 Khyher Pakthunkhwa) prompting a counter-strike from Pakistan Air Force (PAF) on Feb, 27. In the ensuing dogfight 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.
IAF claim of hitting F-16 by their Mig 21 before having been shot down by PAF gets exposed. All 4 missile seeker heads recovered intact from the wreckage & held. Pakistan and its professional Armed Forces staying humble by not drum beating. We have more truth on this to share. pic.twitter.com/jOklFU7GDJ
— DG ISPR (@OfficialDGISPR) April 5, 2019
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 response of downplaying the incident by merely suspending the CAA official for negligence or human error also looks insufficient. If one considers the hawkish statements that have routinely emerged from the Indian defense minister, Rajnath Singh, and Indian military Chief, Gen. Bipin Rawat since 5th August, with open threats of war, and accusing Pakistan of war like actions then all of this starts to look very surprising.
There is only one pilot under Pakistan Army’s custody. Wing Comd Abhi Nandan is being treated as per norms of military ethics. pic.twitter.com/8IQ5BPhLj2
— DG ISPR (@OfficialDGISPR) February 27, 2019
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, onboard this Boeing plane, a total of 298 innocent men, women and children were killed. Western governments blamed Russian supported Ukrainian insurgents and Russia while Russian government blamed western supported 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 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, 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 a F-4 or F-14.
On 23rd September 2019, this was precisely what drew the attention of PAF 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.
Indian Design to Trap Pakistan?
Pakistanis have reasons to be suspicious – Indian agencies have skillfully used deception to great advantage. On 30 January 1971, an Indian Airlines passenger airliner named Ganga, flying from Srinagar to Jammu, was hijacked by two Kashmiri separatists belonging to the National Liberation Front (NLF, the antecedent of Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front). The hijackers were Hashim Qureshi and his cousin Ashraf Qureshi. The aircraft was flown to Lahore, Pakistan where the passengers and the crew were released, and the aircraft was burnt down by the hijackers.
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
India reacting to this outrageous act banned overflight route to the former East-Pakistan. Pakistan that was facing the beginnings of an insurgency in its Eastern wing saw unsurmountable problems in maintaining logistics with its eastern half separated by more than 1000 miles of Indian territory – and was incapable to transport sufficient troops in time when insurgency supported by India grew stronger.
Pakistanis only learnt later that “Ganga” was one of the oldest aircraft in the Indian Airlines fleet and was already withdrawn from service but was re-inducted days before the hijacking. Now subsequent disclosures and writings have made it clear that “Ganga Hijacking” was a well thought out plan of Indian Intelligence and its goal was to create reasons for closing Indian Airspace to Pakistani flights to Dhaka -with disastrous consequences for the state of Pakistan.
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 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.
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 reinforce 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.