In two poignant sorties this week, the head of the Indian Air Force, Air Chief Marshal Birender Singh Dhanoa flew the “missing man” over stations at Bhisiana near the Punjab town of Bhatinda and Sarsawa in UP. The first was in his favorite MiG 21 fighter jet and the second in a Mi-17V5 helicopter.
The “missing man” is a formation of three aircraft flying in “arrow” pattern with an uneven gap between the leader and one wing where another plane may have been flying.
It is an aerial salute to honor fallen comrades-in-arms.
For Dhanoa, a veteran fighter pilot and an ebullient Sardar who likes to spread good cheer, the sorties on Monday and Tuesday were redolent with memories from two decades ago as well as from two months back.
On May 27, 1999, Squadron Leader Ajay Ahuja, flight commander of 17 Squadron that is now based in Bhisiana was shot down and killed in Pakistani fire over the skies of Kargil. A day later that year, a Mi-17 helicopter with Squadron Leader R Pundhir, Flight Lieutenant S Muhilan and Sergeant R K Sahu, were shot down after they detected enemy movement in the Drass sector also near Kargil. The 152 Helicopter Unit was then, as now, based in Sarsawa.
The 20th anniversary of the last aerial engagement with Pakistani forces has roughly coincided with the air battle near the Line of Control in Kashmir in February this year. Though the Balakote air battle and airstrike that followed the fatalities on policemen in Pulwama in a terror strike was political propellant for the Modi alliance in the run-up to the elections, in purely military terms its scores are suspect.
India lost a MiG 21 fighter jet to Pakistani fire on February 27, its pilot Wing Commander Abhinandan taken prisoner of war and later released after three days. Tragically, a Mi-17 helicopter also crashed near Srinagar on the morning of February 27, killing seven air warriors and a civilian.
It is now transpiring in an internal court of inquiry by the air force that the fatal helicopter crash was probably a consequence of a “blue-on-blue” or “friendly fire” – the helicopter was shot down by an Israeli Spyder missile that was fired by the Indian Air Force’s own air-defence unit at the Srinagar air base. In the taut and tension-filled hours of that early morning when all forces in Jammu and Kashmir were on hair-trigger alert, the air-defence unit may have mistaken it for intruding Pakistani aircraft.
In the twenty years that separate the Kargil war and the Balakote strike, the Indian Air Force’s has been a tale of tardy modernization. Re-equipping itself with aircraft that can fly faster, radars that can see better, and missiles that aim finer is as yet an incomplete essay.
Dhanoa’s rite of passage in these years – he was a commanding officer of a MiG 27 fighter squadron in 1999 – is such a story. It was under his watch as a commanding officer of that squadron that a MiG 27 ground-attack aircraft was shot down too in 1999. It is under his watch as the head of the Indian Air Force now that India is coping with the most recent shoot-downs this year.
In the interim, governments have changed. Modi’s majority, the kind not experienced by any party since 1984, has been won on the back of the IAF’s sorties.
(Sujan Dutta is a Delhi-based journalist. He has covered wars in Kargil, Iraq and Afghanistan, apart from reporting on armed conflict, insurgencies and elections from across the subcontinent and West Asia for more than 30 years).
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