The Danger of Flying Helicopters at the Line of Control

Opinion is divided even among experienced veterans about what must be done when an adversary’s helicopter enters the Indian airspace at the Line of Control (LoC) or breaches an agreement with reference to the rules of engagement. A minority says simply shoot the helicopter down and send the occupants to their doom. However, a prudent majority, well-versed in the dynamics of the LoC, has a different opinion.

The context for this essay is the 700-metre intrusion by a civilian helicopter, carrying the so-called Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK) prime minister on 30 September 2018, across the LoC in the Gulpur segment of Poonch sector. Sporadic sounds of fire by the Indian Army posts in the area are heard in a video clip that was aired on television that night. There has been fervent discussions on social media about the incident, but no conclusive opinion on how to deal with such an incident, which is not unusual, even if a civilian helicopter near the LoC, and straying, too, has a one-in-a-million chance.

For an informed opinion to be formed on the subject, some facts need to be placed on record. The rules of engagement clearly state that there will be no flying by fixed-wing aircraft within 10 kilometres of the LoC on either side. For rotary-wing aircraft (helicopters), the limit is 1 km. It is quite easy to follow such rules when the terrain is plain, with lots of definable landmarks and a boundary between nations clearly demarcated on a map as well as on the ground. Not so when the terrain is mountainous, at a high altitude, and with jagged rocky outcrops and jungle interspersed all over. Sticking to the 1-km rule is nearly impossible because while helipads may fall outside of that distance, the approach to them could involve circuitous flying that could easily breach the rule. For casualty evacuation, too, breach of rule is permitted after appropriately informing the other side.

The primary issue here is the feasibility of mistakes occurring in the recognition of features that supposedly help in understanding the alignment of the LoC. Ideally, a distance of 1.5-2 km should be kept as a leeway to prevent mistakes, but, again, that is not always possible, as already set out on account of operational constraints and the technical necessity of approaches. This is applicable to both sides. The issue could have been easily resolved had there been trust between the two sides. Flying close to the LoC at an appropriate height and for a degree of time provides an excellent visual peep into areas that cannot be seen from the ground. It helps in mapping potential targets for fire assaults and even photographing facilities. However, there is an argument that in today’s environment, whatever can be seen by a close-flying helicopter along the LoC is also visible through satellite technology but with lower resolution.

In an editorial, Pakistani daily Dawn writes: “The line between catastrophe and the tension-ridden norm along the LoC in the disputed Kashmir region has yet again been shown to be unbearably thin.” There is no doubt that in the current condition of a complete breakdown of trust, both sides can ill-afford any military advantage to the other through close visual reconnaissance from the air, the very purpose of the restrictions on flying being just that. The question is whether these rules of engagement can be followed implicitly. A military opinion will always suggest implicit execution and any breach of rule drawing an expected military response by the other. Yet, how does one account for the factors outlined earlier—the high feasibility of breaches on account of constraints of terrain, weather, and human error.

An opinion of reasonable consensus on social media points to discretion being with the troops and commanders on the ground with sound training, situational gaming practices, and effective communication, so that each such breach is taken based on its characteristics. It is clear that the amount of time available for an effective response will always be limited, putting pressure on those who have to take the decision. What, therefore, needs to be included in the rules of engagement is the methodology of indication to a pilot (flares and use of other illuminating devices) that he has strayed. Persistent presence in the area of breach or circling around it would draw a conclusion of unsavoury intent, which would give ground troops the freedom to act unilaterally.

There are case studies from the past that can help in determining a response and laying down self-explanatory instructions to forward troops. An example is the alleged shooting down of a Pakistani helicopter in August 1995 at Siala in the northern Siachen Glacier. Helicopter intrusions occurred every day over a period of time and in the same circuit over a given area. Ideally, this should have been referred to the Director General of Military Operations (DGMO) of the Pakistan Army by the Indian DGMO with adequate warning. However, because of the persistence seen from the Pakistani side, an Indian Army air defence detachment deployed at the Glacier fired an Igla missile, causing the helicopter to crash, killing both pilots.

In late 2011, one of our Army aviation helicopters with two pilots, who were on a routine flight from Leh to Kargil, strayed across the LoC deep into PoK; it landed by mistake at a Pakistan Army helipad. However, the response from Pakistan was positive. There was no interrogation of the pilots. A request from our DGMO led to the immediate return of the helicopter and the pilots, and it was considered an excellent goodwill gesture on their part. Between these two responses lies a yawning gap where contingencies can be immeasurable. I can state from personal experience in command of troops that there were many instances when our pilots flying me to certain important posts at the LoC could not but help breach the 1-km rule while landing, although the helipads were well outside that distance. Similarly, there have been instances of breach by Pakistani helicopters.

In the case of the Poonch intrusion by a civilian helicopter, our troops cannot be faulted for having engaged it with small arms before the chopper returned to PoK. That is because of the uniqueness of the event; civilian helicopters are rarely seen at the LoC. I always had the apprehension that there could exist a contingency wherein Pakistan-based terrorists steal or hijack a helicopter and attempt to target an important facility on our side to cause serious triggers in further upsetting India-Pakistan relations. I am sure such perceptions prevail in other minds, too. That is why it is key for the DGMOs of the two sides to get together and resolve such issues.

Even under the circumstances of better and updated rules of engagement, no one should expect black-and-white directions on every contingency. There will be much left to the discretion of forward troops, who need to be fully aware of potential contingencies and the flexibility of response with which they have been empowered. It’s old world thinking to imagine that a soldier on the ground needs “yes” or “no” directions for every situation. The “maybe” is equally a part of the lexicon for use at a location as dynamic as the LoC. Translating that “maybe” effectively in the right direction is what training is all about.

The writer is a former GOC of India’s Srinagar based 15 Corps, now associated with Vivekanand International Foundation and the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies.