The Budgam chopper crash suggests a crying need for better coordination between the IAF's fighter, helicopter and transport streams

by Shorya Sood

This week marks the third anniversary of the Balakot operation. It is one of the most recent operations of the Indian Air Force (IAF) and is largely perceived as “successful” by the people at large and the government. But there is a tragic side to the Balakot operation that remains to be critically analysed, involving the IAF helicopter crash that claimed six lives.

On February 27, 2019, the IAF shot down its own helicopter in Budgam a day after it conducted the strike at Balakot. All six occupants of the helicopter were killed. This disaster came even as the IAF was preparing itself for a counter-offensive from Pakistan. Several months later, the air force accepted that it had shot down its own helicopter and called it a “big mistake”.

But doesn’t this big mistake merit attention? Especially since India was not even at war and the incident happened within 10 minutes of Pakistan fighters intruding into our airspace. Though such things are more likely to happen in the thick of war, this tragedy – considered one of the darkest moments in the history of IAF – took place because the helicopter in question took off from the same base and its position was not known to the controllers.

So Why Did This Incident Happen?

This is an important question as the IAF is a very professional service and is considered one of the best air forces in the world. As per media reports, the court of inquiry into the incident found out that it was primarily because of systematic failure that resulted from lack of coordination between the Chief Operations Officer and the Senior Air Traffic Controller of Srinagar airbase. Now, a court martial has also started.

Lack of Coordination

The issue of lack of coordination is an extremely important issue for the IAF to address.

Presently, the IAF lacks structural coordination amongst its operational branches. The IAF has only centred its focus on the fighter stream as the leader in any kind of warfare. This means that the IAF hasn’t given adequate importance to the role being played by the helicopter and transport streams during operations.

The absence of helicopter and transport pilots in key operational positions is a testament to this. There is a need to evolve an integrated approach between the operational streams to enhance coordination during any kind of operation. It needs no emphasis that all the operational streams play an important role during operations. The operational fleets in the IAF comprise fighter, helicopter and transport streams.

Helicopter and transport streams play an important role both during peacetime and hostilities. During peacetime, helicopters and transport aircraft are deployed for humanitarian relief operations. Notable examples of which include ‘Operation Rahat‘, where the helicopter fleet played a gallant role in airlifting stranded civilians in the Uttarakhand floods – which was also dubbed as a “Himalayan tsunami”.

The transport fleet recently had a very important role during the second wave of COVID-19 in lifting oxygen tankers, and also in the rescue of thousands of Indians in Afghanistan after the Taliban seized power there. During hostilities, helicopters played a gallant role when deployed in Kargil, Sri Lanka, Siachen Glacier, and in various UN operations. They stand in the line of fire during such operations.

There is a need for integration amongst the operational streams to enhance coordination. This means all the operational streams should have exposure to each other’s operations. This is presently missing, as the expertise of helicopter and transport pilots is not being used in senior operational positions. Thus, the IAF needs to begin providing exposure of fighter operations to helicopter and transport pilots. This requires an investment in jointness during operations.

As per the data available at, the IAF has adopted a very flexible policy of posting pilots of the fighter stream to helicopter and transport bases as Air Officer Commanding (AOC). Fighter pilots in the past have commanded helicopter units and were also made as contingent commanders in UN missions where only helicopters were deployed.

Jointness Need of The Hour

However, the IAF has seldom adopted the same flexibility in posting helicopter and transport pilots as base commanders and chief operations officers to bases that have fighter squadrons, except in a base in the southern sector until recently where helicopter pilots were posted as AOC.

This policy of having cross operational expertise is important for an integrated approach, because many of the IAF bases have more than one type of aircraft. In such bases, the policy can be of having the chief operations officer, who is the head of operations, from a different stream, and AOC from a different stream. This policy is being followed only for helicopter/transport pilots in bases operating both helicopter and transport aircraft. This is not being implemented in bases that have fighters along with helicopters or transport aircraft.

As per the data available on, earlier even navigators in the IAF were given an opportunity to head regional commands, such as the training command. Air Marshal Vir Narayan was the last officer from the navigation branch to be the Air Officer Commanding in chief Training Command, which was more than 34 years back.

The IAF needs to be forward-looking in changing times. We have created organisations such as the Integrated Defence Staff to enhance coordination and jointness amongst the three services. But such strategies will only be of use if we implement them from the micro-level.

In the IAF, this would mean giving key operational roles to helicopter and transport pilots in field postings such as air defence and chief operations officer. In general, signal units are being commanded only by fighter pilots as per the database maintained by Even signal units that look after air defence of a particular sector can be rotated amongst fighter, helicopter and transport pilots. This will help in providing exposure to the helicopter and transport pilots also in the role of air defence.

As per the data maintained by, in the recent past, helicopter and transport pilots have been made air officer commanding in chief and senior air staff officer of Central, Eastern, Southern commands, but they haven’t had the exposure of being air defence commanders of these commands.

The AOC of a command is the overall head of the command followed by the senior air staff officer who oversees all the operations of the command. Both the positions are of the rank of air marshal, which have been held by helicopter and transport pilots. One fails to understand that when helicopter and transport pilots can supervise air defence of a command, why can’t they be air defence commanders at the command level? The position of air defence commander in the command is held by the rank of air vice-marshal.

If required, the IAF can select and make a pool of officers from different operational branches. Let’s say from the rank of group captain and the selected officers can be posted in positions, which give them exposure and experience of handling operations of other streams. All pilots have a general idea of operations; however, the key lies in knowing the specifics about each other’s domain expertise. In such a model, helicopter and transport pilots should get the experience of handling fighter operations and vice-versa.

One of the key lessons for the IAF to avoid mishaps like Budgam lies in focusing on jointness and integration amongst its operational streams. This would require looking at operational streams from a broad and holistic perspective by the top brass of the IAF, because with the changing nature of warfare into domains like cyber and space, we need the best minds from all operations branches of the IAF.

Shorya Sood is pursuing his MPhil in political studies from the Centre for Political Studies, JNU. He is an aviation enthusiast and follows IAF with great interest