Shootdown! The Atlantique Incident and the Phantom of the Syria
By: Bill The Butcher
Statutory warning: The author of this article is not responsible for any fights, recriminations or fallings out resulting from a discussion of it on this or any other website or alternate medium on which it may appear. Thank you.
It was a hot morning in August of 1999, the sun blazing down on the salt marshes of Gujarat in Western India, on the southern edge of the border with Pakistan. This area is a mix of creeks, salt marshes and mud flats, and there had been border clashes in the past, so the armed forces on both sides were in a state of permanent alert.
Besides, there was another reason for tension. Only a month ago, Indian and Pakistani forces had been fighting an undeclared but highly publicised high-altitude “war” in the mountains of Kashmir, with heavy artillery barrages, air strikes and assaults up vertiginous mountain slopes. This so-called “Kargil war” had ended with a Pakistani withdrawal from most of the territory it had seized, and the Indian government and media had promoted it as a “famous victory”. The purpose of this article is not to enter into a detailed discussion of the so-called “victory” – I’ll leave that for another occasion. But the facts are that tensions were still very high and the forces were on a hair-trigger.
It was in this atmosphere, then, that just before 11am Indian time, on the 10th of August 1999, Indian Air Force radar picked up an aircraft approaching the border from the Pakistani side. This was a red flag since an agreement between the nations, signed in 1991, prohibited fixed-wing aircraft from approaching within ten kilometres of the international border. According to the official Indian Air Force account of what happened next,
It first touched the international border (at point 68 degree 48 min E, 24 degrees 18 min North) at 10:54 hrs. For the next 17-18 minutes it carried out a series of manoueveres (sic) over this area.
I don’t necessarily accept the official Indian version of anything, anywhere, or at any time, so for the rest of this article it has to be remembered that when I quote Indian accounts on this incident, I don’tautomatically believe or endorse them. But, in the brief, this is what took place:
The aircraft the Indian radars had been tracking was a Breguet Atlantique of the Pakistani Navy. The Atlantique is a maritime reconnaissance aircraft which can also be armed with anti-ship missiles, and the type had been known to shadow Indian Navy ships in the Arabian Sea and “buzz” them in the tradition of Cold War encounters between NATO and Soviet planes and ships in the Atlantic Ocean.
|A Pakistan Navy Atlantique|
This particular Atlantique belonged to No 29 Squadron of the Pakistan Navy, according to statements released later from Islamabad. It was flown by Lieutenant Commander Mehboob Alam and had 5 officers and 11 sailors aboard (the others wereLieutenants Farasat Ali Shah, Rizwan Masood, Azhar Hussain, Zarar Ahmad, and sailors Mohammad Tariq, Nawazish, M Hussain, M Sarwar, Aftab Ahmad, M Riaz, Wahid Iqbal, M Hafeez, M Yasin, S Mehmood and Masood). What it was alleged to be doing on the Indian border will be discussed later in this article.
The Atlantique had been noticed, according to the Indian Air Force, at 10.51am Indian time. According to the same IAF official history, the Atlantique “crossed” (as opposed to “touched”, I presume) the Indian border at 10.57am. Two Indian Air Force interceptors from No 45 Squadron had been alerted when the Atlantique had first been noticed, and were ordered to scramble at 10.57 when the aeroplane crossed the border. Two minutes later they were in the air.
These two interceptors were MiG 21bis fighters flown by Squadron Leader (the rank is equivalent to Major) PK Bundela and Flying Officer (Captain) S Narayanan. Their ground controller (the MiG 21 is a short range high-speed interceptor dependent on guidance from ground control) vectored them in on an interception course on the Pakistani aeroplane as it “entered Indian airspace for the third time”.
|A MiG 21bis from No 45 Squadron|
Again, I quote from the official IAF history:
The fighter controller of the ground radar vectored the fighters in a Northerly direction, to bring them in the general area at approximately 11:10 hrs…(b)y 11:12 hrs, the bogey (unidentified Pakistani track) proceeded initially west, subsequently turning and heading south till the IB (International Border) (at point 68º 32 min East, 23º 58 min North), then turning onto a westerly heading initially. At this time, the IAF interceptors were also directed southwards by the radar controller and generally kept abreast of the bogey, keeping on the Indian side of the IB.
The bogey turned south once again and entered Indian airspace for the third time at approximately 11:14 hrs and penetrated 10 km into Indian territory before turning on an easterly heading. At this stage, the fighter controller maneuvered (sic) the IAF MiG-21s so as to place the lead aircraft flown by Sqn. Ldr. P.K. Bundela between the border and the intruder (to stop the intruder from escaping) and the wingman Fg. Off. S. Narayanan was accelerated and brought behind the unknown intruder from the other side in a pincer movement.
The idea was to box in the Atlantique from both sides so as to prevent it from escaping into Pakistani airspace, and leaving it with only two options – to surrender and land at an Indian airbase, or to be shot down. Both MiG 21s were now in visual as well as radar contact with the quarry and had identified it as an Atlantique of the Pakistani Navy. Bundela, who was on the port side of the Atlantique (which would have, according to the Indian version of events, placed him between the Pakistani plane and the border) apparently closed to 300 metres of the “bogey” in an effort to signal it to surrender. But – again according to the Indian version –
As Sqn. Ldr. Bundela was jockeying into position, the Atlantique turned into him in an aggressive evasive attempt. This was a hostile act. As per international norms he ought to have maintained his course and height and in fact lowered his under-carriage as a sign of submission as per the Rules of Engagement.
Having received clearance from Indian ground control to shoot down the Atlantique, Bundela then fired an R-60 infra-red heat-seeking missile at the Pakistani aeroplane. In the following picture, captured by the MiG 21’s Head Up Display, the missile can be seen on the left streaking towards the Pakistani Navy plane. A moment later, it struck the port engine and set it on fire.
One of the interesting things about this photo is the fact that the MiG 21 is clearly below and behind the Pakistani plane. I’m not a fighter pilot, but surely this seems to indicate that – if the official account is to be credited – the Atlantique had already overflown the Indian fighter and had been going hell-for-leather for Pakistani territory at the time the missile was launched, if that is it had not already crossed the border. If that was so, and the plane was trying to escape, how is it that its actions were deemed “hostile”? Later, the Indian government was to make a lot of noise about the quite undoubted fact that an Atlantique can carry anti-ship missiles. But MiG 21s are not ships, the action occurred over land, and the Atlantique had clearly not made any attempt to launch weapons of any kind.
|The IAF’s map of the episode|
Then, the two MiG 21s were both of the bis variant, which has an internal GSh-23 cannon (unlike earlier versions which either had no guns or could carry only detachable cannon pods). It seems extremely unlikely that interceptors which were on such a high state of combat readiness (they took off only eight minutes after being first alerted, and two minutes after being ordered to scramble) would have the cannon magazines empty. It is then difficult to understand why Bundela, who closed to within 300 metres of the Pakistani aeroplane, did not fire off a couple of bursts in an effort to warn it or inflict potentially non-lethal damage. Could it be that a policy decision had been made to destroy a Pakistani plane at the first opportunity (during the aforementioned Kargil “war”, the IAF had lost at least three aircraft, including two fighters and a gunship, while the Pakistanis had lost none) in order to take revenge, and there was only a narrow window of opportunity before the “bogey” got away?
(Unfortunately, we can’t ask Bundela these questions – a few years later, he was badly injured while ejecting from a crashing MiG 21 and died in hospital.)
Let’s get back to the official IAF account:
The interceptors were immediately ordered to break away to the right to ensure that they stayed within Indian territory. The Atlantique after being shot (sic – no shots were actually fired) continued to be seen on IAF ground radars. It entered a loose descending spiral turn to the left, burning fiercely with wreckage falling off; in the process, it described an arc 5 km within Pakistani territory before facing an approximately south-easternly (sic) direction again close to the IB before it disappeared from the IAF ground radar screen.
The scene inside the plane must have been horrific in those final moments, with the fuselage disintegrating and flames consuming the interior. The missile’s impacting the engine meant that it’s likely none of the crew met a mercifully quick end from blast or concussion, so they must have known their impending doom long enough to be terrified as well as possibly in agony from the flames and being battered around in the crashing wreck. Even if one imagines the Pakistanis were enemies, it’s impossible to feel any joy in that image, and I find the two Indian pilots’ obvious glee at their later media conference frankly obscene. (They were decorated, as was the ground controller, and lionised in the media, as if it was some kind of Manfred von Richtofen-style feat to shoot down a lumbering turbo-prop aeroplane with a Mach 2 jet firing a heat-seeking missile.)
|Bundela (left) with Narayanan|
There followed a most curious string of events, so bizarre as to merit possibly more attention than the shooting down itself. Despite the IAF account that the Pakistani Navy plane had crashed within Pakistani territory (see above), the Indian government immediately declared that the plane had been shot down over India and the proof was that the wreckage was within India.
I remember clearly the “evidence” which followed: the TV news channels showed a video released by the IAF depicting the wreckage “being retrieved from Indian territory”. It was evidently taken from inside a landed Indian Mi-8 or Mi-17 and showed Indian Air Force personnel racing frantically about, picking up pieces of metal and scurrying back as quickly as they could to put them into the helicopter. Why all this running was required, if the wreckage had actually fallen inside Indian territory (two kilometres inside was the claim), was never explained. The Pakistanis later accused the Indians of stealing the wreckage from inside their country, and they’re so obviously telling the truth on that point that there seem no reasonable grounds for disbelieving them. The Indian side claimed that the Atlantique’s wreckage had fallen in a scattered zone on both sides of the border, but that still begs the question of the sprinting Air Force men.
Then there’s the question of the Pakistani bodies. The corpses of allthe sixteen occupants of the Atlantique were recovered by the Pakistanis on their side of the border and they were given a state funeral attended by, among others, the Pakistani Prime Minister and Naval chief. Assuming the wreckage was “scattered” across the border, it’s difficult to imagine how all the bodies ended up on the Pakistani side. The Pakistanis claimed that the wreckage was “two miles” (3.2 kilometres) inside their territory, and that the “unarmed” plane was on a training flight. More on that anon.
Meanwhile, in India, the recovered wreckage, from wherever it had come, was then flown to Delhi where the Prime Minister at the time, Atal Behari Vajpayee of the Hindunazi alliance then in power, formally “inspected” it for the cameras.
This wasn’t enough, though, to “convince” everyone that India had been right to have shot the plane down, so the next day Indian helicopters flew journalists to the area of the shooting down to “prove” that it had crashed in Indian territory. How they intended to prove this in a land of salt marshes and mud flats, where there are neither border markers nor obvious landmarks, isn’t clear, but in any case they never got there. By this time, the Pakistani army had reached the crash site and fired on the helicopters with a surface to air missile which, fortunately or unfortunately depending on your point of view, missed. And then the Pakistanis took their own contingent of journalists to prove, quite conclusively, that at least the bulk of the wreckage had fallen inside Pakistan. Here’s a Pakistani photo showing the wreckage:
That was, of course, not the end of the story.
The Pakistan government chose to approach the International Court of Justice, demanding $16 million in reparations for the shooting down of the plane, but the application was turned down by a fourteen-to-two majority of the 16-judge bench. The ICJ said it had no jurisdiction on the case, backing the Indian contention. As far as the ICJ went, then, the Indian action was outside the scope of legal punishment and hence legitimate by default.
What was the Pakistani plane doing anyway?
According to the Pakistani government[3,5], it was on a training flight, while India dismissed that contention. The Indian side pointed out that the Atlantique was, first, a maritime patrol aircraft and that training should logically occur over water, where it might fulfil its designed role of locating and tracking ships and submarines; and that, even by Pakistani accounts, the wreckage lay well within the ten kilometre border exclusion zone, where it had no business being in the first place. Even according to diplomats who blamed India for “overreacting”, the Pakistanis could not explain why the Atlantique was flying so close to the border.
Certainly, if one is to attempt to accept the Pakistani version of the plane’s mission, its commander and crew were either hopelessly lost (in which case they should have contacted ground control to report and ask for help) or were so incredibly incompetent that they knowingly flew into an exclusion zone along a “hot” border just a month after the end of a fairly large-scale shooting war. And then, when challenged by Indian aircraft, they made no attempt to land and explain themselves, but rather made a suicidal dash which ended in their being shot down. None of these suppositions is complimentary of the Pakistani Navy’s training, preparedness, or thinking in a crisis.
The Indian contention was that the Atlantique was on an “operational mission”, possibly to test Indian radar defences. However, that could have been as easily achieved at night or using a faster and more capable aircraft, as the Pakistanis themselves pointed out. While of course it’s impossible to tell for certain, my own belief us that the plane was on a mission to scout out infiltration routes along which Kashmiri and other “freedom fighters” and arms and ammunition could be sneaked over the border.
By 1999, the Kashmir insurrection had been going on for ten years and the Punjabi Sikh rebellion (which had not yet been completely stamped out) almost twice as long as that. Both these rebellions had received very substantial Pakistani backing, with fighters being trained and armed in Pakistan and sent back across the border. But by 1999, the Punjab sector border was virtually sealed shut and the Kashmir sector headed the same way. Especially, after the clashes in Kargil, it was obvious that the Indian side would tighten border security in Kashmir far more than before. A new route had to be found for infiltrating men and material, and the desolate mud flats of Gujarat, full of creeks and tidal wetlands, probably seemed a good possibility. Of course, it would require careful reconnaissance, from as close to the border as possible, and in daylight for maximum visibility. The Pakistani crew might have simply crossed over the boundary due to enthusiasm or incompetence, panicked when challenged, and paid the penalty.
Why am I bringing up this fairly ancient history?
Well, anyone who’s kept up remotely with current affairs knows that there’s a civil war on in Syria and that the Empire, and more especially its colonial proxies Britain and what Frontline magazine calls the “Gulf petrol stations”, are backing their Al Qaeda affiliated allies against the legitimate government of Bashar al-Assad. These Al Qaeda affiliated terrorist gangs are primarily hosted in NATO member Turkey, which has joined in demanding that the Assad government (“regime” in the Empire’s parlance, which always means “a government we don’t like”) be replaced.
Unfortunately for the Imperial plans, the Al Qaeda gangs on the ground have not succeeded in defeating the Syrian government, and instead are definitely on the defensive. Besides, Russia and China have steadfastly blocked the Empire’s British and other NATO proxies from finding a way of sneaking a Libya-style resolution through the UN Security Council, which would pave the way for a similar Libya-style destruction of Syria and its falling apart into factional and gang warfare. But Turkey, as I said, is a NATO member, and NATO members are, at least theoretically, supposed to come to each other’s aid if the territory of any of them is attacked by a third party.
Now, Turkey may be a member of an alliance which is – theoretically – supposed to be concerned with mutual self-defence, but its own record of respecting other nations’ borders is virtually nonexistent. Quite apart from hosting and arming the Al Qaeda affiliated gangs, thereby directly supporting a terrorist organisation, it has routinely invaded Kurdish areas in Northern Iraq, and has in the past taken genocidal measures against its own Kurdish population. What I’m saying is that Turkey isn’t exactly a paragon of virtue by any means.
Two years ago, that seemed about to change, when Turkey sent a flotilla of ships designed to break the racist Zionazi blockade of Gaza. That Freedom Flotilla was assaulted by Zionazi stormtroopers, and nine Turkish citizens were murdered. There were howls of protest in the Imperial capital of Washington – not against the blockade, or against the Zionazi assault on a relief mission, but against Turkey, which some of the Imperial politicians began referring to as “our former ally Turkey”.
That must have spooked the government in Ankara, for the Turkish government began trying, quietly, to curry favour with the Empire. The obvious opportunity came with the Syrian rebellion, because there Turkey could obviously serve as the Empire’s proxy without seeming to obviously backpedal on the Gaza issue. Once the population was distracted, it could simply let the plight of the Palestinians slip from official memory.
But the plan wasn’t going exactly according to script. The Al Qaeda affiliated gangs, fragmented and feuding among themselves, weren’t triumphing over the government forces and rolling into Damascus. The Russians and Chinese were blocking the UN route to Western Libya-style aggression and forcible regime change. The longer the war went on, the greater the chances of a backlash developing in Turkey itself against the gangs and their hosts, the Ankara regime. Something had to be done.
It is in that light that one must see the curious episode where a Turkish F4 Phantom jet was shot down by Syrian forces off the port of Latakia on 22nd June. According to the latest version of the Turkish account, which keeps changing mysteriously, the Phantom was on a “training flight” and was shot down by Syrian forces over “international waters”.
|The Great Turkey Shoot: a Turkish F4|
It’s interesting how the Turkish story kept changing. At first the Turks vacillated – the plane might have, they acknowledged, intruded into Syrian airspace, and they said it was on a “reconnaissance mission”. Yes, a reconnaissance mission in the airspace of a nation at civil war, in which you’re openly backing one of the contending sides, that’s perfectly normal practice. Happens every day, one might say.
That’s even less of a satirical exaggeration on my part than you might assume. The Turks claimed that the fact of the intrusion itself was irrelevant – apparently, such crossing over into another nation’s airspace happens all the time (for Turkish pilots, I suppose, it’s routine, given their penchant for bombing northern Iraq) but it was the first time Syria had shot one of their planes down. How dare they?
It’s not difficult to feel that there might perhaps be something a bit suspect about this line of argument. One might say it goes something like this: “I slapped you around a hundred times and you did nothing. Now I’ve slapped you for the hundred and first time, how dare you punch me in the jaw?”
However, once it became evident that the two crewmen of the Turkish jet were safely dead, and therefore would not appear before Syrian TV cameras to tell the truth of their mission to the world, the Turkish story changed abruptly. Now the Phantom was on a “training mission” in international airspace and it was an act of intolerable aggression on the part of Syria to have shot it down; an act of such aggression, in fact, as to merit a NATO meeting under Article 4, and invoke the mutual aid cause.
I don’t think I’d be all that mistaken if I express a suspicion that Turkey – and its NATO overlords – were straining at the leash for a casus belli with which to bypass the UN and launch a preplanned war of aggression; and that they seized upon the destruction of this jet as such a casus belli. If I were a true cynic, I might even suppose that the Turkish jet was intentionally sent into harm’s way in order to create an incident. After all, we know that before the invasion of 2003, the Bush regime was thinking of flying a U2 spy plane in UN markings over Iraq in the hope that Saddam Hussein’s forces would fire on it and provide an excuse to attack, so such levels of duplicity are hardly unknown to the Evil Empire and its handmaidens in NATO.
It’s hardly surprising, too, that the most hysterical denunciations of Syria have come from not Turkey but from the United State’s de factocolony in Western Europe, Britain. Even the Empire reacted with some caution, but as I’ve said elsewhere, the British never encountered a war they didn’t love, as long as someone else had to do the fighting.
In the last decade alone: it was Britain (along with the now defunct Sarkonazi dispensation in Paris) which was the prime mover in the destruction of Libya. It was Britain which legitimised George W Bush’s invasion of Iraq by joining in it with enthusiasm, and continues to help occupy Afghanistan. It’s Britain which continues to openly host, shield and protect Russian mafia oligarchs and Chechen terrorist warlords. It’s Britain which is about to host an Olympics sponsored by Dow Chemicals, responsible for the manufacture of Agent Orange, which to this day maims Vietnamese children, and which is now the owner of Union Carbide, responsible for the Bhopal gas disaster. It was Britain which (with only temporary success, fortunately) turned back a Russian ship taking repaired helicopters back to Syria. It was the British prime minister who falsely claimed Russian President Putin had said President Assad had to step down.
None of this is surprising. To those of us whose nations suffered under the Union Jack, British hypocrisy and mendacity are so familiar that we’d be astonished by anything else coming out of Perfidious Albion.
The Syrians are far more direct – they detected a low-flying, fast, unknown target intruding in their airspace and shot it down.
The Syrian government said an “unidentified object” had approached Syrian territorial waters from the west at “a very low altitude and at high speed.” Syrian anti-aircraft artillery fired at the jet when it was one kilometer (sic) off the Syrian coast, and it crashed 8 kilometers (sic) off the coast.
In a situation where there’s a shooting war going on, it’s in fact difficult to imagine what else the Syrians were expected to do (especially seeing that the Zionazi pseudostate had bombed a reactor on its territory only a few years ago). Could they take the risk that the intruder was benign? What if they were mistaken and it was on an air raid? Could the Syrian air defence force commander on the spot take that risk? In his place, could you?
I wonder what the Turkish response would have been in similar circumstances? And if the Turks had shot down a Syrian aeroplane, and the Syrians had protested, I wonder if the Empire and its British proxy would have spent a moment on the incident? And would they have ignored the fact that the plane’s wreckage has been detected on the sea bed in Syrian waters?
I don’t think so.
One of the unforeseen effects of the shooting down, though, is that the Syrian air defences have proved unexpectedly effective. Especially if the Turkish F4 was indeed destroyed by the new Russian-supplied SA-22 missiles, a Libya-style NATO bombing campaign against Syria may be impossible without the Empire’s direct involvement and will certainly be extremely costly. And though the Empire’s sights are set on Iran, its ability and appetite to fight yet another major war right now are not as high as the British (or the Zionazis) might desire.
Was the Syrian action legitimate? I’d like to refer you to the ICJ and its legitimisation of India’s destruction of the Pakistani Atlantique. In many ways, India was much more culpable than the Syrians were – the IAF pilots had clearly seen and identified the Pakistani plane, were aware that they held an absolute superiority, and shot it down when even according to the Indian account the plane was attempting to withdraw into Pakistan. On the other hand, the Syrians were in the midst of a fighting war, the Turkish Phantom was flying low and fast, and a decision must have had to be taken on the spot and without waiting for superior orders. Seeing that the ICJ ruled in favour of the Indian position, there’s no way the Syrians can possibly be held guilty for their action.
But just assume, for the sake of argument, that the Syrians are guilty of knowingly shooting down an unarmed Turkish Phantom on a training mission. Even if that happened, the Syrian government couldn’t possibly have known that a Turkish fighter would be flying at that time at that position, and couldn’t have directly ordered its destruction. By the time the decision had been made in Damascus and the orders been sent back to Latakia, the Phantom would have already achieved whatever its mission was and be halfway back to its base. Therefore, the idea of blaming the Syrian government for the shooting down is an act of utter and complete stupidity. But it makes sense if you think of it as an attempt to find an excuse to invade, and with Turkish tanks having been sent to the Syrian front(ier), with orders to attack Syrian troops who are “too close to the border”, one might say they think they’ve found the excuse.
Oh, then it makes sense, all right.
Bill The Butcher- Air-space, such a tricky thing, to lay claim to air.