The Delhi High Court on Tuesday sought the Centre’s stand on a petition by a former Air Force officer against his dismissal over the accidental firing of Brahmos missile into Pakistan during a simulation exercise last year.
A bench of Justices Suresh Kumar Kait and Neena Bansal Krishna issued notice on the petition by the former wing commander, who was posted as Engineering Officer at the relevant time, and granted the Centre six weeks to file its response.
The petitioner contended the decision of the Ministry of Defence to terminate him in August 2022 was “grossly mala-fide, discriminatory, illegal, and unjust” as he had acted in “complete obedience of the SOP”.
Additional Solicitor General Chetan Sharma opposed his plea and said the termination cannot be challenged in the present proceedings.
In his plea, the sacked officer has submitted he was trained for duties which were purely of “maintenance nature” and never on conduct of operations. He asserted he was “not trained against the counts of blame apportioned to him in the Court of Inquiry”.
“The Petitioner performed all his duties as per the SOP dated 15.03.2021. A perusal of the said SOP, which governed the operations on the fateful day would demonstrate that the Impugned Termination Order is malafide and the counts of blame levelled against the Petitioner bear no nexus with his responsibility as per his role prescribed by the SOP. The cause of the unfortunate incident was solely operational in nature,” the petition said.
“Although the Petitioner was an Engineering Officer, the Court of Inquiry apportioned him blame for failure to perform external checks of the combat connectors of combat missiles, which continued to remain connected to FCS Junction Box 1 & 3, while the same was not the role and duty of the Petitioner,” added the plea.
The petition said on the date of the unfortunate incident, there was no specific regulation or prohibition on the use of live weapons during simulated exercises despite the authorities being aware of the inherent risks associated with such processes and the revised SOP was issued only after the accident.
“Immediately thereafter Respondent No. 5 [Assistant Chief of the Air Staff (Operations) caused issuance of a revised SOP dated 25.04.2022 which removed the ambiguities and deficiencies in the SOP dated 15.03.2021 with regard to the use of ‘Live’ weapons during training exercises. The same clearly demonstrates that the accidental firing of the missile was a policy failure which is being camouflaged by invoking Section 18 of the Air Force Act and terminating the petitioner,” it alleged.
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“Respondent 5, localized liability to the Squadron level in order to camouflage the Policy failure at the HQ level. Thus, the Court of Inquiry into the incident was conducted in a biased, premeditated, discriminatory and vindictive manner,” it added.
The petition alleged the authorities have “intentionally circumvented” the procedure for initiating disciplinary action and the requirement of his trial by a court martial.
The Union government had said on March 9, 2022 a Brahmos missile got accidentally fired and landed in Pakistan and that the “deeply regrettable” incident was caused by a technical malfunction. Pakistan had lodged its protest with India over the incident.
The ministry said a technical malfunction occurred in the course of the routine maintenance of the missile, adding the government has taken a serious view of the incident.
Later that year, it said it has sacked three officers of the Indian Air Force for the accidental firing.
Following the incident, Pakistan had summoned India’s Charge d’Affaires in Islamabad and conveyed its strong protest over the “unprovoked” violation of its airspace by the supersonic “projectile” of Indian origin.
Maj Gen Babar Iftikhar, the Director-General of the Inter-Service Public Relations (ISPR) of Pakistan, said the unarmed projectile entered the Pakistani airspace travelling 124 km.
Pakistan’s foreign office said the “super-sonic flying object” entered into Pakistan from India’s Suratgarh and fell to the ground near Mian Channu city, causing damage to civilian property.
It had also called for a thorough and transparent probe and demanded that its outcome be shared with Islamabad.