Along with Germany, France and Italy, Pakistan was one of the customers for the Dassault-Breguet Atlantique maritime patrol aircraft, purchasing four airframes during the 1970s and 1980s. Pakistan’s Atlantique No.33 has been at the centre of a long-running despite between India and Pakistan.
These South Asian rivals have fought each other four times since their independence from British rule in 1947, most recently in May 1999 following the infiltration by Pakistani forces of Indian Territory around the town of Kargil in the disputed northern province of Kashmir. By June, India had repulsed the infiltration, although an uneasy peace existed between the two nations.
Two months after the war’s end, tensions remained high. Disaster struck on 10th August 1999, when Atlantique No. 33 of the Pakistan Navy’s 29 Squadron made a normal departure at 09.15 Pakistan Time (Greenwich Mean Time/GMT +5) from Karachi. Once airborne, the Atlantique was tracked by Indian Air Force ground radar with the aircraft reportedly flying close to the international border between the two countries.
Two Indian Air Force MiG-21bis (NATO reporting name ‘Fishded-N’) combat aircraft were scrambled to intercept the Atlantique. Exactly what happened for the next two hours remains a mystery. Established facts say that the Atlantique was engaged at 11.17 Indian Standard Time (GMT +5.30) by a Vympel R-60 (NATO reporting name ‘AA-8 Aphid’) infra-red guided air-to-air missile, which was fired by one of the MiG-21s. The missile hit the Atlantique’s port engine making the aircraft loose control and hit marsh land in the Great Ran of Kutch; an area which had been the scene of another territorial dispute between the two countries. All 16 crew members on board the Atlantique were killed.
Claims and counter-claims regarding the so-called ‘Atlantique Incident’ have raged since the shoot down. The Pakistani government argued that the aircraft’s wreckage had been found on its side of the border, inferring that the plane was shot down when still flying in Pakistani airspace; adding that the aircraft had been performing a training flight at the time, and not an offensive mission.
The Indian Air Force retorted that the aircraft had violated its airspace and an agreement signed by India and Pakistan in 1991, which stated that military aircraft of either nation were not permitted to fly within 5.4 nautical miles of their mutual international border. Moreover, India raised questions as to why a training mission was being performed so close to a sensitive international border.
So what mission was the Atlantique performing on that fateful day? As noted above, the Pakistan government argued that the aircraft was flying nothing more sinister than a training mission. However, allegations have been made that the Atlantique may have been testing the response times of the Indian Air Force’s air defence network, by flying provocatively towards the border, and monitoring the reaction times and radar frequencies used by Indian air defence radar and fighters. This is a standard procedure for identifying weak points in a nation’s air defence system through which it may be possible for strike packages of aircraft to ingress relatively unseen during any future conflict.
We will probably never know for certain the mission that Atlantique No.33 was performing that fateful day. However, during the course of some unconnected research, the author stumbled upon an interesting piece of information. In 1993, Pakistan’s Atlantiques were outfitted with a piece of equipment known as a DR-3000A Electronic Support Measure. The DR-3000A was a product made by Thomson-CSF (now Thales) in France and designed to collect information regarding radar. Principally it listens for radar operating in the eight-to-twelve gigahertz frequency range, known as the X-band, which is popularly used for naval surveillance, air surveillance and fighter surveillance radar. By using the DR-3000A it would be possible to gather information regarding the characteristics and behaviour of any radar operating across these frequencies, affording important electronic intelligence, especially if somebody was keen to learn how to use electronic warfare to jam these radar.
Although nobody is claiming that Pakistan’s Atlantique was performing a Signals Intelligence mission on the day it was shot down, the presence of an aircraft with a SIGINT capability near such a sensitive area certainly does raise some interesting questions.
By Thomas Whithington