Indian Air Force has started the investigation into the crashing of one of its Sukhoi 30 fighters on the Assam-Arunachal Pradesh border.

After taking off from the Tezpur airbase in Assam on May 23 at around 10.30 a.m. on a routine training mission, the aircraft lost radar and radio contact with the controlling station around 11.10 a.m. near Arunachal Pradesh’s Doulasang area, adjoining China, 60 km north of Tezpur. The ground search teams retrieved the black box of the jet on May 28 from a thick forest.

Tezpur has one of the three IAF air bases in the country that host the Sukhois.

Analysis of the aircraft’s equipment suggested that the two IAF officers, Squadron Leader D. Pankaj and Flight Lieutenant S. Achudev, who were flying the aircraft, were unable to “initiate the ejection process” when the aircraft was about to crash—a “lack of action” that hardly happens with trained fighter pilots. 

Concerns are raised that the aircraft’s flying was “interfered with from outside” while it was still airborne and that this may have led to the pilots suffering “spatial disorientation”.

Analysts point to the apparent loss of five Army vehicles, “due to a misfired mortar strike” in the same zone, saying that a single mortar round would not have enough firepower to take out such a large number of vehicles. They add that the possibilities are that the damage may have been caused by a larger projectile guided by electronic systems that may have been interfered with during the flight. Given the range of cyber interference, the source of the attack could have been from thousands of kilometres or from only a few hundred metres away.

These analysts warn that although India spends over Rs 200,000 crore on defence through the armed forces and another Rs 100,000 crore on security via police units, hardly Rs 4,700 crore gets spent on cyber capability and that too on foreign vendors. In contrast to India, China spends on its domestic cyber capability which it has been nurturing and growing over the past 15 years.

Even though Indian defence and security analysts have been wary of accepting the possibility of a cyber attack downing a combat aircraft, the issue has been discussed seriously in the Western fronts for the last 8-9 years, with experts and CEOs of defence companies themselves raising concerns over cyber threats on military hardware.

The international analysts accept that cyber attacks can affect devastatingly like the lightning shutdown of the Northern Power Grid in August 2012. These were attributed by authorities to an “overdrawing” of power by Uttar Pradesh, omitting to consider the fact that such excess power consumption is routine, and that in the past, UP had withdrawn far more electricity from the grid than had been the case when it tripped. They say that it is probable that a cyber-related malfunction of a key gauge may have occurred, leading to the breakdown in supplies.

Similarly, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) of the United States in 2008, in its report, had stated that the Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner passenger jet may have had serious security vulnerabilities in its onboard computer networks that could allow passengers to access the plane’s control systems and make these vulnerable to hackers.

The impact of cyber warfare on complex machinery may be judged by the crippling of the USS Donald Cook in April 2014 by electronic interference sourced from a high-flying Sukhoi-24. Exactly a year later, yet another Sukhoi disabled the USS Theodore Roosevelt in the Baltic Sea. Both naval vessels had to be towed to safety, as their onboard propulsion systems got damaged by electronic interference.

In December 2013, Jeff Kohler, vice president of international business development for Boeing’s defence arm, stated that he was “very concerned” about the threats to flying software and the said aircraft were now in need of cyber protection.



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