Responsibility for helicopter tragedy to be found on many levels, including government, armed forces

The absolution of Defense Minister Spilios Spiliotopoulos from any political blame and the facile dismissal of air force chief of staff Lieutenant-General Panayiotis Papanikolaou have been the only response so far to the question of responsibility for the tragic crash of an army Chinook helicopter that killed all 17 people on board and for the failure of many joint armed forces-ministry systems of cooperation. Meanwhile, the army chief of staff remains at his post, to which he was appointed as a replacement for his predecessor after another accident, even though the fated Chinook did not belong to the air force but to the army. The main reason given for the dismissal of Papanikolaou and for Lieutenant-General Nikolaos Douvas’s remaining in place is that the former was responsible for the delay in informing the political leadership, while the responsibilities of the latter are to be investigated by a committee set up by the Defense Ministry. Matters are not so simple, of course. The widely held and oversimplified notion that «whoever owns the radar is to blame» is mistaken, unjust and, worst of all, helps – albeit unintentionally – cover up the issue and perpetuate the kind of thinking that was responsible for the crash. And that kind of thinking has built up by years of indifference and poor administration of the armed forced by previous governments. Besides, if the above were the case, there would be no need to set up a new Defense Ministry committee, which has already been done, to investigate the delays. In fact, the responsibility for the unprecedented delay belongs not to one but to the three general staffs, as the defense minister is well aware. This is why, shortly before Monday’s meeting of the Government Council for Defense and Foreign Policy (KYSEA) was held, he sent an urgent document asking not the General Air Force Staff (GEA) but the Defense Ministry General Staff (GEETHA) for a written briefing about the reasons the information was delayed. GEETHA, in its turn, made the request known to the other general staffs, also asking them for explanations. So who is involved? The following should be made clear: First: The armed forces do not offer a free «air limousine service.» Although it is established practice, armed forces helicopters and airplanes are not means of transport for that purpose. They were not bought for that purpose nor is there an adequate legal framework to govern such flights following requests from the Defense Ministry executive, who made the helicopter available according to a standing GEETHA order. According to the flight plan, the ill-fated Chinook was not flying on the IFR system for landing with radio assistance, but by VFR, for visual landing, and it was not listed as a VIP flight, but XRAY-1, and nobody was monitoring it. Second: In the current intertwined structure of the Greek armed forces, the role of coordinating such joint actions in which many agencies and staffs are involved belongs to the general staff’s national operations center (ETHKEPIX), which has the operational but not the administrative responsibility, with whatever that entails. ETHKEPIX should have been observing an army helicopter by means of the C41 system, which so far has not lived up to its reputation, quite the contrary, in fact. Moreover, the Tactical Air Command (ATA) in Larissa is another joint command which belongs administratively to GEA but operationally to GEETHA. By law, GEETHA should have been informed by GES (the army general staff) about the flight, which, according to the documents, never took place. Hence GEETHA first learnt of the flight at 2.05 p.m. on Saturday (about three hours after the helicopter was lost). Third: Finally, while the helicopter is in the air, it continues to belong administratively and operationally to GES, which is responsible for keeping it under observation. In other words, it does not belongs to the air force but to GES, which has to provide craft for this purpose. The crash and the dire inadequacy of the mechanisms for dealing with the aftermath should have led to more serious action than a hasty search for a scapegoat such as the former air force chief, who may be less to blame than all the others who were involved. At any rate, when three general staffs did not act correctly, the person to blame can be none other than the minister. The question remains whether he has duly made a full report of those involved. If there is no political responsibility for this event, when can there ever be?