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India’s Missile Fire into Pakistan

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India’s Missile Fire into Pakistan

Raising questions about India’s safety-and-security procedures

On March 09, a ‘high-speed flying object’ crashed near the eastern city of Mian Channu in Punjab, causing some damage to the surrounding areas. After initial investigation, this object, as also confirmed by India two days after the incident, turned out to be an Indian missile BrahMos flying at supersonic speed across nearly 80 miles into Pakistani territory. Although India claimed that it was an “accidental firing of a missile,” this ‘negligence’ could have ensued in a full-fledged war between the two nuclear rival states. Pakistan rightly called it India’s “callousness and ineptitude” in a nuclear environment and demanded a joint investigation to accurately establish the facts surrounding the incident. The ‘accidental’ firing of an Indian missile inside Pakistan could have triggered a much bigger and tragic outcome.

A press release by Pakistan’s Foreign Ministry, on March 10, said that Pakistan’s Foreign Office summoned India’s Charge d’Affaires in Islamabad to lodge Pakistan’s strong protest over the unprovoked violation of its airspace by an Indian origin ‘super-sonic flying object’. It said the object entered into Pakistan from ‘Suratgarh’ India at 18:43 hrs. (PST) on 9 March 2022 and fell to ground near Mian Chunnu at around 18:50 hrs. Authorities said the incident not only damaged civilian property but also endangered human lives on the ground.

On the same day, Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) Director General Maj Gen Babar Iftikhar briefed the media about the incident, calling for an explanation from Delhi. “ … a high-speed flying object was picked up inside the Indian territory by Air Defence Operations Centre of the Pakistan Air Force (PAF),” he told media persons, adding the object suddenly manoeuvred towards Pakistani territory from its initial course and violated Pakistan’s air space. It was a supersonic flying object, most probably a missile, but it was certainly unarmed. “It is important to highlight that the flight path of this object endangered many international and domestic passenger flights — both in Indian and Pakistani air space — as well as human life and property on ground,” he added.

India’s response
A day after Maj. Gen. Iftikhar’s press conference, India admitted an “accidental firing of a missile” into Pakistan, calling it “deeply regrettable.” In its statement, the Indian defence ministry regretted the incident and said that a technical malfunction, in the course of routine maintenance, led to the accidental firing of a missile. “The government has taken serious view and ordered a high-level court of enquiry,” the statement added.

Several media reports claim that India never used the military-to-military hotline following the “inadvertent” missile launch, which would have provided a quick communication link between the two countries designed to reduce miscalculation and aimed at risk mitigation. The failure to use the hotline could imply more serious consequences for both India and Pakistan during a future conflict. Other reports have suggested the possibility of a Pakistani retaliatory strike. Pakistan’s subdued reaction has been attributed to the realization that “something was amiss.” Fortunately, the missile caused minimal damage in its wake, and the Pakistani military quickly concluded that the missile was unarmed. Had the missile hit a military target, collided with a commercial airliner in its path, or caused casualties, the situation may have spiralled out of control.

India’s weaknesses
For India, the incident has highlighted several issues related to the safety and security of its military systems. Following the missile misfire, Indian Defense Minister Rajnath Singh expressed regret over the incident, saying that the standard operating procedures (SOPs) for “operations, maintenance, and inspection” of such systems were being reviewed potentially implying that human error, and not technical issues alone, had resulted in the accidental launch. The missile did not hit military infrastructure, an aircraft, or a populated area and the missile was unarmed. Nonetheless, the launch has compromised India’s longstanding claim that it had foolproof systems in place to ensure the safety and security of its weapons systems. Recent speeches by Hindu nationalist leaders urging the use of force against Pakistan also reinforce Pakistan’s growing scepticism about Indian assurances. There are also voices in India’s domestic polity demanding answers about circumstances involving the incident. Given the geographical proximity between the two neighbours and the limited time available to mitigate a crisis, the risk for a disproportionate response increases considerably.

Pakistan’s effective surveillance
Media reports emerged afterwards that Pakistan had considered a retaliatory strike but did not because the launch was assessed to be an accident. This suggests that Pakistan had effective surveillance and intelligence regarding the BrahMos missile preparation and launch. The Pakistan military briefing revealing the exact launch time and location and timestamps of it crossing the border and crashing into Pakistani territory suggests that Pakistan was closely monitoring the BrahMos site. In judging the accidental nature of the launch, Pakistan’s surveillance could include observing if the missile was being armed with a warhead, and assessing at the point of launch that it was unarmed. The launch of a single missile, as opposed to several or dozens of simultaneous missile launches, is more suggestive of an accidental launch. The absence of corresponding Indian military movements or intercepted communications “chatter” was also suggestive of an accident rather than an intentional attack.

Pakistan’s 7 Questions
Completely dissatisfied with the explanation that the Indian Press Information Bureau’s Defence Wing gave — for what it said was ‘accidental firing’ of a missile into Pakistani territory — Pakistan called for a thorough and transparent investigation into the incident and demanded that its results be shared with us. It said that given the profound level of incompetence, India needs to explain if the missile was indeed handled by its armed forces or some ‘rogue elements’.
Pakistan has also called upon the international community to take serious notice of this incident of grave nature, in a nuclearised environment, and play its due role in promoting strategic stability in the region.

Since the phrasing of India’s announcement, of “accidental firing,” suggests a more concerning type of missile failure, relating to some human or technological element of the command-and-control system authorizing the initial launch of the missile, Pakistan raised seven questions on the issue.

1. India must explain the measures and procedures in place to prevent accidental missile launches and the particular circumstances of this incident.
2. India needs to clearly explain the type and specifications of the missile that fell inside Pakistani territory.
3. India also needs to explain the flight path/trajectory of the accidentally launched missile and how it ultimately turned and entered into Pakistan?
4. Was the missile equipped with self-destruct mechanism? Why did it fail to actualize?
5. Are Indian missiles kept primed for launch even under routine maintenance?
6. Why did India fail to immediately inform Pakistan about accidental launch of the missile and waited to acknowledge till after Pakistan announced the incident and sought clarification?
7. Given the profound level of incompetence, India needs to explain if the missile was indeed handled by its armed forces or some rogue elements?”

No matter how inadvertent, this incident could have led not just to monumental and regrettable loss of life on the Pakistani side, but also a very severe retaliation. That, in turn, would have had all the makings of an all-out war between the world’s two most unsettled nuclear rivals right now. It was out of pure luck that the missile landed in an isolated spot in Mian Channu. But once misfired, there was nothing to stop it from running into an aircraft on the way, or landing in a heavily populated area. Therefore, a proper clarification, one that meets all standards of military exchange in such matters, is the least that India ought to forward without much delay.

This incident also shows how delicate peace between these two countries has become. It would, in fact, take the slightest trigger to start a full-fledged war. Since such a scenario must be ruled out at all costs, this episode should finally make Delhi see the error of its confrontationist ways and consider not just de-escalation, but also proper peace in the subcontinent – complete with mutually beneficial trade. That, at the end of the day, is the only sensible way forward for Pakistan and India.

Way forward
Given the already contentious relationship between India and Pakistan, bilateral relations in South Asia require greater efforts that would help avoid accidents or miscalculations in the future. It is very important also that the two countries remain engaged in confidence-building measures (CBMs). Since the incident involved the accidental launch of a cruise missile, perhaps the time is right for India and Pakistan to consider enhancing the 2005 pact to also include cruise missiles. Both countries also need to realize the importance of CBMs in the nuclear realm to manage risks associated with their expanding civilian and military nuclear programs. Unfortunately, existing measures between the two are aimed at avoiding crises rather than their management or de-escalation. Pakistan’s insistence on third-party involvement and India’s usual dismissal of Pakistan’s demands is reason enough for creating a bilateral mechanism to provide a buffer during future conflicts. The US appeared largely distant, making it clear that India and Pakistan need to resolve crises on their own.

That the incident did not spiral out of control is a miracle. False alarms have occurred previously — especially during the Cold War — and remain a possibility in any contemporary nuclear environment. Despite all the precautions, there is the possibility of an inadvertent launch due to human error or technical fallibility. Bilateral dialogue and CBMs are, now more than ever, processes to be encouraged between India and Pakistan, and leadership on both sides of the border must find a way to prevent such dangers in the future.

The writer is a member of staff.

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