A missile is fired. And like a word spoken in haste, it can’t be retrieved. On March 9, during a Directorate of Air Staff Inspection (DASI) exercise at an Indian Air Force (IAF) base in north India, a Brahmos missile got accidentally fired and landed in Pakistan. The missile was without a warhead, it crashed harmlessly, there was no immediate military tension between India and Pakistan, and the Pakistan military dealt with the situation with great maturity. A catastrophe was thus averted. Story over. Let us all move on.
Unfortunately not. India and Pakistan are nuclear weapon states that came close to climbing the escalation ladder in the aftermath of the Balakot airstrikes just three years ago. My column in this paper on February 27 (“Three years ago, we were on the brink of war”) had warned of the risks highlighted in February-March 2019, which have been overlooked since. The accidental firing of an Indian missile has brought the spotlight on those risks again. It would be irresponsible to ignore them now.
Let us look at what happened. Pakistan military went public on March 10 that the previous evening, an unarmed Indian supersonic missile had intruded into Pakistani territory, endangering several airliners in its trajectory, and finally hit a private property near Mian Channu. Trying to highlight its alertness, Pakistan Air Force claimed to have continuously monitored the missile’s flight path, starting from first picking it up when it was 104 km inside Indian territory, at Sirsa in Haryana, at an altitude of 40,000 feet and travelling at a speed more than Mach 2.5.
The missile, as per the Pakistani claim, first headed south-west and after travelling 70-80 km took a right turn to head north-west towards Pakistan. It went into Pakistan south of Bahawalpur and reached a maximum speed of Mach 3. The brief Indian statement on March 11 confirmed nothing but that “a technical malfunction led to the accidental firing of a missile.”
Pakistan has claimed that the DGMO-level hotline wasn’t activated to inform it of the accidental firing of the missile and its trajectory. This has been neither disputed nor explained by the Indian side. There are numerous other questions from the incident blighting the long-established reputation of the Indian security establishment and its political masters. Its recent record, going back to the Balakot incident and the Chinese border crisis, has been marked by obstruction and obfuscation of news to further the political agenda of the ruling party. Imagine if a missile had fallen on Indian territory and the Pakistani side had claimed “accidental firing”, would the Indian political leadership and jingoistic media have accepted that explanation?
Having come second best when the IAF targeted a Balakot seminary in February 2019, the PAF was at pains to assert that it, in response, initiated required tactical actions in accordance with its own standard operating procedures (SOP).
The missile travelled 124 km inside Pakistan and was in Pakistani airspace for 3 minutes, 44 seconds. As Pakistani military has made no claim of intercepting the missile, it makes one wonder about the Pakistani SOP which does not warrant shooting down a supersonic missile coming from India. If the missile had a warhead and was heading toward a major Pakistani military or nuclear installation or a densely populated town, would the Pakistani air defence authorities have responded in the same mature manner?
India and Pakistan, as subcontinental neighbours, do not have the luxury of time for considered decision-making when missiles are flying in either direction. Consider that the entire flight time of this accidently fired missile was about six minutes. That is about the time available for the decision-makers in either country to take a call. Essentially, 360 seconds are all that are available to Islamabad and New Delhi between doing nothing or going to war, accidental and unintended.
India, as the bigger country, has the cushion of geography, while Pakistan, driven by the insecurity of a small territory, has a nuclear security doctrine of ‘first use’. To avoid the destruction of its arsenal and delivery systems by a pre-emptive Indian strike, it deems it necessary to strike India first in the event of hostilities threatening to break out. This makes the situation more dangerous in the subcontinent.
An environment of relative calm between India and Pakistan, with a ceasefire on the LoC in Kashmir, definitely helped the Pakistani military keep its cool in the face of an Indian missile. Would it have reacted so maturely in the midst of military or political tensions? Or can Pakistan be blamed if they assume that certain rogue elements had taken control of the missile system in India and fired on it? Crucially, if the missile had a self-destruct feature, why wasn’t it activated?
Should we expect every junior Pakistani military officer to display the same sagacity and courage as the Soviet naval officer Vasili Arkhipov, the Brigade Chief of Staff on submarine B-59, who refused to fire a nuclear missile and prevented a nuclear disaster in 1962? Or of the Soviet military duty officer Stanislav Petrov who, on seeing an early-warning system showing an incoming US strike, with about half-a-dozen missiles, in the early hours of September 26, 1983, made the call – in the face of incomplete information and doubt -- that it was a system malfunction, instead of reporting it to his superiors as enemy missile launches? In doing so, Petrov put himself and his country at risk but saved the world from US-Soviet mutually assured destruction, since if he had reported it as a missile attack in progress, the Soviet protocol was to automatically launch its own missiles in response.
'Can't rely on lucky breaks'
The lives of 1.6 billion people of India and Pakistan cannot be dependent on such lucky breaks. It is for these reasons – the destructive capacity of nuclear weapons, the minimal time available to take a decision, and Pakistan’s strategic mindset – accidents are unacceptable. Questions raised in western capitals about the safety and security of our nuclear weapon systems and processes were regularly dismissed by New Delhi by citing its impeccable track-record and supposedly fool-proof systems. It allowed India, despite the concerted efforts of certain American experts, to de-hyphenate itself from Pakistan’s poor track record of proliferation, its weak security systems always seen to be at risk of being infiltrated by religious extremists in uniform.
On issues of nuclear safety, Pakistan has always attempted to bracket India with itself, but has often failed. But now, we have come out looking like either bumbling idiots or out of control, while the Pakistanis have come out as being both capable and mature. India can dismiss all Pakistani allegations but there will be renewed questions from the US non-proliferation lobby that are going to be tougher for New Delhi to respond to.
The work of the Indian diplomats over this issue is not going to be made easier by the Indian security establishment if it continues to take two days to issue a sketchy statement after a major incident. New Delhi’s journey toward regaining credibility on strategic issues will only begin with an honest and transparent acknowledgement of the situation. A thorough review of systems and processes to avert another accident is an imperative and would also need to focus on the professionalism of the security establishment, a record blighted by political favouritism and jingoism in recent years. If the government continues to traverse down the path of hubris wrapped in nationalistic rhetoric and flag-waving to shut down all questions, the consequences could be devastating. Luck and providence can only hold for so long.
(The writer is Senior Fellow, Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi)
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