On March 10, 2022, the director-general of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) held a press conference and announced that a supersonic projectile launched from India had travelled 124 kilometres at 40,000 feet into Pakistani airspace and crashed near Mian Channu in the Khanewal District of Pakistan the day before.
The incident was formally acknowledged two days later by India’s Ministry of Defence, which stated that a missile was “accidentally” fired during routine maintenance. The government has “taken a serious stance and established a high-level Court of Enquiry” investigate the incident, according to the statement.
The news of India “accidentally” shooting a supersonic cruise missile at Pakistan, its nuclear-armed foe, stunned many officials who are aware of the potential ramifications of such an incident. Pakistan’s prompt response has been praised as “adult” and “responsible,” but Islamabad has urged a joint probe, claiming that the incident could have resulted in considerably worse consequences.
First and foremost, the timing is suspicious: an Indian missile lands within Pakistan just a week after the Pakistani Navy detected an Indian Navy submarine in its Exclusive Economic Zone. This raises major doubts about India’s military leadership’s objectives.
Although no system is completely reliable, and accidents might occur for a variety of reasons, the Indian government’s overall handling of the situation has been exceedingly irresponsible. The fact that Indian authorities did not employ the self-destruct option after the “accidental” launch and did not even try to notify Pakistani authorities has raised concerns about India’s command and control apparatus, strategic culture, and ability to handle such sensitive technology.
The type of renegade missile has not been revealed by India’s official statement, but the available information matches the flight profile of India’s BrahMos cruise surface-to-surface missile.
While India has classed BrahMos as a conventional missile (in order to avoid being labelled a violator of the Missile Technology Control Regime criteria), it can also carry a nuclear payload. Because it is impossible to identify which payload an incoming missile is carrying, any incoming missile, regardless of its declared classification, is likely to be viewed as nuclear in a heated security environment.
With India recently softening its No First Use pledge and toying with the idea of preemptive counterforce targeting—for which the Brahmos is likely to be the weapon of choice—Pakistan could have interpreted this missile as a preemptive strike by New Delhi, especially given the current bilateral relationship.
It’s critical to figure out whether the occurrence was caused by a safety flaw or a security flaw. The Pakistan Air Force’s Air Defense Operation Center, according to initial reports, tracked the missile’s flight during its initial phase. It was reportedly fired from an Indian Air Force facility in Haryana’s Sirsa region under the Western Air Command. The missile was discovered at a height of 40,000 feet, indicating that it was launched from the air.
It’s improbable, though, that a test of an aerial variant of Brahmos went awry because no Notice to Air Missions (NOTAM) was issued and the location isn’t known for missile tests. The majority of Indian missile testing take place at the Pokhran test range in Rajasthan or the Integrated Test Range (ITR), Chandipur, off the coast of Odisha in the Bay of Bengal. The nature of the incident raises questions about the assertion of an unintentional launch during maintenance, implying possible carelessness or widespread violations of safety regulations by the people in charge.
Many commercial flights, including Qatar Airways and Saudi Airways, were flying on that route at the time of the missile launch, posing a major threat to civil aviation. To avoid a potential air disaster, the Indian government should have sent an emergency NOTAM to the arriving aircraft.
The event also casts doubt on the effectiveness and extent of existing India-Pakistan Confidence Building Measures (CBMs). The 2004 hotline agreement was intended for this exact purpose—to alert one another to any emergency circumstance that could result in an unintentional crisis—but India failed to take the appropriate action.
Pre-notification of ballistic missile flight tests has also been agreed upon by India and Pakistan. In 2005, Pakistan recommended that pre-notification of cruise missile tests be included as well, but India refused.
While a ballistic missile test notification is intended to prevent inadvertent escalation because a missile’s ballistic trajectory can be misinterpreted as a preemptive strike by an adversary, a cruise missile test notification serves no such purpose because the missile remains on low-flying trajectories that are difficult to track anyway.
It’s worth noting that India broke the spirit of this mutually agreed CBM by failing to tell Pakistan about its ballistic missile tests from submarine platforms, despite the fact that it believes the 2005 agreement solely applies to surface-launched missiles. Given these gaps, it’s critical to think about broadening the scope of the Pakistan-India missile test agreement.
The element of logic underpins nuclear responsibility. Given India’s post-Balakot attack jingoism and following jingoism by the BJP’s Hindutva leadership, Pakistan has even more reason to be concerned about the Indian side’s reasoning slipping away. After Pakistan shot down an Indian plane in an airstrike in February 2019, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi threatened to launch “a night of murder” if the arrested pilot was not returned.
As a result, it’s extremely possible that this wasn’t an accident at all, but rather a deliberate conduct by an overzealous Hindutva commander. The Indian military has a history of engaging in terrorist acts in order to bring Pakistan to justice.
A case in point is the involvement of Lt. Colonel Shrikant Prasad Purohit, who helped in carrying out terrorist attacks like the Samjhauta Express blast (2007) and Malegaon bomb blast (2008).
All these developments are taking place when India is consistently increasing its alert level, especially in the missile domain. In order to reduce its launch time, India has been steadily doing away with different steps that may slow down a launch especially during a crisis, such as the canisterization of missiles, thereby increasing the risk of accidental or inadvertent launch. With a problematic strategic culture and the absence of a strong command and control system, such developments are a recipe for disaster for regional peace.
Whether the missile launch was unintentional or not, it serves as a sobering warning that South Asia remains a nuclear flashpoint, with each Broken Arrow having the potential to morph into a NucFlash. It also highlights Western scholars’ and governments’ disproportionate focus on Pakistan alone, as well as their blatant disregard for India’s dismal nuclear safety and security record.
One hopes that this occurrence causes the Indian security apparatus to reflect and that the Indian government is willing to address some tough questions.