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This article was first published 2 years ago  » News » 'Why would India deliberately fire an unarmed missile into Pakistan?'

'Why would India deliberately fire an unarmed missile into Pakistan?'

March 15, 2022 12:20 IST
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'Pakistan was very mature in the way it dealt with the incident.'
'India too owned up to the accident.'
'The whole incident was resolved quite amicably.'
'Both countries should be proud of how they have handled this situation.'

Kindly note the image has been posted only for representational purposes. The BrahMos supersonic cruise missile. Photograph: PTI Photo

Dr Yogesh Joshi, a Stanton Nuclear Security Postdoctoral Fellow at the Center for International Security and Cooperation, Stanton University, in an e-mail interview with Prasanna D Zore/ discusses India's accidental firing of a missile on March 9, 2022 which landed in Pakistan, and which India called 'a technical malfunction in the course of a routine maintenance.'

Speaking in the Rajya Sabha on Tuesday, March 15, Defence Minister Rajnath Singh asserted that 'Our missile system is safe'.


Pakistan has called into question India's technical prowess and procedural efficiency. How big an embarrassment is this for the Indian defence establishment?

Any accidental missile launch is a big embarrassment for a State, particularly one which possesses nuclear weapons.

Generally, the principle followed is that an authorised launch always occurs and an unauthorised launch never occurs. This is what we call the always-never principle.

Therefore, missile launch involves multiple fail safes -- both mechanical and electronic -- as well as rigorous procedures of command and control. Human resource training is equally intense.

The accidental launch indicates that there has been some breach in any of these components.

Could you explain the chain of command and control system that comes into play whenever a missile is fired or launched for testing from within Indian territory?

Much of this knowledge is highly classified. However, while testing missiles and particularly for long-range ballistic missiles, which is largely done in the missile firing range in the Bay of Bengal, the Indian government issues a prior notification to clear the area from aircraft and ships.

Otherwise, while conducting tests, because much of this is done in remote geographies of the Bay of Bengal no special command and control is required.

The real issue of command and control comes into action while hostilities are on and missiles are deployed with armaments and should be ready to be fired at a moment's notice.

What precautions are taken to avoid instances/accidents like the one that happened on the evening of March 9?

Again, this is a highly technical subject and no one in academia or the policy world would exactly know the answer as these involve standard operating procedures for military personnel and Brahmos regiments handling the missiles.

Also, these procedures are supposed to be foolproof. Both the DRDO and the military would have developed very elaborate procedures depending upon their experience in handling such missiles and the data generated during testing.

However, only the court of inquiry ordered by the ministry of defence will be able to pinpoint the exact problem and chain of events which led to the accidental launch.

Who, in the Indian defence establishment, and in the command and control hierarchy, should be held accountable for this 'technical malfunction'?

Look, it will start with the missile regiment, but ultimately accountability should be fixed across the chain of command.

The buck finally stops with the ministry of defence. However, we will have to see whether it was a technical error or a human error.

A technical error means that the entire stock of Brahmos missiles will have to be taken back to the assembly line and fixed for the said technical fault.

A human error can be more idiosyncratic and one-off event.

While India has ordered a court of inquiry into this incident, what will this court of inquiry find out?

Now, how can I answer such a question? I am neither a part of the court of inquiry nor the task is yet finished. However, I am sure that the CoI (court of inquiry) will look into the reasons behind the accidental launch, fix responsibility, suggest technological or other solutions required.

Would the world believe India's explanation that it was a 'technical malfunction during routine maintenance' that led to the 'accidental firing of a supersonic missile' that landed in Mian Channu in Pakistan?

The Government of India has said it was an accidental launch. It is not the first time something like this has happened. The missile was unarmed; why would India deliberately fire an unarmed missile into Pakistan? So it doesn't matter beyond a point.

The US has already reiterated the MoD's viewpoint. Even Pakistan's first reaction was quite mellowed down; later its NSA (Moeed Yusuf) and the foreign ministry (of Pakistan) started making all kinds of noises for their foreign policy interests and to put India into a corner.

However, the questions raised by the accidental launch must be addressed not for anyone else, but for India's national security requirements.

What kind of communications between the two countries could have led to both Pakistan and India not ratcheting up the missile malfunctioning issue given the tense and hostile relationship between the two countries?

I think there are always backchannels available to the two countries. The DGMOs (Director General of Military Operations of India and Pakistan) maintain a hot line. The two sides do have certain CBMs (confidence building measures) in place such as exchange of lists of nuclear installations and notifications for tests of ballistic missiles.

The fact that DG ISPR (Director General of Inter-Services Public Relations, the media and PR arm of the Pakistan Armed Forces) only issued its first statement 24 hours after the incident tells us that there was already a lot of discussion which had happened between the two sides before the world even knew of the incident.

What is the established procedure to de-escalate tensions during situations like this one?

I don't think there is any established procedure for de-escalation of situations of accidental launch of missiles between India and Pakistan. However, since the DGMOs maintain hotlines, I think the first thing to do from the Indian side would be to notify Pakistan that an unarmed missile launch has occurred and it is not a deliberate attack and they should not respond by escalating.

Would the world powers be worried about such accidental firing of missiles, more so now, given the tensions between the US and Russia over the latter's invasion of Ukraine?

The world frankly doesn't have the time given the (Ukraine) crisis and it is also not the India of 1990s and 2000s. The world really does not care much how India is weaponising today.

As I said again, it is much more a concern for us internally; as a responsible nuclear power, we should address this immediately.

No one is listening to Pakistan and they are themselves highly distracted given Imran Khan's job is on the line.

What kind of tensions could have prevailed between the two nations since the evening of March 9 when the missile landed in Mian Channu?

I think Pakistan was very mature in the way it dealt with the incident. India too owned up to the accident.

The whole incident was resolved quite amicably. And both these countries should be proud of how they have handled this situation.

Will this 'accidental firing of a supersonic ballistic missile during a routine maintenance exercise' dent India's image of a responsible nuclear nation which possesses advanced missile technologies that can carry even nuclear payloads?

Brahmos is a cruise missile, not a supersonic ballistic missile. Rest of the question answered above.

What could be the impact of this 'accident' on India's missile development programme?

Nothing at all. Accidents are a good data point and whenever the CoI provides its report, it will only help India to make its missile programme, C&C (Command & Control), maintenance procedures more robust.

Why couldn't the Pakistan air force intercept this 'flying object/supersonic missile' despite its army spokesperson claiming that the PAF closely watched this missile's journey from its origin in Sirsa in India till Mian Channu in Pakistan?
This flying object flew over Pakistani air space for almost 3 minutes and 24 seconds... What does it say about Pakistan's space defence and interception capabilities?

Generally, keeping air defence active all the time is highly costly. Pakistan has obtained HQ9P air defence systems from China and they are said to be highly accurate at a distance of 100 kms. But without active hostilities, I don't think those would be operational.

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