An alarming, strange and implausible incident took place on Wednesday, March 9, this year when a missile, stated to be undergoing routine maintenance in Sirsa, Haryana, was unexpectedly and unintentionally fired, and landed in Mian Channu village, District Khanewal, Punjab, in Pakistan, thankfully without casualty or serious damage.
Curiously, however, the episode was acknowledged only a day later by Pakistan and by India a further day afterward, on Friday March 11, with both sides, especially Pakistan, appearing not to want to escalate the incident even though it afforded plenty of opportunity.
India officially acknowledged the “accidental” firing of the missile, expressed regret and set up an inquiry. Pakistan expressed dissatisfaction at this response, pointed to the potential threat to civilian passenger airliners in Pakistani airspace, and demanded a joint or even international investigation knowing well the virtual impossibility of India accepting.
While the relatively low temperature of the rhetoric, for each country’s own reasons, comes as big relief in these trying times, the event has brought to the fore many troubling questions for (a) both India and Pakistan separately; (b) for bilateral relations especially relating to management of risks involving strategic weapons; (c) for China as the other nuclear-armed neighbor, and (d) for the international community, concerned about any inadvertent incident involving strategic weapons and its potential for triggering a wider nuclearized exchange in this highly sensitive region with a history of tensions and armed clashes.
Very little is known about how and why the misfiring of the missile happened in the first place. Indeed, for considerable time, there was even doubt as to what kind of weapon had been released. The first statement from Pakistan described it as a “supersonic unarmed projectile,” leading to much speculation over the next couple of days.
The Indian statement confirmed that “a technical malfunction led to the accidental firing of a missile,” fortunately without a warhead. Later information emanating from Pakistan’s Director General Inter-Services Public Relations (DGISPR) stated that the missile had taken off from Sirsa, flew at a height of 40,000 feet and at Mach 2.5 to 3 (times the speed of sound) in a south-western direction well within Indian territory for 70-80km, then suddenly turned right (north-west) across the border, travelled inside Pakistani airspace for 3mins 44 seconds, and crashed about 120km inside Pakistan.
These speed and altitude details have led observers to conclude that the missile was a Brahmos land-to-land cruise missile, although there has been no confirmation from the Indian authorities on this.
The first big question obviously is, how did the missile get “accidentally fired” during maintenance?
The Statement by the Defence Minister in Parliament stated that the Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) of missile maintenance would be reviewed, indicating that the SOPs were not observed or supervised correctly, and therefore perhaps require modification.
Many issues arise here. First, it should be noted that the warhead was clearly de-mated from the missile, which is good if long-standing safety practice involving nuclear weapons, and reduces chances of impulsive or sudden launches, even though it is not known whether this particular Brahmos missile was nuclear-tipped or not.
Secondly, however, why was the firing mechanism kept on during maintenance? Usually, the firing and the direction-setting mechanisms are fully encrypted and require proper coded de-activation and re-activation. Some newspapers have reported that the codes were not available at the spot. While this could not be independently verified, this aspect of the SOPs is clearly worth looking at carefully, given also the erratic trajectory of the missile once let loose. It is also not known whether this missile, or batch of missiles, had built-in self-destruct mechanisms or not, and, if they did, why they could not be activated.
It is essential that these obvious gaps in the SOPs for handling and maintenance of the Brahmos missile be urgently identified and addressed. Since Brahmos is a joint Indo-Russian missile, relevant Russian experts should also be called in despite the on-going turmoil in Russia, more so since export orders are around the corner.
India-Pakistan Pre-Notification Agreement Needed
Pakistan has stated that there was no communication from India’s Director General of Military Operations (DGMO) to his Pakistani counterpart, with no denial from India, leading to the rather astonishing conclusion that there was none! Whether or not there was any other communication from the security establishment in India or through any other Track-II channel is not known. This implies that Pakistan was left wondering about the missile flying inside Pakistan for close to three minutes.
Pakistani authorities have claimed they were tracking the missile all the way from its take-off in Sirsa to its crashing in Mian Channu and, using its own technical means, had coolly determined that it was unarmed and an accidental release, and therefore allowed it to land harmlessly.
The Pakistani military establishment has tried to gain maximum brownie points for their cool and calm handling of the event, especially in comparison with what they claim was the careless and irresponsible behavior of the Indian strategic and military authorities, who not only allowed an “accidental” missile release but did not even inform their Pakistani counterparts as they should have.
This turns on its head the usual narrative, assiduously propagated internationally by India that it is a responsible nuclear power with impeccable safety record under civilian control, whereas Pakistan is a rogue state with semi-legally acquired nuclear weapons in the hands of an irresponsible and unaccountable military, at risk from extremist non-state actors.
The government of India needs to urgently clarify this issue of whether or not it communicated to Pakistan regarding the inadvertent missile release, or did it take the risk that, in the absence of specific information from India, Pakistan could well have responded with a missile of its own or other retaliatory action. It is believed that this was the first such missile misfiring involving two nuclear-armed nations. It is therefore all the more important that the Indian authorities clarify on this it communicated about the misfiring to Pakistan, without waiting for the inquiry.
It is essential for India and Pakistan to update their mutually agreed 2003 agreement on pre-notification of ballistic missile tests irrespective of the direction or trajectory of the missile. India and Pakistan have both acquired and deployed a much wider range of ballistic and cruise missiles since then, and a new agreement on pre-notification and early-warning systems in case of accidental release such as the one on March 9, 2022 is badly needed.
It should be noted that, compared with the Cold War rivals, the US and the Soviet Union, which were thousands of kilometers apart, India and Pakistan are immediate neighbours, with little reaction time to assess threats and respond to incoming missiles, whether intentional or otherwise.
On March 9, this particular “broken arrow” or inadvertently released or rogue missile, travelled a total of only around 6 minutes till it landed in Pakistan! This almost impossibly short reaction time, and both countries being nuclear powers, makes a robust, revised India-Pakistan Pre-Notification Agreement urgent and essential.
Speculative news and conspiracy theories
The above “cool and calm” narrative of the Pakistani military establishment has been met with some skepticism within Pakistan and outside, going by some of the press reportage.
One set of opinions have wondered why and how the Pak military establishment quietly watched a rogue missile zoom over Pak airspace without any form of response if indeed it had not been informed by Indian authorities? Did the Pak air defences pick up the unarmed nature of the missile by its electronic signature or did it even pick-up and track the missile as it stated, a failure earlier noted during the Balakot strike by the Indian Air Force? Questions have also been asked about the veracity of the trajectory given out by the Pak military. Some media outlets in West Asia have even claimed that a few senior heads have rolled in the Pak military establishment!
Conspiracy theories have also appeared in some media coverage. One such theory suggests that the unarmed missile was deliberately fired into Pakistan in order to test Pak air defences and discover operational frequencies, signatures and codes. The story suggests that all codes etc. in the Pakistani air defence system have been suitably modified!
Fanciful theories apart, the inadvertent missile misfire by India has raised many serious issues that need to be answered. For us here in India, it is important that the government conducts a clean, impartial and brutally honest inquiry, and not to hide findings behind the convenient cloak of national security, ultra-nationalism, or arguments that the armed forces are beyond scrutiny or criticism. This will only damage the reputation of the armed forces especially the strategic command, and the Indian security establishment which has so far guarded a well-earned reputation for responsibility and safety measures.
Unfortunately, the present government’s tendency to politicise the armed forces and security establishment and give them political cover rather than letting them stand on their own professional performance and pride is only doing damage to their reputation. The hushing up of weaknesses and failures as in the Pakistani retaliatory air strike after Balakot, the obfuscation over the Rafale deal, and the papering over of possible serious lapses involved in the highly unfortunate helicopter crash involving the Chief of Defence Staff, his family and others, are all cases in point.
India needs to frankly draw out the lessons to be learned from the missile misfiring and urgently put in place rectification measures for the sake of the safety of its people in the current dangerously nuclearised environment.
The writer is with the Delhi Science Forum and All India People’s Science Network. The views are personal.