How India’s Misguided Missile Could Have Sparked a Nuclear War
Regardless of whether the missile launch was accidental or intentional, this incident is a stark reminder that South Asia remains a nuclear flashpoint.
On March 10, 2022, the director-general of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) held a press briefing and announced that a day earlier, on March 9, 2022, a supersonic projectile that originated in India had traveled 124 kilometers at 40,000 feet into Pakistani airspace and crashed near the city of Mian Channu, Khanewal District, Pakistan. Two days later, India’s Ministry of Defence officially confirmed the incident, stating that a missile was “accidentally” fired during routine maintenance. The statement further asserted that the government had “taken a serious view and ordered a high-level Court of Enquiry” into the incident.
While the incident’s specific details will come to the surface after thorough forensic analysis and investigation, the news of India “accidentally” firing a supersonic cruise missile at Pakistan, its nuclear-armed adversary, shocked many policymakers who are cognizant of the potential consequences of such an incident. Pakistan’s immediate response is being lauded as “mature” and “responsible”; however, Islamabad has demanded a joint investigation as it could have led to far more serious consequences.
First and foremost, the timing is suspicious: just a week after the Pakistani Navy detected an Indian Navy submarine in its Exclusive Economic Zone, an Indian missile crashes inside Pakistan. This raises serious concerns about the intentions of India’s military leadership. It is fair to say that no system is 100 percent reliable, and accidents may happen due to unforeseen reasons, but the Indian government’s overall handling of this issue has been highly irresponsible. The very fact that Indian authorities did not use the self-destruct option after the “accidental” launch and did not even bother to inform the Pakistani side immediately has raised questions about India’s command and control system, its strategic culture, and its ability to handle such sensitive technology.
India’s official statement has not shared any information about the type of rogue missile, but the available information matches the flight profile of India’s BrahMos cruise surface-to-surface missile. While India has classified BrahMos as a conventional missile (primarily to avoid being labeled a violator of the Missile Technology Control Regime guidelines), it is capable of carrying a nuclear payload as well. Regardless of the stated classification, any incoming missile is likely to be interpreted as nuclear in a charged security environment because it is impossible to distinguish which payload an incoming missile is carrying. With India lately tempering its No First Use pledge and toying with the idea of preemptive counterforce targeting—where the Brahmos is likely to be the weapon of choice for this strategy—Pakistan could have viewed this missile as New Delhi’s preemptive strike, especially in view of the current bilateral relationship.
It is imperative to determine whether this incident was the result of a safety failure or a security gap. According to initial reports, the Pakistan Air Force’s Air Defense Operation Center tracked the missile’s flight in its initial phase. Reportedly, it was launched from an Indian Air Force base under Western Air Command in Sirsa district, Haryana. The missile was detected at an altitude of 40,000 feet, suggesting it could have been launched from the air. It is, however, unlikely to be a test of an aerial version of Brahmos that went wrong, as no Notice to Air Missions (NOTAM) was issued and the site is not known for missile tests. Indian missile tests are mostly conducted at the Pokhran test range in Rajasthan or Integrated Test Range (ITR), Chandipur, off the coast of Odisha on the Bay of Bengal. The nature of the incident raises concern about this claim of an accidental launch during maintenance and hints at potential complacency or massive violations of safety protocols by the concerned authorities.
The missile’s firing also posed a serious threat to civil aviation, as many commercial flights, such as Qatar and Saudi Airways, were flying on that route at the time of the missile launch. The Indian government could have issued an emergency NOTAM to the incoming aircraft to avoid a potential air disaster.
The incident also puts a question mark on the strength and scope of existing Confidence Building Measures (CBMs) between India and Pakistan. The 2004 hotline agreement was created for this very purpose—to inform one another of any emergency situation that may lead to any inadvertent crisis—but this necessary action was not taken by India. India and Pakistan have also agreed to pre-notification of flight testing of ballistic missiles as well. In 2005, Pakistan proposed including pre-notification of cruise missile tests also, but India did not accept. While a ballistic missile test notification is meant to avoid inadvertent escalation as the ballistic trajectory of a missile can be misinterpreted as a preemptive strike by an adversary, cruise missile notification does not serve this purpose as the missile remains at low-flying trajectories and is difficult to track anyway. It is important to highlight that India acted against the spirit of this mutually agreed CBM as it did not notify Pakistan about its ballistic missile tests from undersea platforms as it considers the 2005 agreement to be meant only for surface-launched missiles only. Given such lacunas, it is important to consider expanding the scope of the Pak-India missile test agreement.
Nuclear responsibility is premised on the element of rationality. Given India’s post-2019 Balakot strike and subsequent jingoism by BJP’s Hindutva leadership, Pakistan has all the more reason to worry about this element of rationality slipping away from the Indian side. After downing an Indian aircraft in an air skirmish with Pakistan in February 2019, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi threatened to unleash “a night of massacre” if Pakistan had not returned the detained pilot. Therefore, it is very likely that this might not be an accident after all and could have been an intentional act by some overzealous Hindutva commander. The Indian military has a history of being involved in terrorist activities with the aim to implicate Pakistan. 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.
Regardless of whether the missile launch was accidental or intentional, this incident is a stark reminder that South Asia remains a nuclear flashpoint with any Broken Arrow potentially turning into a NucFlash. It also exposes the disproportionate focus on Pakistan alone and stark negligence of India’s poor nuclear safety and security record by Western scholars and governments alike. One hopes that this incident leads to some introspection in the Indian security establishment and the Indian government is willing to answer some hard questions
Sitara Noor is a Senior Researcher at the Centre for Aerospace & Security Studies, Islamabad, Pakistan. She can be contacted at [email protected] or on Twitter @NoorSitara.