India’s missile misfired, Pakistan didn’t intercept — now both must talk to ensure ‘stability in conflict’

It’s like a page out of a Fredrick Forsyth thriller. A mysterious object enters the airspace of a country that is nuclear-armed, from the territory of a similarly armed country, and all hell breaks loose. If this was happening in Ukraine and Russia, or even Russia and any other country, at any time, it could well have been Armageddon unleashed. At the very least it would have been a cause célèbre for not just the media, but also for the Pakistan Army. Strangely enough, it wasn’t.

Grandstanding has, however, begun by the political appointees. But to use a suitable euphemism, they haven’t gone ballistic.

The Incident

The incident initially merited just half a page, with a Pakistani media report observing that an aircraft had crashed, and even that the pilot was safe. What was unusual was that the police cordoned off the area, not even allowing rescue officials, because army authorities were coming to collect evidence. That was pretty good coordination by those involved. In Pakistan, of course, the authorities will do exactly as they are told by the Khakis. In India, there would have been a television crew to chase off, and local police to convince, and a question of whose job it was to cordon off what. That was the night of 9 March.

It was not until late the next day that the Director General of Inter-Services Public Relations (DG ISPR) Major General Babar Iftikhar made a brief announcement that an “an Indian supersonic missile” violated Pakistani airspace falling in Khanewal, 124 kilometres inside Pakistan’s territory “in 3 minutes and 44 seconds”. The main thrust of the briefing was that the ‘object’ had been monitored on its entire flight path, even as it “suddenly changed track and manoeuvred towards Pakistani territory”. Barring a comment about “disregard for aviation safety and reflects very poorly on their technological prowess and procedural efficiency”, the response was remarkably mature. A formal protest followed of what was, in truth, a “flagrant violation” of air space. That was it. And the basic fact? That the missile got in. It was not shot down by the Pakistani air defence.

That needs pondering, especially since there seems to be agreement that it was a BrahMos missile.

The Pakistan Government Reacts

The reaction of the Imran Khan-led government, however, was quite different, and emerged over time. The Foreign Office chose to summon the Indian envoy and convey its displeasure, 24 hours after the incident. In 48 hours, on 11 March, the Indian side issued its own statement – “in the course of a routine maintenance, a technical malfunction led to the accidental firing of a missile” – saying that the incident was “regrettable”. That was followed by another outburst from the Foreign Office, with a list of questions that demanded – not unreasonably – why New Delhi took so long to issue a statement. It also wanted to know if the missile has an auto-destruct system, and if it did, why it wasn’t used.

Pakistan’s National Security Advisor Moeed Yusuf chose to use the incident to lambast India on social media, not just questioning India’s safety of its “nuclear and other high end” systems, but also nastily asking if this was an ascertain if this was an “inadvertent launch or something more intentional”. That statement rather puts the cat among the pigeons. Was it?

Meanwhile, popular television channels mentioned the news only briefly, concentrating more on Prime Minister Imran Khan’s fulsome praise of the army – and the air force – with both chiefs present as Khan sat in a newly delivered Chinese fighter jet. Other channels were more interested in the implications of Khan’s remark that the army chief had asked him not to call Maulana Fazlur Rehman by the name ‘Diesel’ – given to him years ago for his alleged smuggling of fuel to Afghanistan during the Benazir Bhutto government. In the several fiery public speeches that Khan addressed against the Opposition’s no-confidence motion, it was not him, but his foreign minister who brought up the missile incident. Khan didn’t seem to want to dwell on it.

The Thing About Missiles

Here’s the thing. False alarms are not entirely unusual. History abounds with some serious, and some ludicrous examples where disaster was averted by sheer luck. For instance, during the height of the Cuban missile crisis in 1962, a guard fired at what he felt to be an intruder, which in turn set off alarms at a base housing nuclear-armed aircraft. The F-106A interceptors were starting down the runway when a car raced from the command centre and signalled the aircraft to stop. The actual intruder? A bear.

In 1980, there was a report that some 2,200 Soviet missiles had been launched to hit the US. The Nuclear Files also notes a far more serious alarm. On 24 October 1962, a Soviet satellite entered its own parking orbit, and shortly afterwards exploded, which led the US to believe that a massive ICBM attack was imminent. The response remains classified.

Then came the Ukrainian passenger jet shot down by mistake by Iran, and a Norwegian missile launched for scientific purposes, leading to Russian air defence to switch to full combat mode, and President Boris Yeltsin to activate his ‘nuclear football’ and retrieve launch codes. The test notification was provided to some 35 countries, but did not filter down to personnel at the early warning unit. There are dozens of other examples of satellites being fooled by the reflection of the sun on the clouds, leading to an erroneous warning.

But while a missile may well go haywire after launch, it doesn’t usually launch itself. Especially not a tried-and-trusted system like the BrahMos. Consider the reported launch path. It was fired, and then suddenly swerved into Pakistan territory. Evasive manoeuvres and low flight path is what it’s all about. Whether or not Sirsa, where the launch originated from, has a BrahMos battery is unknown. Certainly, there were no exercises in the area, and no testing range either.

Disaggregating The Facts

So here’s the thing. Accidents happen. In the case of the US and the then Soviet Union, or equally present-day Russia, any accidental firing is fraught with the danger of annihilation of the other, simply because each keeps some part of its armoury on full alert – armed and ready to go. That is simply not the case with India and perhaps Pakistan.

India’s Draft Nuclear Doctrine follows a policy of ‘minimum and credible deterrence’, which follows an equally unambiguous ‘no first-use’ policy (NFU). There is no question of India firing any kind of missile at Pakistan, especially in a situation where there are no high tensions prevailing at all. Pakistan’s unstated doctrine is based on first use, and includes tactical nuclear weapons, seen as dangerously destabilising given unknown command and control over them. But in this case, Pakistan’s armed forces displayed a remarkable degree of maturity in not jumping to the worst conclusions. That is at one level.

At a second level is the simple fact that a BrahMos cruise missile got in through Pakistani air defences. That’s the bottom line. And that is also perhaps why Imran Khan is avoiding any talk about it, at a time when his administration is already rocked by political instability, and he desperately needs the support of the army. Showing it up as being weak and indecisive is hardly helpful. Meanwhile, his NSA is following every path to highlight the incident as indicative of weakness in India’s safety procedures. That is a grave charge, but there is undoubtedly reason in the demand for a full investigation. More importantly, both should recognise that there is always opportunity in near disasters.

There was a time when quite unlike the ‘Great powers’, wars between India and Pakistan were conducted with a certain ‘gentlemanly’ restraint, with the war restricted to the battlefield. This ‘stability in conflict’ was eroded completely by Pakistan’s resort to terrorism, which in turn led to India operating below the nuclear spectrum in hitting terrorist sites at Balakot. It might be time for both to start a review of the entire gamut of safety procedures to ensure a high degree of mutual confidence, aimed at eventually going back to the stability that there once was, before the jihadis came onstage. That means ending terrorism once and for all. This misfiring could then lead India and Pakistan to actually show the world that both are made of better stuff than the fire-breathing dragons on the loose in Europe.