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After Missile Fiasco, Indian Officials Hope Spin Will Deflect Awkward Questions

Over the past six days, the missile firing has not only fuelled speculation and bizarre counternarratives in defence and strategic circles in New Delhi but has also been noted overseas.

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New Delhi: Defence minister Rajnath Singh’s statement in parliament on Tuesday on the missile that India ‘accidentally’ fired inside nuclear-rival Pakistan’s territory last week adds little to the press release India issued after Islamabad publicised the alarming incident.

Singh merely reiterated the Ministry of Defence (MoD)’s 75-word statement on March 11 – two days after the rogue unarmed Indian missile penetrated over 100 km into Pakistan – that an inquiry had been ordered into the incident. But much like the MoD’s statement, he too declined to either name the concerned missile, declare where it had originated or identify which of the three services were involved. However, he did confirm Pakistan’s claim that it was fired around 7 pm Indian time on March 9.

In his brief statement, the minister asserted that this unidentified missile was “reliable and safe”. He also maintained that the Indian military’s ‘safety procedures and protocols were of the highest order and that they were “well trained, disciplined and experienced” in handling such missiles. The minister’s only other deviation from the earlier statement was in affirming that a review of the military’s standard operating procedures (SOPs) for operating, maintaining and inspecting such systems too were underway, and any lacunae unearthed in the inquiry would be duly remedied.

In short, the mystery over the incident – that could have taken a truly dangerous turn had Pakistan decided to retaliate by shooting down the incoming rogue missile from India or taking some other measure – continues apace.

Over the past six days, the inadvertent missile firing has not only fuelled speculation and bizarre counternarratives in defence and strategic circles in New Delhi but has also been noted overseas, as this was the first-ever such episode involving two nuclear-weapon states (NWS) who are relentlessly hostile towards each other.

Meanwhile, in military and security circles, the errant projectile has unanimously been identified as the BrahMos cruise missile with a 292-400km range that India has jointly developed with Russia. The Indian Air Force (IAF) is believed to be the service that launched it, reportedly from Sirsa in Haryana. According to Pakistan’s Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR), the media wing of its military, the missile was tracked by its country’s Air Defence Operations Centre for its entire 406-second flight, of which some 100-odd kilometres were initially in Indian territory. Thereafter, the ISPR said that it had changed direction and crossed over into Pakistan and after travelling some 124 km over two of its provinces and hit a wall in the small town of Mia Chunnu in Punjab’s Khanewal district.

Expectedly, Pakistan is exploiting India’s grave error to the hilt.

It has repeatedly accused India of not informing Islamabad of the incident, despite the existence of the ‘hotline’ between the respective Directors General of Military Operations, emphasising that the limited response time to a missile launch by either side was subject to ‘misinterpretation’; it could trigger self-defensive countermeasures with grave consequences between the two NWS’, said ISPR Director General Major General Babar Iftikhar.

Director-General of the Inter-Service Public Relations (ISPR) Major General Babar Iftikhar. Photo: Video screengrab

Islamabad has also questioned India’s fail-safe procedures in preventing such a missile launch during ‘routine maintenance’ and not aborting it thereafter when it headed into Pakistan, and called upon the international community to take ‘serious note’ of such a critical lapse in a ‘nuclearised environment’. It also demanded to join the court of inquiry (CoI) into the accident.

Faced with an embarrassing narrative that the MoD’s own conduct and statements have contributed to, ministry officials have recently launched ‘damage control’ manoeuvres with the help of  ‘obliging’ journalists. However, their efforts have only ended up muddying matters even more.

Quoting unnamed defence and security sources, some recent reports sought to contradict Pakistan’s claims of the accidentally fired BrahMos missile having changed direction after flying south to enter Pakistan. Some of these correspondents, seemingly at the behest of senior government officials, claimed that the ‘practice’ missile had, in actual fact, followed its ‘correct trajectory’ that had been charted had it been in a conflict situation. These reports dismissed speculation that the missile had been headed for the Mahajan Field Firing Range in Rajasthan, before inexplicably changing course and entering Pakistan.

These bewildering, and at times contradictory, accounts from ‘sources in the know’ also claimed that the missile – exactly similar to the armed version minus its warhead – was the one that ended up being ‘accidentally’ launched from a ‘secret IAF satellite station, one report stated. Why an Indian missile primed for combat would be programmed to hit a random wall in Pakistan is not explained. These accounts also claimed, apparently under official tutelage, that the ‘relevant Pakistani authorities’ had been informed of the accidental launch, but declined to state who this was or, for that matter, the date and time this had ensued. Nor have they offered any explanations for why, if this were indeed so, the Indian side has not denied official Pakistani assertions that they only heard from India after Islamabad went public.

Also Read: With India’s Image at Stake, New Delhi Must Answer Tough Questions on ‘Rogue’ Missile

‘Clumsy’ and ‘provocative’ attempts

Senior industry officials dismissed these reports as ‘clumsy’ and ‘provocative’ attempts by the authorities to mitigate India’s monumental error and to debunk claims that the missile had changed direction, as that would call into question the missile’s operational capabilities and adversely impact BrahMos’ exports to ‘friendly’ countries.

In January, the Philippines had agreed to a $375 million deal for three BrahMos land-attack batteries, while the militaries of Argentina, Brazil, Egypt, Indonesia, South Africa, South Korea and Vietnam too had expressed a willingness to acquire this cruise missile, which was the world’s fastest, and available economically from Delhi.

But defence officials anticipate that the ongoing tumult over the BrahMos’ accidental firing into Pakistan and reports of its reported malfunction in the media, would not only be queried by the Philippines, but also render wary other potential customers. “All materiel buyers are hugely picky and any media negativity concerning their prospective procurements spooks likely customers,” said an industry official. It’s in the Indian government’s commercial interest to try and scotch all speculation regarding BrahMos’ efficiency, he added, declining to be identified.

In the meantime, Rajeshwari Rajagopalan, who heads the Centre for Security, Strategy and Technology at the Observer Research Foundation in Delhi said that last Wednesday’s missile accident had raised ‘disturbing questions’ that such a disaster can take place in the course of routine maintenance, greatly denting India’s image as a responsible nuclear power. In an extended interview to The Wire on March 15, she said that whether or not India redeemed its image after this event would depend entirely on how it handled the inquiry. So far, India has not done ‘well’ she cautioned, as its communication in security matters was its weakness.

And though few details of the accident were available, Rajagopalan said it was difficult to believe that the delinquent missile did not have a self-destruct mechanism. Moreover, it was imperative to know whether it had been activated but consequently failed. The strategic affairs expert also queried whether the protocols to trigger these abort procedures required ‘high-level clearance for activation’, and whether these had not been forthcoming, or were simply not obtained in the limited time available.

Rajagopalan said such critical issues raised questions regarding poor training and incompetence of the personnel involved in managing missile systems, but India needed to convince the world that such an accident would never ever recur.