India Needs to Come Clean on 'Accidental Firing of Missile' to Avert Conflict with Pakistan

It is said that complete destruction is merely one mistake away in a nuclear-weapons milieu. So, India needs to demonstrate a high degree of accountability to obviate escalation of hostilities.

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New Delhi: India’s defence ministry has admitted its military’s culpability in “accidentally firing” an unidentified missile deep inside Pakistan, triggering widespread alarm over the ramifications of such blunders between two neighbouring and antagonistic nuclear-armed states.

But remarkably, New Delhi waited almost 24 hours before conceding its colossal error that had the grave potential of escalating into a conflagration of apocalyptic proportions over the ‘rogue missile’. That it did not hurt anyone can be attributed to providence and the collective karma of both countries. Thankfully, the inadvertently triggered missile was unarmed and ended up destroying just a wall in the small town of Mia Channu in Pakistan’s Khanewal province in Punjab, some 124km from the Indian border.

On Friday, March 11, the defence ministry rapidly declared that a “technical malfunction” in the course of routine maintenance had activated “the accidental firing of a missile”, into which it had initiated a high-level court of inquiry (CoI).

“It is learnt that the missile landed in an area of Pakistan,” stated the MoD’s anodyne 75-word statement, adding that “while the incident was deeply regrettable, it was also a relief that there was no loss of life due to the accident”.

The entire missile episode, however, is shrouded in thick fog in New Delhi, which has not only declined to identify the missile involved but also which of the three services fired it, all of which will now be investigated by the CoI of which too no details were forthcoming.

In fact, almost all particulars regarding this errant missile have so far come from the Pakistan Air Force (PAF), which claimed to have been tracking a “high-speed projectile” that was fired at 6:43 pm local time – or 7.13 pm in India – on March 9 from Sirsa in Haryana, around 100km from the Pakistan border as the crow flies. Without a doubt, Sirsa’s location and the Indian Air Force (IAF) base here accounts for the PAF’s Air Defence Operations Centre monitoring its activities.

The PAF had tracked the missile for almost its entire 6.46-minute flight at an altitude of 40,000 feet, claiming it had initially travelled at 2.5 times the speed of sound – or at Mach 2.5 – accelerating seconds later, but within Indian territory, to almost Mach 3 as it headed in a south-westerly direction towards Rajasthan.

Also read: India Expresses ‘Deep Regret’ Over ‘Accidental Firing’ of Missile that Landed in Pakistan

Thereafter, the projectile unexpectedly and abruptly changed course to the northwest towards Pakistan, over which it cruised for another 100-odd km before harmlessly striking the wall at Mia Channu, PAF officials stated. Of its overall flight, the missile had spent half its time of 3.44 minutes inside Pakistan, the officials in Islamabad added, calling it an “unprovoked violation of its air space” that could have endangered civilian flights in the area.

Possible reasons behind ‘stray missile’

Senior IAF officers told The Wire that these details matched the flight profile of the supersonic 8.4m long, two-stage BrahMos cruise surface-to-surface (SSM) missile variant developed jointly by India’s state-owned Defence Research and Development Organisation and Russia’s NPO Mashinostroyenia, and named after the Brahmaputra and Moskva rivers.

BrahMos’s first stage comprises a solid-fuel rocket for initial acceleration, whilst its second is an air-breathing liquid-fueled ramjet engine, which boosts it to a speed of M2.8-M3 to a strike range of 292km, that had only recently been enhanced to 400km.

And though the Sirsa Air Force Station does not have a permanent BrahMos regiment, the missile system is peripatetic and can be fired from autonomous mobile launchers mounted on all-terrain high mobility Tatra trucks. Its many variants, developed over the past two decades after 2001 when it was first successfully flight-tested, were presently employed by all three Indian services.

“In all likelihood, the IAF was conducting a routine BrahMos training exercise on March 9 by firing the cruise missile from Sirsa to the Mahajan Field Firing Range in Rajasthan some 226km distant,” military analyst Air Marshal V K ‘Jimmy’ Bhatia (retired) told The Wire.

But for some inexplicable reason, it went “freaky” in what was a million-in-one chance, he stated in an endeavour to try and evaluate what could possibly have gone awry with the missile.

Bhatia averred that after travelling some 100km towards its objective in Rajasthan, the missile abruptly lost control, turning into a ‘twirler’, due possibly to the uneven burning of its solid propellant. This, in turn, Bhatia conjectured had adversely impacted its on-board guidance system into which all the target coordinates had been toggled, propelling it on a totally different north-westerly direction towards Pakistan.

The former fighter pilot is also of the view that soon after realising the mishap India had informed Pakistan of the mishap via the ‘hotline’ operated by the respective Directors General of Military Operations, but this could not be independently confirmed.

“It’s too serious and critical an issue to be ignored and needs instant warnings to be conveyed to avert misunderstandings,” the retired three-star officer added.

Representative image. Photo: Reuters

However, Major General Babar Iftikhar, head of Pakistan’s Inter-Service Public Relations or ISPR, the media wing of his country’s military made no mention of such an intimation by Delhi in his press conference in Islamabad on March 9 over the stray missile. Instead, it warned India to be “mindful of the unpleasant consequences of such negligence”.

Other analysts and military officials speculated as to why the ‘self-destruct’ or re-programming option in mid-flight, available on the BrahMos was not activated, further reinforcing the belief that the missile had gone “totally haywire and out its IAF operators” control.

They conjectured whether the delinquent’ missile could alternately have been a Prithvi SSM variant fitted with inertial navigation and ground-based mid-course correction systems, which were believed to be stationed in the area as part of the Strategic Forces Command (SFC) assets, but under the IAFs operational control.

But senior military officials and missile experts said India never conducted any Prithvi firings ‘inland’, executing them only from the coastal Integrated Test Range at Balasore in Odisha, over the sea.

Infringement of bilateral pacts 

The March 9 missile episode was also an infringement, albeit unwarranted, of the 1999 bilateral Lahore Agreement between India and Pakistan in which both sides had pledged to establish secure communication procedures and to inform each other regarding the conduct of ballistic missile tests to “prevent accidents”.

Subsequently, this was reinforced and formalised in October 2005 in a pact under which both countries were required to ensure that their individual ballistic test launch site(s) were not within 40 kms of their respective territories. Additionally, the anticipated impact area of all such under-development ballistic missiles was also not permitted within 75km of the International Boundary or the Line of Control in the disputed Jammu and Kashmir region.

The incident also calls into question Pakistan’s air defence systems in intercepting a ‘vagrant’  missile, especially from India, which the PAF had no way of knowing whether it was unarmed or not. Late last year Pakistan’s ISPR had announced the induction of a variant of the Chinese-origin HQ-9/P High-to-Medium Air Defence System but declined to confirm how many systems had been integrated or acquired.

Aimed at enhancing its Integrated Air Defence along its borders with India, the ISPR claimed the HQ-9/P was capable of engaging incoming cruise missiles and aircraft in excess of 100km with a high “single shot probability”.

But analysts from Jane’s Defence Weekly of the UK maintained that this extended range was actually against aircraft, while those to neutralise cruise missiles was just around 25km. The HQ-9/P constitutes the outer ring of the PAFs air defence grid with medium-range cover being provided by nine HQ-16AE SAM systems, also procured from China, with an aerial target engagement range of 40km.

India, on the other, operates a comparatively robust multi-layered air-defence (AD) network.

This comprises the two-tier indigenously developed Ballistic Missile Defence (BMD) system, as protection against long-range incoming missiles and the domestically designed Akash air defence and analogous overseas missile systems, for short-range interception. The BMD, which is at an advanced stage of development and installation, includes AD interceptor missile systems, capable of engaging targets at endo-atmospheric altitudes of 20-40km and exo-atmospehreic heights of over 85km, respectively.

More recently India’s AD network was supplemented by five S-400 Almaz-Antey S-400 Triunf self-propelled SAM systems it acquired in late 2018 for $5.5 billion. The IAF had received one S-400 in late 2021, which it had recently deployed at one of its bases in Punjab to monitor aerial activity on its western Pakistan border and its northern disputed Line of Actual Control with China.  Alongside, an assortment of local and imported man-portable air defence systems (MANPADS) and indigenously designed and licence-built towed air defence guns completed this AD framework.

In conclusion, it’s a familiar adage that complete destruction is merely one mistake away in a nuclear-weapons milieu. Consequently, the CoI into the rogue missile incidence needs an exceptionally high degree of accountability, underlining the need for India and Pakistan to resume dialogue soon to obviate a prospective Armageddon.

Perhaps as Happymon Jacob, professor of international Studies at Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University, declared on a lighter note, “India should offer to pay compensation to Pakistan for the boundary wall its itinerant cruise missile destroyed in Mia Chunnu.”