The launch and landing of India’s BrahMos missile deep inside Pakistani territory is a unique incident between the two nuclear-armed neighbours with far-reaching consequences as many faulty assumptions could be prematurely drawn, particularly by India. Pakistan has rightly rejected the vague Indian explanation about “accidental firing” of the missile and India’s subsequent reaction which was “equally irresponsible”. Pakistan is justified in rejecting it and demanding for a joint probe. However, the most shocking response came from the international community, especially the United States, which refused to take a clear position on the incident while accepting the Indian explanation, knowing full well that it could have triggered a war between two nuclear states. Such absolute silence is also disappointing as it clearly reeks of double standards. If the world wants to believe the Indian version so be it, but it should at least question the lack of professionalism of India’s strategic forces for doing something that has become a textbook case of incompetence at a dangerous level. One shudders to think what the global reaction in general and India’s in particular, would have been if the same error were committed by Pakistan. It would have been breaking news on most international media channels around the world. A part of the world community would have taken it as a moral responsibility to warn others of how unsafe the world had become due to the professional incompetence and recklessness of Pakistan’s strategic command.
Indians would have had a field day on all social media platforms while their counterparts in Pakistan and elsewhere would have hung their heads in shame. Is anything like this visible against India’s act of extreme ‘March Madness’? Are Indians feeling ashamed about the pitiful display of their military’s performance (rather lack thereof) or deceitfulness?
In fact, it is both amusing and ironic that many in India are boasting that Pakistan failed to give a matching response. Such naivety by the public of a nuclear country living in perpetual hostility with nearly all its neighbours, is mind- boggling. To be fair, though, Pakistan’s sober response has been acknowledged by many, including Indian analysts like Sushant Singh, a Senior Fellow at the New Delhi-based Center for Policy Research, who wrote that, “the Pakistani side has shown great maturity, we have been lucky this time. We should not make the mistake to think we will be lucky every time.”
To put the extremely reckless and dangerous missile launch by India in a historical context of how, if mistaken for an attack, a missile launch could spark escalation and that the risk is not hypothetical, one only needs to go back 27 years to January 25, 1995. Back then, Russia mistook a sounding rocket launched off the Norwegian coast for a US nuclear-armed ballistic missile. Within four minutes, Russian President Boris Yeltsin activated his “nuclear briefcase” and ordered the Strategic Rocket Force to prepare to launch Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles ( ICBMs). Fortunately, the Russian military determined that the launch was benign. Despite knowing these instances, the Government of India did not even bother using the direct hotline between the top army commanders on both sides to inform Pakistan what had happened. Rather, a vague response was issued after two days!
The fact that five airliners – one on the Indian and four on the Pakistani side, could have been victims of this missile makes the Indian silence much more serious. Missile trajectory was just 20 kilometers away from a busy air corridor where scores of international airliners were cruising at nearly the same altitude.
Considering the range of BrahMos, it was all too logical that it would initially head elsewhere after being fired from Indian Air Force base Sirsa and having consumed some of its excess mileage (deception profile) would turn towards Pakistan Air Force (PAF) southern Punjab’s base. It exactly followed its genetic coding, however, fell short, just like it did during the Balakot (wrongly fed coordinate) famed Indian strike. Unfortunately, these are the kinds of conclusions, which would be drawn in the absence of activating hotlines after the so-called accidental launch, or triggering self-destruct mechanism of missile. Why Pakistan, or any other country for that matter, should believe the Indian story? Why shouldn’t we in Pakistan believe that this was a deliberate act?
Let’s start with the dud explanation of “accidental” firing. The ill-fated missile was fired at 7pm on Wednesday. In the Indian Air Force context, missile maintenance/inspections is not done in the evening; it is a daytime affair and preferably done on the maintenance day. Therefore, it was not a routine activity. There is a standard operating procedure around the world that any extensive maintenance test activity that could result in actual launch is supervised by a Commanding Officer and a host of weapon officers. It is never left to the discretion of few corporal technicians and a JCO. The Government of India claims the mishap occurred due to both human and technical errors. The question is why aren’t any heads rolling if this was human error?
Second, there are multiple fail safes and in-built fail-safes in such lethal guided systems both in terms of physical and soft prohibitions which need to be removed prior to firing a live missile. These sets of prohibitions are deliberately incorporated by OEM to avoid such accidental occurrences during maintenance and training activities. Third, there are also specific sets of operational procedures and SOPs which govern the process of firing a live missile. These procedures are designed in such a way that a missile is fired only on/towards an intended target when deemed necessary by the user. Moreover, if the system was under maintenance as claimed, then as per the SOPs, dummy missiles are mounted in place of live missiles prior to maintenance, Furthermore, in order to bring a system back into active operational state, various checks and procedures need to be performed which are documented in black and white. Generally, maintenance of such guided weapon systems is carried out in storage and even if done in open than launch direction is kept towards a safe firing range and away from vulnerable areas. And, last but not least, how did the ‘self-destruct’ sequence magically vanish even if the missile was launched by mistake? Given these logical and operational reasons, one simply cannot swallow India’s ludicrous claims. So, one is left with the all-important and extremely worrisome question: Why? And why now?
First, the Indian Armed Forces are obsessed with SSMs., This obsession was on display when India threatened Pakistan with missile attacks after experiencing the annihilation of their fighter aircraft force during operation “Swift Retort” in 2019. In order to meet this growing appetite of SSMs, a BrahMos manufacturing facility has been established at Lucknow for carrying out the production of Next Generation BrahMos at a pace of about 80-100 missiles per year.
Second, neutral observers would be justified to believe that India tends to seek tactical and strategic advantages from this deliberate attack to check if a missile of such small radar cross section could be detected by the PAF, and, if detected, what kind of tactical action would be taken to shoot it down. Third, at a strategic level, India, given its larger economy, would like to embroil Pakistan in an arms race by inducing the leadership to seek a missile shield, which is prohibitive in cost even in the best of circumstances. The ‘why now’ part may be simpler to answer – as whenever Modi Sarkar needs a boost in its vote bank and domestic ratings, it ends up doing something outrageous against India’s ‘Enemy Number One.’
India has shown characteristic arrogance and hubris, simply by not talking about the missile firing for two days which gives an impression that it somehow wants Pakistan to believe that it was a deliberate attack; otherwise, no logic can explain the reason for remaining silent for two days knowing full well that it had fallen in Pakistani territory and was identified as a hostile missile fired from the Indian side by its military.
India’s blatant act, that could have enticed the two nuclear -armed neighbours towards a catastrophic missile showdown, cannot be condoned at any cost – by anyone. It is an issue that simply cannot be settled without a joint investigation, in which the culprits must be identified and brought to justice. After all, if this were ‘just an accident’, what does the Indian government or its Armed Forces have to hide or worry about? In fact, if this was human or technical error, wouldn’t a joint, open, and transparent probe help India show the whole world that its weapons systems are indeed safe, secure, and under foolproof procedures? As long as India remains fixated on selling its bogus missile narrative, this will continue to be seen as a cowardly and deliberate attempt to deliver a message to the state of Pakistan and become just another bullet point – pun intended (in a very long list) of New Delhi’s aggressive and offensive mindset towards us.
Air Marshal Shahid Alvi (Retd) is Deputy President, Centre for Aerospace & Security Studies, Lahore, Pakistan.