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The Missile Accident, Looking Beyond

A short statement on 9 March 2022 from the Ministry of Defence, Press Information Bureau stated that during routine maintenance, a technical malfunction led to the accidental firing of a missile without specifying the type.

Government of India has taken a serious view and ordered a high-level Court of Enquiry said the release. “It is learnt that the missile landed in an area of Pakistan. While the incident is deeply regrettable, it is also a matter of relief that there has been no loss of life due to the accident,” as per the Statement.

Now more information is available, but first a review of the events and what requires to be done looking beyond needs consideration

Pakistan and Indian Statements

The statement by the Ministry of Defence came after Pakistan DG ISPR [Director General Inter Services Public Relations] indicated that a missile from India landed in a village in Punjab without causing major damage.

The incident first came to light after Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) Director General (DG) Major Gen Babar Iftikhar shared details on March 10 of what he described as a "high-speed flying object", which was fired from Indian territory.

The DG ISPR had told media persons that the object, which was unarmed and probably a missile, had fallen in the Mian Channu area of Pakistan Punjab's Khanewal district. Gen Iftikhar had called the airspace intrusion a "flagrant violation" and demanded an explanation from India.

Pakistan DGISPR claimed the missile was initially headed towards India’s Mahajan field firing ranges but after travelling around 70-80 km, it changed direction while maintaining the same altitude and speed and headed towards Pakistani airspace.

"On March 9, at 6:43pm, a high speed flying object was picked up inside the Indian territory by Air Defence Operations Centre of the Pakistan Air Force (PAF)," the Statement by the DG ISPR said adding, "From its initial course, the object suddenly manoeuvred towards Pakistani territory and violated Pakistan's air space, ultimately falling near Mian Channu at 6:50pm." "When it fell, it damaged civilian properties," he said, adding no loss of life was reported. Importantly the DGISPR did not identify the type of missile that could have launched leaving ambiguity.

Defence Minister Rajnath Singh on March 15 gave an extensive statement in the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha – the Lower and Upper houses of the parliament. He stated that, "A missile was unfortunately accidentally launched on March 9. The incident occurred during a routine inspection. We later came to know that it had landed in Pakistan." An enquiry has been ordered said the Minister.

Explanation of What Happened?

Reports by the ANI have now indicated quoting government sources that detailed probe by an Air Vice Marshal from the Indian Air Force headquarters into the accidental firing of the tactical BrahMos supersonic cruise missile which landed in Pakistan on March 9 prima facie determined that, a Group Captain-rank officer is being seen as blameworthy.

The officer was in-charge of the mobile command post of the missile system when the accidental firing happened during a Command Air Staff Inspection (CASI) at its home base, location of which is not specified but expected to be near Ambala in Western Theatre. The Indian Air Force (IAF) has a Directorate of Air Staff Inspection (DASI) an official inspecting body which periodically assesses the tactical and operational levels of IAF units mainly aircraft and has now been possibly extended to missiles.

Based on the ANI report it can be surmised that the missile was a BrahMos and not a strategic system. The launch was accidental during inspection though why the same was held in late evening is not clear.

Response Pakistan and Other States

Pakistan was very vocal over India’s accidental missile landing in the country. Pakistan National Security Adviser (NSA) Moeed Yusuf claimed on a few occasions that the world was "beginning to recognise Pakistan's long-standing concern" about India's nuclear capabilities.

The issue was flagged in Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) summit in Islamabad on March 23-23. Earlier Pakistan Foreign Office spokesperson said, “such a serious matter cannot be addressed with the simplistic explanation proffered by the Indian authorities,” and called in the charge affairs of the Indian High Commission in Islamabad to lodge a protest.

The monthly Corps Commanders’ Conference (CCC) also emphasised that despite Indian acknowledgement of the mistake, relevant international forums must take a serious review of the incident and subject the safety and security protocols of Indian strategic assets to deliberate oversight "Such dangerous incidents can act as a trigger and seriously endanger regional peace and strategic stability," the 248th CCC stressed, according to the ISPR's statement.

While the United States has played down the test calling the same as a routine one, China stated that India and Pakistan should hold a dialogue as soon as possible and launch a “thorough investigation” into the recent “accidental firing.”

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian, during a media briefing said, “We have noted the relevant information”. “We called on relevant countries to have dialogue and communication as soon as possible and launch a thorough investigation into this incident, strengthen information sharing and establish a notification mechanism in time to ensure the recurrence of such incidents and prevent miscalculation,” Zhao added.

Court of Inquiry Preliminary Outcome

As per a report in the Tribune, human error has been identified as a reason for the accidental missile launch after detailed examination of the missile storage and inspecting protocols.

Some of the key questions addressed by the Court of Inquiry of the Indian Air Force (IAF) is, “how the launch codes were fed into the system that enabled the missile to fire. The protocol for firing and storage of BrahMos, a supersonic cruise missile, is such that a series of steps are needed to be completed before actual firing”.

Clarifications Necessary and Responses

Accidental firing of a non strategic missile – the BrahMos which was not primed with a warhead and was thus inert thereby limiting the damage caused and also not triggering a response from Pakistan has led to a number of issues which need clarification and response for avoiding such mishaps.

Firstly Pakistan has no locus standii to be part of the investigations. India has so far put out a credible preliminary investigation as given above, but there are some more clarifications which are essential.

Secondly the process for safety inspection of the BrahMos and the reasons for carrying out the inspection around 7.00 PM late evening whereas normally these would be inspected during the day time.

Thirdly reasons for accidental firing which is generally accepted as a human error yet what are the safety systems available to avoid these and if available reasons for failure.

Fourthly there is a need for tightening the processes for avoiding accidental firing not just during tests but also in operational scenarios as the implication of the same between two nuclear armed states can be devastating to say the least.

Fifthly response of the IAF unit on accidental firing of the missile, reporting procedure within the chain of command and beyond and whether the Director General Military Operations (DGMO) hotline was activated for passage of information at the earliest to Pakistan.

Fortunately, there was no reaction from the Pakistan side either which indicates the necessity for putting into place mechanisms to avoid such mishaps triggering escalation in the future.

Finally, necessity for effective mechanisms for pre-notification of testing of cruise missiles as the 2005 agreement only covers the ballistic missiles.

BrahMos Validated

With concerns of the credibility of the BrahMos missile which is being exported to countries as Philippines, India successfully tested a surface-to-surface BrahMos supersonic cruise missile in Andaman and Nicobar. Air chief marshal VR Chaudhari congratulated on the successful test-firing of the cruise missile.

He was in the Island territory of Andaman & Nicobar to review operational preparedness, news agency ANI quoted defence officials as saying. Indian Navy had also successfully demonstrated the accuracy of an extended-range land-attack Brahmos supersonic cruise missile from the stealth destroyer INS Chennai.

Earlier Indian Navy successfully demonstrated the accuracy of an extended-range land attack Brahmos supersonic cruise missile from the stealth destroyer INS Chennai, on 5th March, 2022. The missile hit its intended target with pinpoint accuracy after traversing an extended range trajectory and performing complex manoeuvres.

A number of missile firing of the key system have been undertaken thereafter to establish the required parameters.

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