Accomplished academician argues that world history has never witnessed such irresponsibility by a nuclear state. Unfortunately, it strengthens the argument that every state does not have the capacity to handle nuclear arsenals and support systems with complete responsibility and maturity. She notes that this incident can be a trendsetter for the South Asian region if not responded to accordingly.
On 9th March, at 6:43 PM, a high-speed, supersonic Indian BrahMos missile was fired on Pakistan. Unarmed Indian BrahMos maneuvered towards Pakistani territory from its initial course, grossly violating Pakistan’s air space and falling near Mian Channu at 06:50 PM.
The uninvited, unwanted and unprovoked flight of BrahMos endangered many passenger flights, property on the ground, and South Asia’s peace and security. Not only this, but the Indian missile incident is historical as it is for the very first time that a nuclear state fired a nuclear-capable supersonic missile on another nuclear state.
This incident can be a trendsetter if not responded to accordingly. World history has never witnessed such irresponsibility by a nuclear state. Unfortunately, it strengthens the argument that every state does not have the capacity to handle nuclear arsenals and support systems with complete responsibility and maturity.
Here another question arises “if India “deliberately” trying to establish a new norm of accidental fire in South Asia? It is noteworthy that in a volatile and nuclear region of South Asia, such a norm can neither be established nor it can bring any good to the region.
Such an act will only make the situation of peace and security more vulnerable to the extremist Hindutva mindset, especially when it is still to be established if it was a mistake or the Hindutva radicals have access to such highly sophisticated weapon systems. Moreover, India’s silence for two days until Pakistan highlighted it raises several other questions regarding the safety and security of the Indian strategic weapon system.
Pakistan strongly protested this flagrant violation and cautioned India against the recurrence of any such incident in the future. Pakistan criticized India’s “callousness and ineptitude” in a “nuclear environment.” On 11th March, Pakistan Foreign Office (FO) summoned the Indian envoy to register Pakistan’s protest over the unprovoked violation of its airspace and termed it as “irresponsible incident,” which reflected India’s “disregard for air safety and callousness towards regional peace and stability.”
Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi urged the international community and aviation bodies to take notice of this incident. Initially, Pakistan called it “Indian Projectile” and later confirmed it as a “BrahMos supersonic Indian missile.”
Indian explanation of the incident
Indian stance on the explanation of the incident kept on changing. The first Indian statement came two days after the incident, that too after Pakistan highlighted it. On 11th March, in an official statement, the Indian government stated that “in routine maintenance, a technical malfunction led to the accidental firing” of the supersonic BrahMos missile.
However, on 15th March, the Indian defense minister declared in the Indian parliament that this accidental firing occurred during “Routine Maintenance and Inspection.” Furthermore, few journalists wrote that this accidental firing was caused during the “Simulation Exercise.”
These three different explanations only contributed to creating the fog of disinformation, definitely not the way responsible state actors behave. The fog of disinformation and inappropriate/misleading strategic communication by Indian leadership have multiplied the nuclear risks in South Asia.
Therefore, Pakistan’s demand for an independent inquiry of the incident, either mutually or through an international institution, is the only resort to peace in order to bridge the trust gap, which further widened after this incident.
The United States, as expected, supported the Indian stance and did not find any indication that the missile fire was not accidental. China being the neighbor of both states, issued a statement on the official website of the Chinese Foreign Ministry to urge Pakistan and India to hold dialogue and communication as soon as possible and look thoroughly into the incident, step up information sharing, and promptly establish a reporting mechanism so that such incidents will not happen again, and misunderstanding and misjudgment can be avoided. These are logical suggestions any responsible state actor interested in regional peace and security can give.
Indo-Pak agreement on preventing air space violations
It is noteworthy that Pakistan and India signed an agreement, “Preventing Air Space Violations,” in 1991. According to the agreement, both countries would inform each other, through an existing hotline between high military commands, regarding any unintended violation of air space. However, India “deliberately” avoided it during the incident of 9th March.
India should answer why she refrained from utilizing this existing agreement for damage control in this nuclear region? Why did she not immediately start efforts to deescalate the situation? Does it mean that they were unable to keep track of their own missile? What if “India intended to check and evaluate Pakistan’s response mechanism through such fire? It is suggested that keeping in view the technological advancement and new security structure, it would be pertinent to include “missile” & other “flying objects” in the said agreement, as it mainly focuses on violations by “combat Aircraft.”
This incident has manifested the types and levels of dangers modern and sophisticated weapons systems can inflict. An expert on emerging strategic technologies may explain how come, without a “firing configuration,” the BrahMos was accidentally fired? Without a reliable answer by a credible international agency on the subject matter, Pakistan has no reason to believe in the Indian position on this incident.
Especially when this incident has endorsed the argument that the Indian sophisticated weapons program and system are in the hands of irresponsible and incapacitated Indian leadership. India should empirically prove if it was actually an accident or our assumption regarding Indian radical elements at the helm of nuclear policy and execution is correct.
This incident is a question of the collective consciousness of the Indian public. They should take serious notice of this incident as so-called “accidental fires” always do not land on neighbor’s soil; at times, they inflict misery on their own people. Such accidents will make India a dangerous place for its people. If we accept the Indian theory of “accidental fire,” then the Indian government is playing a deadly game against its own people through such fragile systems.
On the same day when BrahMos was fired on Pakistan, IAEA endorsed “Pakistan’s nuclear safety regulations as “significantly updated” as “they have strengthened nuclear and radiation safety. IAEA also acknowledged that Pakistan has adequately addressed 29 out of 31 suggestions of IAEA. This appreciation is substantiated by the fact that there was no single incident of nuclear theft, irregularity in sophisticated weapon systems, or any malfunction in Pakistan.
On the contrary, there were several incidents of nuclear material theft, radiation material theft, and accidental fire in India. As per an estimation, over 200 KG uranium theft occurred in India between 1994-2021, in 18 nuclear material theft incidents. This track record of India should be a matter of concern for the civilized world.
The incident of 9th March is a big question mark on the professionalism of Indian forces, vulnerabilities of their sophisticated weapon system, ambiguities in their nuclear safeguards and efficiency of their decision-making processes. Now India should prove if and how its nuclear safeguards are functional and effective.
If that fire was “accidental” as per Indian claim, then this suggestion by Christopher Clary is pertinent for the safety and security of the region. He suggested that both states should sign an agreement on “Cruise Missile Test Notification” to avoid any such scenario in the future. It is also suggested that both states may negotiate an MCBM to open their sophisticated long-range missiles, to the ocean or unoccupied areas, by default.
Various crises in South Asia have taught us the value of dialogue for political, military and nuclear de-escalation. Therefore establishing Crisis Communication Center to mitigate the probabilities of any strategic fallout or instability is the least India can do for regional stability and development.
Pakistan needs to evaluate its rational choice to analyze if our low-key response suits our national interests or we need to be more effective in cross-domain deterrence to make sure that India would never repeat such a stunt again to play with the future of billions of people living in this region. The international community should not leave these people at the mercy of war jingoism of Hindutva radicals and Islamophobia.
Dr. Asma Shakir Khawaja is the Executive Director at the Center for International Strategic Studies, AJ&K, and the author of “Shaking Hands with Clenched Fists: The Grand Trunk Road to Confidence Building Measures between Pakistan and India.” She received her Doctorate in South Asian Studies from the Institute of South Asian Studies, Martin-Luther University, Halle-Wittenberg, Germany. She can be reached at email@example.com.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space.