Indian missile fiasco

Asif Durrani
Monday, Mar 21, 2022

The Indian missile fiasco should ring alarm bells amongst the strategic community tasked to monitor the security situation between Pakistan and India.

Pakistan’s Foreign Office has lodged a strong protest with the Indian charge d’affaires over the “unprovoked violation of its airspace by an Indian origin ‘super-sonic flying object’ which entered into Pakistan from ‘Suratgarh’ India…. causing damage to civilian property” in Mian Chunnu. While demanding “a thorough and transparent investigation of the incident”, the Foreign Office called India to share the inquiry results.

Pakistan’s National Security Advisor Moeed Yusuf was the first to react at the political level, questioning “India’s ability to handle such sensitive technology”. He also expressed concern that the “missile travelled close to the path of international and domestic commercial airlines and threatened the security of civilians”.

The overall reaction in Pakistan has been muted or ‘business as usual’. Pakistani media also did not go berserk to the level one would have expected from India had this mistake been done by Pakistan. Perhaps the no-confidence motion engaged such maximum attention of the government and opposition that tempers on the Indian fiasco remained under control. Even Pakistan’s military spokesperson, who convened an emergency press conference, expressed the grave Indian violation in calculated words. Cumulatively, Pakistan behaved maturely.

The Indians were suitably embarrassed by the incident. The statement from the Indian government was sheepish in accepting its mistake. However, it did not reveal the device deviated from the designated path. Many questions are being raised about the efficacy of the Indian missile programme, especially the Brahmos series, a joint venture between India and Russia. Initially, when the Russians were part of the programme, India conformed to the Missile Technology Regime (MTCR), as till then, the missile range was kept below 300 kilometres. Now India has expanded the programme to fulfil the requirements of its three services.

From the statements in Islamabad and New Delhi, it was clear that New Delhi did not convey advance notice of the missile launch to Pakistan, which means that it was a cruise missile about which there is no agreement between Pakistan and India. The two countries had concluded an MOU on Prenotification of Ballistic Missiles Testing in 2005, but despite Pakistan’s insistence, India did not want to include cruise missiles into the prenotification regime. The Indian reluctance derived from a sense of one-upmanship as they thought that their acquisition of cruise missiles through the Russian help gave them the leeway in the missile race.

However, the Indians were shell-shocked when Pakistan launched its first Cruise Missile Babur, just two weeks after signing the MOU on prenotification of Ballistic Missile testing. There was a big commotion in the Indian media. Still, it was too late for the Indian strategic community to hide their embarrassment or defend their decision of keeping the cruise missiles out of the MOU requiring advance launch notice. They had no face to blame Pakistan for the “deceit”. It’s now over 17 years, but it appears the two countries have not entered into an understanding to pre-notify cruise missile testing. The lesson learned in the Indian missile fiasco at Mian Chunnu is that the two countries should immediately agree to give advance notice on all categories of missiles, including cruise missiles.

Realising the gravity of the situation, the Times of India editorial notes that “despite their history of hostility, India and Pakistan do not have robust risk-reduction protocols or mechanisms to deal with such mishaps. This is something that New Delhi and Islamabad must look into now.”

The Indian commentators, quoting official sources, question the veracity of Pakistani officials’ claims about the course change by the Indian cruise missile. Also, they are asking why Pakistan took more than 24 hours to announce the Indian intrusion. But the question is why the Indians were not forthcoming about the fiasco and waited 24 hours after the Pakistani announcement to admit their mistake.

The Indian defence ministry’s statement said: “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”. This was an admittance of guilt by the Indian officials that lacked grace and may not help break the ice in the future to negotiate additional CBMs on strategic stability in South Asia. At least, the Indian DG (MO) should have the courage to pick up the phone and convey his country’s regret.

Indian researcher Sushant Singh, while commenting in the Deccan Herald of March 13, states: “there are numerous other questions from the incident blighting the long-established reputation of the Indian security establishment and its political masters. Its recent record, going back to the Balakot incident and the Chinese border crisis, has been marked by obstruction and obfuscation of news to further the political agenda of the ruling party.”

There is no awareness campaign in either country regarding nuclear proliferation; schools and higher institutions of learning lack knowledge about the lethality of nuclear weapons. There are no atomic shelters in case an atomic war breaks out. Given the gravity of hostility between the two sides, a slight provocation can plunge the two nuclear states into complete annihilation. The incumbent Hindutva dispensation in India with nuclear weapons is a lethal combination for the entire South Asian region.

There is a need for sober voices in India and Pakistan to emphasise more CBMs in the nuclear arena to, at least, create a semblance of normalcy in a volatile region.

The writer is a former ambassador, working as a senior research fellow at the Islamabad Policy Research Institute (IPRI).