India’s ‘errant’ missile and Aman Ki Asha

India, either way, walks red-faced from the saga and/or its fool-hardy jingoism

Inam Ul Haque March 17, 2022
The writer is a retired major general and has an interest in International Relations and Political Sociology. He can be reached at and tweets @20_Inam

On 13 March, I wrote ‘What to make of India’s dangerous error’ in Tribune’s Sunday Magazine. This sequel explores deeper dynamics of the ‘error’ per se. As per the DG ISPR, on March 9 at 6:43pm, PAF Air Defence picked up a ‘high-speed flying object’ inside India, which ‘suddenly maneuvered [mid-flight] towards Pakistani territory’, crashing at 6:50pm near Mian Channu (Khanewal District), some 60 or so kilometers short of PAF Base Shorkot.

Our conclusion, with specification matched, was that the ‘object’ was decidedly a BrahMos NG (Next Generation). BrahMos NG is a more versatile version of India’s cruise missile series of the same name, scheduled for trials this year. India admitted the ‘accidental launch’ after good 48 hours, ascribing it to ‘a technical malfunction’ during ‘routine maintenance’, that a court of inquiry would investigate.

One is amazed to see Pakistan’s meek response, influenced ostensibly by aman ki asha; asking questions from India, that technically arise ‘after accepting’ the Indian narrative of ‘accidental’ launch. The timing of this blatant and most serious violation is sinister, as the whole Pakistani leadership is seized with the stinking political drama.

Missiles broadly categorise as ‘Cruise’ and ‘Ballistic’. A ‘cruise’ missile remains in the atmosphere, is guided towards target with high precision; flies subsonic, supersonic, or hypersonic; and delivers bigger warhead over longer distances. BrahMos NG is in this category; highly maneuverable, capable of cruising at around Mach 3.5 speed and self-navigating on low-altitude (non-ballistic) trajectory. A ‘ballistic’ missile, contrarily travels above the atmosphere, is guided initially, and maneuvers to re-enter towards predetermined target(s).

As per the formal agreement between India and Pakistan, there is no early warning to the other side for a ‘cruise’ missile launch (BrahMos). Pre-information is restricted to ballistic missiles. However, information on hotline for an errant launch should have been communicated, as soon as one happened. This was not done. The Indian response, terming the incident ‘regrettable’ rather than ‘regretting the error’ was perfunctory, arrogant and comical.

Missiles cannot be accidentally fired as the warhead, missile body and launch vehicle are stored safely in different places; and are prepared (mated) before launching. The onboard computer is, likewise, fed a predetermined target/data, a predesignated path/trajectory and pre-selected way points. And the missile is loaded/fired through a ‘deliberate process’ involving checks and counter-checks.

Software glitches can lead a missile astray, like the 2009 case of BrahMos missing the target, but that was early on, and India’s improvement of Inertial Navigation System (INS) involving US, Indian and Russian satellites, rule out this possibility.

The other possibility is incorrect feeding of a ‘way point’, as the missile swerved mid-flight towards Pakistan, but repeated checks before launch should rule out this possibility either. Or else, it validates Indian ineptness and sheer incompetence, being unable to keep its sensitive programme in “capable and safe” hands. Pakistan’s forensic analysis of data, if retrieved from BrahMos NG’s onboard computer, hence is critical.

India, either way, walks red-faced from the saga and/or its fool-hardy jingoism (as suspected) …domestically, regionally and internationally. The New York Times reported on 12 March, “India has long tried to distance itself from suggestions that its systems have vulnerabilities of their own, saying that foolproof safety measures and procedures were in place. A mistake like the one this week, at a time when chest-thumping talk of using force against Pakistan has become a trope in political speeches by India’s Hindu nationalist leaders, is likely to cast doubt on those assurances.” Despite acceptance of Indian stance publicly, the US should ask questions from its non-cooperative ‘ally’.

There are tell-tale signs that Indian military continues to test Pakistan’s thresholds limits and responses. A pattern can be discerned. There was a stray submarine trying to enter Pakistani waters on October 16, 2021, detected and tracked by PN’s maritime patrol aircraft. This was the third attempt by Indian Navy, others being in November 2016 and March 2019. IAF went for a ‘surgical’ crow hunt in Balakot in February 2019, leaving Wing Commander (now Group Captain) Abhinandan Varthaman in Pakistani hands.

Reportedly, there is a tri-service military exercise underway, hence the ‘activation’ of Sirsa (an FOB- Forward Operating Base along border with Pakistan) in Haryana, Indian Punjab, the stray missile’s point of origin. Furthermore, many in the Indian military hierarchy think that a ‘limited conventional conflict’ with Pakistan is possible under a nuclear overhang.

Add to this the narrow nationalism of war-mongering Indian media, and India’s increasing intolerance towards Muslims/other minorities, the mix is toxic. So, India’s offensive posturing, and BrahMos NG’s significant features substantiate, it was a premeditated, technically prepared launch with predetermined and computer programmed trajectory, including a preselected waypoint to undertake the required maneuver in the direction of PAF Base Shorkot, to check/test Pakistan’s air defence alertness and response preparedness.

Therefore, the act amounts to a deliberate attack on Pakistani territory and ought to be treated by Pakistani authorities as such. Gullible buying into the Indian narrative, without evidence and explanation, is not only naïve; it also implies complete lack of professional and technical understanding of how cruise missiles are launched, controlled and guided. And that ‘acceptance’ from Pakistan, a nuclear power with its own formidable inventory of cruise and ballistic missiles, should not happen.

The debate about Pakistan not being able to intercept, misses the fact, as both India and Pakistan cannot respond to or ‘intercept’ any incoming missile because of the speed of the missile, shorter time of flight (hardly a few minutes), and shorter distances. And this warrants fool-proof bilateral mechanisms, as missile strikes on either side would result in serious damage, given proximity of sizeable towns and cities closer to the border.

Pakistan’s relatively muted response also needs to be seen in the light of cracks that such incidents cause in the ‘deterrence regime’. Pakistan, besides raising the issue at all fora, should unequivocally declare that it ‘reserves the right to respond’ to such probing and provocations. And that means taking out the site of the suspected launch, as missile interception is hard for given reasons.

India needs to beware of the consequent public pressure on Pakistani decision-makers for retaliation to inflict greater pain. Indian jingoism, hence, needs to be restrained, until the aman ki asha is equally entertained by BJP and its increasingly Hindutva-laced military. Without that, asha (expectation) would remain asha.

Published in The Express Tribune, March 17th, 2022.

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