Real motives behind BrahMos firing into Pakistan

It was too serious an occurrence to be curtained behind geopolitical and geo-economic considerations

Zahid Ul Hassan June 16, 2024
The author is Director Research at the Center for International Strategic Studies Sindh (CISSS) Karachi.


On 29 March 2024, Indian Air Force (IAF) submitted a reply to the Delhi High Court (DHC) disclosing “reasons behind accidental firing” of a BrahMos missile on Pakistan on 9 March 2022. IAF’s internal Court of Inquiry (CoI) revealed that: (i) Missile’s combat connectors “remained connected to the junction box” which led to the accidental fire; (ii) The convoy commander “failed to ensure safe transit of convoy by not ensuring disconnection of combat connectors of all loaded missiles”; (iii) Combat operations team ignored warnings and failed to intervene to prevent launching of missile from Mobile Autonomous Launcher and; (iv) Contrary to initially declaring the incident as a ‘technical failure’, CoI concluded that it was a human error reflecting irresponsible and careless conduct of the combat team.

Critical analysis of the CoI findings submitted in DHC makes stunning revelations particularly in operational, training, technical and legal domains. First of all, it is hard to believe that while preparing such a strategically sensitive operational equipment for movement, deployment and training, SOPs were not implemented, requisite safety protocols were violated, electronic system warnings were ignored and the crew of fairly higher seniority level was unable to monitor flashing signals on the control panel and that “the crew was transporting live missiles with their connectors connected to the junction box”. It also highlights lack of requisite operational knowledge and on-the-job-training drills amongst IAF personnel to gain proficiency and handle such technology sensitive weapon systems. Likewise, it highlights that the combat team was not aware of the essential requirement of exercising extreme caution, incorporate multi-tiered decision-making tools and instil fail-safe safety protocols during movement. Moreover, it raises serious questions regarding likely absence of very important and ultimate safety features of master override and mid-course destruction options in case of undesired, accidental or inadvertent launch of the BrahMos missile.

Scrutiny of IAF’s reply also reveals that: (a) IAF authorities, in an effort to hide facts, circumvented essential legal requirements of granting fair trial under Article 20(1) of the Indian Constitution and hastily dismissed three IAF officers from service; (b) The reply did not mention ascertainment of the physical and mental health of the accused officers prior to CoI; (c) Subsequent to CoI findings in which the accused were found guilty of misconduct and inefficiency, instead of following the Court Martial proceedings, their cases were dealt with summarily; (d) Instead of Section-19 (Termination of service by Central Government), Section-18 (Tenure of service) of the IAF Act-1950 was invoked seeking ‘President’s Pleasure’ to terminate services of the three IAF officers, making them scapegoat; (e) None of the IAF officers dismissed were served with show cause notices, an essential legal requirement under Rules 16 and 17 of the IAF Act, and were thus denied the right to fair trial; (f) Last but not least, IAF’s stance that “issuing a show cause notice for removal from the service would have brought the sensitive and secret issues in full public domain” clearly highlights Indian intentions to hide facts.

Another significant aspect that merits attention is missile’s mysterious change of course by 90 degrees (from south-western to north-western direction) while it was still flying within the Indian airspace. This change of heading was either pre-programmed in its intended flight path or intentionally carried out as the mid-course correction, which resulted in the missile to enter into Pakistan airspace. In case it was an unintentional and inadvertent launch, Indian authorities should have: (1) Instantly informed Pakistan and issued NOTAM (Notice to Airmen) to respective Area Control Center (ACC) for the safety of civilian airliners in the vicinity; (2) Altered missile’s course away from Pakistan airspace to avoid escalation; (3) Activated its self-destruction mode (if it was available in the missile) to fall within the Indian territory and; (4) Agreed to a joint inquiry proposal from Pakistan. These facts clearly indicate that it was an intentional fire meant to gauge the type of reaction and the reaction time from Pakistan.

BrahMos is a nuclear-capable missile and forms an integral part of the Indian nuclear triad having far-reaching strategic implications. Its operational, training and technical matters are handled by the Indian Strategic Force Command (SFC) while decisions regarding deployment and employment rest with highest political authority. While addressing a workshop in Islamabad jointly organised by the Center for International Strategic Studies (CISS) and International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) on ‘Strategic Stability in South Asia’ in September 2022, Pakistan’s former DG Strategic Plans Division Lt Gen (retd) Khalid Ahmed Kidwai underscored that “the launch was no accident”. He stressed that the “launch of a nuclear-capable missile could not have taken place without the political clearance at the highest level and detailed planning over a number of days and weeks in the military chain of command”.

The BrahMos firing incident occurred in relative period of calm between both the nuclear neighbours. However, had it been a situation like Balakot crisis of February 2019, upon detection of an incoming missile from India, Pakistan would have been well within its rights to react in self-defence under Article 51 of the UN Charter and exercised Launch on Warning (LoW) option. It sends shivers down the spine to imagine catastrophic consequences that the region and the world might have endured. Nevertheless, Pakistan displayed mature and responsible behaviour, exercised strategic restraint and successfully avoided escalation.

It was too serious an occurrence to be curtained behind geopolitical and geo-economic considerations. According to Times of India, India is contemplating induction of Multiple Independently Targetable Reentry Vehicle (MIRV) Agni-V in its nuclear arsenal in canisterised state in order to reduce reaction time and provide more launch options against Pakistan and China. Keeping in view a history of irresponsible and irrational conduct of the Indian leadership, any repetition of such incidents (with Agni-V in the arsenal) may result in catastrophic consequences for South Asia and beyond.


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