What happened and what was the official response?
Briefing on the incident which occurred on March 9, Mr Singh said that during the routine maintenance and inspection, a missile was “accidentally released” at around 7 PM. It was later learnt that the missile had landed inside the territory of Pakistan. He further added, “While this incident is regretted, we are relieved that nobody was hurt due to the accident.”
Stating that the Government attaches the highest priority to safety and security of the weapon systems and any shortcoming if found, would be immediately rectified, Mr Singh said, “I would also like to state that a review of the Standard Operating Procedures for operations, maintenance and inspections is being conducted in the wake of this incident.”
The minister emphasised that the missile system is very reliable and safe. “Our safety procedures and protocols are of the highest order and are reviewed from time to time. Our armed forces are well-trained and disciplined and are well experienced in handling such systems”, he said
The incident came to light after the Pakistan military held a press conference late on Thursday in which it said that they tracked the supersonic surface to surface missile from the time it took flight in Indian territory, manoeuvered and entered Pakistani airspace travelling 124 km and fell near Mian Channu in Khanewal district, damaging some civilian property.
The Pakistan Air Force (PAF) continuously monitored the flight path of the missile, travelling at 40,000 feet, from its point of origin near Sirsa in India till its point of impact. The missile stayed in Pakistani territory for 3 minutes and 44 seconds.
Major General Babar Iftikhar, Director-General of the Inter-Service Public Relations (ISPR) also said that the PAF had initiated “requisite tactical actions” as per their standard operating procedures (SOPs) though he did not elaborate on it. He further added that the missile endangered many international and domestic passenger flights both in Indian and Pakistani airspace as well as human life and property on the ground, It was a day after this that the Defence Ministry issued a short statement that a “technical malfunction led to the accidental firing of a missile” and that the Government of India had taken a “serious view” and has ordered a high-level Court of Enquiry.
Responding to this the Pakistan Ministry of Foreign Affairs said there were many “loopholes and technical lapses” of a serious nature in “Indian handling of strategic weapons” and demanded a joint probe to “accurately establish the facts” surrounding the incident. It also raised several questions on the measures and procedures in place to prevent accidental missile launches and the particular circumstances of this incident.
Pakistan also summoned the Charge d’ Affaires (Cd’A) of the Indian High Commission in Islamabad, twice, on the issue.
Which missile was launched accidentally?
The Government has not officially acknowledged which missile it was, but sources have indicated that it was the BrahMos supersonic cruise missile system. The description given by Pakistan on the technical characteristics of the missile fits that of BrahMos, a product of a joint venture between India and Russia and named after the Brahmaputra and Moskva rivers.
BrahMos is a potent precision strike weapon with variants that can be launched from land, sea and air and a range of 290 km deployed by all three Services. No similar capability exists in the region and intercepting a supersonic cruise missile that can also manoeuvre and fly low to evade detection is extremely difficult, Since India became a member of the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) in 2016, work has been on to extend the range of the missile for which several tests have been done. A hypersonic variant of the missile is also under development.
Both India and Pakistan are nuclear-weapon states with a range of tactical and strategic missiles in their inventory. Given the tense relationship, any such accident could be mistaken for an attack with retaliatory measures taken by the other side, leading to further escalation.
Invoking this aspect, Pakistan said that “given the short distances and response times, any misinterpretation by the other side could lead to countermeasures in self-defence with grave consequences.” It further called upon the international community to take serious notice of this incident of “grave nature in a nuclearised environment and play its due role in promoting strategic stability in the region.”
While handling and launch of such advanced and potent missiles are highly regulated with several redundancies to avoid such accidents, this incident shows the need to review and make protocols foolproof to avoid any recurrence.
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