Syed Qamar Afzal Rizvi
ON 09 March, an Indian missile—entering the Pakistan air space—was rightly detected and intercepted by vigilant Pakistan’s air defence system, which is currently empowered by J10 C fighter jets.
This episode has not only put India’s nuclear conduct in question, but has also endorsed the harrowing nuclear security failures that exist in India’s air defence system, paving the way for an inadvertent nuclear war in the region.
After a culpable delay of 48 hours on 11 March, the Indian Defence Ministry declared that a “technical malfunction” in the course of routine maintenance had activated “the accidental firing of a missile”, into which it had initiated a high-level Court of Inquiry (CoI).
“It is learnt that the missile landed in an area of Pakistan,” stated the MoD’s anodyne 75-word statement, adding that “while incident was deeply regrettable, it was also a relief that there was no loss of life due to accident”.
“Pakistan strongly protests this flagrant violation and cautions against recurrence of any such incident in the future,” ISPR spokesman Major General Babar Iftikhar told reporters.
“Whatever caused this incident to happen, it is for the Indians to explain,” he demanded, saying “It is important to highlight that the flight path of this object endangered many international and domestic passenger flights both in Indian and Pakistani airspace as well as human life and property on the ground’’.
A fundamental question must be raised globally regarding the Indian ability to safely handle such sensitive nuclear technology in so far as the safety and security of all weapon systems around the world are of paramount importance; particularly its application becomes more significant along the Pakistan-China-India borders in a region that is already volatile.
Pakistan justifiably demanded a joint investigation to accurately establish the facts surrounding the incident.
According to the US-based Arms Control Association, the missile’s range is between 300km (186 miles) and 500km (310 miles), making it capable of hitting Islamabad from a northern Indian launch pad.
South Asian affairs expert Michael Kugelman said in a tweet, ‘’An Indian statement claims a missile launch into Pakistan was a mistake and expresses regret. The language is conciliatory but the implications are scary. Mistakes, in the form of a supersonic missile sent dozens of miles across your nuclear rival’s territory, can start wars”. India and Pakistan have already engaged in fighting along the border and in the air, with Indian jets striking inside Pakistan’s territory and an Indian jet being shot down.
Meanwhile, military experts have warned of the risk of accidents or miscalculations by the nuclear-armed neighbours which have fought three wars and engaged in numerous smaller armed clashes, usually over the disputed territory of Kashmir.
Tension has risen in recent months, and the incident, which may have been the first of its kind, immediately raised questions about safety mechanisms which are essential to maintain strategic stability. If Indian warheads are increasingly mated to their delivery systems, then it would be harder for an adversary to detect when a crisis is about to rise to the nuclear threshold.
With separated warheads and delivery systems, the signals involved with mating the two would be more visible in a crisis, and the process itself would take longer.
But widespread canisterization with fully armed missiles would shorten warning time.’ As Vipin Narang and Christopher Clary noted in a 2019 article for International Security, this development “enables India to possibly release a full counterforce strike with a few indications to Pakistan that it was coming (a necessary precondition for success).
If Pakistan believed that India had a ‘comprehensive first strike’ strategy and with no indication of when a strike was coming, crisis instability would be amplified significantly.”
In the wake of deteriorating India-Pakistan relations—accompanied by negative trend lines on the subcontinent—manifested by Modi’s confrontation promoting policies—apprehensions are mounting for another crisis of strategic stability.
Unfortunately, under the Modi regime, some Indian policy makers are fancying a first strike nuclear scenario.
Make no mistake, India’s any misadventure against Pakistan will be tantamount to misreading Pakistan’s par excellence defence system-cum- missile technology, which can easily thwart India’s any misadventure, clearly vindicated by India’s phony airstrike in Balakot in February, 2019.
“In a nuclear environment, such callousness and ineptitude raises questions about the safety and security of Indian weapon systems’’, Pakistan’s NSA said, adding that already multiple incidents of uranium theft in India had been reported and its citizens “have even been arrested while smuggling uranium in the recent past. Pakistan’s repeated calls urging the world to take notice of “India’s irresponsible behaviour” had been ignored.
Given the evolving dynamics of strategic instability in South Asia, the international community must take a serious note of India’s waning nuclear security on two fronts—first, New Delhi’s growing inability to safely protect its nuclear enrichment material— and second, India’s well exposed inability of safely operating its nuclear warhead delivery systems.
Arguably, by any fair yardstick, the Indian called Court of Inquiry (CoI) into the rogue missile incidence needs an exceptionally high degree of accountability, warranting the need for India and Pakistan to resume a notification mechanism to avert an inadvertent nuclear war in South Asia.
To keep the record correct, in 2005 both India and Pakistan had signed an agreement to proactively inform each other in case of launching a ballistic missile and such agreement was further extended in 2011.
But in case of launching a cruise missile strike, there is no such agreement between the two sides — Islamabad and New Delhi.
But whatsoever remains a diplomatic missing in this regard, the Indian side finds no justification that it could have demonstrated such magnitude of irresponsibility by launching a strike of a cruise missile whose risky operation would have paved the way for an inadvertent nuclear war in South Asia.
China has said India and Pakistan should hold dialogue as soon as possible and launch a “thorough” investigation into the recent “accidental firing” of a missile from India, which landed in Pakistan’s Punjab province,.
The Biden Administration has also supported the notion of a direct dialogue between India and Pakistan.
—The writer, an independent ‘IR’ researcher-cum-international law analyst based in Pakistan, is member of European Consortium for Political Research Standing Group on IR, Critical Peace & Conflict Studies, also a member of Washington Foreign Law Society and European Society of International Law.