Playing with Fire

India’s missile accident underlines the dangers of political imprudence

Indian Army officers look on at a display of BrahMos missiles during army day parade in Delhi, on 15 January 2009. Most Indian BrahMos missiles are pre-programmed to target military, nuclear or political sites inside Pakistan, which they might hit even in the instance of a misfire. GURINDER OSAN/ AP PHOTO
30 March, 2022

The initial report that came out late on the evening of 9 March from Dawn, Pakistan’s most widely read newspaper, was confusing. It suggested that a private aircraft had crashed in Mian Channu, a city in the Pakistani province of Punjab, with its lone occupant safe. “Police cordoned off the area and did not allow rescue officials to come close to the jet,” the report said. “The rescue officials were asked to leave as the army authorities were coming to collect the evidence. Later, the army officers launched a search for collecting pieces of the jet.”

There was greater clarity when a Pakistani military spokesperson held a press conference the next day. He said that the Pakistan Air Force had continuously monitored the complete flight path of the flying object, an Indian missile, from its point of origin near the town of Sirsa, in Haryana, till its point of impact, 124 kilometres inside Pakistan. The flight had lasted 406 seconds, 224 of them inside Pakistani airspace. He showed an annotated map of the missile’s path, stating that, “from its initial course, the object suddenly manoeuvred towards the Pakistani territory and violated Pakistan’s airspace ultimately falling near Mian Channu at 6.50 pm.” He claimed that the PAF had initiated requisite tactical actions in accordance with standard operating procedures.

At this point, senior Pakistani military officials believed that the incident involved the test firing of a BrahMos cruise missile that was meant to hit the Pokhran field-firing range, in Rajasthan, but had veered into Pakistan due to some malfunction. Beyond the attempt to show the PAF’s ability to respond to what could have been a potential first strike and to comment on the competence of Indian missiles, the shock of what Pakistan was alleging set in. That evening in March, the world witnessed its only instance to date of one nuclear-armed state firing a cruise missile into the territory of another nuclear-armed state.

Meanwhile, India maintained complete silence despite repeated queries from journalists, even as senior staffers on US congressional committees dealing with South Asia started making calls. One such staffer told me that officials at the Indian embassy in Washington DC dismissed the Pakistani claim as a fabrication. The Pakistani army’s record of occasional lapses into conspiracy theories and outlandish claims, as well as its reduced usefulness to the United States following the country’s withdrawal from Afghanistan, worked against the credibility of its accusations in Washington DC.