Clearing the Confusion Regarding the Brahmos Missile Fiasco

On 9 March 2022, an Indian Brahmos cruise missile landed in Pakistan. While the event raised concerns and fears regarding the risk of escalation between already estranged India and Pakistan, it also created confusion about the nature of the event and the weapons involved.

One of the most asked questions was why Pakistan did not shoot down the missile when it had tracked it? To answer this, one should look at the technological and technical possibilities of shooting a cruise missile, particularly the Brahmos supersonic cruise missile, and does Pakistan possess such capability. And if it is not possible to shoot a cruise missile, or if Pakistan did not possess such a capability, what could have been Pakistan’s response to an incoming cruise missile strike.

On the night of 9 March 2022, Pakistan Air Force picked up and tracked a “high-speed flying object” 104km inside Indian territory near Sirsa, an Indian district. According to ISPR, the object turned northwest towards Pakistan after travelling 70-80km in the southwesterly direction at speed between Mach 2.5 and Mach 3 and eventually crashing inside Pakistan near Mian Channu town in Punjab.

Pakistan military spokesperson, Maj Gen Babar Iftikhar, revealed the incident to the media on 10 March 2022. He also sought an explanation from the Indian government on the landing of the supersonic flying object inside Pakistan. India, on the other hand, acknowledged the incident two days later. Indian Defense Ministry’s statement on 11 March 2022 read, “In the course of a routine maintenance, a technical malfunction led to the accidental firing of a missile.” It also ordered a court inquiry into the incident. But the Indian response was delayed and unclear. It did not clarify anything; in fact, it added to the prevailing confusion. Inspite of the existence of a hotline between the Director-General of Military Operations of both the countries, India did not bother to inform Pakistan about the rogue missile.

While India refrained from naming the missile involved in the incident, the pictures of the debris and details of range, speed, altitude, and flight time provided by Pakistan concerning the object established that it was a Brahmos supersonic cruise missile. Brahmos has a range of up to 500km and has different versions that can be launched from air, land, or sea. It can reportedly carry both conventional and nuclear warheads. Furthermore, India is also developing a hypersonic version of the missile with Russian help which will be powered by a scramjet engine.

Defending against Cruise Missiles

Cruise missiles are technologically different from ballistic missiles. Ballistic missiles follow a predictable parabolic trajectory at high altitudes, making their interception relatively easier. In comparison, cruise missiles fly at low altitudes below the radar. They can alter their path to avoid detection and interception. Low flight of cruise missiles creates obstacles for ground and airborne surveillance due to ground clutter and curvature constraints of the earth.

Furthermore, high-speed categories of cruise missiles, such as supersonic and hypersonic missiles, are more challenging to intercept as compared to subsonic cruise missiles. The high speed of a supersonic cruise missile gives less time for detection and interception unless the attacked side is fully mobilised and prepared to respond to such threats. Furthermore, to intercept a supersonic missile, the interceptor also needs to be supersonic.

Apart from technical reasons, Pakistan’s response was probably based on the number of objects approaching and the relative non-sensitivity of the area where it entered and crashed.

In addition, defences against cruise missiles anywhere in the world have not yet matured. With the currently available resources and systems, even the US is vulnerable to advanced cruise missile threats. The US faces tracking and targeting challenges relating to cruise missiles. Its current space-based sensor and ground-based radars are not fully capable of timely detection of a cruise missile. It is testing  F-35 aircraft as an airborne sensor and radar to track a cruise missile and provide data to intercept systems such as Patriot Advanced Capability-3 (PAC-3). The PAC-3 has a range of 70km and a maximum altitude of 24km. It has been tested to intercept cruise missiles multiple times.

Similarly, the S-400 air defence systems being acquired by India has also cruise missile interception capability. But the success of such capabilities largely depends on a variety of factors such as effective engagement range, among others. The longest-range missile of the S-400 is 40N6, but the status of its deployment is not clear. The 48N6 missile has a range of 250km, but according to a report, the effective range of the S-400 against low flying objects like cruise missiles may be less than 25km.

Pakistan’s Capabilities

Lately, Pakistan has beefed up its air defence capabilities, especially after the acquisition of the S-400 air defence system by India. Pakistan Army had inducted in October 2021 the HQ-9/P High-to-Medium Air Defence System (HIMADS) from China which can engage cruise missiles along with aircraft. It is the first layer of Pakistan’s multi-layered air defence network. It has a 100+km range against aircraft and other targets. However, the engagement range against targets with a low radar cross-section is maybe around 25km, according to Janes. However, it is not confirmed whether the system was operational when the 9 March incident occurred. Before acquiring the HQ-9/P, Pakistan was already operating HQ-16 medium-range air defence system, which can also target cruise missiles. Its missiles can hit targets between an altitude of 400 to 10,000 meters and at a range of 40km. These systems do equip Pakistan with the anti-cruise missile capability, but they still have deficiencies against cruise missiles like any other air defence system in the world. In addition, these systems are mostly capable of intercepting subsonic cruise missiles. Interception of supersonic and hypersonic cruise missiles needs much more sophisticated systems.

Furthermore, the deployment location of air defence systems also factors in intercepting the targets. This layered air defence network of Pakistan is deployed to protect key installations and high-value assets and may not be available to cover every inch of the country. The acquisition and maintenance of air defence systems also have huge financial implications that dictate their limited deployment.

Pakistan’s Response  

What options did Pakistan have in the military domain? Why Pakistan did not intercept the missile, and what could it do? In the press briefing, Pakistan justified not shooting down the missile due to the absence of an ongoing war between India and Pakistan. Apart from technical reasons, Pakistan’s response was probably based on the number of objects approaching and the relative non-sensitivity of the area where it entered and crashed. Upon finding it as a single object approaching, Pakistan thought it was sufficient that the missile did not pose any threat to a high-value target in the country and refrained from taking any action in the military domain. However, it is not possible to ascertain whether an incoming missile is armed or not and what type of warhead it is carrying, nuclear or conventional. These questions risk inadvertent escalations from the threatened side.

But what action Pakistan may take if one or more approaching missiles are evaluated as threatening? In this situation, if one or more missiles are approaching sensitive key installations and the threat is established, Pakistan will likely consider a two-pronged approach. Firstly, it will take available defensive measures and try to shoot down the incoming weapons when technically possible. Secondly, it will prepare to carry out retaliatory strikes to target similar installations on the other side. The risk of escalation in the future has been exacerbated in recent times after the development of counterforce capabilities and threatening statements by India.

For a retaliatory strike in a similar manner, Pakistan has a variety of cruise missiles such as subsonic Babur and Ra’ad and ship-launched CM-302 supersonic anti-ship/anti-surface missile, which travels at Mach 3 speed for up to 500km and is powered by a ramjet engine similar to Brahmos missile. However, Pakistan lacks a ground/air-launched land-attack supersonic missile providing India with an edge in those domains. While the defence against cruise missiles is an uphill task, Pakistan can increase its offensive capabilities to deter such threats.

Samran Ali

Samran Ali is an Islamabad-based defense analyst. He writes on military capabilities, national security, and defense issues. He tweets at @Samranali6.

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