India’s Brahmos Faux Pas and International Response

The BrahMos missile incident of March 2022 not only breached the territorial integrity of Pakistan but also threatened its sovereignty. India has stated that the missile was accidentally fired into the area of Mian Channu, District Khanewal, Punjab, Pakistan, on the evening of 9 March 2022, during a routine maintenance exercise. This could have led to severe repercussions, but Pakistan has responded responsibly. The accidents of nuclear-armed arsenals and radioactive material cannot be left unnoticed and are a matter of concern.

The factual configuration of BrahMos, a supersonic nuclear-capable cruise missile with three times the speed of light at Mac of 2.8, has increased the significance of the incident. It is considered one of the world’s fastest cruise missiles which ensures deterrence. It intensifies a state’s threat perception from its unfriendly neighbours. Keeping in view its excellent features, the silence of the international community towards its accidental firing inside the Pakistani territory by India is something not easily understandable.

Regrettably, the incident was not taken as a serious matter by the global community and nuclear-established regimes, including the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) 1540, International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), International Panel on Fissile Material (IPFM) and global security organisation such as Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI). Fundamentally, nuclear-armed states are expected and obligated to reflect a robust and responsible command and control system of their strategic capability. Incidents of this nature, if not addressed properly, can be a dangerous risk factor for the future.

The indifferent attitude of the international community towards India’s weak nuclear safety mechanism and other nuclear matters demands urgent attention. For instance, multiple episodes of uranium theft have taken place in India. Ironically, no substantive international response has been accorded despite numerous reports registered in the last decade. In this regard, the IAEA is expected to take notice of such incidents for regional and global security.

The indifferent attitude of the international community towards India’s weak nuclear safety mechanism and other nuclear matters demands urgent attention.

In view of the charged global environment, which might divide international reactions and responses, each crisis-prone incident has its due significance to be dealt with. Assuming that the Russian-Ukraine conflict may have diverted the attention from the BrahMos missile episode, the latter is still substantially important. Besides, the prolonged war in Ukraine may have raised the fear of nuclear strikes somewhere or the other. The role of media is also vital in critical security-related matters, including continuous media coverage to identify the risks and probability of nuclear threats emanating from Russia to Ukraine. As regards South Asia, the repeated nuclear incidents can cause this region to become calamitous and escalate, particularly in the case of rival nuclear-armed countries such as India and Pakistan. The situation is complex when we see both happening through the lens of severe implications on the crisis stability, not only in the regions and states but across the globe.

The missile misfired and flew approximately 124km into the Pakistani territory, violating the airspace of Pakistan. Although the incident did not result in any causalities, it caused some material damage. Luckily, the incident did not cause an involuntary unfortunate happening; otherwise, the situation could have been worse. The air trajectory which the missile followed is also utilised for commercial flights and is considered one of the foremost vital airspaces for both national and international flights. Zooming into airspace inside Pakistan, the missile could have hit a commercial jet, leading to severe consequences. There was a possibility that the misfired missile could have crashed into a densely populated area, harming the local people’s life and property. It could have prompted Pakistan to give a military response.

In addition, the BrahMos missile incident has strategic implications. The misfiring of the missile indicated to Pakistan that the Indian missiles are always on the ready mode to launch without an appropriate command and control system. Besides, launching a supersonic cruise missile by a nuclear power state, particularly against another nuclear power state, is unacceptable even if it is accidental. This creates an alarming situation not only for other countries but also for the territorial integrity of the concerned state.

The episode threatened the sovereignty of Pakistan and raised concerns over the Indian nuclear command and control system. It is reported that the missile that accidentally landed in Pakistan did not carry any warhead. An Indian military officer Lt Gen D.S. Hooda, while speaking during a webinar organised by Council for Strategic and Defense Research (CSDR), New Delhi, claimed that there are different command and control mechanisms for nuclear weapons other than conventional weapons. However, this seems to be a faulty claim. Differentiating between the conventional and non-conventional arsenal in the context of missiles is difficult to measure at the time of the fire, particularly the supersonic cruise missile.

India is ambitious to pursue the status of regional supremacy. However, India’s increasing economic clout should not detract the international community from adopting an unbiased approach by overlooking the misfiring of missiles and the theft of radioactive and sensitive material. On the contrary, incidents of India’s mishandling of its technological weapons undermine its credibility in several domains, including its defence products capability and exports, such as signing a $375 million deal for the export of BrahMos.

Subsequently, strained relations between India and Pakistan become tenser due to such happenings. To avoid any regional conflict on every forum, Pakistan has already proposed a joint inquiry with India over the BrahMos missile episode but has not received any response. Hence this state of affairs needs to be taken into serious consideration by the international community with adequate responses. The established nuclear regimes need to identify India to ensure and develop a sustainable, responsible and reliable safeguard mechanism for its nuclear affairs.

Rahat Iqbal

Dr Rahat Iqbal is an Associate Director at the Center for International Strategic Studies (CISS), Islamabad.

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