What does the Indian missile misfire mean for Pakistan?

The misfire of the Indian cruise missile on 9 March, 124 km inside Pakistani territory is the latest event in the long line of simmering relations between the two nuclear-weapon states. While the Pakistani authorities have been prudent in their response to the event, the Indian authorities have refrained from further clarifying their stance so far. The Indian rejoinder of “technical malfunction” falls short of addressing the critical issue that is not only in violation of Pakistan’s airspace but also raises serious security risks and affects the fates of the two countries and the entire region.

Both authorities have refrained from specifying the details of the missile, with the Pakistani authorities classifying it as a “high-speed flying object”. It has been additionally classified as a supersonic cruise missile. There is speculation that it was the Indian-Russian jointly developed BrahMos missile, but the Indian authorities have abstained from officially confirming this.

Pakistani authorities picked up the activity in the Indian area of Sirsa during their routine surveillance. The missile was travelling at an approximate speed of Mach 3 until it fell near the Pakistani area of Mian Channu. The Pakistani authorities have strongly condemned this incident. Despite the lack of consensus surrounding the nuclear capability of the missile, this incident signals severe danger. This is so because first, there was no way of ascertaining whether the missile was carrying a warhead or not, and second, Pakistan and India lack the strategic depth necessary for a pre-emptive warning. The consequences could have been much more sinister than the current outcome. This underscores the risk associated with the mishandling of such a weapon. It also demonstrates that nuclear risk from an inadvertent attack – assuming that it was, in fact, inadvertent – is a very tangible reality. Furthermore, a retaliatory attack by Pakistan would have been disastrous. It is a relief that Pakistan was able to hold off a hasty reaction.

If this truly was a misfire, it reflects that India is incapable of handling its nuclear weapons and underscores the chances of an accidental nuclear war. It also reflects that India faces complex and unmanageable command and control challenges.

Given the gravity of this issue, the official Indian response shows irresponsibility towards an issue that has been extremely sensitive for the two neighbours and the world at large. In addition to their strong condemnation of India’s behaviour at home, the Pakistani authorities have also cautioned the international community against such flagrant behaviour on the part of their neighbour. Pakistani Former Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi has stressed on a “joint probe” into the event during a conversation with the United Nations (UN) Secretary-General, Mr Antonio Guterres. The UN response, however, has remained lukewarm. A similar response has come from the European states. Previously, India’s checkered history with existing nuclear agreements and a track record of illicit proliferation have been conveniently overlooked. On the other hand, both the US and China have expressed the need for direct talks between the two nuclear neighbours. China has supported Pakistan’s demand for a joint probe and stressed information sharing between the two countries, which remains imperative to maintain regional and global stability and security.

Yet India’s recent behaviour is not unreflective of its equivocal nuclear doctrine or of the biased stance of the current Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government. The BJP’s aggressive bearing and India’s constant ambiguity over its nuclear Non-First Use (NFU) policy fall within the purview of such conduct. India has deliberately maintained this ambiguity, often citing the threats from China and later Pakistan as the reasons for maintaining Credible Minimum Deterrence (CMD), a clause that allows it to respond to threats – real or assumed – as needed.

While the latest incident of missile launch has been presented as a nuclear “mistake­”– something that the world can barely afford – it is not uncharacteristic of India’s warmongering behaviour over the past few years. If this truly was a misfire, it reflects that India is incapable of handling its nuclear weapons and underscores the chances of an accidental nuclear war. It also reflects that India faces complex and unmanageable command and control challenges. There is an alarming likelihood that the command and control authority’s negligent control of weapons caused the unauthorised or accidental launch of the missile. Given India’s quest to emerge as a major power in the region after China, it cannot afford to exhibit such actions if it is to establish its stature. In the case that this was a deliberate attempt by India, it may be a form of hedging on the part of India to gauge Pakistan’s strategic response. It may also be that certain rogue elements within the Indian nuclear control system decided to engage in an unauthorised launch. Therefore, India’s recent missile launch inside Pakistan’s city underscores the risk of nuclear warfare in the region.

The latest event also discredits the misguided debates and conjectures about Pakistan imagining an Indian aggression threat. Pakistani military and foreign policy inevitably has to account for the existential threat from its eastern neighbour. The recent National Security Policy 2022-26 has not remained immune to this either, a concern that has been repeatedly raised by the Pakistani side. This first-ever national security policy places citizen and economic security at the centre of its agenda. Both of these goals depend on a peaceful and stable region. As a corollary of the recent incident, however, economic normalisation between the two countries remains as difficult as ever.

India must rethink its attitude if there is to be peace in the region. Pakistan and India already have several comprehensive bilateral agreements covering a broad range of issues. Amongst these is the 2005 agreement, which ensures advance notification of ballistic missile tests. This agreement can be extended to cruise missiles to minimise inadvertent nuclear risks. Similarly, the two countries can cooperate to establish a regional strategic restraint regime and other similar Confidence Building Measures (CBMs), as repeatedly proposed by Pakistan. A “three-point regime” previously proposed by Pakistan addresses measures for missile restraint and dispute resolution, among other clauses. However, despite such attempts by Pakistan, a common response has not been forthcoming. Pakistan finds itself with a belligerent eastern neighbour as always. The existing enmities, emerging regional security dynamics, India’s induction of dual-capable missile capabilities with Pakistan-specific ranges and the development of counterforce capabilities, all add to a climate of nuclear danger which leaves bleak prospects for peace in the subcontinent.

Natasha Khan

Natasha Khan is a graduate of Peace and Conflict Studies, NUST, Islamabad. Her research focuses include discourse analysis, defense and security, and international relations. She is currently serving as an intern at CSCR.

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