‘Technical malfunction’ could have resulted in dire response . . .
On March 9, India fired a hypersonic missile into Pakistan. The unarmed missile, a variety co-developed by India and Russia, landed in Pakistan-controlled Punjab with no injuries or fatalities. The next day, Pakistan’s Foreign Office summoned India’s charge d’affaires to file a protest over the violation of airspace. On March 11, the Indian Ministry of Defence stated that the incident was an accident resulting from a technical malfunction during routine maintenance. As Pakistan and India are equipped with 165 and 156 nuclear warheads, respectively, an immediate military retaliation by Pakistan could have put South Asia in grave danger.
Unanswered questions . . .
Last Friday, Pakistan demanded a joint probe into the incident, separate from the investigation launched by the Indian Air Force (IAF). In response to India’s statement, Pakistan’s Foreign Office raised seven specific questions, including why the hotline between New Delhi and Islamabad was not activated to communicate the accidental missile launch and why India delayed its statement on the incident. It also asked whether the missile had a self-destruct mechanism and, if it did, why it was not utilized. India’s Defence Ministry has yet to answer these questions. Meanwhile, some Indian service officers have speculated that the delay in appointing a new chief of defence after the death of the previous office holder might have contributed to this mishap. The question regarding why the missile was not shot down by Pakistani air defence also remains unanswered.
Updating risk mitigation protocols . . .
Given the tense bilateral relationship, Indian and Pakistani civilian and military leaders are well aware of the risk of accidents arising from mishandling their military arsenals, including nuclear weapons. Some observers believe the incident calls into question India’s credibility in handling nuclear weapons and Pakistan’s prowess in surveillance. Amid the military whodunnit, many defence experts have concluded that it is high time the two countries re-engage on nuclear safety protocols. Revealing the fault lines in the existing mechanisms will be the first step in avoiding a repeat of a potentially disastrous ‘accidental launch’ in the future.