The accidental firing of an Indian missile into Pakistan on March 9 calls for serious introspection by the two nuclear-armed adversaries about the perils of living under the shadow of nuclear weapons. The unfortunate incident also casts a shadow on the standards of the storage, maintenance, the handling and even the engineering of high-technology weapon systems in India. But, more pertinently, the incident highlights the sorry state of bilateral mechanisms for crisis management between the two nuclear adversaries where there is a missile flight time of barely a few minutes.
The Pakistani response to the accidental firing of the missile was a balanced one especially when handled by the Pakistan Army on March 11. While New Delhi maintained a silence over the issue until it was brought up on March 11, the Indian response was also far from denial. Pakistan did not allege that it was done intentionally by India, and the Indian side owned up the mistake and ordered an inquiry.
In that sense then, the Indian and Pakistani responses to the missile (mis)firing were the best possible outcome under the circumstances given that there is little bilateral mechanism for crisis management. The two sides do not have high commissioners on the other side, there is no structured bilateral dialogue, and, most importantly, the two sides have not held ‘Expert Level Talks on Nuclear Confidence Building Measures’ or ‘Expert Level Talks on Conventional Confidence Building Measures’ for several years now.
The missile incident had all the makings of a crisis that could have escalated quickly, but, fortunately, good sense prevailed on both sides. Perhaps India was also very lucky. There are a number of imponderables that could have steered the incident in a different direction. What if this had happened during trouble between the two sides such as the Balakot crisis of 2019? What if this missile had hit a target of strategic value inside Pakistani territory, in turn forcing Pakistan to retaliate which may or may not have led to an Indian response? What if such a Pakistani response had come when the Uttar Pradesh Assembly elections were still going on? One could think of a number of scenarios wherein the accidental firing could have spiralled into a major crisis between India and Pakistan.
This is not to say that accidents do not take place. As a matter of fact they do. There have been several ‘broken arrows’ (“accident that involves nuclear weapons or nuclear weapons components, but does not create the risk of nuclear war”), acknowledged and otherwise, that took place during the Cold War, even though those accidents did not involve the two rivals. To be fair, the accident on March 9 did not involve a nuclear tipped missile or a nuclear warhead — there is speculation though that the missile in question is the BrahMos, a nuclear capable missile. More so, the nuclear deterrence operating in the India-Pakistan context is a relaxed one, unlike the one we had between the superpowers during the Cold War when the two rivals often kept their nuclear forces on hair-trigger alert.
In the subcontinent, neither side keeps its nuclear forces on high alert. As far as India is concerned, its warheads are de-mated from the delivery vehicles, and its nuclear forces — under the command of the Strategic Forces Command (SFC), the tri-service functional command of the Indian armed forces — are de-alerted. India does not have tactical nuclear weapons. Nor has there been any consideration of pre-delegating nuclear launch authority to local commanders, even during a crisis. Pakistan’s story is somewhat different, though not radically so. While its nuclear forces are not on high alert, there is no certainty that its warheads are de-mated from their launch vehicles. Perhaps, more importantly, Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal boasts of tactical nuclear weapons, and one often comes across reports from inside Pakistan of the country’s tactical nuclear weapons pre-delegated to forward commanders during crisis periods.
In feeble form
What is deeply worrying, however, is the delicate state of strategic stability between India and Pakistan. There are at least four reasons why the strategic stability regime in South Asia is hardly prepared for dealing with accidents such as the one that just happened, or enhancing effective crisis management and deterrence stability. For one, although India and Pakistan signed a ‘Pre-Notification of Flight Testing of Ballistic Missiles’ agreement in October 2005, it does not include cruise missiles. Notably, the missile that was misfired by the Indian side earlier this month, suspected to be the BrahMos, was a cruise missile (even though it was a misfire, and not a flight test). Given the many sophisticated cruise missiles that are now a part of each side’s arsenal, it is important to include them in the pre-notification regime.
Second, as pointed out above, the two sides have not held their structured meetings on nuclear confidence building measures (CBMs) and conventional CBMs for several years now. Given the nature of the India-Pakistan relationship — adversarial, nuclear-armed, crisis prone, and suffering from trust deficit — there is an urgent need, especially in the wake of the recent incident, to revive these two dialogue mechanisms. After all, even the ideologically-adversarial Cold War rivals had such mechanisms in operation especially in the wake of the Cuban missile crisis of 1962.
Third, what makes the regional strategic stability regime more unstable is the fact that the third state with nuclear weapons in the region, China, has so far refused to engage in strategic stability discussions with India even though China today is involved in the India-Pakistan conflict more than ever before, apart from being in a military standoff with India. These three elements, and now with the possibility of accidental firing of missiles, make the region particularly weak from a strategic stability point of view.
India and Pakistan urgently require faster mechanisms for communicating sensitive information during crisis periods and peacetime given how quickly the two sides are capable of transitioning from peacetime to a crisis. Therefore, India and Pakistan should consider setting up mechanisms such as nuclear risk reduction centres (NRRCs), established between the U.S. and the Soviet Union during the Cold War.
The primary objective of NRRCs, or similar structures that can be set up on either side, is risk reduction by providing a structured mechanism for timely communication of messages and proper implementation of already agreed upon confidence building measures. In a sense, such a mechanism could act like the ‘Permanent Indus Commission’ which has resolved several disputes arising out of the Indus Water Treaty.
Some of the misperceptions and ambiguities in the strategic domain could be taken up by the risk reduction centres for resolution or clarification. Such a body could routinely exchange messages, provide timely clarifications, and review compliance to agreements, among others. In an age of social media and 24-hour news, honest mistakes or unforeseen accidents could spiral into a military standoff especially in the absence of timely clarifications.
Having said that, it is deeply concerning that the Indian Director General of Military Operations did not use the existing, and well-functioning, hotline to inform the Pakistani side of the missile misfiring. If indeed the hotline was not activated, it is a cause for concern for, after all, risk reduction mechanisms are useless if there is little political will to use them.
New Delhi should, therefore, provide assurances to Pakistan that efforts will be made to avoid such mistakes in the future; Pakistan should desist from the silly temptation of linking the accident to “a state apparatus run by a fascist ideology”; and senior officials from the India and Pakistan should devise ways of improving strategic stability between the two nuclear adversaries.
Happymon Jacob teaches at the School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi