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Matrix of Pakistan-India Escalation Dynamics: India’s Recent Missile Episode

The deterrence dynamics and South Asian Crisis stability have been constantly under stress but the nature and scale of these challenges have never been greater than it is today. The emerged regional security environment is further complicated by recent incident that fall into multiple interrelated but relatively distinct categories. Each of the incident detail illustrate dangers and also a significant risk of escalation. Subsequently, pose challenges in efforts to manage such risks.

On March 9, 2022, at the evening time, Cruise missile fired from India, Sirsa, landed into Pakistan’s eastern city of Mian Channu. It claimed technical errors as the reason behind the launch. Subsequently, Delhi  evaded use of the direct military-to-military hotline which the two countries established to rationalize de-escalation in such crisis prone scenarios, instead opting to shut down missile systems to prevent any other uncontrolled  launches. The  episode is bound to raise concerns about the safety of India’s weapons systems, and about the government’s credibility on that subject. While the missile damaged civilian property with no casualties, it infiltrated international and domestic flight paths, it alarmed consequential  risks associated with defense-related accidents.

In respond to misleading missile launch by India , the dangerous consequence just being avoided by the Pakistan’s side which could have been nearly responded with a retaliatory strike before realizing that something was mistaken, and the situation came a close call of another crisis escalation between the nuclear-armed neighbors.

India’s Missile Launch Incident Dynamics: Two Sides of the Same Coin

The incident seems like two sides of the same coin (Pakistan-India crisis equation). One, if it is accidental and the other whether it’s intentional? Both have different points to be considered in order to understand the proclivity of the situation.

As claimed by the Delhi that it is an accidental launch during routine maintenance which is in real sense not likely in terms of missile testing programs. However, on the basis of brief statement on Friday 11 March 2022, the Indian Defense Ministry said “a technical malfunction led to the accidental firing of a missile” that landed in Pakistan. It offered no other details but said a “high-level court of inquiry” would look into the matter.

The analysis of accidental launch aspect can be listed down with the spectrum of assessment; the sense of responsibility of big power (India) as a Nuclear Weapon State is a question, No, communication before and after the missile launch despite the presence of DGMOs hotline between Pakistan and India.  Additionally, the obvious violation of Pakistani airspace by overruling the established international norms and aviation safety protocols by India.

In technical terms, accidental launch of Brahmos draws attention towards its credibility. It indicates two things, either the Brahmos missile is not technically advanced enough to be effectively deployed, or Indian defense operators are not confident in operating this missile system which is still in phase of trial and error. Either way, it is a cause of vital concern for Pakistan as well as for other regional states for experiencing any further misadventures to undermine strategic stability in the region. The in-built system of this missile also colludes its credibility. For the reason, contemporary missile systems have ‘fail safe’ multilayered ‘negative control’ and ‘self-destruct’ provisions.

Most importantly, the aspect of nuclear command and control systems is supreme in this scenario. It raises several fundamental questions regarding security protocols and technical safeguards against accidental or unauthorized launch of missiles in India. Considering the credibility of Indian NC2, the measures and procedures in place to prevent accidental missile launches and the particular circumstances of this incident are not indicating any satisfactory state of affair. The cruise missile incident astonished the world how Indian defense forces are handling sensitive weapons and technology. As there are known protocols worldwide regarding management of weapon systems during peace time.

The aspect of intentional launch or firing of missile has implications which can be assessed by history of crisis incidents between Pakistan and India. In recent past, the Indian self-assured preventive strikes on crossing Line of Control (LoC) and attacking mainland Pakistan Balakot on 26th February 2019. The Indian action had deliberately breached the bilateral agreement between both militaries which is supposed to be observed as a confidence-building measure that prohibits fixed-wing aircraft from flying within 10km (6.21 miles) of the LoC and helicopters from coming closer than 5km without informing the other side beforehand. On record, India did not hesitate to violate International law which has been done by Indian Air force under violation of article 2(4) of the UN Charter. Therefore, in that military crisis, Pakistan responded to Indian Air force violation by an adequate military response. It was obligated and justified under act 1974 UNGA resolution which gave the right to Pakistan with the power of reprisal.

Therefore, the 9 March 2022 incident highlighted the concerns of Indian missiles readiness status even under routine maintenance. Because if that is the case then Indian NFU pledge is point of concern. The assessment further leads to India’s Behavioral trend if we take account of Indian Cold Start Doctrine in 2004 when it was initiated Indian kept on denying its inclusion in the defense planning but later on in 2017, the then Indian Army Chief General Bipin Rawat acknowledged the existence of Indian CSD.

In case of recent cruise missile failure also connecting dots to previous Indian military adventures vis-à-vis Pakistan by intentionally checking Pakistan’s air defense and nuclear threshold. The response to Pulwama incident in 2019 already proved Pakistan’s nation, leadership, the scientific community and defense forces are fully aware, capable and alive to respond to these challenges and crisis situation.

According to strategic affairs experts in their analyses that the option of “bolt-out-of-the-blue” strike is not possible between Pakistan and India. But this event might shatter that confidence and trust. Others underlined that Pakistan and India are signatories to the 1991 agreement to prevent any airspace violations and that any accidental violation will be investigated and its results will be shared with the affected party without delay.

Escalation and Crisis Risks

The danger and inherent distrust between these nuclear armed neighbors remains and perhaps grows, which enhances the probability of the risk of an accidental nuclear war with global consequences. Such irresponsible incidents are also reflective of India’s disregard for air safety, and callousness towards regional peace and stability.

The core challenging factor is geographical proximity, when you have only minutes of reaction time to an incoming missile, the risk becomes much greater and complex. Meanwhile, India’s internal inquiry would have greater credibility to prove it an accidental miscalculated launch of missile. Otherwise, its claims will lack integrity and reliability.

The ensuing escalation by Indian political and military decision-makers are aimed at directing the trajectory of crisis. In response, Pakistan has made continuously calls for dialogue. Unfortunately, all the negotiations offered by Pakistan has been dismissed, and Islamabad is being compelled to respond in the same manner and neutralize the threat to dissuade and deter India.

Ironically, the political and military tensions initiated by India indicates the RSS extremist ideology prevailing in Indian military strategy as well. Pakistan seeks solutions to disputes as the fundamental basis to avoid escalation, whereas India is merely inclined to aggravate the situation and crises management. There is an unfortunate tendency to remain mired in disputes than to look for substantive ways of rapprochement. In regard to this recent Indian action, Prime Minister Imran Khan on 13 March 2022 said Pakistan could have responded to India after its missile landed in his country’s Punjab province but it observed restraint. Despite limited reciprocity, Pakistan considers it as a regional responsibility to continue to show its lasting commitment towards durable peace and conflict avoidance. Another important point to mention is that global silence is prominent which is not a good omen for South Asian peace and crisis stability.

Published in Global Affairs April 2022 Edition

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Huma Rehman

Written by Huma Rehman

Ms. Huma Rehman is currently working as an Associate Research Director at the Center for International Strategic Studies (CISS) Islamabad, Pakistan. She works on various aspects of Strategic security issues; International Security, Nuclear/Missile Proliferation, Conflict management and Resolution, Nuclear export controls/WMD Terrorism, Arms Control/Disarmament affairs. She tweets @HumaRehman1 and can be reached at humarehman.ciss@gmail.com

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