Review the lapses in defence management
That an Indian missile was launched into Pakistan requires a rigorous internal review and scrutiny to ensure that such gaps in defence systems are plugged
India’s national security challenges came into sharp, albeit disconcerting, focus in early March due to a series of unrelated developments that included the war in Ukraine and a missile fiasco related to Pakistan. The latter incident could have had serious consequences, but luckily, this did not happen. A brief review of the chronology of the events points to disturbing institutional lapses in the higher management of defence — lapses that merit preliminary scrutiny and objective deliberation in the months ahead, when more factual information is available in the public domain.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine entered its second week on March 10 and in this period, the reference to weapons of mass destruction (WMD) by Moscow, ostensibly to warn the United States (US) and its North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) allies was a significant politico-military punctuation and has very corrosive implications for global strategic stability. Has the nuclear threshold been lowered 76 years after Hiroshima-Nagasaki and is it now kosher to invoke this capability in dealing with perceived threats to national sovereignty? The aspersions and allegations made by both the US and Russia about furtive chemical and biological weapon labs in Ukraine have only further muddied the nuclear, biological, chemical (NBC) weapons spectrum that is still seeking answers to the Covid pandemic.
The Cold War experience of ensuring WMD stability after the 1962 Cuban missile crisis demonstrated the imperative for nuclear weapon capable adversaries to maintain a degree of trust in each other’s professionalism and institutional integrity, in relation to respecting the sanctity of agreements and protocols. This trust, alas, received a rude jolt in relation to the subcontinent on March 9, when an Indian missile malfunctioned and landed in Pakistan. For reasons that can only be speculated upon at this stage, India did not acknowledge this lapse when it occurred and the fact that March 10 was the day when major state election results were to be announced is pertinent.
Predictably, the next day, on March 11, Pakistan held a public briefing and protested at what it described as violation of its airspace by “irresponsible incidents” and added that this reflected India’s “disregard for air safety and callousness towards regional peace and stability”. Unsubstantiated media reports claimed that Pakistan was preparing to launch a similar missile to strike India in retaliation — but held back since the final assessment was that something was “amiss” about this Indian missile and its malfunction. What could have rapidly escalated into an India-Pakistan missile exchange in the run-up to the March 10 state election results in India was averted due to the restraint and prudence of Pakistan’s military.
In what can be described as a belated response, India put out a terse press release on the evening of March 11, stating that on March 9, “in the course of a routine maintenance, a technical malfunction led to the accidental firing of a missile. The Government of India has taken a serious view and ordered a high-level Court of Enquiry. It is learnt that the missile landed in an area of Pakistan. While the incident is deeply regrettable, it is also a matter of relief that there has been no loss of life due to the accident.”
On Sunday, March 13, Prime Minister (PM) Narendra Modi chaired a meeting of the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) and some features that reflect the current texture of higher defence management warrant mention. The missile fiasco and its potentially grave consequences did not receive any explicit reference and the mishap was couched in a bland statement that the PM “was briefed on latest developments and different aspects of India’s security preparedness in the border areas as well as in the maritime and air domain.”
The CCS meeting was attended by the Cabinet ministers concerned and the National Security Adviser, as also the defence and foreign secretaries but since the government is yet to appoint a Chief of Defence Staff (CDS), national security challenges and inadequacies of a kinetic nature were deliberated on at the highest level without a military representative. It is understood that the PM met with the three service chiefs later that day, but there is no detail in the public domain, thereby suggesting that “all is well”.
While the court of inquiry will hopefully identify the reasons for this technical malfunction and accountability will be fixed, heads must roll. The delay in acknowledging the accidental launch of a missile and in not informing Pakistan through established channels of communication is inexplicable and merits a rigorous review (Was the hotline between the directors general of military operations used?). Given that India prides itself on a robust and responsible command-and-control infrastructure in relation to its WMD capability, the question is —did the absence of a CDS lead to this fiasco? When was the PM informed about this accident and who in the command ladder decided that the matter should be kept under wraps? Strategic communication and restrained signalling of political intent is integral to WMD stability among uneasy or adversarial interlocutors and India’s relations with both Pakistan and China are currently strained — to put it mildly.
While India and Pakistan demonstrated their ability to restrain their hyperactive audio-visual media from going ballistic over a cruise missile malfunction — regional WMD stability needs a restoration of trust and nurturing this with sincerity. Revisiting the 1999 Lahore Declaration — an agreement that pledged to reduce the risk of accidental or unauthorised use of nuclear weapons — may be a useful starting point after carrying out a rigorous internal review of India’s higher defence management and plugging the gaps.
Commodore (retired) C Uday Bhaskar is director, Society for Policy Studies
The views expressed are personal
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