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Explained: When a missile misfires

India has acknowledged a malfunction led to accidental firing of a missile, which Pakistan says landed in its territory. What is the protocol followed for such tests, and under what circumstances can they go wrong?

Written by Krishn Kaushik | New Delhi |
Updated: March 19, 2022 7:59:49 am
While neither India nor Pakistan has specified the type of missile that was fired, experts believe that the trajectory and other aspects carry the signature of a BrahMos missile. (Express Archive)

Pakistan on Thursday said an unarmed Indian missile landed 124 km inside its territory on Wednesday; India on Friday acknowledged “technical malfunction led to the accidental firing of a missile”. It is extremely rare for a missile test to go so wrong that it crosses the border and changes track inadvertently.

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Do India and Pakistan have to inform each other about such tests?

Yes. Under the pre-notification of flight testing of ballistic missiles agreement signed in 2005, each country must provide the other an advance notification on flight test it intends to take for any land or sea launched, suface-to-surface ballistic missile.

Before the test, the country must issue Notice to Air Missions (NOTAM) or Navigational Warning (NAVAREA) to alert aviation pilots and seafarers, respectively. Also, the testing country must ensure that the launch site is not within 40 km, and the planned impact area is not within 75 km of either the International Boundary (IB) or the Line of Control (LoC). The planned trajectory should not cross the IB or the LoC and must maintain a horizontal distance of at least 40 km from the border.

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The testing country must notify the other nation “no less than three days in advance of the commencement of a five day launch window within which it intends to undertake flight tests of any land or sea launched, surface-to-surface ballistic missile”. The pre-notification has to be “conveyed through the respective Foreign Offices and the High Commissions, as per the format annexed to this Agreement.”

The Director General, Inter-Services Public Relations of Pakistani Armed Forces, Maj General Babar Ifthikar said that there was “no contact” between the Directors General of Military Operation of Indian and Pakistani armies “on this, nothing has come from the India side”. But he also mentioned that although the two countries have an agreement for sharing information on tests of ballistic missiles, “but for these kind of missiles we do not share information.”

What kind of a missile was it?

Neither country has spelt this out; Pakistan has only called it a “supersonic” missile.

Some experts have speculated that it was a test of one of India’s top missiles, BrahMos, jointly developed with Russia. Their assessment is based on Ifthikar’s comments that it travelled 200 km, manoeuvred mid-air and travelled at 2.5 times to 3 times the speed of sound at an altitude of 40,000 feet. BrahMos has a top speed of Mach 3, a range of around 290 km, and a cruising altitude of 15 km (around 50,000 feet). BrahMos can be fired from anywhere, is nuclear-capable, and can carry warheads of 200-300 kg.

Other experts have wondered if the missile was a variant of the nuclear-capable Prithvi. Sources said some of the assets of the Strategic Forces command, which is responsible for India’s nuclear arsenal, are based close to the region from where the missile was fired. However, India never tests Prithvi around this region, and only does so from Balasore.

What explains the trajectory it took?

A striking aspect of the episode is that the missile changed direction mid-air. Pakistan said that after picking off from Sirsa, 104 km from the nearest point on the border, the missile cruised for around 70-80 km within Indian territory, moving southwest towards Mahajan Field Firing Range of the Indian armed forces, then suddenly changed direction to northwest, and entered Pakistani territory before hitting the ground 124 km inside.

Retired Air Marshal Anil Chopra, who heads the Centre for Air Power Studies (CAPS) think tank in New Delhi, said there are very few reasons for a missile to change its direction thus. He said the known facts are that “it flew, it took a path, that path was not normal, then it took a different direction, after doing nearly 100 km”.

For a cruise missile, “you have to give target coordinates” when fired from the ground, and “after that she is on her own”, he said. There are also some missiles for which the coordinates can be updated in flight.

“First thing could be that the coordinates are not correct. But in this particular case, the missile has gone in a particular direction, and then turned. If it was wrong coordinates, it should have gone straight there. Because… normally it will only turn in the last stages. So, the type of turn she has taken, that means the coordinates could not have had been wrong,” he said.

Another possibility “is if somebody was to jam the missile while in flight, by some cyber means — I am just conjecturing. Then the whole coordinates get affected, changing the direction.”

He noted that normally, “a missile like that has a destruct fuse, which means from the ground you should be able to destroy it in flight if you think it has gone haywire. We do not know: was it loss of contact altogether, that you could not activate self-destroy?”

What can also cause a malfunction is “if the target data that has been fed into the missile gets corrupted, then takes a different direction all together.”. Had the missile crashed, “then we know some controls had failed… She had flown straight, then turned, then flown straight. She has not done any funny manoeuvres. Considering that, if she has not done any fancy manoeuvres, has sometime during flight the destination got corrupted?”

He noted that cyber intervention is in neither country’s interest. “Maybe it’s a one-time failure inside, of one digit, in the coordinates. It’s not in India’s interest to do such a thing, nor in Pakistan’s interest… All that needs to come out. You don’t want a situation between two nuclear countries,” he said.

Why did Pakistan not bring it down?

The Pakistani military said on Thursday that the “high-speed flying object” was picked up inside Indian flying territory by the Air Defence Operations Centre of the Pakistan Air Force. They knew it had taken off from Sirsa, and after its initial course it suddenly manoeuvred towards Pakistani territory and violated Pakistan’s airspace ultimately falling near Mian Channu.

It stated that the Pakistani Air Force initiated requisite tactical actions in accordance with the Standard Operating Procedures, and continuously kept monitoring it and as soon as it turned towards Pakistani territory. But during this time it did not intercept the incoming missile, which was unarmed.

Chopra said that this could be due to capacity, level of alertness, and the speed at which it happened. “When something is coming at such high speeds, it’s not so easy by the time you react. On that path is there a missile system? This is not a heightened state of red alert, this is peacetime… Sometimes you can do little, because it is coming so fast.”

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