India’s unintentional missile launch underlines risk of unintentional nuclear war
Last month, while most of the world focused on the war in Ukraine and worried that a besieged Russian leadership could resort to nuclear weapons, thus escalating the conflict into a direct war with the US-led NATO nuclear weapons alliance, an almost tragic accident involving India and Pakistan pointed to a different path to nuclear war. The accident highlighted how complex technical systems, including those involving nuclear weapons, can generate unexpected avenues for potential disaster – especially when handled by arrogant organizations.
India and Pakistan have more than 300 nuclear weapons between them and have fought several wars and faced many military crises. On March 9, two years after their dispute over Kashmir escalated into attacks by jet fighters, the Pakistan Air Force discovered “a flying object at high speed” within Indian territory changes course and suddenly turns towards Pakistan. It flew deep into Pakistan and crashed. The object was a BrahMos cruise missile, a weapon system developed jointly by India and Russia. India soon stated that the launch was an accident.
The firing of the BrahMos missile falls within a long history of accidents with military systems in India. Military aircraft have strayed across borders in peacetime. India’s first nuclear submarine was “paralyzed” by an accident in 2018, but the government refused to reveal any details. Confidentiality has prevented the investigation of an apparent failure in India’s ballistic missile defense system in 2016. Engagements between India and Pakistan can arise from such accidents, as in 1999 when a Pakistani military plane was shot down along the border with India and killed 16 people. Pakistan has had its share of accidents, including a Pakistani fighter jet that crashed into the capital in 2020.
All of these weapon systems are inherently prone to accidents due to two characteristics identified by organizational sociologist Charles Perrow decades ago – interactive complexity and close connection – which combine to make accidents a “normal” feature of the operation of certain dangerous technologies. The first characteristic refers to the possibility that different parts of the system can affect each other in unexpected ways and thus produce unexpected results. The second makes it difficult to stop the resulting course of events. For Perrow, “the dangerous accidents lie in the system, not in the components,” and are inevitable.
Perhaps the best and most disturbing evidence of this proposal is in the field of nuclear weapons – which embodies all the characteristics of high-tech systems. Despite decades of efforts to ensure safety, these systems have suffered many failures, accidents and near misses. During 1979-1980, for example, there were several false warnings about Soviet missile attacks, some of which resulted in US nuclear forces being put on standby.
Illustrating the political theorist Benoît Pelopida’s observation that luck has long played a “crucial role … in saving the world from nuclear destruction”, the BrahMos accident was no longer consistent due to three fortunate circumstances. First, the missile was not armed with a warhead. Second, the accident occurred in peacetime, not during an armed conflict or a period of military tension between the two countries; had that been the case, the Pakistani military might have interpreted it as a deliberate attack and responded militarily. Third, BrahMos is apparently not designed to carry nuclear weapons. But India has cruise missiles that can carry nuclear warheads, as does Pakistan.
What exacerbates the risk is the mobility of India’s growing fleet of nuclear-capable missiles. These can be quickly fired from specially developed vehicles moving on roads or rails – meaning that military planners in Pakistan and China, the nuclear-armed neighbors against which India has war plans, must be prepared for sudden missile launches from almost anywhere in India’s vast landmass.
Given the secret nature of India’s nuclear policy, little is known about India’s nuclear management system. However, the 1999 draft nuclear doctrine required “safe ability to transition from peacetime deployment to fully employable forces. in the shortest possible time. ” (My italics.) The combination of technology and plans to be able to fire nuclear weapons quickly increases the risk of unintentional and unintentional escalation into nuclear war.
The geography of South Asia is ruthless. It would only take five to ten minutes for a missile fired from India to attack Pakistan’s national capital, nuclear weapons command posts or bases. By comparison, the flight times between missile launch sites and targets in the United States and Russia are about 30 minutes. This extra time can also be insufficient. In the event of a military crisis, no leader can make a wise decision during this period, when he faces impossible choices. But shorter flight times increase the likelihood of mistakes.
The mistake that is most worrying is a false alarm about an incoming nuclear attack, possibly targeting nuclear forces. Indian or Pakistani – or Russian or NATO – decision-makers could come under enormous pressure to launch a pre-emptive strike, exacerbating the crisis. The terrible dilemma they face would be whether to use their nuclear weapons first or wait for the bombs from the other side to land. Nuclear war, even of a limited nature, between India and Pakistan could lead to millions of deaths in the short term and even more serious long-term consequences for the region and beyond.
What exacerbates these dangers is the excessive self-confidence of Indian officials, who showed no recognition of the seriousness of the Brahmos accident. A “technical failure” had “led to the unintentional firing of a missile,” the official statement said, noting that “it is known that the missile landed in an area of Pakistan.” India’s defense minister assured lawmakers that the system is “very reliable and secure.”
As the legendary analyst of nuclear weapons management and control Bruce Blair warned, there is an “illusion of security” among nuclear weapons system operators and operators that masks “the systematic potential for tragedy on a monumental scale.” Whether it is India and Pakistan preparing for a fifth war, or the forces of a nuclear-armed Russia fighting fiercely to overthrow Ukraine and halt the flow of deadly NATO weapons, such illusions threaten the destruction of cities and could lead to the killing of nations.