As an escalating Russian offensive in Ukraine further inflamed military tensions last week, India fired a missile into Pakistan in what it said was an accident.
It would have been a costly mistake if Pakistan had decided to return the favor, as the two countries are both nuclear-armed states with a long bitter history.
On Thursday, Pakistan reported an “unprovoked violation” of its airspace the day before by a supersonic projectile from India, saying it cruised 77 miles into Pakistani airspace before crashing near the city of Mian Channu, about 310 miles from the Pakistani capital of Islamabad. The impact damaged some civilian property but did not cause casualties.
The Indian Ministry of Defence said Friday the launch of the missile was a “deeply regrettable” accident and emphasized there was no loss of life. But the ostensible mistake nonetheless raised concerns about the safety mechanisms in place preventing the two nuclear powers from a potential conflict, accidental or otherwise.
“This is a serious incident that will inevitably raise questions about India’s nuclear safety processes,” Ajai Shukla, a Delhi-based defence journalist and retired colonel, told VICE World News.
India and Pakistan have been engaged in a bitter rivalry since they parted ways into their own independent states in 1947 and have fought three major wars since, but their warring mostly dissolved into war-posturing after they both achieved nuclear capabilities in 1998.
India and Pakistan regularly conduct tit-for-tat tests of nuclear-capable missiles. Last year, India tested 16 ballistic and cruise missiles, and Pakistan tested 10 missiles with nearly identical capabilities. That’s about two missile tests a month between two states that together control more than 300 nuclear weapons.
But the supersonic missile that India shot into Pakistani territory was not a test, according to India. “In the course of routine maintenance, a technical malfunction led to the accidental firing of a missile,” the Indian Ministry of Defence said in a statement on Friday. The Indian government said it would investigate how it happened.
Pakistani officials said the launch of the projectile, an unarmed Mach 3 missile, was not just a violation of its border but also a threat to civilians, as it travels three times the speed of sound at an altitude close to that of passenger flights, at 12,000 meters (40,000 feet).
Although details about the exact missile type has not been disclosed, defence experts have speculated that it was most likely the nuclear-capable supersonic BrahMos missile, which was jointly developed by Russia and India and can carry 300- to 600-pound warheads.
Pakistan on Saturday demanded a joint investigation into the incident. It also alleged that India failed to immediately inform Pakistan about the accidental launch, which took place on March 9 but was acknowledged by India only two days later.
“This could have plunged the region into an irretrievable situation had Pakistan not demonstrated wise restraint,” Abdul Basit, a former Pakistani diplomat to Germany and India, told VICE World News.
“If such is the level of India’s system then the world must get seriously worried,” Basit said.
Human error has caused nuclear accidents in the past, including in the world’s dominant nuclear power, the United States. In 1980, a Titan 2 missile equipped with a nuclear warhead exploded in Damascus, Arkansas when a maintenance worker accidentally dropped a wrench socket into a shaft and pierced the missile, releasing explosive fuel. The blast killed one person and injured 21 others.
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