An Accidental Missile Launch and a Lesson for Indian Communications
Commentaries

An Accidental Missile Launch and a Lesson for Indian Communications

On 9 March, India accidentally fired a BrahMos supersonic cruise missile into Pakistan. On 11 March, an official Indian statement on the incident acknowledged that “in the course of a routine maintenance, a technical malfunction led to the accidental firing of a missile.” Pakistan, in a press conference on 10 March, had already declared that a “high-speed flying object” from India had entered Pakistani territory. General commentary has criticized India’s sluggish communications in the immediate aftermath of the accident. This article puts Indian messaging around the misfiring to three tests of communication: language, timeliness, and narrative control.

Language and Timeliness

If words enable communication, they can also disable with equal effect. In this case, India’s use of language would have had a specific purpose: not only to accept responsibility but to confidently assure multiple audiences that yes, a problem had occurred, and that it was taking steps to prevent a reoccurrence.

The two government statements, particularly the first, have been accused of being “glib.” Commentators remarked on the “… overconfidence of India’s officials, who displayed no recognition of the gravity of the Brahmos accident.” This assertion is unlikely to be true. India has nothing to gain by taking a risk on its own security, not to mention any potential fallout for future business such as its BrahMos deal with the Philippines. Further, Defence Minister Rajnath Singh’s statement to the Rajya Sabha on 15 March offered a more substantial explanation.

Still, as the point of first impact, the language India employed in the first statement lends credence to the perception of complacency. Some of this language is a consequence of post-colonial South Asia’s preference for the agentless passive voice. Consider the sentence “It is learnt that the missile landed in an area of Pakistan.” This statement has no agent, obfuscating who “learnt”, and suggesting that the missile acted by itself, i.e. malfunctioned. This phrasing might have been clever, had it not come off as a dereliction of responsibility and an arrogant trivialization. That the official notification was issued two days later compounded this perception. Timing is everything in strategic communications. So are skilled drafters.

Not so long ago, in incidents involving operations inside Pakistan, the tone of India’s official statements was strikingly different. Take for example the coordinated Indian narratives offered to rationalise the 2016 ‘surgical strikes’ and the 2019 Balakot airstrike. In a joint Ministry of Defence and Ministry of External Affairs press briefing, the then Indian Director General Military Operations (DGMO) cited “credible intelligence” about impending terror attacks that necessitated pre-emptive Indian action, and most crucially, informed the Pakistani DGMO and the press less than a day after the strikes were carried out. The 2019 statement by the Indian foreign secretary similarly established that New Delhi made a rational, legal choice based on “credible intelligence” to undertake “non-military preemptive action.”

The difference is that while these earlier statements were part of a broader pre-planned strategy, those on the missile misfire were responses to an unanticipated accident. Unfortunately governments cannot afford the luxury of communications missteps, particularly in a situation involving a missile taking off into a nuclear-armed neighbour’s territory. Strategic communications means having a contingency for every eventuality, whether anticipated or unforeseen. Public and international opprobrium is unforgiving, and will erode the image of a responsible power that India has worked so hard to cultivate. That it was not the case this time owes more to the war underway in Ukraine than India’s messaging.

Narrative Control

Two official statements and some anonymous tips to the media offer little understanding of what led to the accidental launch. And that is fine. Civilian observers broadly agree that on sensitive national security issues, we operate in an information-deficit environment and analysis is necessarily speculative. A reconstruction of the ‘what’ may be possible, but the ‘how’ and ‘why’ will likely remain unanswered. Rationally, a government will always seek control of the public narrative by either withholding or releasing information. Such secrecy can certainly frustrate our reading of the situation as well as any attempt to gather empirical data, but the official logic is common sense.

India’s delay may well have resulted from an attempt to clarify the situation internally before committing to a public position. The government could have also issued a pithy, non-committal statement confirming the misfiring immediately after it took place. As Air Vice Marshal Kapil Kak (Ret.) notes, “I think we would have realized within five minutes, the Indian Air Force chief would have got the information that a missile had been fired by mistake.” Puzzlingly, reports suggest that India didn’t activate the DGMO hotline with Pakistan, the existing mechanism to “resolve any unforeseen situation or misunderstanding.”

In the Pakistani press conference streamed live via YouTube, Major General Babar Ifthikar, Director General of the Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR), deadpanned that the “incident” showed India’s “…disregard for aviation safety and reflects very poorly on their technological prowess and procedural efficiency.” By not reacting swiftly, India conceded first mover advantage to Pakistan. A useful analogue is how the media interacts with government decision-making during crises. In the absence of clear, unified messaging, the press effectively rushes in to fill the news vacuum. Pakistan, like India, has a vested interest in shaping the political narrative in its favour. It took an opportunity where it saw one.

Crisis communications came up repeatedly at a track II nuclear dialogue in Dubai that incidentally took place just a day after the accident, with both Indians and Pakistanis among its participants. What the dialogue and other discussions of India’s lackluster response point to is the use of information as a currency of power. As undesirable as high-risk accidents are, they can happen. The BrahMos misfiring demonstrates why such events must always be followed by clear and coherent communication strategies in which both information and language are strategically deployed.

About the Author

Ruhee Neog is the Director of the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies (IPCS) in India, and Managing the Atom & International Security Research Fellow at the Belfer Center, Harvard Kennedy School, in the United States.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this report do not necessarily reflect the position of the Asia-Pacific Leadership Network or any of its members.

Image: A view of the Brahmos Pavillion, at the 2016 Asian Defence and Security (ADAS) Trade Show at the World Trade Center in Pasay, Metro Manila. The display is promoting a Brahmos sea-based missile system. The missile involved in the incident described in this commentary was reportedly a land-based system. Wikimedia Commons.