It has been nearly a quarter century since India and Pakistan tested nuclear weapons. After conducting the tests in May 1998, the focus in both states has been on growing and diversifying their nuclear and missile inventories. Military spending has increased in both states despite the poor socio economic indicators. In the U.N.’s human development index, India and Pakistan stand at 131st and 154th positions respectively.
The international concerns over the safety and security of nuclear weapons and materials, albeit essential, have disproportionately shifted the discourse to responsibility, inadvertently freezing the status quo and diverting attention away from nuclear disarmament.
Whether nuclear weapons have served any purpose whatsoever for the people of India and Pakistan remains a highly debatable issue. What remains undisputed are the risks and dangers that the existence of nuclear weapons pose to the lives and welfare of the millions of people on both sides of the border and the lives of many others around the globe, just as the presence of nuclear weapons in other parts of the world does.
The most recent reminder of such risks was the incident when India’s cruise missile, Brahmos, landed inside Pakistani territory on March 9 in the town of Mian Channu, approximately 500 kilometers away from Pakistan’s capital of Islamabad. Ironically, this incident did not grab as much attention in the international media as it deserved. Whether it was the war in Ukraine or the ugly possibility that some states can play with fire without any reproach from the international community, the consequences of such neglect call for a serious appraisal of the risks posed by such accidents in a nuclear environment.
Even though the conversations that this event has generated inside India and Pakistan are insightful, they are also limited in challenging the prevailing status quo. Important information about the incident is still missing resulting in speculative analysis and arbitrary proposals.
The Indian authors have raised concerns over the safety and security as well as the command-and-control systems (C2) of India’s missiles. Some have offered insightful analysis of the risks that the incident entailed. But all have stopped at suggesting the need for improving standard operating procedures (SOPs) and revising existing Confidence Building Measures (CBMs) or instituting new ones.
In Pakistan, the conversation has centered on deciphering India’s intentions, analyzing the possibility of an accidental launch, critique of India’s command and control structure, the adequacy and inadequacy of Pakistan’s response, and suggestions for the future. These are important issues. Whether the incident was India’s deliberate attempt to probe Pakistan’s threshold or an accident, the fact that it happened and can happen again is alarming.
In case it was a deliberate attempt to assess Pakistan’s preparedness level, it is a highly risky precedent to set. It reveals the deadly mindset that can normalize risk-taking and increase the likelihood of war. Such a possibility renders all the conversation on CBMs, C2 and SOPs irrelevant.
However, in what appears to be highly likely a case of an accidental launch, it is even more disturbing. The recent incident has exposed the unwarranted risks at many levels. For instance, it is still unclear whether the incident was a consequence of a poor command or a technical failure. How long did it take for the Indian government to know where the missile had landed? Why did the government wait for the Pakistani side to speak out before clarifying India’s position?
The existing commentaries have correctly pointed out the enormous risks that such accidents pose in a geopolitically tense environment within a region where the flight times are short and the pressure to respond is very high, particularly during a crisis. On March 9, luckily the accidentally launched missile didn’t carry a warhead and caused no damage. However, a future accident might be fatal.
The ongoing conversation, though important, does not offer an extensive analysis of how the domestic political imperatives may create pressures for political governments to respond to such mishaps under turbulent domestic political conditions. The prevalent trust deficit on both sides can further compound this challenge.
It is also important to mention here that had it been an accidental launch from Pakistan involving damage to human life and property it is inconceivable to expect the current Indian government to have trusted Pakistan’s narrative. India might have reacted differently and more strongly.
Even though well-meaning, the proposals put forth in the existing commentaries that argue in favor of concluding bilateral agreements, updating old CBMs, or creating new ones are not sufficient to address the challenges faced by the two nuclear armed nations in South Asia.
The CBMs are meant to build trust and in that sense, they can serve a limited purpose. However, in case of a deliberate attempt meant to probe the other side’s threshold the CBMs are redundant.
On the other hand, the possibility of accidents whether triggered by human error or technical failure cannot be eliminated no matter how effective the SOPs are. The CBMs proposed to deal with accidents involve quick communication. The effectiveness of such proposals is heavily contingent upon three factors, complete situational awareness on both sides, timely communication, and trust both in the intentions and the information shared by the adversaries.
The March 9 incident reveals the limitation on all three counts. Will there be enough information, timely communication, and sufficient trust in a future event, particularly in a crisis? This is just anyone’s guess. In the presence of the risks and dangers posed by accidental missile launches in a nuclear environment, CBMs are not enough. Accidents involving missiles have happened in other places in the past and South Asia is no exception.
This is the time for India and Pakistan to start a serious conversation about the possibility of nuclear disarmament. Introducing disarmament education in the high school curriculum can be the first step in this direction.
About the Author
Sadia Tasleem is a lecturer at Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad, Pakistan. She is currently pursuing a Ph.D. at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver, Canada. She is a member of the Asia-Pacific Leadership Network for Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament (APLN).
This article was published in The Korea Times on 8 June 2022 as part of a dedicated, regular Korea Times column with analysis by APLN members on global issues. You can find the original post here.
Image:Flags of India and Pakistan/ Wikimedia Commons