India’s ‘accidental’ BrahMos launch caught Pakistan unaware

It was a tense evening on March 9, 2022, as India and Pakistan, both equipped with nuclear weapons, narrowly avoided a significant conflict. This was precipitated by the unexpected discharge of an Indian Air Force’s [IAF] supersonic cruise missile, which ended up plummeting into a deserted area within Pakistan. 

Vietnam buys up to 5 Russian-Indian BrahMos missile batteries
Photo credit: Reddit

A two-year investigation by the IAF unraveled the mystery behind the inadvertent missile launch. However, these findings are being questioned by the Center for International Strategic Studies [CISS], a respected think tank based in Pakistan. 

The land attack missile in question, a BrahMos, was accidentally discharged around 7 PM from a base near Ambala. It traveled approximately 124 kilometers before descending in Mian Channu, within the territorial limits of Pakistan’s Punjab region. It’s noteworthy that this missile, which boasts nuclear capabilities, was not armed with a warhead during the incident. Unquestionably, this event is unique in the annals of nuclear weapon history.

BrahMos with semi-armor-piercing warhead goes to the Philippines
Photo credit: Wikipedia

Pakistan successfully tracked

Pakistan’s reports claim that it successfully tracked the take-off of the “supersonic projectile” from Sirsa, a North Indian air force base. However, despite this tracking claim, Pakistan failed to either engage or intercept the misfired missile. 

In 2024, the Indian Air Force [IAF] disclosed to the Delhi High Court that an unintentional launch of a BrahMos supersonic missile occurred due to the combat connectors remaining attached to the junction box, causing a misfire. This marked the IAF’s first public statement concerning the cause behind the mishap. 

BrahMos sea-to-sea missile did a precise strike at 500 km
Photo credit: Wikipedia

The IAF explained to the court, “Despite the combat crew being aware that the combat connectors of the missiles were connected to the junction box, they did not prevent the Mobile Autonomous Launcher commander from launching the Combat Missile. This led to a misfire into the neighboring nation, posing a potential risk to any aerial or terrestrial object or personnel.”

The accidental launch

The IAF initiated a Court of Inquiry [CoI] to probe the misfire, attributing the missile’s firing to ‘several omissions and commissions’ by three officers on its Combat Team. These officers are currently challenging the findings of the CoI in the Delhi High Court. 

A scholarly work titled “Accidental, Inadvertent or Deliberate Launch: The Case of Indian Air Force’s Nuclear Supersonic Cruise Missile” was published by an Islamabad-based research body. The paper dismisses the possibility of an accidental launch and ponders the implications of either an inadvertent or, more plausibly, deliberate targeting of Pakistan during times of peace. 

The author, Dr. Atia Ali Kazmi, invalidates the accidental launch claim through a thorough examination of the missile’s components, safety guidelines, and the setting of the alleged unintentional launch using open-source resources.

Poking holes in the narrative

India's 'accidental' BrahMos launch caught Pakistani unaware
Photo credit: Reddit

Renowned for its speed, accuracy, and destructive capacity, BrahMos is a nuclear-capable supersonic cruise missile. The land-based version used by the IAF comprises two essential parts: combat connectors and the junction box.  

Combat connectors are interfaces that facilitate communication between the missile system and the control mechanisms of its launcher. They make possible command inputs, status monitoring, and signal activations possible. On the other hand, the junction box is a critical connectivity hub for data and electrical links. This component is vital for adjusting the missile’s flight path and targeting based on commands or fresh intelligence information.  

The engagement or activation of these combat connectors occurs at specific moments throughout the missile’s preparation and flight phases. They play a vital role in ensuring the initial targeting data, system checks, and status updates reach the missile. Even post-launch, these connectors continue to provide real-time updates and adjustments based on mid-flight modifications.

The report emphasizes, “Maintenance or upgrade transportation scenarios often require temporary alternate connections for diagnostic examinations, system tests, or software updates. Strict safety measures are continuously implemented to prevent accidental activation of the missile’s systems.” 

Cutting-edge system

Detailing the numerous safety measures integrated into cutting-edge missile systems like BrahMos, the author catalogs mechanical and electrical safety measures, encrypted arming sequences, and launch approvals to safeguard against unintentional launches. “Typically, fail-safe procedures involve multiple authorization codes, electronic locks, and physical deactivation when not in active use, significantly reducing the potential for inadvertent discharge,” the report highlights. 

Indian Su-30MKI successfully launched stealthy BrahMos ramjet ALCM
Photo credit: Wikipedia

Examining the intricate technical aspects of BrahMos, one might question why the Combat Team chose to transport the missile in a ‘live state’ for what was labeled an ‘inspection’. Wouldn’t it make more sense if the missile were transported in an ‘inert state’? Despite meticulous safety protocols being in place, an inadvertent launch supposedly occurred—an instance that India maintains was accidental. This event suggests a possible failure in adhering to these safety measures. However, one can’t help but wonder, was this a thin veil to conceal an intentional launch? 

Normally, missiles are transported across locations ‘inert’, devoid of fuel, and fully locked down with safety mechanisms. Interestingly, the report by CISS quotes the Indian officer accountable for the misfire, explaining that a ‘live weapon’ was being moved. 

This report argues that such transportation of a live weapon hints at a worrying readiness for immediate action. According to this source, “The revealed fact that the target data related to Mian Channu had been pre-set in the launcher places the area as a pre-selected target within the IAF’s strategic structure. Therefore, accepting the ‘accidental launch’ stance is difficult.”

Indian Su-30MKI successfully launched stealthy BrahMos ramjet ALCM
Photo credit: Twitter

Testing Pakistan

The research indicates that a calculated missile launch to test Pakistan’s response could be “misunderstood as restraint or inability on Islamabad’s part.” 

“Such misunderstandings, aimed at testing new military technologies and predicting Pakistan’s retaliatory measures, could potentially lead to catastrophic outcomes. It’s impossible to predict how Pakistan may respond in future situations,” the author asserts. 

The author also suggests that Pakistan might adopt a strategy reminiscent of the Cold War era—‘ Launch on Warning’. This strategy would involve an early retaliatory strike if a missile attack is detected, thus ensuring a confirmed counterstrike capability.

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