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Monday, November 27, 2023

India’s Missile into Pakistan – Making the most of an opportunity?

Syed Muhammad Ali, nuclear expert, and director at the Center for Aerospace and Security Studies, in an interview with Najma Minhas, Editor GVS, explains Islamabad’s skepticism towards the Indian explanation following the accidental misfiring of a missile into Pakistan. He suggests that India might have used this tactic to gauge Pakistan’s response while the world was preoccupied with Ukraine. He also shared his view on nuclear deterrence, explaining that contemporary warfare is no longer restricted to conventional war as witnessed in Ukraine.

GVS: The Pakistani statement released on the 12th of March in response to the Indian statement on the accidental firing of the missile, in which it regretted the incident, has raised several questions in response. Why were so many questions raised? It’s pretty unusual?

Syed Muhammad Ali: Absolutely. I think it’s a very important subject, which deserves deeper reflection and greater international attention. I think the Pakistani response from the Foreign Office is significant. It reflects skepticism and raises more questions, rather than recognizing the Indian owning up to what they said happened. Because when we see the episode, three things have happened and need to be seen in a larger sequential context.

First is what actually happened, which needs to be understood beyond the individual interpretations. A BrahMos missile was launched at 6:43 PM from India, which landed seven minutes later, 124 kilometers inside the Pakistani territory. That is the fact. Now let’s look at the interpretations. Number one, the most significant and glaring part of this very dangerous episode was the absence of any timely crisis management communication between the two countries.

The first reaction comes from a Pakistani military spokesperson, which also comes, you know, on the second day after what has happened and demanded a clear explanation from the Indian side. That means that Indians did not consider using the DGMOs hotline.

GVS: Do the two countries have a hotline like Russia and the US had during the height of the Cold war? The Indian side could have picked it up, the Indian DGMO?

Syed Muhammad Ali: Yes, both countries have a hotline for the Director-General of Military Operations. They could have said well, we have a missile which has gone amiss, but we want to inform you that this is not intended to reduce and timely address a possible consideration of surprise attack, which is very important in a nuclearized environment.

The second aspect is that the Indian reaction reflected four things, which primarily aim to manage the crisis and dissuade Pakistan from escalating further and interpreting it as a deliberate, intentional act. Number one, it regretted the incident. So that implies an intent that Pakistan should interpret as unintentional. Number two, they expressed relief that there was no loss of life. So that was also aimed at the signal that no harm was intended from the Indian side.

The third signal was that they attributed it to some technical problems. And fourth most interesting was the announcement that there would be a high-level inquiry to investigate the circumstances to assure Pakistan not to interpret it as a willful act of a surprise attack.

Read more: India’s missile misadventure: A wake-up call for all

GVS: How are we supposed to interpret that they didn’t do any of this until two days later?

Syed Muhammad Ali: Yeah, that is precisely the context in which we can understand and interpret the Pakistani Foreign Office response. So there is a chain of events. The first stage is the actual event, which is the landing of an Indian cruise missile inside Pakistan territory. The second stage is the Pakistani military spokesman demanding an explanation. The third stage is the Indian explanation. And the fourth stage is the Pakistani Foreign Office reaction, which reflects a lack of trust, and it is manifested in terms of two things.

One, the choice of words, says we have noted what they have said. It stops short of saying we’ve accepted or recognized the Indian owning up to the action. And the second and most important aspect is the four questions they have raised. And besides those four questions that are yet to be answered by the Indians, the two last parts are also very important. One is the rejection that a high-level internal inquiry is satisfactory for Pakistan but instead demanding a bilateral independent inquiry to ensure that the reality is transparent and independently verifiable.

GVS: Have we ever had this situation before where we have had a joint independent inquiry together?

Syed Muhammad Ali: Not to my knowledge. But let me briefly add the last part, which calls upon the international community to play its due role in ensuring the strategic stability between these two countries. So what Pakistani reaction indicates are three things a skeptic response which looks at the Indian reaction with a degree of mistrust, raising questions, demanding a joint inquiry, and lastly, involving and warning the international community that is very important.

GVS: What is it about the event which is making you feel distrustful?

Syed Muhammad Ali: I think that’s a very important question. Because the incident itself and the Indian reaction, I believe, deserves deeper reflection. And they are for a strategic thinker and somebody who understands the technical, operational, and strategic realities. I think I’ll take it with a pinch of salt. And why is that because there are specific technical, operational, and strategic reasons, this explanation falls short of the expectations that Pakistan expects and the international community deserves.

Okay, if I can briefly explain at the technical level, it was a cruise missile; it was not a ballistic missile. So if a cruise missile is launched advertently or inadvertently, a cruise missile, unlike a ballistic missile, has a powered flight throughout its trajectory and flight path. It is a controlled flight.

It means irrespective of the technology that it uses for its guidance system, whether it is GPS-guided, whether it is an inertial navigation system, whether it is a terrain contour matching system; it has a built-in system in which it accurately verifies different waypoints before it reaches its intended target in this case.

Read more: Ukraine-Russia Crisis: A bumpy path ahead for India

GVS: The missile automatically does this, or does a physical human being do this?

Syed Muhammad Ali: No, it has pre-fed data in which it follows. It has a system that continuously compares the data that is already fed into the system and the one it follows to ensure there is no dichotomy.

GVS: But a human being feeds in the data initially.

Syed Muhammad Ali: It is already pre-fed.

GVS: Is the implication, therefore, that a human being sitting in India somewhere fed in Mian Channu as the destination.

Syed Muhammad Ali: Before that. It flies like an aircraft, a very fast aircraft unmanned aircraft. And you know, BrahMos flies almost at two and a half to three times the speed of sound, but it will not travel in our direction unless its data is fed into it. Particularly the land-to-land version. There are three versions of BrahMos: an air-launch version, air-to-land version, air to surface version, a surface to surface version, and land-to-land.

And then there is a sea to land version as well. Okay, so this version most probably was a surface to surface version. And it was also launched on the surface. It was not launched on the coast, like Odisha, the most test that the Indians carry out off the coast of Odisha, and they shoot it in the Bay of Bengal to avoid any loss of life. But in this case, it was launched on the surface of the Indian territory, and it flew 124 kilometers inside Pakistani territory.

So even if they lost control, which they claim, which I’m not willing to accept, at this point, for technical reasons, they should have had the courtesy and the sense of responsibility. The commander should have called his, you know, the Strategic Force Commander, the National Security Adviser, or the Prime Minister? Well, this is what has happened.

Can you please pick up the phone and tell your counterpart? They could have informed the Pakistani High Commissioner and informed Pakistan’s Foreign Secretary. They would have informed the DGMO, even if there is a protocol or a hotline. Besides that, these things happen. That would have conveyed a timely signal of a sense of responsibility intended at averting a crisis.

GVS: When the missile was coming into Pakistan, could we tell does it have a nuclear warhead? Or does it have a conventional warhead? Because we took three-four minutes to let it come into the country.

Syed Muhammad Ali: That’s a very important question. But let me briefly comment on the operational and strategic aspects, which are very important. And besides the technological aspect, whether the flight was controlled throughout its flight path or not, there are operational procedures and protocols that all responsible nuclear powers strictly adhere to and follow, not just to reflect international confidence, but also for a sense of responsibility towards their nation.

Read more: Indian missile in Pakistani territory: Intentional or accidental incident?

GVS: So it has failed on the operational control level?

Syed Muhammad Ali: Yes, because I mean, how did a launch mechanism take place? I mean, how are the decisions taken? Who decided to launch it? Can the commander of that missile regiment launch it unilaterally or individually? Here are serious questions related to India’s doctrinal enunciation and stance. The declaratory doctrine of India essentially claims that the Indian nuclear program is civilian-led, which implies that for all practical purposes, they require political approval from the highest office.

So does that mean that all missile launches are approved by the political leadership, including this one? And if not, then does that mean the Strategic Force Commander launched it, or the missile regiment commander launched it? Did he share this with the National Security Adviser, with the force commander at the national level? And if not, then this is this reflects a dichotomy, an inconsistency between the declaratory version of their doctrine and what is actually happening at the operational level.

They are inconsistent. And I think this will raise huge questions and reduce the international community’s trust, not just Pakistan, in terms of whatever doctrinal promises they have made at the diplomatic and political level if they are not followed and complied with at the operational level. And the third aspect is the nuclear command and control how with Indian nuclear program, their nuclear arsenal size, their delivery systems are growing and diversifying.

They are spread all over India, and some are also being carried in submarines. So how, with this growing arsenal both qualitatively and qualitatively, the Indian government and state exercise its command control over such a huge and growing arsenal? So I think these are serious concerns, which I think in the coming days, not just Pakistani experts, but I think the international community will raise as well.

GVS: So, we go back to my question in light of these concerns. When this missile was entering the country and came into the country and stayed for 124 kilometers, three and a half minutes, why did we do nothing? I mean, did we know it had a nuclear warhead or not?

Syed Muhammad Ali: I think that’s a very important question. It is very difficult to tell when a missile is launched and what sort of warhead it carries. There are different types of warheads, nuclear conventional and others as well. But precisely for this reason and the inability of states to verify what sort of warhead it carries, the entire cold war waged by the competition between the Soviet Union and the USA took place in so many domains. But both countries recognized the common interest of ensuring that there is no misperception in terms of the use, employment, or deployment of the nuclear arsenal.

Therefore, they engaged in several very extensive nuclear Confidence Building Measures and treaties and arms roll arrangements to ensure no misperceptions. Even if there is a launch, it has to be notified to the other side so that they do not interpret it as a surprise attack. And that is exactly what Pakistan and India have done. In the case of the ballistic missile test, Pakistan proposed to India in 2005 that with the passage of time and evolution of technology, cruise missiles should also be included in a CBM to ensure that no such launch is seen as a threat by the other side. But unfortunately, the Indian side did not accept.

Read more: India’s provocative intrusions in Pakistan

GVS: Why? It’s good to have surely?

Syed Muhammad Ali: I don’t know. Maybe they wanted to be, you know, over smart and try to threaten Pakistan without being compliant with or restrained by a commitment to you know, inform us because perhaps they also want to have a conventional role to their cruise missiles, which may be restrained by offering a blanket commitment that all cruise missiles will be notified in advance and might constrain their options. But, besides that, it reflects poorly on the Indian side and on the wisdom and the responsibility expected of a responsible nuclear power.

It is very important that all types of nuclear-capable delivery systems, including cruise missiles, be part of an arrangement where their test launches must be timely and adequately shared in advance to ensure that no misperception or miscalculation occurs which leads to escalation. That is why I think it is, you know, very difficult, and in the nuclear business, in conventional and sub-conventional warfare, a surprise is everything. But in the nuclear business, let me tell you, there is no space for surprise.

It is the trust that two nuclear adversaries must mutually share that they cannot protect themselves from nuclear attack. And that realization, that sobering realization invokes that system and sense of responsibility, but the reaction will also be proportionate and equally harmful. So the common interest of survival and preventing nuclear war encourages both sides to ensure there is no element of surprise in the nuclear business.

GVS: Are you happy with the international response you have got? I mean, I know that the Russian Ukrainian crisis is going on right now, and the world focus is there, but this event could have led to a disaster in South Asia between two nuclear power countries.

Syed Muhammad Ali: I think that’s a very important question. Imagine an accidental launch from Russia that lands in the US; what would have happened? What would have been the world reaction? I think that would be, I think, a very dangerous escalation. And either side, you know, will harm the relationship and then the strategic stability between two powers. But for two reasons, I think this very irresponsible Indian strategic behavior has not received adequate regional and global attention.

There are two reasons. One you rightly mentioned, and I share your assessment, is the global preoccupation with the Ukraine crisis. And the second is, perhaps it could be an attempt by India to test the reaction time, the readiness level, the choices, the decision-making system in different domains within Pakistan, which could be useful for improving their plans and strategy to gauge our response options.

GVS: Are you saying the Indians have used this situation to test response to a missile while the world was busy in Ukraine?

Syed Muhammad Ali: Yes. And if you add up the whole big picture, if you look at the strategic environment, what are the three-four most significant things that have happened in the last year after the US withdrawal from Afghanistan? The Indians might have calculated that Pakistan’s leverage has reduced in Washington. Secondly, recently, an Indian submarine was also detected near Pakistani waters, which was obviously not on a goodwill naval visit. Also, some events lately in Kashmir in India occupied Kashmir; some Indian allegations have been made, attributing Pakistan, which they continue to do for so many years. And there has been a surge in terrorist attacks in Balochistan and a revival of TTP as well.

And the fourth dynamic is the political dynamic, that Pakistan and the Pakistani political situation is also not as stable as it used to be, right. So if you add it up, perhaps Indian strategic thinkers might feel a good time to test due to the political environment in Pakistan, due to the internal security situation, due to the diverted international attention and reduced leverage of Pakistan vis-à-vis US. There’s an opportunity to test Pakistan and not expect a proportionate international response, which may vindicate or dissuade India from such irresponsible behavior.

One of the Pakistani journalists recently asked the State Department’s reaction. Unfortunately, it also encouraged him to refer to the Indian ministry of defense statement, which is a huge disappointment, not just as a Pakistani, but to anybody who expects the global powers and international community to play their due role in ensuring that the strategic stability in South Asia is maintained. And no effort or attempt is made to test that. Because maintaining peace and security in strategic stability in this region is not just an Indian or Pakistani interest, but a global interest.

Read more: Can Pakistan’s this missile render India’s conventional army useless?

GVS: I want to bring you to the Russian Ukrainian crisis. The nature of the warfare in that crisis shows that they are not using conventional warfare. Do you think we were still stuck in another era that we are still thinking of conventional war?

Syed Muhammad Ali: I think it’s a very profound question. I’ll try to answer it briefly. Warfare is essentially a perfected human habit of using violence for political objectives. And human beings have always used violence as a choice, a costly choice, and a frequently used choice to advance their national interests. However, recently, contemporary war is no longer restricted to violence or warfare.

GVS: Are you referring to hybrid warfare?

Syed Muhammad Ali: Yeah, that’s what I’m trying to refer to. The state’s interests in competing and harming other countries are no longer restricted to the means of violence. There are economic, psychological, diplomatic, and legal means. And there are cultural means that allow great parts to influence and shape the strategic environment so that they can, you know, influence the identity, political stability, economic viability, diplomatic relevance, and, you know, the internal security of a state.

So, if they want to punish a state, it no longer only relies on a direct, conventional kinetic use of force; they have more elements of power, which they can use. So, the degree of reliance over hard path has gradually reduced with the diversification of choices that hybrid warfare offers different states. But nuclear arsenal nuclear deterrent continues to be very relevant, although it is the ultimate weapon.

GVS: President Zelensky pointed out that had Ukraine not signed the Budapest declaration in 1994, and if it now still had nuclear weapons, Russia would not be invading Ukraine. I mean, do you agree with that statement? And how does that relate to Pakistan and India?

Syed Muhammad Ali: That reminds me of a statement that a North Korean foreign office spokesman once made – a profound statement when Libya was invaded. He said Libya was invaded because it was thought it was developing nuclear weapons. But if it had nuclear weapons, it would not have been invaded. So that’s a very sobering statement.

There are more than 190 states in the world. But nine states converted their knowledge, resources, and matter into nuclear weapons, which restricts the choice of a number of other countries that intend to harm them through direct conventional intervention. So that is the philosophy of deterrence.

That is the concept. So it is not a panacea for all evils. And it is not useful in all crises. But it does restrict the strategic choices of other countries because it increases the cost of anything that they might consider as a useful means. So I think they continue to be relevant.

The ultimate evidence of their continued and lasting relevance in international politics, not warfare only, is that when the Soviet Union broke up for some time, it was even borrowing, you know, money and became financially dependent on the West for a few years. But it did not give up its nuclear arsenal.

On a profound note, it gave up its territorial integrity by allowing a number of states to break away from itself, but they stood by their nuclear weapons; they did not give them up. So that indicates that they also realize that this is the ultimate currency of power in international politics, not just in terms of its ability to harm other countries but also to dissuade other countries from harming it.

And I think as long as the different countries continue to compete and harm each other in different ways, efficient technological means will continue to evolve, in which least risky methods will evolve and emerge. The nuclear umbrella for nuclear deterrence will dissuade the escalation of violence and also dissuade others from concentrating.

Read more: India’s S-400 Air Defence and balance of power in South Asia