Accidental missile firing probe points to ‘human error’ as likely cause
The court of inquiry into the incident, which drew sharp reactions from Pakistan and raised questions about the handling of missile systems, is being conducted by a two-star officer
Human error was the likely cause of the accidental firing of a missile into Pakistan on March 9, and the role of a Group Captain and a few other officers has come under scrutiny in the ongoing Indian Air Force (IAF) probe into the unprecedented incident, senior officials familiar with the development said on Wednesday on condition of anonymity.
“The accidental firing took place because of human error. That’s what has emerged at this stage of the inquiry. There were possible lapses on the part of a group captain and a few others,” said one of the officials cited above.
The court of inquiry into the incident, which drew sharp reactions from Pakistan and raised questions about the handling of missile systems, is being conducted by a two-star officer.
The Group Captain was in charge of the BrahMos supersonic missile battery when the weapon was launched from a base in the western sector during routine inspection and maintenance of the system, said a second official.
An IAF spokesperson refused to comment , saying that the probe was still on, would determine what went wrong, and that the findings would be shared at an appropriate time.
Days after India accidentally fired the missile into Pakistan, defence minister Rajnath Singh on March 15 expressed regret over the incident in Parliament, and said that standard operating procedures (SOPs) for “operations, maintenance, and inspection” of such systems were being reviewed.
“There are only two possibilities in such a case --- human error or technical glitch. The operational responsibility lies with the commanding officer and his team handling the missile battery,” said Air Vice Marshal Sunil Nanodkar (retired), a former assistant chief of air staff responsible for offensive operations.
In a statement in both Houses of Parliament on the March 9 incident, the defence minister said, “We attach the highest priority to safety and security of our weapon systems. If any shortcoming is found, the same would be immediately rectified.”
He said the Indian missile system was reliable and safe. “Moreover, our safety procedures and protocols are of the highest order and are reviewed from time to time. Our armed forces are well-trained and disciplined and are experienced in handling such systems.”
Two days after the accidental launch, India on March 11 attributed the incident to a technical malfunction during routine maintenance. Pakistan registered a strong protest over the “unprovoked violation of its airspace by a supersonic flying object of Indian origin”.
While India did not name the missile that was fired accidentally, officials said it could have been the BrahMos supersonic cruise missile without a warhead. Experts said such incidents could create complications keeping in mind both countries are nuclear-armed and have a history of conflict.
Both sides, however, avoided a hostile or escalatory tone.
The charge d’affaires of India in Islamabad was summoned to the Pakistan foreign office after the missile incident. Pakistan said the “supersonic flying object” entered its territory from Suratgarh in Rajasthan at 6.43pm PST and fell to the ground near Mian Chunnu city around 6.50pm.
The Indian diplomat was told to convey to New Delhi Pakistan’s condemnation of the “blatant violation of its airspace in contravention of the established international norms and aviation safety protocols.”
At a media briefing on March 10, a Pakistani military officer said its air defence network picked up the flying object near Sirsa in Haryana around 104 km from the international border an altitude of 40,000 feet. He said it was flying at a speed of Mach 2.5 to Mach 3. The missile appeared to be heading towards the Mahajan field firing ranges in Rajasthan, but after flying 70 to 80km, it changed track to head north-west towards Pakistani airspace, he added.
In a statement on March 12, Pakistan said the incident raised questions regarding security protocols and technical safeguards against the accidental or unauthorised launch of missiles in a nuclearised environment. Islamabad demanded a joint probe and asked India to explain the measures and procedures in place to prevent accidental missile launches.
It also asked how the missile turned and entered into its airspace and whether it was equipped with self-destruct mechanism.
“India needs to explain if the missile was indeed handled by its armed forces or some rogue elements…Given the short distances and response times, any misinterpretation by the other side could lead to countermeasures in self-defence with grave consequences,” the March 12 statement said.