Criminal laxity or is it complicity in the “misfiring” of the Brahmos missile? Strategic dimensions (Augmented)

[A Brahmos triggered]

[This augmented post incorporates new info relating to the incident presented in in Sunday newspapers, without changing its original thrust and tenor.]

The supersonic Brahmos cruise missile reportedly misfired by an army’ s missile battery from Sirsa landed fairly deep — 124 km — inside Pakistani territory, near Mian Channu, Khanewal District. The Pakistani air defence complex at Sargodha, Miani District, tracked it precisely with the Pakistan army’s Inter-Services Public Relations chief, Major General Babar Iftikhar, helpfully informing the press that the missile, which had been fired March 9 at 1843 hours had diverted of its own volition midflight and crashlanded in northeastern Punjab seven minutes later, at 1850 hours. Pakistan did not react other than by wagging a finger at India.

Doubtless GHQ, Rawalpindi, could not be more gleeful at this technological windfall. It has been just handed a dummy warhead-carrying whole Brahmos missile. The fallen missile — the star in the Indian army’s weapons inventory, unless fully destroyed by impact and even if it is so wrecked, some of its more interesting parts would be recoverable, is a boon to the Pakistan and Chinese militaries. These will be carefully disassembled, technically scrutinised, and a whole team urgently constituted at the Aeronautical Complex at Kamra, to likely get down to the business of studying the missile threadbare with a view ultimately to reverse engineering it. Of special significance in the Brahmos system is its super secretive ramjet engine of Russian make and its guidance system of Indian design and manufacture.

After deciphering all it can about the Brahmos system, the Pakistan army will pass on the same to the Chinese PLA, which has the CX-1 — a copy of the Russian supersonic Yakhont (NATO-designation — “Sunburn”) cruise missile equipping its forces. PLA will be only too glad to get its hands on this more sophisticated variety of cruise missile and, perhaps, tease more design and performance secrets from the wreckage than the Pakistani engineers at Kamra can.

Pakistan has been very lucky in terms of accidentally obtaining such advanced technologies, and China, by default, benefitting from access to them. It may be recalled that an unexploded subsonic Tomahawk land attack cruise missile fired from a US submarine in the Arabian Sea and on its way to a target in Afghanistan dropped down instead southwest of Quetta in August 1998. It was quickly retrieved by the Pakistan army and, just as quickly, handed over to the Chinese to deconstruct and learn things to incorporate into their own long range CJ-10 cruise missile. What they must have prized in the Tomahawk were three things — the terrain following Digital Scene Matching Area Correlator (DSMAC) guidance unit, the jam-resistant GPS, and the compact WDU-36 warhead. Certain aspects of the jet engine would have elicited interest too.

The May 2011 nightime raid to capture and kill Osama bin Laden in his house nestled just outside the Pakistan Army Academy at Kirkul left behind another technology treasurehouse — the Sikorsky UH-60 Blackhawk helicopter with special stealth feaures carrying the US Special Forces. It crash landed in the bin Laden compound and had to be left behind by the Special Forces unit, though why the departing Americans could not have just lobbed a few grenades and decimated the crippled helicopter is not clear. May be the excitement got to them! In any case, the Pakistan army and the Chinese military were the beneficiaries, getting their hands on the stealth innovations of that helicopter. Such as its rivetless skin, the radar wave bouncing covering for the tail rotor gearbox, the tail-fin unit painted with “pearlescent” material, the tail-boom with retractable landing gear, a tail-rotor design with five or six blades for slower rotation and less noise and, particularly, the main counter-rotors system of short length and bevelled edges.

Now India has added to Pakistan and China’s luck by virtually handing over a Brahmos cruise missile to them! The adversary’s luck is India’s grave misfortune. Because the Pakistan army and the PLA will now be able to discern how exactly the missile works, especially in its guidance and targeting aspects and, more important, what counter-measures can defeat it in flight and at the terminal stage of its flight.

At a minimum, this incident suggests criminal laxity by the military personnel manning the concerned Brahmos missile battery. And at a maximum, that some of the Indian missileers were suborned by the Pakistanis. The Pakistani communications link and handlers stationed on the Indian side need to be hunted down. Because, surely, the Brahmos missile firing sequence and mechanism is not so simple as to have some person or persons accidentally trip a switch, and have a uh-ho! moment. It requires a deliberate set of steps quite deliberately taken by saboteurs in uniform. It is in Sargodha Central’s interest to claim that it saw the missile suddenly veer off mid-flight in a different direction than the one intended in order to shield the compromised/paid off Indians complicit in the act of getting a Brahmos to Pakistan-China. The first thing for the Court of Inquiry (CoI) that’s been set up to do is to disregard, with extreme prejudice, the Pakistan army’s account of it.

Actually, this episode hints at something lot more troubling — the “dheela-dhala” culture, the laxness that is a characteristic of the civilian parts of government, now seeping into the Indian military’s operational space that permits potentially easy penetration by enemy’s intelligence agencies. This trend if not arrested with ferocity could consume the armed services, and make nonsense of national security. It is also a matter for the counter-intelligence units in the Research & Analysis Wing and the Intelligence Bureau to get between their teeth.

If, on the other hand, a genuine technical quirk in the missile or in its triggering mechanism is detected, or a problematic part of the Brahmos firing drill is identified — these will be easier to correct, of course. Still, it is something of a revelation that the series of electronic interlocks built into the triggering system of the missile can be bypassed. In which case, what’s the point in having these locks if anyone can avoid/preempt them and initiate the firing sequence? This is a most significant weakness in the missile system. Would it be very wrong, in the event, to assume that the strategic nuclear warheaded Agni missiles are under a similar locking system with the final authority to fire being easily side-stepped by the unit in the field?

This is a situation perfectly setup — even an invitation — for some demented missile personnel to go rogue and start a nuclear affray. Little wonder the Pakistan National Security Adviser, Dr Moeed Yusuf has called attention to this incident claiming that India’s nuclear weapons are not in safe custody because the supposed custodians can independently trigger them. It will provide fuel for sections of the policy establishments in the West, which have always been apprehensive of nuclear weaponised Third World states, to claim that India has an unsafe nuclear arsenal and is a proto-rogue nuclear weapons state that enables its handlers of nuclear armaments to start a nuclear regional or even world war. To exacerbate the Indian government’s discomfiture, the Pakistan government has asked for a joint inquiry — which of course should not be acceded to. But it still leaves suspicions of an infirm command and control system very much in place.

Re-engineering the interlocks system in the missile triggering mechanism, one in which the option of manual over-ride at the local level is denied without an absolute final authorization, is an urgent necessity. These technical remedies will not, however, in any sense lessen the grievous damage done India’s cause with the most ballyhooed weapon in the Indian arsenal now cradled by Pakistan and China. India, alas, is not so bounteous that it can afford such lapses that gift military high-technology to its enemies.

Hope, however, that the usual path is not followed and things not hushed up. The air force officers and other ranks up and down the line and party in any way to this mishap will have to be held responsible. Those directly implicated will need to be drummed out of service and by way of exemplary, deterrent, punishment, put away for life in prison. In China, such “accident” would fetch some people the firing squad.


About Bharat Karnad

Senior Fellow in National Security Studies at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi, he was Member of the (1st) National Security Advisory Board and the Nuclear Doctrine-drafting Group, and author, among other books of, 'Nuclear Weapons and Indian Security: The Realist Foundations of Strategy', 'India's Nuclear Policy' and most recently, 'Why India is Not a Great Power (Yet)'. Educated at the University of California (undergrad and grad), he was Visiting Scholar at Princeton University, University of Pennsylvania, the Shanghai Institutes of International Studies, and Henry L. Stimson Center, Washington, DC.
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23 Responses to Criminal laxity or is it complicity in the “misfiring” of the Brahmos missile? Strategic dimensions (Augmented)

  1. Debanjan Banerjee says:

    Great article by Dr Karnad that gives the correct picture of the situation with pin-point accuracy. I was thinking from last night that you will come up with a hard-hitting article such as this one.

  2. manofsan says:

    This kind of misfiring once again really makes us look like bumblers.

    Regarding Ukraine-Russia warfare, are there any lessons Indians can learn from what’s happening? Could we employ similar tactics against the Chinese with their stronger armour forces?

  3. Rudra says:

    So our Arsenal’s Ace is now reduced to just a joker?

  4. Hi Prof. Karnad,
    Hope you have seen the live pictures of the destroyed and burning missile. There is hardly anything recoverable to cradle and reverse engineer for the Pakis and Chinese.If at all, they can get some fins. The whole body is missing.
    Now coming to the ‘lapse’ part –
    Wiki says – “A Notice to Airmen or Notice to Air Missions (US wording) (NOTAM), is a notice filed with an aviation authority to alert aircraft pilots of potential hazards along a flight route or at a location that could affect the flight.” There was no NOTAM this time. Also, India tells Pakistan in advance about any missile test near IndoPak border. It is impossible that a BrahMos missile will be ‘test fired’ on Pakistan border without Pakistan knowing it beforehand.
    Also,it is impossible that it would get ‘accidentally fired’ and also ‘veered off’ into Pakistan. All smart missiles are having unique launching codes. These are controlled by higher authorities in military/political establishment. BrahMos is a well tested and dependable missile which we are showcasing for international sales. It can not veer off course on its own, that too taking a sudden 90 degrees turn. Even our ‘fire and forget’ missiles won’t veer off in exactly 90 degrees. And even if it did, India did not self-destruct it within Indian border after being fired accidentally.
    It travelled 3 and half minutes within India before making the turn and entering Pakistan. It also travelled 3 minutes 40 seconds within Pakistan airspace before ‘crashing’ (not ‘shot down’).
    A full minute is a very long time for a supersonic cruise missile control. It can be stopped/self-destructed within seconds, if decided. So whatever happened was not an accident at all.
    What was it then?, is, anybody’s guess!

  5. Email from Lt Gen Kamal Davar (Retd):
    Kamal Davar
    bharat karnad

    Sat, 12 Mar at 9:07 am

    Excellent prognosis. Will be sharing with some who matter also. Am personally amazed at this so called technical glitch and how much sensitive details could have been compromised. Calls for a brutally objective enquiry. Thank you for sharing.

  6. Email from Admiral Arun Prakash (Retd)
    bharat karnad

    Sat, 12 Mar at 12:56 pm

    Bharat, you forgot the Gnat gifted to PAF in 1965 when [Squadron Leader Brijpal Singh] Sikand landed in Pasrur instead of Pathankot.

  7. Amit says:

    As long as we are speculating on what happened, methinks this is an example of psychological warfare, desi style! Message to Pak is that it cannot do anything but watch to India’s cruise missiles once fired, and a warning to China to watch out in Arunachal. Rocket force in action.

    • Debanjan Banerjee says:

      @Amit, I believe you need to read the article again by Dr Karnad and multiple times. He is trying to convey some very important points here. 1. This is not a matter of how much power India has over Pakistan, when it comes to strategic assets like the Brahmos it is a question of being responsible. 2. For last 3 decades our position has been that Pakistan is a rogue state that cannot be trusted with strategic assets because it is run by rogue generals and mad mullahs. Now this rogue missile episode comes just the day before Yogi came back to power in that UP. Connecting the dots the perception that will be felt across the globe is that India is run by Saffron-clad genocidal maniacs who donot understand the importance and responsibility of strategic assets such as the Brahmos. This in one broad stroke destroys our credibility as a responsible nuclear state which we did build painstakingly over so many decades. 3. Moreover there are questions that need to be answered ie if we say that it was our mistake then why did we not inform Pakistan straightaway considering both countries do have existing information-sharing mechanisms about missile launches so why we did not inform them about this beforehand? 4. Pakistan is now demanding a joint probe into this event which is a very responsible and reasonable demand given the situation. If we agree to this , we have to share important information about our strategic command structures that deals with these specific issues which no nuclear power wants to share. Given our extremely low credibility when it comes to reporting COVID deaths, no major power will trust us otherwise. So in order to teach Pakistan a lesson, we may have to give up our nuclear secrets to them
      I do not believe even the Russians will come to our aid this time if Pakistan with the help of the Chinese takes this case to the UNSC. 5. Most importantly, a country resorts to strategic missiles such as the Brahmos when that country faces a conventionally superior adversary. Even if I agree with you that it was meant to teach Pakistan a lesson, why do we need to resort to it given our so-called conventional superiority ? Does it mean that we now have lost our sense of conventional superiority over Pakistan ? I would love your feedback on my analysis here.

      • Amit says:

        I’m not sure what the actual intent was, but this is a good psyops opportunity for India – targeted at both Pak and China. That was the first thought that came to me – I may be wrong on the actual intent, but if I were in the Indian military, that’s not how I would play it for psychological effects. Again, I’m not a military strategist, but that’s my amateur opinion.

      • Amit@ — This was not a psyop, just a locking system-enabled screw-up.

      • Ashok says:


  8. Vaibhav says:

    Brahmos is a fire and forget missile. No way it can be guided 100+ km into Pakistan without entering waypoints.

    Probably a case of India testing Pakistani air defences. What do you think about this Mr. Karnad?

  9. Debanjan Banerjee says:

    1. There are two possible explanations behind this rogue Brahmos that are currently making rounds. First of all, India did this with intent as a psyop to send a message to Pakistan and China. The question is why would we need to do this? The whole logic behind Balakote was to show Pakistan our conventional superiority so if we need to resort to Brahmos does it mean that we have lost our sense of superiority over Pakistan when it comes to the conventional weapons?
    2. The other explanation is what Mr Karnad is hinting at which happens to be technical laxity on our part when it comes to the command and control part of our strategic weapons. Here also questions can be raised that why did we need to suddenly test this Brahmos at our land border with a nuclear neighbour when we have been conducting all our missile tests at the Chandipur based wheeler Island range until today ? Why did we not inform Pakistan in advance when we do have information sharing mechanisms that inform both the countries about any missile launch well in advance ?
    3. Another theory going round is that a group of rogue Indian millitary officers may have done this inspired by Mr Yogi’s conquest of UP. Latest news going round about a secret IAF base from where this rogue missile took off actually points to this angle. This is probably the most alarming of the three possible explanations and needs thorough investigation. If this is true then the long-term propaganda that Pakistan has been running for sometime about a group of safron-clad Hindu Nazi genocidal lunatics with nukes holding the peace of the World to ransom will get a huge credibility boost. Just visualize the claim about Yogi the UP cm firing Brahmos casually. What will the World think when Yogi oneday becomes PM ? Can the civilized world trust him with nukes ?
    4. Another point here is since the Brahmos has self-destruction mechanisms whenever it veers even slightly away from the intended target, then why this missile did not self-destruct ? This is a huge credibility issue for the Brahmos technology itself.Since India has been on the process of exporting the Brahmos to some Asean nations, can a country like the Vietnam or Philippines trust this Brahmos to not suddenly go rogue and reach China ? Even the Russians would be very interested in this given their recent bonhomie with both China and Pakistan.

    • Amit says:

      @Debanjan, I mentioned in my first comment, that as long as we are speculating we could think of this as psyops. You seem to be speculating wildly without any knowledge of what happened. If this is a screw up, then let’s wait and see what actually happened.

  10. prasad says:

    What was the pakistani Anti Missile Defence System doing. May be indian Army wanted to check their Anti Missile Defence System capability. The missle has travelled for 3.5 min in pakistani airspace and no Defence System nor anybody could find it till it crashed.

  11. Ajoy Ghatak says:

    There is nothing worthwhile in the remains of missile itself. Its all junk. Ramjet engine is quite old and Pakistan and China have had their hands on it since almost 30 years now. The guidance system is slight risk but if Indian designers had even a little bit of brains, that would be useless too. What is real gain is a test of Pakistan’s detection and tracking systems plus few capabilities, like manuvering that has been now exposed. They will now have to worry about where the missile will hit because they now know it can be expected to manuever in its cruise phase by a lot! They may now have signature of missile itself but since it is so fast, they cannot intercept it, epecially if launched from close distance.

  12. ~!@#$%^&*()_+ says:

    In the times of Sardar Patel, Lal Bahadur Shastri and Indira Gandhi, both India and Pakistan could actually declare war on each other.
    Then came Rajiv Gandhi era and Narasimha Rao era where India and Pakistan could at the least do major military exercises plus take care of insurgencies inside their own territories and rapid deployments to their respective borders.
    Then came NDA-1 era and UPA-1 era where the mental status of both sides got reduced to only promoting terrorism against each other. This evolved very fast as both sides found out their historical knowledgebase of warfare, when they began applying the innovative chanakyaianism of getting third parties countries, to hurt the other.
    Now we have the Modi-1 era where the wars are fought on Main Stream Media. If everything is evolving than why can’t TV Generalism evolve. Also the deshbhakts make immense sacrifices of blood and bones on Twitter & Whatsaap, morning to evening. Khoon paseena ek kar rakha hai deshbhakt bhaiyon nay. I am sure all this is also reflected on the other side of the border too. Pakistanis are after all, the exact same genetic and moral stock as the Indians – how much further, can the acorn fall. Oh and slso the ‘Operatives’ would be exchanged in a fairly democratic arrangement, for incarceration or for hangings, by the other against the ‘other’.
    I wonder if Modi-2 era will take us to a new level of evolution where ‘mistakes’ are duly ‘regretted’. Off course we need to wait to see if the Pakistanis take the bait of ‘regrettable mistakes’ but hell I expect them to do it now. That would be fantestes-tical.
    Beta ji, now I too am exceedingly keen on seeing what kind of entertainment the Modi-3 era could provide us with. May be both sides can then exchange their tanks at Wagah border just before elections and declare their respective wins to their respective populations !!!
    Hindustan-Pakistan bhai-bhai …..ROTFL.

  13. Ayush says:

    Pak detected the missile using SAAB Eyrie AWACS not ground based radar.Also note that pak air defenses failed to intercept it.This was probably a warning shot to Pak as we are probably staring at a ww3 situation right now.Many insiders are saying it.All of our missiles are having unique launch codes and controlled by a super hardened ,deep underground bunker below south block.That bunker was one of doval’s biggest achievements.India doesn’t have a de-centralized rocket force.The missile can only be fired after being “unlocked” by south block.There are something called as “PAL LINKS” by the way

    Also,lodhi road and MOD continue to be extremely rattled regarding Ukraine,there are frantic meetings taking place at midnight

  14. ICISSM says:

    I really ❤️ this Conspiracy Theory: 👇👇

    Sequence of Events

    1) India bombs Balakot.

    2) Pak caught off-guard.

    3) Pak buys Chinese Air Defense system.

    4) Russia invades Ukraine

    5) China prepares to invade Taiwan.

    6) Taiwan calls India for Brahmos.

    7) Taiwan wants assurance as Chinese Air Defense is Junk.

    8) India test fires a Missile into Pak.

    9) Proved Chinese Air defense is junk.

    10) Taiwan places the order.


  15. Viju Joshi says:

    I was under the impression,as in the news that the missile was fired mistakenly though by an Air Force Unit.

  16. wingedream says:

    When you mention army personnel is it the Indian Army you refer to or as a generic word to mean the Indian military?

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