JAIPUR, India — A nuclear-armed state fired a cruise missile at another nuclear-armed state last week. They weren’t at war, and none was starting.
On Friday, India acknowledged that one of its missiles had been accidentally fired at Pakistan two days earlier. Pakistan has slammed India’s “insensibility and ineptitude” in a “nuclear environment”. And that was the end of it so far — a muted aftermath that many viewed as nothing short of a minor miracle.
The two neighbors have fought several bloody conflicts, and the mere suspicion of covert support for militant attacks has brought them to the brink of war in the past. The suspicions run so deep that pigeons crossing the border have been caught on suspicion of espionage.
Analysts in India praised Pakistan’s military, the country’s most powerful institution, for its cautious response to the rocket fire, which appeared to cause no casualties. This muted response seems to have prevented a catastrophic escalation.
But the incident is bound to raise concerns about the security of India’s weapons systems and the government’s credibility on the matter. India waited 48 hours to confirm the accident had happened and Pakistani officials said they had not received any information about it from their Indian counterparts in the meantime.
“The Pakistani side has shown great maturity,” said Sushant Singh, senior fellow at the Center for Policy Research in New Delhi. “We were lucky this time. We shouldn’t make the mistake of thinking we’ll be lucky every time.”
Much of what is known about the rocket launch comes from the Pakistani side.
Moeed Yusuf, Pakistan’s national security adviser, said a supersonic projectile crossed the border at an altitude of 40,000 feet. Pakistani officials said it landed near the small town of Mian Channu, about 75 miles from the border.
There were reports of damage to civilian property, but no apparent fatalities. Initial reports in Pakistani news media suggested a plane may have crashed.
“This missile flew close to the flight path of international and domestic commercial airlines, threatening the safety of civilians,” Yusuf said. “It is also highly irresponsible on the part of the Indian authorities not to have immediately informed Pakistan that an accidental launch of a cruise missile had taken place.”
In its brief statement on Friday, India’s defense ministry said “a technical malfunction resulted in the accidental launch of a missile” that landed in Pakistan. It gave no further details but said a “senior investigative court” would investigate the matter.
Singh noted that sheer luck seemed to have prevented a disaster: the fact that the missile did not hit any military infrastructure, aircraft, or populated area; that it was not launched at a time when tensions were higher than usual; and that it was not armed with a nuclear warhead.
For decades, militancy in Pakistan — and concerns about its armed forces’ sympathy with militant groups — has raised concerns about the potential vulnerability of its nuclear arsenal.
India has long sought to distance itself from suggestions that its systems have inherent vulnerabilities, stating that foolproof security measures and procedures are in place. A mistake like last week’s, at a time when heartrending talk of the use of force against Pakistan has become a leitmotif in the political speeches of India’s Hindu nationalist leaders, is likely to call those assurances into question.
“These issues are bound to be raised again and India will come under a lot of pressure,” Singh said. “Not only will Pakistan raise these questions, but many questions will also be raised in Washington.”