Image used for representation only.
“Things that have never happened before happen all the time in history”
- Scott D Sagan, ‘The Limits of Safety‘
On 9 March 2022, an unarmed BrahMos missile left its launcher from an Indian Air Force (IAF) base near Sirsa in Haryana. The supersonic missile’s journey lasted about seven minutes through a few waypoints in India, before crossing the border and ending on the boundary wall of a small house in Mia Chunnu in neighbouring Pakistan’s Punjab province.
Missile firings, even in the most developed countries wielding mature technologies, are not without failures. For example, six out of the first 21 launches of Pershing-II medium-range ballistic missiles encountered technical failures and misfires, as per Pentagon reports. There have been many documented when the world teetered on the brink of nuclear war and ‘mutually assured destruction’ due to accidental launches or false detection of such launches from an adversary.
The BrahMos launch in question is, however, far more serious. It is the first recorded case in history where a cruise missile was accidentally launched from inside one country into a rival’s territory — in this case, both hostile neighbours with a history of wars and unsettled borders. It is the acme of incompetence, defused with nuanced handling devoid of knee-jerk reactions from either side. Pakistan bristled and fumed with understandable angst. But, thankfully, there was no retaliation. Perhaps they found solace in — “never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity”.
Either way, the incident was too serious to be passed off as a ‘technical malfunction’ during ‘routine maintenance, which the Indian Defence Ministry did try to do, pending a high-level Court of Inquiry (CoI). The inquiry and administrative process culminated this month — in just over five months — with the dismissal of three officers from service (one Group Captain, presumably the CO of the missile unit, a Wing Cdr and one Sqn Ldr).
The speed of inquiry and the gravity of the sentence may seem appropriate but it raises questions of jurisprudence and the legality of inquiry committees. What the Navy calls ‘Board of Inquiry (BoI), the Air Force knows as the Court of Inquiry (CoI). To the best of my knowledge, the CoI is a fact-finding exercise. There are only witnesses, evidence, appendices and exhibits in a CoI – no ‘accused’ or ‘convicts’. The CoI or BoI may attribute blame, but it has no power to sentence; that power rests with a General Court Martial (GCM). The CoI report is reviewed, vetted and approved at several levels, including the command and service headquarters.
The government’s dismissal of personnel named by the CoI is exceptional, to my mind. One hopes the terminated officers were given a chance to defend themselves. All commissioned officers serve with the pleasure of the President of India. Such privilege can be withdrawn in the case of grave misconduct, but only after due process of law.
Cruise missiles have several layers of mechanical and electronic interlocks that preclude accidental launches. The launch event cannot be activated by a single person – SOPs simply preclude that. The BrahMos did not misfire; it was accidentally fired. That means it cleared the entire sequence of interlocks and safeguards, involving more than one operator.
In the Navy, every missile launch is preceded by a Crew Inspection Test (CIT), where every aspect of the chain of command and man and material readiness are audited by an external board before the ship is given a green signal to embark the ‘article’ and proceed with the launch. How the far-more-capable and technologically advanced BrahMos managed to slip through the cracks defies simple explanation. At the least, the investigation report should provide invaluable insights for all three services and . One hopes this osmosis of information happens and it doesn’t end with the dismissal of three officers.
Deeper questions must also be asked about the delay in reporting the accidental launch and the confusing statements that followed. The of 11 Mar 2022 read, “In the course of a routine maintenance, a technical malfunction led to the accidental firing of a missile“.
As per sources, the accidental firing happened during an operational readiness inspection. Every squadron, unit and department in the station is on ‘high alert’ during such inspection. Such inspections are meant to test the unit’s readiness for action and detect gaps in the safety management of critical systems. In this case, it seems to have had the exact opposite outcome – critical failure of a system, designed with multiple interlocks, under the highest level of scrutiny. It doesn’t get any worse than this.
One also hopes that the dreaded ‘HR’ angle doesn’t find a place in this debacle. In the hierarchy of a fighter pilot-centric air force, missile units and their officers tend to sediment towards the bottom. The IAF’s personnel branch would know how many grounded pilots (medical, competency or otherwise) eventually find their way into missile units. There may be some areas of overlap, but for the most part, these are different paradigms requiring different skill sets and, most importantly, attitude. With the focus shifting from manned to unmanned, manned-unmanned teaming, stand-off weapons, and nuclear-tipped missiles, the old playbook of assigning ‘broken wings’ and second-rung officers to such strategic forces merits a serious relook.
History informs us that sometimes, a complex sequence of events can be safely managed by a simple ‘aide-memoire’. I leave the readers to ponder over the understated power of the humble ‘‘ with a simple anecdote.
On 30 October 1935, Boeing’s Model 299 prototype took off for an evaluation flight by the US Army Air Corps from Wright Field, Dayton, Ohio. At the controls was Major Ployer Hill, test pilot and Chief of Flying at Material Division, Wright Field. Others onboard were co-pilot Lieutenant Donald Leander Putt, Boeing’s Chief Test Pilot Leslie R Tower, and two others.
At stake was a competition to build the military’s next-generation, long-range bomber. Soon after takeoff, the aircraft pitched up, stalled and crashed in a huge fireball. Major Ployer and Leslie Tower died of their injuries.
Investigation revealed that the aircraft crashed because the crew had forgotten to remove the flight controls' gust locks, thereby locking the elevators at 12.5°, which went unnoticed till it was too late. Boeing lost that competition and their Chief Test Pilot. The army would’ve recommended more training to handle complex aircraft but for Maj Ployer, who never fit the description of someone who would be found wanting in preparation.
It was a simple error of omission every human is susceptible to.
Model 299 went on to become the B-17 ‘Flying Fortress’ that allowed US forces to carry out their devastating bombing campaign across Nazi Germany, which helped turn the tide of World War II.
Over the next half a century, innumerable checklists were developed to grapple with galloping technology that saw the introduction of supersonic passenger planes, Flight Management Systems, fly-by-wire, glass cockpits, etc. Aeroplanes became complicated amalgamations of a massive number of systems and subsystems, which was impossible to manage through memory. Nobody can say definitively how many accidents were prevented by checklists. But aviation – arguably the safest mode of transport today – owes it in no small measure to the humble checklist.
BrahMos may be rocket science, but it is not infallible to human error. If an approved checklist was used diligently, chances are, the debacle may never have happened. Missile commanders may like to dwell on this simple aspect.
The first-ever BrahMos launch across the border claimed three of our own. The next one may not be as forgiving.
(The author is an ex-navy experimental test pilot. He is dual ATP-rated on Bell 412 & AW139 helicopters and a synthetic flight instructor on ALH Dhruv. He can be reached on Twitter @realkaypius. Views are personal. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)