Quakeland: On the Road to America’s Next Devastating Earthquake
Roger BilhamQuakeland: New York and the Sixth Seal (Revelation 6:12)
Given recent seismic activity — political as well as geological — it’s perhaps unsurprising that two books on earthquakes have arrived this season. One is as elegant as the score of a Beethoven symphony; the other resembles a diary of conversations overheard during a rock concert. Both are interesting, and both relate recent history to a shaky future.
Journalist Kathryn Miles’s Quakeland is a litany of bad things that happen when you provoke Earth to release its invisible but ubiquitous store of seismic-strain energy, either by removing fluids (oil, water, gas) or by adding them in copious quantities (when extracting shale gas in hydraulic fracturing, also known as fracking, or when injecting contaminated water or building reservoirs). To complete the picture, she describes at length the bad things that happen during unprovoked natural earthquakes. As its subtitle hints, the book takes the form of a road trip to visit seismic disasters both past and potential, and seismologists and earthquake engineers who have first-hand knowledge of them. Their colourful personalities, opinions and prejudices tell a story of scientific discovery and engineering remedy.
Miles poses some important societal questions. Aside from human intervention potentially triggering a really damaging earthquake, what is it actually like to live in neighbourhoods jolted daily by magnitude 1–3 earthquakes, or the occasional magnitude 5? Are these bumps in the night acceptable? And how can industries that perturb the highly stressed rocks beneath our feet deny obvious cause and effect? In 2015, the Oklahoma Geological Survey conceded that a quadrupling of the rate of magnitude-3 or more earthquakes in recent years, coinciding with a rise in fracking, was unlikely to represent a natural process. Miles does not take sides, but it’s difficult for the reader not to.
She visits New York City, marvelling at subway tunnels and unreinforced masonry almost certainly scheduled for destruction by the next moderate earthquake in the vicinity. She considers the perils of nuclear-waste storage in Nevada and Texas, and ponders the risks to Idaho miners of rock bursts — spontaneous fracture of the working face when the restraints of many million years of confinement are mined away. She contemplates the ups and downs of the Yellowstone Caldera — North America’s very own mid-continent supervolcano — and its magnificently uncertain future. Miles also touches on geothermal power plants in southern California’s Salton Sea and elsewhere; the vast US network of crumbling bridges, dams and oil-storage farms; and the magnitude 7–9 earthquakes that could hit California and the Cascadia coastline of Oregon and Washington state this century. Amid all this doom, a new elementary school on the coast near Westport, Washington, vulnerable to inbound tsunamis, is offered as a note of optimism. With foresight and much persuasion from its head teacher, it was engineered to become an elevated safe haven.
Miles briefly discusses earthquake prediction and the perils of getting it wrong (embarrassment in New Madrid, Missouri, where a quake was predicted but never materialized; prison in L’Aquila, Italy, where scientists failed to foresee a devastating seismic event) and the successes of early-warning systems, with which electronic alerts can be issued ahead of damaging seismic waves. Yes, it’s a lot to digest, but most of the book obeys the laws of physics, and it is a engaging read. One just can’t help wishing that Miles’s road trips had taken her somewhere that wasn’t a disaster waiting to happen.
Catastrophic damage in Anchorage, Alaska, in 1964, caused by the second-largest earthquake in the global instrumental record.
In The Great Quake, journalist Henry Fountain provides us with a forthright and timely reminder of the startling historical consequences of North America’s largest known earthquake, which more than half a century ago devastated southern Alaska. With its epicentre in Prince William Sound, the 1964 quake reached magnitude 9.2, the second largest in the global instrumental record. It released more energy than either the 2004 Sumatra–Andaman earthquake or the 2011 Tohoku earthquake off Japan; and it generated almost as many pages of scientific commentary and description as aftershocks. Yet it has been forgotten by many.
The quake was scientifically important because it occurred at a time when plate tectonics was in transition from hypothesis to theory. Fountain expertly traces the theory’s historical development, and how the Alaska earthquake was pivotal in nailing down one of the most important predictions. The earthquake caused a fjordland region larger than England to subside, and a similarly huge region of islands offshore to rise by many metres; but its scientific implications were not obvious at the time. Eminent seismologists thought that a vertical fault had slipped, drowning forests and coastlines to its north and raising beaches and islands to its south. But this kind of fault should have reached the surface, and extended deep into Earth’s mantle. There was no geological evidence of a monster surface fault separating these two regions, nor any evidence for excessively deep aftershocks. The landslides and liquefied soils that collapsed houses, and the tsunami that severely damaged ports and infrastructure, offered no clues to the cause.
“Previous earthquakes provide clear guidance about present-day vulnerability.” The hero of The Great Quake is the geologist George Plafker, who painstakingly mapped the height reached by barnacles lifted out of the intertidal zone along shorelines raised by the earthquake, and documented the depths of drowned forests. He deduced that the region of subsidence was the surface manifestation of previously compressed rocks springing apart, driving parts of Alaska up and southwards over the Pacific Plate. His finding confirmed a prediction of plate tectonics, that the leading edge of the Pacific Plate plunged beneath the southern edge of Alaska along a gently dipping thrust fault. That observation, once fully appreciated, was applauded by the geophysics community.
Fountain tells this story through the testimony of survivors, engineers and scientists, interweaving it with the fascinating history of Alaska, from early discovery by Europeans to purchase from Russia by the United States in 1867, and its recent development. Were the quake to occur now, it is not difficult to envisage that with increased infrastructure and larger populations, the death toll and price tag would be two orders of magnitude larger than the 139 fatalities and US$300-million economic cost recorded in 1964.
What is clear from these two books is that seismicity on the North American continent is guaranteed to deliver surprises, along with unprecedented economic and human losses. Previous earthquakes provide clear guidance about the present-day vulnerability of US infrastructure and populations. Engineers and seismologists know how to mitigate the effects of future earthquakes (and, in mid-continent, would advise against the reckless injection of waste fluids known to trigger earthquakes). It is merely a matter of persuading city planners and politicians that if they are tempted to ignore the certainty of the continent’s seismic past, they should err on the side of caution when considering its seismic future.
Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan has countered an attempt by a coalition of opponents to oust him from power.
The political crisis might draw Pakistan’s powerful military back into direct intervention in politics after nearly 15 years in the background.
Khan lost military backing and popular support because of the country’s severe economic difficulties and differences over relations with the United States.
Any changes to Pakistan’s regional relationships, particularly with India, will be modest if Khan is replaced.
On April 3, Prime Minister Imran Khan moved to thwart an effort by a coalition of parties seeking to oust him from power before elections due in 2023. Apparently recognizing that the opposition had assembled the required majority for a no-confidence vote in Pakistan’s parliament, Khan’s ally in the parliament leadership ruled the motion unconstitutional, and another ally, Pakistan’s president, followed Khan’s instruction to dissolve the parliament. The dissolution triggers new national elections to be held within 90 days, with Khan remaining as chief executive until a caretaker prime minister, who will oversee the elections, is appointed. Pakistan’s Supreme Court did not immediately rule on the opposition’s challenge to Khan’s maneuver, suggesting that there might be no clear constitutional grounds on which to overturn Khan’s move to snap elections.
The political crisis was set off by a perception among Khan’s opponents that his public support had eroded over double-digit inflation and high unemployment, as well as his loss of the backing of Pakistan’s powerful army leadership. The opposition coalition—the Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM)—includes groups linked to several past Pakistani leaders, including the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz), the party of Khan’s immediate predecessor Nawaz Sharif, and the Pakistan Peoples’ Party (PPP), dominated by the family of the slain former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. She was the Muslim world’s first elected female prime minister, and her husband and political partner, Asif Ali Zardari, served as President during 2008-2013, taking office after the military returned the country to civilian rule. The opposition apparently garnered enough votes to oust Khan, had the no-confidence motion received a vote, after persuading one of Khan’s minor coalition partners to defect. Had Khan been ousted, Nawaz Sharif’s brother, Shahbaz, was positioned to assume the prime ministership; Khan defeated him in the 2018 election that powered the former cricket star into office. Pakistan’s military leadership—whose past relationships with Khan’s opponents have been fraught with acrimony—denied playing any role either in the no confidence motion or Khan’s dissolution of parliament. But, the military’s relations with Khan have been deteriorating since late 2021, when he sought to retain an ally, the head of the Inter-Service Intelligence directorate (ISI), the secretive military intelligence agency that plays a leading role in both engaging and battling violent Islamist movements, particularly the Afghan Taliban.
The political crisis raises fundamental questions about Pakistan’s stability, an issue closely watched in neighboring India and internationally because of Pakistan’s nuclear status and the presence of global jihadist groups on Pakistani territory. On the eve of the planned no-confidence vote, Khan not only held large public rallies in support of his leadership, but he also accused his opponents of participating in a U.S.-led conspiracy. That accusation could set the stage for him to try to arrest opposition leaders and their supporters. An outbreak of significant political violence or public unrest could cause Pakistan’s military to return to ruling directly—a step that the army leadership has taken in the past in cases when, in their view, stability was threatened.
U.S. officials categorically denied Khan’s allegations that they supported efforts to oust him, but U.S leaders expect that a change of government in Pakistan would set the stage for better relations. Khan was a vocal critic of President Biden’s withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan, and he claimed that the announced withdrawal date emboldened the Taliban and diminished Pakistan’s influence over the movement. For their part, U.S officials blame Khan for obstructing a U.S. plan to re-establish intelligence and operational counterterrorism bases in Pakistan intended to compensate for the closure of such facilities in Afghanistan. Pakistan’s powerful Army Chief General Qamar Bajwa has contrasted the military’s position on U.S. relations with those of Khan by saying, in advance of the planned no-confidence motion, “we share a long and excellent strategic relationship with the U.S. which remains our largest export market.” He also sided with the U.S. stance on the Ukraine invasion, saying that Russia’s “aggression against a smaller country cannot be condoned.” Yet, even though New Delhi and Washington might benefit from a Khan exit, their differences with Pakistan are not necessarily amenable to wholesale resolution, even if a new prime minister is inaugurated in Islamabad.
April 6, 2022 – 12:54 PM News Code : 1245344 Source : Pars TodayLink:
A Hamas official has warned Israel against pressing ahead with its open aggression against Palestinians in the occupied East al-Quds, particularly Muslim worshipers at the al-Aqsa Mosque compound, stating that resistance groups will eventually run out of patience and act in retaliation.
AhlulBayt News Agency (ABNA): A Hamas official has warned Israel against pressing ahead with its open aggression against Palestinians in the occupied East al-Quds, particularly Muslim worshipers at the al-Aqsa Mosque compound, stating that resistance groups will eventually run out of patience and act in retaliation.
Eyewitnesses reported that Israeli troops fired tear gas canisters during the clashes to disperse the crowds.
Meanwhile, Jordan condemned the latest wave of tensions in the Occupied Palestinian Territories over the past few days, and the frequent break-ins of Israeli settlers into the al-Aqsa Mosque compound during the fasting month of Ramadhan and under the protection of Israeli forces.
Abu al-Ful stressed the need to stop all restrictions on the entry of Muslim worshipers to the al-Aqsa Mosque, and said the settlers’ aggression and violent behavior contravene the existing historical and legal facts as well as international law.
They are normally defined as fast, low-flying, and highly maneuverable weapons designed to be too quick and agile for traditional missile defense systems to detect in time. Unlike ballistic missiles, hypersonic weapons don’t follow a predetermined, arched trajectory and can maneuver on the way to their destination, according to the Congressional Research Service. The term “hypersonic” describes any speed faster than five times that of sound, which is roughly 760 miles (1,220 kilometers) per hour at sea level, meaning these weapons can travel at least 3,800 miles per hour. At hypersonic speeds, the air molecules around the flight vehicle start to change, breaking apart or gaining a charge in a process called ionization. This subjects the hypersonic vehicle to “tremendous” stresses as it pushes through the atmosphere, according to a 2018 U.S. Army paper.
2. What are the different kinds of hypersonic weapons?
There are two main types—glide vehicles and cruise missiles. Most of the attention is focused on the former, which are launched from a rocket before gliding to their target, because of the challenges of achieving hypersonic propulsion of missiles. The missiles have engines called scramjets that use the air’s oxygen and produce thrust during their flight, allowing them to cruise at a steady speed and altitude.
China, the U.S., and Russia have the most advanced capabilities, and several other countries are investigating the technology, including India, Japan, Australia, France, Germany and North Korea, which claims to have tested a hypersonic missile.
Russia: Russia’s Avangard is a glide vehicle launched from an intercontinental ballistic missile and will reportedly carry a nuclear warhead. Russian news sources claim it entered combat duty in December 2019. Tsirkon is a ship-launched cruise missile said to be capable of striking both ground and naval targets.
China: Its military conducted possibly two hypersonic weapons tests over last summer, including the launch into space of an orbiting hypersonic weapon capable of carrying a nuclear payload. The Financial Times first reported the tests. China has disputed reports of the tests, saying it simply launched a reusable space vehicle. Previously, China conducted a number of successful tests of the DF-17, a medium-range ballistic missile designed to launch hypersonic glide vehicles. U.S. intelligence analysts assess that it may now be deployed. China has also tested the DF-41 intercontinental ballistic missile, which could be modified to carry a conventional or nuclear glide vehicle.
The U.S.: Gregory Hayes, chief executive officer of U.S. defense contractor Raytheon Technologies Corp., told Bloomberg TV Oct. 26 that the U.S. is “at least several years behind” China in hypersonic technology despite significant investment. Development funding increased approximately 740% in the five years before 2020 and is expected to total almost $15 billion between 2015 and 2024, not including production costs. The U.S. Navy leads the development of a glide vehicle for use across the military branches, while the Air Force is working on an air-launched glider. The government’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, with Air Force support, is developing an air-launched hypersonic cruise missile, according to CRS.
In an appearance on Bloomberg TV, General Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, likened China’s suspected tests of a hypersonic weapons system last year to a “Sputnik moment,” a reference to the Soviet Union’s pioneering launch of a satellite in 1957, giving it an early lead in the space race and shocking the U.S. Hypersonic weapons are very difficult to counter using existing defenses. U.S. officials say that American hypersonic weapons, unlike those being developed in China and Russia, are being designed to carry conventional rather than nuclear weapons. But this provides scant reassurance to potential U.S. adversaries, who would have no way of knowing whether such a weapon in fact carried a nuclear warhead while it was in flight. The pursuit of these systems by China and Russia reflects a concern that U.S. hypersonic weapons could enable America to conduct a preemptive, decapitating strike on their nuclear arsenals and supporting infrastructure. U.S. missile defense deployments could then limit their ability to conduct a retaliatory strike against the U.S.
Researchers estimate there are approximately 12,700 nuclear weapons spread between nine countries, with the United States and Russia holding the majority.
Researchers and government officials stress that a nuclear attack is very unlikely.
“We are assessing President Putin’s directive and, at this time, we see no reason to change our own alert levels,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Feb. 28.
“As long as these weapons are around, the possibility will always be there that they will actually be used,” said Alejandra Munoz, a project officer at the Dutch peace organization PAX.
Researchers, academics and advocacy groups for risk reduction and nuclear disarmament have written reports detailing what a hypothetical attack could look like and the long-term impact it could have on the planet and society.
Here’s what a nuclear attack could look like, hypothetically, and how the United States might respond.
Last month, his boss and patron Moqtada Al Sadr put those words to action, nominating his cousin and in-law, Jaafar Al Sadr, to replace the incumbent prime minister, Mustafa Al Kadhimi.
That was made possible after Al Sadr’s coalition, Sairioun, swept Iraq’s parliamentary elections in October 2021, winning the lion’s share of seats (73 out of 329). Al Sadr’s first move was making Zameli first deputy speaker of the Iraqi Parliament. Second on his target list is naming a Sadrist as Iraq’s new premier.
Since debuting on the Iraqi scene after the toppling of Saddam Hussein’s regime back in 2003, Al Sadr has gone from one milestone to another, establishing himself as the undisputed leader of Iraq’s Shiite community.
Starting out as a militia leader leading an insurgency against US forces, he shifted from bullets to ballots, taking part in every parliamentary election, which gave him representation both on the cabinet of ministers and in the Chamber of Deputies.
For 19 years, he has had the final say on naming and firing Iraqi premiers, the last among whom was Al Kadhimi, who came to office with Sadr’s blessing in May 2020.
If he makes it to the job, Jaafar would be Iraq’s seventh premier since 2003. Previously, a relative of Moqtada and Jaafar, Sayyed Mohammad Hasan Al Sadr, had served as prime minister under the Iraqi monarchy from January to June 1948.
Who is Jaafar Al Sadr?
Born in December 1970, the 52-year-old Jaafar is the son of Mohammad Baqir Al Sadr, a ranking Shiite cleric who was arrested, tortured, and executed by Saddam back in 1980.
Jaafar’s father was the spiritual founder of the Dawa Party, which led the Shiite underground against Saddam, often with material and political support from Iran. It produced three of Iraq’s post-Saddam premiers, Ebrahim Al Jaafari (2005-2006), Nouri Al Maliki (2006-2014), and Haidar Abadi (2014-2018).
Jaafar studied under Ayatollah Mohammad Sadeq Al Sadr and in 1999, moved to Iran to study Islamic theology, then to Najaf, before obtaining an MA in sociology from the Lebanese University in Beirut. Briefly in 1998, he was arrested by Saddam, serving six months in jail.
In 2009, Jaafar became adviser to Iraqi president Jalal Talbani, one year before being elected to the Iraqi Chamber on the State of Law Coalition list, headed by then-Prime Minister Nouri Al Malki. In February 2011, he stepped down from Parliament, protesting “patronage and cronyism” in Iraq.
In April 2019, he became head of the department of international organisations at the Iraqi Foreign Ministry, before being appointed ambassador to London in October 2019.
He famously refused to join his father’s Dawa Party, arguing that after studying Islam he became convinced that religion and politics should be separated. Technically, he is a political independent, unaffiliated with any of the leading political parties.
Hurdles and challenges
Moqtada Al Sadr’s Sairoun bloc supports him, and so does his former boss, Nouri Al Maliki. The Coordination Framework of Iran-backed Shiite parties have not objected to his nomination, although it is an open secret that they were pushing for one of their own leaders, ex-Prime Minister Haidar Abadi, as Iraq’s next premier.
Most of the parties within the Coordination Framework, like Asa’ib Ahl Al Haq, Iraqi Hezbollah, and the Popular Mobilisation Units (PMU) hold Jaafar’s father in high esteem.
During a rare 2010 interview, Jaafar Al Sadr said that he does not believe in a religious state, nor in the Vilayet Al Faqih (Guardianship of Islamic jurist) system that has ruled Iran since 1979. He called instead for a civil government in Iraq, “closer to the British and German models.”
When asked about his relationship with Moqtada Al Sadr, Jaafar replied: “I have a lot of respect for him for his brave, patriotic stances, especially with regard to foreign presence.”
For him to become premier, Jaafar needs a majority vote in Parliament, or support of 165 out of 329 MPs. His cousin’s bloc will back him fully, and so will their allies in the Kurdistan Democratic Party (31 seats) and the Taqadum Party of Parliament Speaker Mohammad Al Halbousi (37 seats).
That’s still not enough to make him premier, however, meaning that Moqtada Al Sadr will have to reach out to heavyweight Shiite parties from the Coordination Framework, to secure his cousin’s appointment.
Al Maliki’s 33-man bloc will certainly help tip the balance in his favour, so will the Fateh Alliance of Hadi Al Ameri, who controls 17 seats in Parliament.
“He is acceptable by all Iraqi factions because of his father’s legacy,” said Harry Istepanian, an independent economic analyst and senior Fellow at the Iraqi Energy Institute.
Speaking to Gulf News, Istepanian explained that should Jaafar assume the premiership, “many doubt that he will stay in the position until the end of his term.”
Istepanian said: “He will inherit many unresolved issues with the Iranian backed militias, and most seriously the high unemployment rate among the youth and Iraq’s broken economy. His biggest mistake would be appointing unqualified ministers to satisfy the tripartite alliance that brought him to power. It will end his political career.”
With all eyes turned towards Ukraine these past weeks, it was easy to miss what was almost certainly a historical first: a nuclear-armed state accidentally launching a missile at another nuclear-armed state.*
On the evening of March 9th, during what India subsequently called “routine maintenance and inspection,” a missile was accidentally launched into the territory of Pakistan and impacted near the town of Mian Channu, slightly more than 100 kilometers west of the India-Pakistan border.
Because much of the world’s attention has understandably been focused on Eastern Europe, this story is not getting the attention that it deserves. However, it warrants very serious scrutiny––not only due to the bizarre nature of the accident itself, but also because both India’s and Pakistan’s reactions to the incident reveal that crisis stability between South Asia’s two nuclear rivals may be much less stable than previously believed.
At 18:43:43 Pakistan Standard Time (19:13:43 India Standard Time), the Pakistan Air Force picked up a “high-speed flying object” 104 kilometers inside Indian territory, near Sirsa, in the state of Haryana. According Air Vice Marshal Tariq Zia––the Director General Public Relations for the Pakistan Air Force––the object traveled in a southwesterly direction at a speed between Mach 2.5 and Mach 3. After traveling between 70 and 80 kilometers, the object turned northwest and crossed the India-Pakistan border at 18:46:45 PKT. The object then continued on the same northwesterly trajectory until it crashed near the Pakistani town of Mian Channu at 18:50:29 PKT.
In a press conference, Pakistani military officials stated that the object was “certainly unarmed” and that no one was injured, although noted that it damaged “civilian property.”
Although the crash site has not been confirmed and official photos include very few useful visual signatures, observation of local civilian social media activity indicates that a likely candidate is the Bakhshu Makhan Hotel, just outside of Mian Channu (30°27’6.40″N, 72°24’10.87″E). One video of the crash site posted to Twitter includes a shot of a uniquely-colored blue building with a white setback roof on the other side of a divided highway. At least two vertical poles can be seen on the roof of the building. All of these signatures appear to match those included in images of the Bakhshu Makhan Hotel in Google Images.
The video’s caption suggests that the object that crashed was an “army aviation aircraft drone;” however, Pakistani military officials subsequently reported that the object was an Indian missile. Neither Pakistan nor India has publicly confirmed what type of missile it was; however, in a March 10th press conference, Pakistani military officials stated that “we can so far deduce that it was a supersonic missile––an unknown missile––and it was launched from the ground, so it was a surface-to-surface missile.”
This statement, in addition to photos of the debris and other official details relating to range, speed, altitude, and flight time of the object, suggest that it was very likely a BrahMos cruise missile.
BrahMos is a ramjet-powered, supersonic cruise missile co-developed with Russia, that can be launched from land, sea, and air platforms and can travel at a speed of approximately March 2.8. The US National Air and Space Intelligence Centre (NASIC) suggested that an earlier version of BrahMos had a range of “less than 300” kilometers, but the Indian Ministry of Defence recently announced on 20 January 2022 that it had extended the BrahMos’ range, with defence sources saying that the missile could now travel over 500 kilometres. The reported speed of the “high-speed flying object,” as well as the distance traveled, matches the publicly-known capabilities of the BrahMos cruise missile.
Although many Indian media outlets often describe the BrahMos as a nuclear or dual-capable system, NASIC lists it as “conventional,” and there is no public evidence to indicate that the missile can carry nuclear weapons.
India has launched a Court of Inquiry to determine how the incident occurred; however, the Indian government has otherwise remained tight-lipped on details. In the absence of official statements, small snippets have trickled out through Indian and Pakistani media sources––prompting several questions that still need answers.
How did the missile get “accidentally” launched?
According to the Times of India, an audit was being conducted by the Indian Air Force’s Directorate of Air Staff Inspection at the time of the launch. As part of that audit, or possibly as part of a separate exercise, it appears that target coordinates––including mid-flight waypoints––were fed into the missile’s guidance system. According to Indian defence sources, in order to launch the BrahMos, the missile’s mechanical and software safety locks would also have had to be bypassed and the launch codes would have had to be entered into the system.
The BrahMos does not appear to have a self-destruct mechanism––unlike India’s nuclear-armed missiles. As a result, once the missile was launched, there was no way to abort.
Given that defence sources indicate that the missile “was certainly not meant to be launched,” it still remains unclear whether the launch was due to human or technical error. On March 11th, in its first public statement about the incident, the Indian government stated that “a technical malfunction led to the accidental firing of a missile.” However, since the formal convening of a Court of Inquiry, the government has since changed its rhetoric, with Indian officials stating that “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.” Tribute India reports that there are currently four individuals under investigation.
While this is certainly a plausible explanation for the incident, it is also worth noting that the Indian government would be financially incentivized to emphasize the human error narrative over a technical malfunction narrative. On January 28th, India concluded a $374.96 million deal with the Philippines to export the BrahMos––a deal which amounts to the country’s largest defence export contract. Additional BrahMos exports will be crucial for India to meet its ambitious defence export targets by 2025, and the negative publicity associated with a possible BrahMos technical malfunction could significantly hinder that goal.
Did Pakistan track the missile correctly?
In a press conference on March 10th, Pakistani military officials noted that Pakistan’s “actions, response, everything…it was perfect. We detected it on time, and we took care of it.” However, Indian military officials have publicly disputed Pakistan’s interpretation of the missile’s flight path. Pakistan announced on March 10th that the missile was picked up near Sirsa; however, Indian officials subsequently stated that the missile was launched from a location near Ambala Air Force Station, nearly 175 kilometers away. India’s explanation is likely to be more accurate, given that there is no known BrahMos base near Sirsa, but there is one near Ambala (h/t @tinfoil_globe). Indian defence sources have also suggested that the map of the missile’s perceived trajectory that the Pakistani military released on March 10th was incorrect.
Furthermore, Pakistani officials announced on March 10th that the missile’s original destination was likely to be the Mahajan Field Firing Range in Rajasthan, before it suddenly turned and headed northwest into Pakistan. However, Indian defence sources have since suggested that the missile was not actually headed for the Mahajan Field Firing Range, but instead was “follow[ing] the trajectory that it would have in case of a conflict, but ‘certain factors’ played a role in ensuring that any pre-fed target was out of danger.” Given that the impact site was not near any critical military or political infrastructure, this could suggest that the cruise missile had its wartime mid-flight trajectory waypoints pre-loaded into the system, but its actual target had not yet been selected. If this is the case, then this targeting practice would be similar in nature to how some other nuclear-armed states target their missiles at the open ocean during peacetime––precisely in case of incidents like this one. Although the missile still landed on Pakistani territory, the fact that it did not hit any critical targets prevented the crisis from escalating. It is worth noting, however, that this would certainly not be the case if the missile had actually injured or killed anyone.
During the March 10th press conference, Pakistani officials noted that the Pakistan Air Force did not attempt to shoot down the missile because “the measures in place in times of war or in times of escalation are different [from those] in peace time.” However, India’s challenges to Pakistan’s narrative also raise significant questions about whether the Pakistan Air Force was able to accurately track the missile correctly. If not, then this raises the possibility of miscalculation or miscommunication, and crisis stability would be seriously eroded if a similar situation occurred during a time of heightened tensions.
Were any civilian aircraft put in danger?
In its public statements, Pakistan has emphasized that the accidental missile launch could have put civilian flights in danger, as India did not issue a Notice to Airmen (NOTAM) prior to launch. Governments typically issue NOTAMs in conjunction with missile tests, in order to inform civilian aircraft to avoid a particular patch of airspace during the launch window. Given that India did not issue one, a time-lapse video prepared by Flightradar24 showed that there were several civilian flights passing very close to the missile’s flight path at the time of launch. The video erroneously suggests that the missile traveled in a straight line from Ambala to Mian Channu, when it appears to have dog-legged in mid-flight; however, the video is still a useful resource to demonstrate how crowded the skies were at the time of the accident.
Thankfully, this incident took place during a period of relative peacetime between the two nuclear-armed countries. However, in recent years India and Pakistan have openly engaged in conventional warfare in the context of border skirmishes. In one instance, Pakistani military officials even activated the National Command Authority––the mechanism that directs the country’s nuclear arsenal––as a signal to India. At the time, the spokesperson of the Pakistan Armed Forces not-so-subtly told the media, “I hope you know what the NCA means and what it constitutes.”
Furthermore, as we have written previously, in recent years India’s rocket forces have increasingly worked to “canisterize” their missiles by storing them inside sealed, climate-controlled tubes. In this configuration, the warhead can be permanently mated with the missile instead of having to be installed prior to launch, which would significantly reduce the amount of time needed to launch nuclear weapons in a crisis.
This is a new feature of India’s Strategic Forces Command’s increased emphasis on readiness. In recent years, former senior civilian and military officials have reportedly suggested in interviews that “some portion of India’s nuclear force, particularly those weapons and capabilities designed for use against Pakistan, are now kept at a high state of readiness, capable of being operationalized and released within seconds or minutes in a crisis—not hours, as had been assumed.”
This would likely cause Pakistan to increase the readiness of its missiles as well and shorten its launch procedures––steps that could increase crisis instability and potentially raise the likelihood of nuclear use in a regional crisis. As Vipin Narang and Christopher Clary noted in a 2019 article for International Security, this development “enables India to possibly release a full counterforce strike with few indications to Pakistan that it was coming (a necessary precondition for success). If Pakistan believed that India had a ‘comprehensive first strike’ strategy and with no indication of when a strike was coming, crisis instability would be amplified significantly.”
India’s recent missile accident––and the deficient political and military responses from both parties––suggests that regional crisis instability is less stable than previously assumed. To that end, this crisis should provide an opportunity for both India and Pakistan to collaboratively review their communications procedures, in order to ensure that any future accidents prompt diplomatic responses, rather than military ones.
This article was made possible with generous support from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the New-Land Foundation, the Prospect Hill Foundation, and the Ploughshares Fund. The statements made and views expressed are solely the responsibility of the author.
*[Note: This type of missile accident has apparently happened before; on 11 September 1986, a Soviet missile flew more than 1,500 off-course and landed in China. Thank you to the excellent Stephen Schwartz for the historical reference.]