On Wednesday, March 9, a missile was fired from Indian territory into Pakistani territory. Remarkably, not a single person died. The missile was fired as a result of a technical malfunction on the part of India, and it did not contain any warheads. It also missed heavily populated areas in Pakistan, narrowly missed several commercial aircraft and was launched at a time of relatively low tensions between the two countries, which have previously had their issues.
Although the Pakistani government criticized the Indian military for their “callousness and ineptitude,” they did not retaliate, nor did they go into a state of panic when they detected the missile in their airspace. Their and India’s actions in taking responsibility for investigating the origin of the mistakenly fired missile are a commendable example of international cooperation in the age of nuclear warfare.
Both India and Pakistan possess nuclear weapons, the use of which would undoubtedly cause human death and suffering on a scale we have only seen twice before. Given the complicated history of India-Pakistan relations, beginning with partition in 1947 and continuing with a series of skirmishes, wars and general political issues throughout the next seventy years, any acts of hostile aggression on the part of either country could prove to be devastating.
The reality of the situation is that both India and Pakistan were extremely lucky that this most recent incident led to no casualties. There may also come a time in the future when these two countries—and any other countries which possess nuclear weapons—may not be quite as lucky. The international political climate remains one in which competing countries—including India and Pakistan, the United States and Russia, among others—race to be at the same tactical advantage as their peers. While current technology has advanced to allow countries to ideally protect against situations of accidental misfire and technological malfunctions, a component of human error still remains. With weapons as devastating as nuclear missiles, human error and variability could be catastrophic.
Historically, there have also been several close calls with nuclear weapons which could have been devastating for human life. Most of them occurred in the 1960s at the height of the Cold War, when technology was not as advanced as today. However, when talking about human decisions, there is always the possibility of error. But there is no space for human error in the nuclear arena. Governments around the world should observe the India-Pakistan missile incident and carefully reflect on their own military practices, policies and safety protocols.
The time to reflect on the frightening state of warfare is not during or after a missile crisis, but before. In the dog-eat-dog world of international relations, it may seem beneficial for countries to possess nuclear weapons, but the reality is that their detonation will ultimately result in all sides losing. In our current state, where large countries already possess arsenals of nuclear weapons, as well as the scientists who can easily manufacture them, it is unreasonable and likely impossible to wrangle such a powerful weapon away from those who possess them. However, stringent security measures can be taken to ensure that mistakes are not made when handling these weapons. The fact that the world has never experienced a nuclear weapon that has been accidentally launched is nothing short of a miracle, but we should not wait for it to happen before we evaluate and assess the parameters through which we handle them currently.
Although the India-Pakistan missile incident was resolved peacefully with no loss of life or retaliatory actions on the part of either country, the prospect that such errors can—and sometimes nearly do—happen should scare every one of us. Other countries, especially nuclear powers, should observe this incident and consider their own potential flaws and faults in the world of international relations. As high as tensions may rise, and the egos of political leaders may affect their decisions, an accidental launch of a nuclear weapon is non-negotiable, and every measure must be taken to ensure that it is an impossibility.