An Indian Air Force (IAF) officer sacked over the accidental launch of a missile last year into Pakistan has challenged the sacking in Delhi High Court.
The Delhi HC has sought a response on the sacked officer's plea from the Centre in six weeks.
Last year, an Indian BrahMos missile was launched accidentally on March 9 "in the course of a routine maintenance" due to "a technical malfunction", the Defence Ministry had said at the time. The missile had landed near Mian Chunnu city in Pakistan's Punjab province. It did not cause any damage to civilian property.
Later that year, three IAF officers were sacked for the unprecedented lapse. One of these officers has now approached the Delhi High Court.
What we know of the missile launch
In March 2022, the Defence Ministry initially said the missile launch into Pakistan was a result of a technical malfunction.
However, later in August, the Defence Ministry said three IAF officers were sacked for the missile launch as they had deviated from the laid-down standard operating procedures (SOPs). The officers were terminated "with immediate effect".
The Defence Ministry said: "A BrahMos missile was accidentally fired on March 9. A Court of Inquiry (Col), set up to establish the facts of the case, including fixing responsibility for the incident, found that deviation from the Standard Operating Procedures (SOP) by three officers led to the accidental firing of the missile.
"These three officers have primarily been held responsible for the incident. Their services have been terminated by the central government with immediate effect. Termination orders have been served upon the officers on August 23."
Earlier, it was reported that a Group Captain-rank officer was held responsible for the missile launch. The Econonmic Times earlier reported that this officer "was in charge of the mobile battery unit of the Brahmos and was present at the location when the incident took place".
The ET further reported that missile was fired when its unit was undergoing a safety and operational efficiency inspection at its base in Haryana and the Group Captain mentioned above failed to maintain safety standards.
However, BusinessWorld later reported, "It appears that the inbuilt mechanical and electronic locks of the 290 km range supersonic missile system had been overridden as a consequence of the violation of SOPs. The missile launch could not be aborted as it does not have a self-destruct mechanism."
What has the sacked officer argued in Delhi HC?
The petitioner contended the decision of the Ministry of Defence to terminate him in August 2022 was "grossly mala-fide, discriminatory, illegal, and unjust" as he had acted in "complete obedience of the SOP".
Additional Solicitor General Chetan Sharma opposed his plea and said the termination cannot be challenged in the present proceedings.
In his plea, the sacked officer has submitted he was trained for duties which were purely of "maintenance nature" and never on conduct of operations. He asserted he was "not trained against the counts of blame apportioned to him in the Court of Inquiry".
The petition said, "The Petitioner performed all his duties as per the SOP dated 15.03.2021. A perusal of the said SOP, which governed the operations on the fateful day would demonstrate that the Impugned Termination Order is malafide and the counts of blame levelled against the Petitioner bear no nexus with his responsibility as per his role prescribed by the SOP. The cause of the unfortunate incident was solely operational in nature.
"Although the Petitioner was an Engineering Officer, the Court of Inquiry apportioned him blame for failure to perform external checks of the combat connectors of combat missiles, which continued to remain connected to FCS Junction Box 1 & 3, while the same was not the role and duty of the Petitioner."
The petition said on the date of the unfortunate incident, there was no specific regulation or prohibition on the use of live weapons during simulated exercises despite the authorities being aware of the inherent risks associated with such processes and the revised SOP was issued only after the accident.
The plea said, "Immediately thereafter Respondent No. 5 [Assistant Chief of the Air Staff (Operations) caused issuance of a revised SOP dated 25.04.2022 which removed the ambiguities and deficiencies in the SOP dated 15.03.2021 with regard to the use of 'Live' weapons during training exercises. The same clearly demonstrates that the accidental firing of the missile was a policy failure which is being camouflaged by invoking Section 18 of the Air Force Act and terminating the petitioner.
"Respondent 5, localized liability to the Squadron level in order to camouflage the Policy failure at the HQ level. Thus, the Court of Inquiry into the incident was conducted in a biased, premeditated, discriminatory and vindictive manner."
The petition alleged the authorities have "intentionally circumvented" the procedure for initiating disciplinary action and the requirement of his trial by a court martial.
The significance of missile launch
The BrahMos is a supersonic missile developed jointly by India and Russia. It's understood to be nuclear-capable with a range of 300-500 kms.
The accidental launch into India's arch-rival Pakistan carried the risk of potential risk of Pakistan retaliating with a strike on India which carried the risk of two countries getting into yet another conflict.
Such a missile launch was also not just a first in India but in world, as per some experts, which puts the safety, security, and robustness of SOPs over Indian weapons under a big question mark.
Pakistan had reacted sharply to the incident and had rejected the Indian explanation. The launch also caused diplomatic embarassment for New Delhi as Pakistan mounted a sharp offensive with calls of a joint investigation.
Pakistan's Foreign Office (FO) at the time said that the incident raised several fundamental questions regarding security protocols and technical safeguards against accidental or unauthorised missile launch in a nuclearised environment.
"Such a serious matter cannot be addressed with the simplistic explanation proffered by the Indian authorities,” it said, adding that some of the questions should be answered.
"Indian decision to hold an internal court of inquiry is not sufficient since the missile ended up in Pakistani territory. Pakistan demands a joint probe to accurately establish the facts surrounding the incident," it said.
"India must explain the measures and procedures in place to prevent accidental missile launches and the particular circumstances of this incident," the FO said, adding that India must clearly explain the type and specifications of the missile that fell in Pakistani territory.
Pakistan also noted the two-delay in India admitting the accidental launch of the missile as India published the press release on March 11.
Pakistan also said that India needs to explain if the missile was indeed handled by its armed forces or some rogue elements.
The comment was a sharp comment from Pakistan, and an embarrassment for India, as questions had long been raised about the safety of Pakistan nuclear assets because of the presence of Islamist and jihadist elements within the country. However, the accidental and unauthorised launch of an Indian missile into Pakistan gave Pakistan a chance to raise similar questions regarding India.
Outlook's Seema Guha noted, "The nuclear non-proliferation lobby in the US had always expressed concern about the safety of nuclear weapons and their handling by India and Pakistan. In the past, there were questions about the safety of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal, with some expressing concern that jihadis could take control. The current incident will raise issues of safety on the Indian side."
(With PTI inputs)