Can the supersonic BrahMos missile cruise in the export market?

BrahMos is poised to export its supersonic cruise missile to third-party, responsible, and friendly nations. BrahMos is already in discussion with several prospective clients in Asia, Latin America, and the Middle East.

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Aritra Banerjee
Aritra Banerjee
Aritra Banerjee is a Journalist with Indian Aerospace & Defence, Co-Author of the book 'The Indian Navy @75: Reminiscing the Voyage' and the Co-Founder of Mission Victory India (MVI), a new-age military reforms think-tank. He has been a columnist writing on defence and strategic affairs for national and international publications in both print and digital media.

The $375 million contract to deliver BrahMos missiles to the Philippines placed India in an exclusive club of missile exporters. BrahMos is poised to export its supersonic cruise missile to third-party, responsible, and friendly nations after receiving the necessary government licences. In a recent interview, the company’s CEO, Dinkar Rane, stated that shipments might begin as early as 2023.

The ‘Government-to-Government’ (G2G) sale to Manila is a model for future sales to South East Asian consumers. BrahMos is already in discussion with several prospective clients in Asia, Latin America, and the Middle East.

BrahMos Joint Venture, which represents Indo-Russian technical cooperation and strategic partnership, is presented with export prospects and supply chain constraints due to the current geopolitical climate.

Girish Linganna, an Aerospace and Defence analyst, detailed the missile’s technical specs. The BrahMos is a two-stage missile, he noted. After reaching Mach 1, or supersonic speed, the Solid Propellant Booster Engine separates during the initial stage. In phase two, the Liquid Ramjet Engine accelerates the missile to about Mach 3 during the cruise phase. “The BrahMos can be launched from the ground, the air, and the sea. It is a missile with several capabilities and pinpoint accuracy that operates day and night.” Linganna noted that in every weather condition. He further emphasised that the BrahMos missile employs the ‘Fire and Forget’ philosophy, is equipped with stealth technology, and is the quickest mid-range missile available today.

Linganna also discussed the increased range of the missile. “The BrahMos missile was originally designed with a maximum range of 290 kilometres, according to Linganna, who went on to say that “following India’s admission into the MTCR (Missile Technology Control Regime) club in June 2016, the range is expected to be extended to 450 kilometres, and to 600 kilometres at a later stage.” The range of the BrahMos missile has already been improved, and with the benefit of flying at high altitudes, the missile can travel further and kill targets at distances of 800 km and beyond. With a simple software change, India has just increased the range of its tactical missile, which can now exceed 500 kilometres.”

Intense Competition and Other Obstacles

BrahMos has strong competitors in the market. Russia is also selling its combat-proven Onyx cruise missile, while China offers several indigenous supersonic cruise missiles to anyone who can afford them. South Korea has tested a weapon system resembling the BrahMos. Israel and the USA can lift export controls on supersonic cruise missiles any day now. 

BrahMos missile is directly competing with Russia’s Yakhont missile on the export market. They both compete in the same market area because most of their applications are on exported Russian weapon platforms. The Russian Oniks-M missile already provides a better range than BrahMos’ extended-range missile version. Yakhont requires the approval of only one government, while BrahMos needs two, which sometimes complicates things.

This concern was also taken up by Rear Admiral Vineet Bakhshi (Retd), who told this writer that “reports suggest an indigenous content of around 65%. There’s still a long way to go before we truly become independent of foreign suppliers. International Black Swan events can disrupt the supply chains at any time, and this aspect of making all components and software within our borders would perhaps be the most critical mission for the company.”

In addition to these obstacles, another difficulty could arise from the accidental launch of a BrahMos missile the previous year, which resulted in the delivery of a projectile into Pakistan. 

The occurrence, in the opinion of Major General Anil Senger (Retd.), who is now retired from the IndianArmy, is a definite step backwards in terms of safety procedures and standards. “It impacts the army’s professional and technical image and equipment.” 

Group Captain Johnson Chacko (Retd) believes this accident has two consequences. “One is that accidental firing could not be prevented, so the system needs additional safety features. Secondly, Pakistan’s air defence system could not be detected in time and neutralised before it reached the target. While additional safety features can avoid the first, the second indicates gaping holes in Pakistan’s Air Defence system, presumably comprising Chinese interception missiles.”

Despite the many challenges, there is a substantial demand on the international market for precision-guided projectiles with capabilities comparable to those of the BrahMos supersonic missile. This is especially the case in the Asian region, where several countries view the growth of China as a potential threat to their national security.

Export Prospects

RAdm. Bakhshi (Retd) believes that countries in East Asia, the Middle East, Latin America, and the Indian Ocean Region have always been possible purchasers, but India’s “no sale policy” has prevented them from doing so. He stated that the current emphasis on defence exports is a desirable trend. The admiral noted that BrahMos’s flexibility to fire from land, air, and the sea is remarkable. “The SU version reportedly provides extended ranges in a couple of thousand km, according to open sources. Its multi-warhead capabilities are a good asset,” he said.

Maj Gen. Senger (Retd) said that BrahMos has huge potential, especially due to the Chinese-belligerence prompted activity in the South China Sea (SCS). “India must exploit military diplomacy with SCS littoral countries to improve relationships as a prelude to defence export, with the Make-in-India initiative that will have some successful projects,” the General says.

Gp Capt. Chacko (Retd) Presenting an analysis of BrahMos’ potential in terms of its intercept ability, Gp Capt. Chacko (Retd) said, “BrahMos has a speed of almost 1km per second. The operator of the AD Radar needs to be specially trained to detect it unless the radar has very high-end software. Typically the current SAGW radars have an acquisition range of about 80 km, and for a low-flying BrahMos, it will be limited to the radar horizon of 22 km. This restricts the time available to the SAGW Squadron to decide whether it is friendly, neutral or hostile, launch an interceptor missile, and flight time of the missile to detonation to less than 22 seconds. That is extremely difficult for a well-trained SAGW crew.”

He further said that the missile has good potential in the international market and provided an aggressive marketing effort, “highlighted by the inability of Pak AD to intercept it. The hegemonistic tendencies of a superior power can be checked with the possession of BrahMos by any littoral state who has the will to use it.” 

The Geopolitical Juggle 

Akash Sahu, Southeast Asia Analyst at Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (MP-IDSA), explained that “other countries in Southeast Asia have also shown interest [in the missile]. Vietnam had expressed an intent some time back, and there have been deliberations with Indonesia more recently regarding such a purchase. The region of Southeast Asia may continue to witness an increase in the procurement of arms as countries seek to modernise their defence. China’s aggressive actions in the South China Sea have only added to the insecurity among the ASEAN nations.”

The development of the sale of the missiles to BrahMos also has strong geopolitical implications. Moscow-based American geopolitical and military analyst Andrew Korybko said, the recent deal with the Philippines to purchase these supersonic cruise missiles also wasn’t sanctioned by the US because the Indian Ambassador to the country noted that it’s a bilateral deal and thus not subject to America’s unilateral restrictions against Russia. This presents an opportunity for Russia to continue exporting state-of-the-art military equipment to its partners without American interference so long as such is jointly produced with India and sold directly via New Delhi. Prospectively, other countries like Vietnam might also consider purchasing BrahMos or other jointly produced arms.”

He also emphasised the geopolitical nature of this transaction, situating it in the context of the Philippines, a US mutual defence ally mired in a contentious maritime dispute with Russia’s Chinese allies. “This proves that Russia isn’t taking sides in the South China Sea, which should bolster its regional reputation as a neutral military partner. 

The emerging model is that India is becoming indispensable to Russia’s ‘military diplomacy’ in the New Cold War since it helps its jointly produced exports evade the US’ ‘secondary sanctions’ and also assists Moscow in engaging with new partners like Manila that it might not otherwise have had inroads with to that extent,” he opined.

Exporting the basic missile to the Philippines is important since India and Russia would have had to consent. The latter has a robust connection with China, which disapproves of BrahMos exports to South China Sea nations. Nonetheless, Russia appears to have allowed the transfer to the Philippines. This is an encouraging indicator for expanding exports to other countries in the region, such as Malaysia.

Regarding the deal, Sahu says, “Southeast Asia is increasingly becoming the theatre for superpower rivalry between China and the US. India’s engagements with Southeast Asian countries in the defence industry sector are valuable in forging a closer foreign policy alignment and preventing any friction on regional security issues. It can help in sustaining the balance of power in the Indo-Pacific.”

The Russia Role

While these intricate relationships remain in play, the Russia equation is dominant in this setting.

According to Maj Gen. Senger (Retd), India benefits from BrahMos being a joint venture since Russia lends it credibility, and the successful introduction of the missile into the Indian military instils confidence. “India’s involvement will make it financially cheaper. India’s image as a mature upcoming power in this region and the globe, August well if we can make it a win-win situation for both.”

“What India obtains from this mutually beneficial arrangement is more Russian technology, domestic joint production, a greater international military-strategic role, and the chance to expand this cooperation to more third countries for advancing their shared vision of assembling a new Non-Aligned Movement (“Neo-NAM”). 

That concept refers to their desire to cooperate in creating a third pole of influence in the bi-multipolar transitional phase of the global systemic transition to multipolarity, wherein International Relations are presently shaped largely by the competition between the American and Chinese superpowers. In other words, the BrahMos are a military means to this grand strategic end, a stepping stone in the direction of proving that the concept of the Neo-NAM is viable and can eventually be expanded to create a larger network of states that are attempting to balance between those superpowers in the New Cold War,” noted Korybko. 

Dr. Indu Saxena, Deputy Director of Indo-Pacific Researchers and a member of the American Political Science Association’s (APSA) International Security Section, emphasised that Russia-India strategic connections are time and geopolitically tested. This relationship “becomes important when it comes to India’s rivalry with China. The calculus of Russia-India relation is not going to alter in near and mid-term,” she told this author. 

Adding a note of caution, Dr. Saxena observed that their “invasion of Ukraine and, therefore, the severe sanctions imposed by the West will cost Russia heavily, contracting its GDP by 15% in 2022. These sweeping economic sanctions will potentially disrupt the supply chain, including military goods and supplies. This indicates a strong reason to believe the disruption in the manufacturing process of BrahMos unless India is fully independent of its production.”

The rapid proliferation of extremely precise, large-calibre rocket artillery and a variety of hypersonic missiles can reduce demand for the BrahMos cruise missile faster than anyone could have predicted. India should establish relationships rapidly and develop long-term ties.

Time will tell how well New Delhi performs in this modern arms export competition.

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