What the bold new BrahMos can do for India in its latest avatar

From its earliest avatar as a supersonic anti-ship missile, BrahMos has come a long way.

 |  6-minute read |   20-05-2017
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Days before China-Pakistan cooperation was taken to the next level by side-stepping India’s concerns over Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), Army chief General Bipin Rawat had played with a straight bat before an audience in the national capital.

On the morning of May 4, he exhorted the need to identify the "strategic deficiency" that was plaguing the country. The 27th chief of the Indian Army then lamented how an undivided India had even "reached up to the Middle East something that the creation of Pakistan put a break to".

He highlighted the necessity of "developing alliances, developing friends to overcome this deficit". It would be through the relentless pursuit of such partnerships that India would be able to create, in his words, not only "a two-front dilemma for our western neighbour (Pakistan), but also an encirclement of our northern neighbour (China) from the west".

Most observers would agree that linkages develop through a variety of processes which have to be clear and consistent. Such associations encompass political support, or training of personnel, or supply of hardware, or all of the above.

While India has been achieving incremental progress by imparting training to friendly forces, exporting patrol boats, helicopters, spares, and radars notching up a high of Rs 2,000 crore in export value recently, the Army chief is not satisfied.

Before concluding, Rawat complained about India’s “Chanakyaniti that we rarely practice” and the habit of “forgetting what we have with us”.

That brings us to a journey that began two decades ago – the Indo-Russian venture, BrahMos Aerospace.

brahmos_052017041006.jpgFrom its earliest avatar as a supersonic anti-ship missile (test-fired for the first time on June 12, 2001), BrahMos has come a long way.

The reason I bring this up is because herein lies the perfect bridge between Army chief’s intentions and a proven, yet unutilised capability that can help transform relationships like few others can.

From its earliest avatar as a supersonic anti-ship missile (test-fired for the first time on June 12, 2001), BrahMos has come a long way. Today, the system can additionally be used to attack targets on land-from-land as well as from the sea, as recently demonstrated by the Indian Army (May 3, 2017) and the Indian Navy (April 21, 2017).

From ships, it can be fired either vertically or horizontally (to cover a 360 degree envelope) and from land, it can be fired in a way that it can carry out even a perpendicular, steep dive to bust an enemy hiding behind a cliff.

On March 11 this year, when the country was busy counting votes at the end of a hotly contested election season across states, the BrahMos team demonstrated that it could take the missile from its earlier limit of 290km to an "extended range" of 450 km "without major modifications".

In the words of its chief executive officer and managing director, Sudhir Kumar Mishra, who in an interview to me earlier this year had said, the BrahMos team is looking at making "the Indian Air Force (IAF) the only one capable of firing the heaviest missile using the biggest launcher”.

This will be done by enabling the Sukhoi 30 MKI to carry a lighter version of the BrahMos weighing 2.4 tonnes and firing it on a land- as well as sea-based target. While this was to take place in the month of March, a delay of a few months should hardly matter in an evolution of this magnitude.

An excited IAF is said to have kept 40 of its frontline Sukhoi 30 MKI earmarked for this missile once the BrahMos team matches promise with delivery.

Even the Russians who’re yet to integrate the BrahMos into their armed forces are looking at this with anticipation, Mishra confirmed.

It is not a secret that India’s armed forces swear by the accuracy and lethality of the BrahMos. In the near future, having already demonstrated its capability to fire from an underwater platform, the BrahMos team will look at miniaturising the missile to fire it from submarines, fighter jets, and further extend its range and convert it into a hypersonic missile, which will take it from 2.8 times the speed of sound it achieves at present, to nearly six times.

Promises of a rosy future apart, here is what Mishra told me about what his team could achieve even at a short notice. “While we haven’t exactly carried out a detailed work, the capability does exist within us to come out with a new generation of missiles only for exports which will have a shorter range and can be produced in numbers at much-lower costs. We are ready to meet any objective. It is for the government to tell us whom to export, how much to export, and when to export. We are ready and waiting for the go-ahead.”

Highly placed sources have confirmed that Russia (49.5 per cent partner in BrahMos Aerospace) is on-board with the export of the system as long as it does not harm its interest and can earn revenue.

India is now the 35th member of the "informal" Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) and is making efforts to get into the Wassenaar Group. Nothing, as of now, holds us back from having the partnership Russia did with us before we made it into the MTCR.

In other words, nothing prevents India from exporting the missiles, Mishra says, his team can come up with.

Yet the combined waters of the Brahmaputra and Moskva continue to remain placid.

On July 18, 2014, defence minister Arun Jaitley said in Parliament, “At present, there is no proposal to export Light Combat Aircraft (LCA), Tejas and BrahMos Supersonic Cruise Missile. However, both LCA, Tejas and BrahMos missile are export-worthy products. Presently, production facilities are being used for indigenous requirements.”

The inertia in the above statement is matched by the manner of going around in circles in the statement below when in an interview to me in February this year, the then defence minister Manohar Parrikar had said, “The government has got no-objection certificates (NOCs) for the export of this BrahMos and now the company has to carry it out. The in-principle approval has come and detailed one will follow." 

Countries such as Vietnam, South Africa, South Korea, Chile, UAE, Oman, Indonesia, Malaysia and more have reportedly been interested. Fortunately, while the earlier regime wasn’t as keen, "with this one, there is encouragement", say those in the know.

However, conversations with decision-makers have revealed that India’s proposals have floundered at one level or the other. “Some nations have sought the transfer of technology which isn’t something we are comfortable with, whereas others feel that the price is too high,” he said. India has even tried selling the missile by offering to integrate it into naval ships to some countries, but nothing seems to have materialised.


A senior functionary, who did not wish to be identified, said, “A big push is needed. Companies can do their bit, but the government has to step in. It is the government, which has to decide if and when it wants to act."

The government must not waste time. It can act by appointing a full-time defence minister, to begin with.

Also read: Does India need to worry about Chinese stealth fighter J-20?


Jugal R Purohit Jugal R Purohit @jrpur

The writer is a senior special correspondent for India Today TV.

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