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The BrahMos Missile Is Constantly Evolving

February 15, 2022
BrahMos naval test. Via Indian media.

In the final weeks of 2021 India proved it was holding its own in a dangerous trend sweeping Asia–the development and introduction of long-range missiles. Not to be outdone by China’s immense arsenal or the recent breakthroughs of Pakistan from November until December the DRDO and its partner BrahMos Aerospace arranged tests for their famous supersonic cruise missile. On December 8 the DRDO judged a test launch of the BrahMos missile from an Su-30MKI a success. Then another launch happened in Odisha on January 20 that proved the BrahMos has doubled its range although the DRDO weren’t too specific about the distance flown.

The BrahMos is a scalable supersonic cruise missile with an air-breathing ramjet engine at the front of its airframe. With deliveries of critical parts from its Russian partner BrahMos Aerospace has adapted the missile for different launch systems, whether these are on air, land, or sea–even from submarines. On December 26, 2021, the site of a new a manufacturing facility in Lucknow was inaugurated to accelerate the mass-production of BrahMos missiles for the domestic and international market. Aside from infrastructure, BrahMos Aerospace and the DRDO are working on a new variant of the BrahMos cruise missile based on a hypersonic glider design. India carried out tests on a missile able to reach hypersonic speeds during high altitude flight in 2020 but the results were far from conclusive.

The January 20 launch of a BrahMos cruise missile that featured “increased indigenous content and improved performance” marked a serious evolution of the original weapon system, which is based on the Russian Yakhont naval cruise missile. When Russia adapted it for a road mobile transporter the system is designated the Bastion, which is loaded with two missiles, and is export approved. The road mobile BrahMos, on the other hand, carries three missiles on a bed pulled by a wheeled transporter. The DRDO’s involvement with the BrahMos reportedly extended its range from less than 300 kilometers to an impressive 500 km in what appears to be the BrahMos-NG variant. This is very significant as it covers entire bodies of water, especially gulfs and straits, in South and Southeast Asia when employed for coastal defense. The difference between the BrahMos-NG and the hypersonic glider based on the BrahMos aren’t well-defined at the moment but it’s clear an entire family of missiles are emerging.

The BrahMos is potent enough in its current variant, however, and potential exports have been teased for a decade now. On January 28 BrahMos Aerospace confirmed the Philippines is the first international customer for the missiles. The deal worth $375 million was for an unspecified number of surface-to-surface missiles to be loaded three at a time on beds pulled by wheeled transporters. BrahMos Aerospace spent years pursuing the contract with the Department of National Defense (DND), whose requirement for a “shore-based” missile defense is intended to deter China’s navy, but longstanding financial constraints prolonged the acquisition. In 2020 the US approved the sale of a few subsonic air-launched AGM-84L Harpoon missiles when it cleared the Philippine Air Force’s (PAF) request for a dozen single engine F-16C/D fighters.

The export of BrahMos cruise missiles to the Philippines is a small but symbolic win for India’s foreign policy as it plans on diminishing China’s influence in ASEAN. There are many different types of advanced weapon systems manufactured by India’s state-owned enterprises and even government laboratories that are suited for small militaries. The eventual sale of these to willing ASEAN partners lays the groundwork for a regional alliance versus China whose own successful foreign policy has won over India’s neighbors Bangladesh, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka. But China has decades more experience in this type of competition and should it choose to its state-owned manufacturers have several missiles that rival the BrahMos such as the CX-1, the CM-401, the YJ-12E, and the YJ-18E.

The 2010s saw enormous strides for India’s homegrown missile technology. The momentum continues this decade and is sure to tilt the regional power balance in surprising ways.

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