India’s export of Brahmos missiles to the Philippines has larger geopolitical significance

The Integrated Guided Missile Development Programme that began in 1983 under the stewardship of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi is an island of Indian perseverance and quiet success, writes Cmde C. Uday Bhaskar (retd,) for South Asia Monitor

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Brahmos missiles (Photo: Twitter)

The Philippines Department of National Defense has announced that it will acquire the Brahmos supersonic cruise missile from India in a contract worth $375 million. This is the first export order for the Indo-Russian defence venture, BrahMos Aerospace Pvt Ltd, and is a significant punctuation with multilayered significance for India and the extended Indo-Pacific region. 

The Brahmos is a rare example of India acquiring proven competence in co-designing and co-manufacturing a trans-border military capability - in this case a cruise missile of 290 km range- in collaboration with Russia and, more importantly, being able to export it. The name of the missile is derived from the rivers Brahmaputra and Moskva and the state-owned entity was formed in February 1998. 

Missile technology and knowhow is a closely guarded domain. The IGMDP (Integrated Guided Missile Development Programme) that began in 1983 under the stewardship of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi is an island of Indian perseverance and quiet success in the face of several challenges and constraints. Remember, this was a period when India was under US-led technology denial protocols for its stance on the nuclear issue. 

Why 290 km? 

While the range of BrahMos has been extended to over 400 km by DRDO (Defence Research and Development Organization), the export variant of the missile has a range of only 290 km – this ceiling is mandated by the MTCR (Missile Technology Control Regime), of which India is now a member. This regime prohibits export of cruise missiles above 300 km as part of the global arms control protocols. 

One of the more distinctive features of the Brahmos is that it is deemed to be the world’s fastest cruise missile at a maximum velocity of  2.8 Mach (one Mach being the speed of sound)  and is sea-skimming – meaning that it flies about 10 metres above sea level. A versatile missile, it can be launched from ships, submarines, aircraft and land.  The Philippines proposes to use this ashore as part of its coastal defences. 

The Indian Navy has fitted the Brahmos on its surface ships since 2005 and progressive improvements have been undertaken.  The most recent test-firing of the Brahmos was conducted on January 11 in the Arabian Sea. The Navy tweeted:  “Successful test-firing of the extended-range BrahMos Supersonic Cruise missile from INS Visakhapatnam, Indian Navy’s newest indigenously-built guided missile destroyer, represents a twin achievement: Certifies the accuracy of the ship’s combat system and armament complex. Validates a new capability the missile provides the Navy and the Nation.” 

Landmark sale 

While Manila had placed the order for the Brahmos in late 2021 after two years of internal deliberations, this export order is an important punctuation for India’s modest defence manufacturing ecosystem. Global estimates indicate that the five largest arms exporters in 2014–18 were the United States, Russia, France, Germany and China; the five biggest importers were Saudi Arabia, India, Egypt, Australia and Algeria.   

India does export certain items of military inventory but they are at the lower end of the spectrum and include patrol vessels, surveillance equipment, ammunition, clothing, helmets et al. More recent efforts at increasing military exports by encouraging private sector participation and re-organizing the state-owned defence public sector units has led to a commendable rise from   $ 660 million in 2017-18 to $1.47 billion in 2018-19. The Modi government has announced ambitious plans to raise this further to $5 billion in the next few years. As always, the challenge will be to implement and translate such export policies and political intent into tangible results in a cost-effective manner. 

Thus the long-delayed decision to export the Brahmos to the Philippines is an important breakthrough for the Indian defence manufacturing ecosystem. Both Indonesia and Vietnam, having vainly sought this weapon from India, for over a decade, finally turned to Russia for other variants of this missile, named Yakhont and Bastion respectively. 

Nevertheless, this sale demonstrates nascent Indian credibility in a niche domain – in this case cruise missiles. If there is adequate client satisfaction about Delhi’s ability to provide the necessary support for training and maintenance of the first three batteries of the Brahmos, it is understood that other ASEAN nations like Indonesia and Vietnam may also acquire this missile. 

More may follow Manila 

The geopolitical significance of this export is the signal that the Brahmos will convey to the larger Indo-Pacific region. Currently, China is a major factor in the Indo-Pacific. Some nations have experienced Beijing’s muscular maritime assertiveness in a visible manner over the last decade.  The Philippines leads the list and has taken its South China Sea dispute with China to the international forum for arbitration. Though the final award was in Manila’s favour, the decision was rejected by Beijing which sanctified its "historical claim" as being non-negotiable. The South China Sea continues to simmer. 

In this context, it is instructive to note that the US State Department released a comprehensive report on January 12 where it asserted that Beijing’s historical claims to the South China Sea “gravely undermine the rule of law”. This is a formulation that many nations concur with – including India. 

Three batteries of the Brahmos with the Philippines coastal defence forces may be quantitatively modest but the symbolism is potentially significant. Pushed to the wall by an increasingly belligerent China, weaker nations will equip themselves with what they perceive as minimum deterrent capability. 

The reaction from Beijing to the Brahmos acquisition by Manila will be instructive about how 2022 will unfold with its Covid-19 overhang and geo-political animation. 

(The writer is an Indian Navy veteran and a strategic analyst. The views expressed are personal)

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