Explained: BrahMos, 21 and developing

On June 12, 2001, the BrahMos supersonic cruise missile was first tested from a land-based launcher in Chandipur. In the 21 years since, BrahMos has been upgraded several times, with versions tested on land, air and sea platforms. A look at the 21-year journey of the versatile asset, which recently bagged an export order from the Philippines.

Background and development

Since the early 1980s, the Integrated Guided Missile Development Programme, conceived and led by Dr A P J Abdul Kalam, started developing a range of missiles including Prithvi, Agni, Trishul, Akash and Nag, with a wide spectrum of capabilities and ranges.

In the early 1990s, India’s strategic leadership felt the need for cruise missiles — guided missiles that traverse the majority of their flight path at almost constant speed and deliver large warheads over long distances with high precision. The need was felt primarily following the use of cruise missiles in the Gulf War.

An Inter-Governmental Agreement was signed with Russia in Moscow in 1998 by Dr Kalam, who headed the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO), and N V Mikhailov, Russia’s then Deputy Defence Minister. This led to the formation of BrahMos Aerospace, a joint venture between DRDO and NPO Mashinostroyenia (NPOM), the Indian side holding 50.5% and the Russians 49.5%.

In 1999, work on development of missiles began in labs of DRDO and NPOM after BrahMos Aerospace received funds from the two governments. The first successful test in 2001 was conducted from a specially designed land-based launcher. The missile system has since reached some key milestones, with the first major export order of $375 million received from the Philippines Navy this year.

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Strategic significance

BrahMos is a two-stage missile with a solid propellant booster engine. Its first stage brings the missile to supersonic speed and then gets separated. The liquid ramjet or the second stage then takes the missile closer to three times the speed of sound in cruise phase. The missile has a very low radar signature, making it stealthy, and can achieve a variety of trajectories. The ‘fire and forget’ type missile can achieve a cruising altitude of 15 km and a terminal altitude as low as 10 m to hit the target.

Cruise missiles such as BrahMos, called “standoff range weapons”, are fired from a range far enough to allow the attacker to evade defensive counter-fire. These are in the arsenal of most major militaries in the world.

The BrahMos has three times the speed, 2.5 times flight range and higher range compared to subsonic cruise missiles. With missiles made available for export, the platform is also seen as a key asset in defence diplomacy.

An extended range version of the BrahMos air-launched missile was tested from a Sukhoi-30 MKI recently. On January 11, an advanced sea-to-sea variant of BrahMos was tested from the newly commissioned INS Visakhapatnam.

The BrahMos is also said to have been involved in a recent controversy. Pakistan claimed that an unarmed Indian missile had landed in its territory on March 9, and the Ministry of Defence said a technical malfunction had led to accidental firing. While the government, which ordered a high-level court of enquiry, did not officially identify the missile, experts felt its trajectory suggested the signature of BrahMos.

Present and future

Senior DRDO scientists say what makes the missile system unparalleled is its extreme accuracy and versatility. Land-based BrahMos formations along the borders, BrahMos-equipped Sukhoi-30s at bases in Northern theatre and and Southern peninsula, and BrahMos-capable ships and submarines deployed in sea together form a triad.

With requirements evolving in multi-dimensional warfare, the BrahMos is undergoing a number of upgrades and work is on to develop versions with higher ranges, manoeuvrability and accuracy.

Versions currently being tested include ranges up to 350 km, as compared to the original’s 290 km. Versions with even higher ranges, up to 800 km, and with hypersonic speed are said to be on cards. Efforts are also on to reduce the size and signature of existing versions and augment its capabilities further.

Versions deployed in all three Armed forces are still being tested regularly, and so are versions currently under development.

LAND-BASED: The land-based BrahMos complex has four to six mobile autonomous launchers, each with three missiles on board that can be fired almost simultaneously. Batteries of the land-based systems have been deployed along India’s land borders in various theatres.

The upgraded land attack version, with capability of cruising at 2.8 Mach, can hit targets at a range up to 400 km with precision. Advanced versions of higher range and speed up to 5 Mach are said to be under development. The ground systems of BrahMos are described as ‘tidy’ as they have very few components.

SHIP-BASED: The Navy began inducting BrahMos on its frontline warships from 2005. These have the capability to hit sea-based targets beyond the radar horizon. The Naval version has been successful in sea-to-sea and sea-to-land modes. The BrahMos can be launched as a single unit or in a salvo of up to eight missiles, separated by 2.5-second intervals. These can target a group of frigates with modern missile defence systems.

AIR-LAUNCHED: On November 22, 2017, BrahMos was successfully flight-tested for the first time from a Sukhoi-30MKI against a sea-based target in the Bay of Bengal. It has since been successfully tested multiple times.

BrahMos-equipped Sukhoi-30s, which have a range of 1,500 km at a stretch without mid-air refuelling, are considered key strategic deterrence for adversaries both along land borders and in the strategically important Indian Ocean Region. The IAF is said to be integrating BrahMos with 40 Sukhoi-30 fighter jets across the various bases.

SUBMARINE-LAUNChED: This version can be launched from around 50 m below the water surface. The canister-stored missile is launched vertically from the pressure hull of the submarine, and uses different settings for underwater and out-of-the-water flights. This version was successfully tested first in March 2013 from a submerged platform off the coast of Visakhapatnam.

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Sushant Kulkarni