The Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) will soon be equipped with the world’s fastest cruise missile. The first battery of the made in India BRAHMOS supersonic missile for the Philippines Marines Corps’ Coastal Defence Regiment is expected to arrive by December 2023, and the Army is likely to procure two batteries this year. In all, two services of the AFP will deploy five BRAHMOS batteries for coastal defence roles.
Developed by BrahMos Aerospace, a joint venture between India’s DRDO and Russia’s NPO Mashinostroyeniye, the stealthy BRAHMOS uses ramjet engine technology to achieve speeds of up to 3,000 kph, making it a deadly addition to Manila’s arsenal. The 3.2 ton missile has a range of 290 km and a 300 kg warhead. Its most striking feature is its blistering speed, which combined with its sea skimming capability makes it harder to intercept. If at all enemy warships are able to detect the missile, they will see only when it appears on the horizon at a distance of 26 km, giving them just 28 seconds to take evasive action – or say their prayers.
In 2022, BrahMos Aerospace signed a $375 million deal with the AFP. The missiles supplied under this deal will equip the Philippines’ shore-based anti-ship missile batteries amid tensions with China in the South China Sea. Manila is also reportedly considering a follow-on order of around $300 million. According to the company’s CEO, Atul D. Rane, the Philippines is “looking at more systems”.
The missile gives the Philippines an asymmetric advantage over China. According to Strategy Page, “The BRAHMOS is designed mainly to go after high value targets that require a large warhead and great accuracy. It could take out enemy headquarters or key weapons systems (especially those employing electronic or nuclear weapons.)”
If the Philippines is able to equip its naval vessels with the BRAHMOS, it can send cheap missile boats armed with the weapon and take out much larger or strategic Chinese targets. China’s coastal areas, including the heavily industrialised Guangdong region are target-rich and can be attacked with BRAHMOS-armed missile boats without travelling too far from their home bases.
The ship-launched anti-ship version of BRAHMOS can fly at supersonic speed barely 3-4 metres above the surface of the sea, making it ideal for stealth attack against enemy ships. The technology behind the missile makes it a game-changer as no other missile is capable of flying at such speeds and yet skim the seas.
The high speed of the missile combined with its comparatively heavier weight makes it about 15 times more lethal than a conventional anti-ship missile. Any other anti-ship missile will only leave a hole in the hull of the attacked ship, but the BRAHMOS missile will completely obliterate the target. In the anti-ship missile tests done in India, the target ship was completely blown to pieces.
James Holmes, an associate professor of strategy at the US Naval War College, explains the dynamics of destruction caused by the BRAHMOS. “Helter-skelter speed compresses the time air defenders have to respond — and time is the critical determinant in the ‘detect-to-engage’ sequence,” he says.
“It allows crews to attempt electronic countermeasures, loft surface-to-air missiles, launch decoys, or — as a last-gasp effort — engage an incoming missile with short-range guns. Shorter detect-to-engage time, then, means fewer rounds or countermeasures in the air to stop or deflect a hostile bird. But there’s another, less obvious advantage to high speed. Velocity imparts kinetic energy to any moving body. Accordingly, one body inflicts more damage when it slams into another at higher speed. Breakneck velocity magnifies a missile’s hitting power beyond the explosive power designed into its payload.”
The missile’s speed and nearly 300 km range means the Philippines’ opponents may not be able to land the first blow in combat. They may have to take a pounding for some time before hitting back.
According to the US Navy’s Holmes, any weapon is like a “black box” until it’s used in combat against real, thinking adversaries with the capacity to deploy countermeasures or strike back at the launch platform. So until the missile is fired in anger, one wouldn’t know how effective it is.
He however adds: “If nothing else, Russian involvement in the programme should give us pause. Westerners have long ridiculed Soviet-built hardware, but the Soviet Navy was asymmetric before asymmetric warfare was cool. Soviet weapons scientists and engineers displayed impressive ingenuity, fielding an imposing array of anti-ship missiles. Some remain in service today, bedevilling prospective opponents. For instance, Sovremenny-class guided-missile destroyers transferred to China’s navy sport SS-N-22 Sunburn ASCMs designed to evade or overpower Aegis-equipped destroyers and cruisers. With its high speed and capacity to make radical evasive manoeuvres during its terminal phase of flight, the Sunburn kept American air defenders up nights during my time in uniform — and doubtless still does so today. To all appearances, the BRAHMOS is cast in the same mould.”
Filling a gap
The missile sale comes in the backdrop of heightened PLA Navy activity in the South China Sea. In May 2023, the Chinese navy had engaged two vessels of the Philippine Coast Guard in “dangerous manoeuvres” that had amounted to “confrontation”.
Manila is also finding itself in the crossfire on the issue of Taiwan. In an interview, President Ferdinand Marcos said that if a conflict occurred over Taiwan, the Philippines would be brought into the conflict because of sheer proximity. “When we look at the situation in the area, especially the tensions in the Taiwan Strait, we can see that just by our geographical location, should there in fact be conflict in that area it’s very hard to imagine a scenario where the Philippines will not somehow get involved,” he said.
The BRAHMOS arrives at the right time to bolster Manila’s defences, along with the US which is supplying the High Mobility Artillery Rocket System or HIMARS to the Philippines. For the AFP, Indian weapons may offer more bang for the buck unlike the more expensive American systems.
India’s arms diplomacy
The BRAHMOS deal with the Philippines is the first-ever export of the Indian missile system, marking a significant milestone for India’s defence exports. In June 2023, New Delhi offered a line of credit to procure Indian military equipment in a meeting between Philippine and Indian foreign ministers. The line of credit is focussed on meeting Manila’s defence requirements and was previously offered in 2018. Earlier this year, 21 personnel from the Coastal Defence Regiment completed training on the unit’s future BRAHMOS anti-ship missiles in India.
In its quest to emerge as a major arms exporter and bolster strategic ties with friendly countries, India has drawn up a list of nations to whom major weapons systems can be sold in the years ahead. According to media reports, the second country on the list is Indonesia, while Vietnam, the UAE, Saudi Arabia and South Africa have also shown an interest in acquiring the Mach 2.4 BRAHMOS.
Arms exports are not just about making money. They can serve as a means to establish and strengthen diplomatic relations with other countries. It can lead to strategic partnerships and collaborations in defence and security matters. Becoming an arms exporter can enhance India’s geopolitical influence. Countries that depend on Indian weaponry are likely to develop closer ties and cooperation with India, leading to enhanced regional influence.
The BRAHMOS sale to Manila will undoubtedly upset China’s calculations. China has long protested India’s involvement in littoral disputes in the South China Sea. But Beijing’s argument is hypocritical. After all, it is China that supplied nuclear weapons to India’s neighbour Pakistan. The BRAHMOS sale could be India’s low-cost pushback strategy.
If the Philippines Navy is also equipped with the BRAHMOS, it can provide protection to Indian oil companies prospecting in the disputed waters. In 2011 India signed an agreement with Vietnam to expand and promote oil exploration in the South China Sea and then reconfirmed its decision to carry on despite the Chinese challenge to the legality of the Indian presence. It is in this backdrop that India has regularly despatched warships to the region.
India’s argument is that if China expands its presence in South Asia and the Indian Ocean region, then New Delhi can do the same thing in countries and waters closer to China.
–The writer is a globally cited defence analyst. His work has been published by leading think tanks, and quoted extensively in books on diplomacy, counter terrorism, warfare and economic development. The views expressed are of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the views of Raksha Anirveda