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After long development plan, BrahMos comes into its own

Air-launched version in testing; export interest from many countries

Ajai Shukla  |  New Delhi 

During the First Gulf War (1990-91), the world watched television images of Tomahawk cruise missiles flying along the streets of Baghdad and precisely entering targeted buildings through open windows. Yet, even the iconic Tomahawk was effective mainly against incapable and weakened enemies like Iraq and Afghanistan. In contrast, countries with potent air defences and capable fighter aircraft can detect and shoot down cruise missiles, most of which fly at sub-sonic speeds, i.e. slower than sound which travels at 1,224 kilometres per hour. In contrast, the Indo-Russian BrahMos, its name an intermingling of the Brahmaputra and Moskva rivers, is the world’s first cruise missile that flies at high supersonic speeds: Mach 2.8, or 3,450 kilometres per hour. Since it hugs the ground, enemy radars can detect it only at short ranges. By the time they fire a missile to down it, the BrahMos is far away, perhaps already close to its target. Last Saturday, India test-flew a potent, new version of the BrahMos: a lightened missile that can be carried on, and fired from, the Sukhoi-30MKI fighter that is the backbone of the Indian Air Force (IAF) fleet. Transported on the Su-30MKI to the vicinity of the target, this overcomes the BrahMos’ one drawback: its short range of just 295 kilometres. This range restriction was imposed on the Indo-Russian missile by the provisions of the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), which prevents member countries from transferring missiles, including unmanned aerial vehicles, which can carry a 500-kilogramme payload to a distance of 300 kilometres. Russia is an MTCR member-partner; and India, which became a member-partner on Monday, has voluntarily adhered to MTCR guidelines since September 2008. While this imposed a 300-kilometre limit on the BrahMos’ range, there are no technological difficulties in increasing it. Both countries wave away enquiries about plans to do so. With the BrahMos having carefully kept out of the MTCR’s purview, plans to export it are afoot. In May, the BrahMos Aerospace spokesperson, Praveen Pathak, told TASS: “Talks [for the export of BrahMos] with countries like UAE, Chile, South Africa and Vietnam are in advanced stages.” He said discussions were also under way with the Philippines, South Korea, Algeria, Greece, Malaysia, Thailand, Egypt, Singapore, Venezuela and Bulgaria. Including India’s own requirements of the missile, Defence Research and Development Organisation officials indicate that eventually $15 billion worth of BrahMos could be built for various militaries. If that happens, economies of scale would bring down its current high cost. A long development path New Delhi and Moscow hold up BrahMos as their most successful defence project. It germinated in 1992-93, when India and Russia, then in dire straits, conceived the idea of co-developing a supersonic cruise missile. Russia’s rocket design bureau, NPO Mashinostroyenia, would develop the supersonic propulsion, while DRDO developed the guidance and navigation systems and the command and control elements. The missile burst into public domain with its first test-flight in 2001, which was witnessed by then defence minister Jaswant Singh, and all the service chiefs. What had been developed was a two-stage cruise missile, fired from a canister. The first stage, a solid-propellant engine, rapidly boosts the missile to supersonic speed and then drops off.

The second stage is a liquid-fuel, air-breathing ramjet engine that powers the missile for most of the journey to the target. Quickly realising its potential as an anti-ship missile, the Indian Navy offered two frontline destroyers, INS Rajput and Ranvir, to be fitted with the BrahMos. The admirals insisted it be capable of evading enemy missiles through complex manoeuvres, including right angle turns at supersonic speed. Later, the navy demanded a “salvo capability”, in which warships carrying the BrahMos can fire eight missiles at an enemy flotilla, two seconds apart, each targeting a different enemy warship. With this achieved, the navy demanded a demonstration of these capabilities. In March 2010, INS Ranvir fired a BrahMos missile at a decommissioned vessel which sank quickly after the missile slammed into it above the waterline. Since then, a satisfied navy has included the Brahmos in the arsenal of every Indian capital warship being constructed, including three destroyers of Project 15A, four of Project 15B and seven frigates that will be built under Project 17A. Even Indian warships built in Russia are fitted with the BrahMos. The army too came aboard, given its need for precision firepower in implementing its new “Cold Start” doctrine, also referred to as “proactive strategy”. Given the differences in targeting, range and flight path, the army version of the BrahMos required a different configuration and software. A more precise guidance system was included in a new BrahMos series called Block II. The army then asked for a “steep dive” version for mountains, in which the BrahMos, after flying over a high ridgeline, could dive steeply to strike a target in the valley several thousand feet below. The complex changes needed in guidance software have been implemented in the Block III version. A satisfied army has ordered three regiments of BrahMos. “We are entirely customer-oriented. Any programme that is not oriented to the customer will not succeed”, says K Sivathanu Pillai, the former director of BrahMos Aerospace. Following the navy and army lead, the IAF has asked for two BrahMos versions. One is a surface-to-surface version for striking ground targets that are important for the air battle: enemy radar and communications networks, and forward air bases. A second, lighter version of the BrahMos, its weight pared to 2.5 tonnes, will be carried on the Sukhoi-30MKI for deeper-lying targets. This involved strengthening the fighter’s airframe to allow it to carry a 2.5 tonne payload, and to ensure the missile does not impeded the flow of vast quantities of air needed to keep the fighter’s Saturn-Lyulka AL-31FP engines going. With the missile having already flown on the Su-30MKI, the next step is to test-fire it to ensure the missile separates cleanly from the aircraft, after which its booster will ignite. Also developed and test-fired in 2013 is an underwater-launched BrahMos, which can be fired from a depth of 40-45 metres. In the future is a “hypersonic” version of the Brahmos, which will travel at Mach 5-6. On February 7, 2014, testifying to their confidence in the BrahMos’ future, India and Russia signed a document indefinitely extending the venture.

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First Published: Thu, June 30 2016. 21:19 IST
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