While many of us remain mesmerized by the unfolding shambles in the Middle East, the world’s two most populous countries have gotten into a tiff over missiles. And I’m not referring to the ballistic kind for once.
“India deploying supersonic missiles on the border has exceeded its own needs for self-defense and poses a serious threat to China’s Tibet and Yunnan provinces,” complained the People’s Liberation Army Daily. “The deployment of BrahMos missile is bound to increase the competition and antagonism in the China–India relations and will have a negative impact on the stability of the region.”
“Our threat perceptions and security concerns are our own, and how we address these by deploying assets on our territory should be no one else's concern,” an Indian military source sniffed in response.
We’ll first look at the BrahMos’s capabilities and why they are considered a big deal, then plunge into why their deployment and export by is perceived as such a threat by China.
Indeed, the BrahMos cruise missile is stealthy, fast and extremely difficult to shoot down. It also has become a point of contention in a complicated web of overlapping alliances between India, China, Russia and potentially Vietnam.
Supersonic Carrier Killers
BrahMos began in the 1990s as a joint project between Russia and India to develop an Indian version of the P-800 Oniks cruise missile. The missile’s name is a portmanteau of the rivers Brahmaputra and Moskva in India and Russia, respectively.
Cruise missiles are designed to be fired at long ranges from their targets so as not to expose the launching platform to enemy retaliation. The quintessential cruise missile is the Tomahawk, developed in the United States. Fired by ships and aircraft, the 2,900-pound missile can cruise up to one thousand miles (depending on the model) at a speed of five hundred miles per hour—roughly the speed of a typical airliner—before slamming into its target.
During the Cold War, Russia developed a different style of cruise missile designed to take out American aircraft carriers. These flew over the speed of sound to better evade the carrier’s defenses—which include air-to-air missiles fired by fighters, surface-to-air missiles and Gatling-cannon Close-in weapon systems , or CIWS. They were also larger to increase the likelihood of achieving a kill in one hit.
Ramjets were used to maintain high speeds over long distances. A ramjet uses incoming air at high speeds to achieve compression instead of using a compressor, saving on fuel. However, a ramjet needs a boost from another source to help it achieve that airflow in the first place. In the case of the BrahMos, a rocket provides the initial acceleration before the ramjet takes over.
The BrahMos is actually slightly faster at Mach 2.8 than the P-800. It also weighs twice as much as a Tomahawk, at six thousand pounds.
The combination of twice the weight and four times greater speed as a Tomahawk result in vastly more kinetic energy when striking the target. Despite having a smaller warhead, the effects on impact are devastating.
Even more importantly, the BrahMos’s ability to maintain supersonic speeds while skimming at low altitude makes it very difficult to detect and intercept. To cap it off, the BrahMos performs an evasive “S-maneuver” shortly before impact, making it difficult to shoot down at close range.
A modern ship targeted by the BrahMos could respond with layered defenses to shoot down the missiles: ripple-fired medium- and short-range antiaircraft missiles and close-range CIWS. But an effective attack would involve firing multiple missiles in order to overwhelm these defensive countermeasures.
If the attack is launched within 120 kilometers of the target, it can skim at very low altitude the entire way to the target. While missiles can be detected earlier if benefiting from AWACs aircraft, a ship would likely detect a sea-skimming missile at range of only thirty kilometers, affording the vessel only a thirty second time window to respond. One intriguing analysis argues that a U.S. Arleigh Burke-class destroyer, with its layered air defenses, could not handle more twelve BrahMos missiles at once and that an entire carrier battle group would be saturated by more than sixty-four.
Of course, though India has some unpleasant memories of an encounter with a U.S. carrier group in the past, they probably have a different foe in mind.
In any case, the BrahMos has a major limitation…
The Missile Technology Control Regime
The BrahMos has a relatively short range—only 190 miles (290 kilometers)—under half the range of the Russian Oniks missile. This means that BrahMos launch platforms need to be relatively close to their targets—potentially within ranges they may be detected and fired back at.
This was purposefully done in order to conform to the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), a partnership of thirty-five countries which restricts the export of cruises missiles with ranges over three hundred kilometers. Russia is a member of the partnership—and just this June 28, India acceded into membership. And here we get into some interesting geopolitical strategy.