The BrahMos Project: History and Outlook
In 2016 it will be 15 years since the first launch of the PJ-10 BRAHMOS supersonic cruise missile. Let us recall the key milestones of the Russian-Indian joint venture BrahMos Aerospace, which is one of the most successful international cooperation projects in the military rocket industry.
In 1983 India launched its ambitious Integrated Guided Missile Development Program. As part of that program, Indian rocket scientists and engineers developed the Prithvi and Agni ballistic missiles, which now constitute the country’s nuclear-missile shield. But conflicts of the post-Cold-War era – especially the Gulf War – put into stark relief the need for cruise missiles to augment the ballistic missile arsenal. The need was keenly felt by the Indian Navy. For a rapidly rising naval power such as India, achieving technological and military superiority in the Indian Ocean was a crucially important goal.
Any attempt by India to develop an indigenous supersonic anti-ship missile would have faced numerous technological challenges that would have taken many years to overcome. That is why the Indian leadership chose to seek technological partnership from Russia. The two countries already had a wealth of experience in defense technology cooperation at the time, including cooperation in the area of missile weapons. For example, in the 1980s the Indian Navy leased the K-43 nuclear submarine from the Soviet Union; the boat was renamed the INS Chakra. In 1985-1986 Soviet industry developed a special export version of a submarine-launched cruise missiles called Ametist-OP specifically for that submarine. There were also plans to deliver an export version of the Malakhit-15E missile system to the Indian Navy, but they were never implemented. Both of the aforementioned missile systems were developed by NPO Mashinostroyenia (NPO Mash), a leading erstwhile Soviet and Russian developer of sea-based cruise missiles. This is why the Indians chose that reputable Russian company as the main technology partner for the BrahMos project.
In February 1998 the Russian and Indian governments signed an agreement to set up the BrahMos Private Limited joint venture. The name BrahMos is a combination of the first syllables in the names of two great rivers: the Brahmaputra in India, and the Moskva in Russia. On behalf of India the agreement was signed by Abdul Kalam, a leading Indian rocket scientist who was serving as head of the Defense Research and Development Oranisation (DRDO) at the time, and later became the President of India. This demonstrates how important the project was for India. The BrahMos program was not just about building a powerful and capable missile. As part of that program, India has also gained access to the latest missile technologies that can be put to good use elsewhere.
The project immediately began to make rapid progress. Thanks to the experience and expertise of NPO Mash. On 12th June 2001, BrahMos performed the first test launch from a stationary launcher at a firing range on the Chandipur coast. In August 2001 the BrahMos missile was displayed for the first time at the MAKS 2001 international airshow in Moscow. The first test-launch of the missile from a ship was conducted in the year 2003 in the Bay of Bengal. The first test-launch from a mobile ground launcher followed in 2004. In 2006-2009 the Indian armed forces placed order on BrahMos for BRAHMOS supersonic cruise missiles. In 2008, for the first time, BRAHMOS missile was successfully launched from INS Ranvir in vertical configuration.
At present, three regiments of the Indian Army are armed with BRAHMOS missiles. The fourth regiment will be armed with BRAHMOS Block III. 09 Indian Naval ships installed with BrahMos weapon system.
The Indian Navy also plans to install these missiles on other new ships, such as Project 17A frigates (there are plans to build seven of them) and a new series of fleet destroyers (the first ship in the series, the INS Visakhapatnam, was laid down in October 2013).
The long list of ships and ground units armed with the BRAHMOS is an excellent demonstration of the missile’s main distinctive feature, which is versatility. The Indian armed forces required a missile that could be launched from the ground, sea, and air. Such a solution translates into large savings on manufacturing, service and maintenance, and personnel training. In the near future, new BRAHMOS modifications will also be installed on aircraft and submarines.
In 2008 efforts began to integrate the BRAHMOS into the weapons systems of the Indian Air Force’s Su-30MKI multirole fighters. Two aircraft were modified at HAL Nasik to undergo the necessary fitment. Several important changes were made, including a redistribution of the load on the load-bearing parts of the airframe. In February 2015, during the Aero India-2015 expo in Bangalore, the first Su-30MKI fighter fully modified and capable of being armed with the air-launched version of the BRAHMOS-A supersonic cruise missile was delivered to the Indian Air Force. The ceremony was attended by Suvarna Raju, head of Hindustan Aeronautics Limited, and Sudhir Mishra, head of the Russian-Indian joint venture BrahMos Aerospace among other high profile guests from the Indian Air Force. Indian submarines will also be armed with the new cruise missiles. The first BrahMos launch from a submerged platform was conducted in the Bay of Bengal in March 2013. These missiles are a strong contender for fitment in the new generation of India’s non-nuclear submarines, the Project 75I boats.
The Indian armed forces have already received several hundred BrahMos missiles. Also, BrahMos Aerospace is very close to signing its first export contract. Interest in the new cruise missile has already been expressed by Vietnam (which is an important Indian defense customer), Malaysia, Indonesia, South Africa, Brunei, Chile, Brazil, and Venezuela. The company therefore has all the reasons to be optimistic about the future.
What, then, are the main reasons behind the project’s success? First of all, both Russia and India needed it to succeed. India required a modern missile system that can be launched from different carriers, as well as the underlying technology. For Russia – and especially for NPO Mash – the BrahMos project was badly needed breath of fresh air amid the severe economic crisis of the 1990s. Gerbert Efremov, honorary chief designer of NPO Mash and developer of the P-800 Oniks missile system, which pioneered many of the solutions later used in the BrahMos, once said that the Indian contracts were instrumental in keeping the Russian company afloat. Even the first few consulting contracts signed with the Indians enabled NPO Mash to retain dozens of key specialists; without their expertise, many of the company’s current projects would have been impossible. The signing of the actual contract to build the BrahMos missiles enabled NPO Mash to start investing in new equipment and personnel training programs for the first time since the late 1980s.
The experience of running joint ventures with foreign partners gained as part of the BrahMos program was also very valuable for the Russian defense industry. That experience includes ways of overcoming red tape, the modalities of technology transfer, and coordination of efforts during the development of new weapons systems. In essence, the program has been the golden standard of defense industry cooperation, and an example to be emulated by other cooperation projects of 21st century in this area. Without the success story of BrahMos Aerospace Ltd, other large Russian-Indian programs would have been impossible. These include major undertakings with large Indian participation, such as the FGFA fifth-generation fighter program.
Nevertheless, obviously mutual benefit itself will not guarantee the success of a joint venture. It also takes leaders who can push the project forward despite obstacles, persuade people, and solve various managerial and technical problems. In that sense, the BrahMos project was lucky to have the leadership of Abdul Kalam, India’s leading rocket scientist who later became the President of India. He drew up the key requirements and specifications for new missile system, secured financing for the project, and facilitated coordination with the Russian partners. An invaluable contribution to the program’s success was also made by A. Sivathanu Pillai, the first CEO&MD of the joint venture. It is under his guidance that the project achieved key milestones, including the first test launches, the signing of the first contracts, and entry into service with the Indian Army and Navy.
In 2014 he was succeeded by Sudhir Kumar Mishra as the head of BrahMos Aerospace Ltd. Dr. Mishra has a huge wealth of experience in the rocket industry. He began his career in the 1980s working in Abdul Kalam’s team on India’s Integrated Guided Missile Development Program. He later worked on several joint missile projects with Russia and Israel (BrahMos and the Barak SAM system, respectively). His achievements have been recognized by several prestigious Indian awards, including the DRDO Scientist of the Year award in the defense R&D category in 2009, and the Machinist Super CEO title in 2015.1 In addition, Dr. Mishra has rich experience of working in Russia; he spent several years serving as Counsellor Defense technology at the Indian Embassy in Moscow.
The new BrahMos Aerospace chief has set some ambitious objectives before the company. These include completing the launch from Su 30MKI; launching mass production of the airborne and submarine-launched versions of the missile; and developing a more compact version, designated as the BRAHMOS-NG(Next Generation). Contracts with Russia for the development of the BRAHMOS-NG are expected to be signed in the near future.2 A significant reduction in the missile’s size and weight will make it possible for Su-30MKI jets to carry a complement of three missiles, making that plane significantly more capable in destroying targets at sea and on the ground. This will also enable the Indian Air Force and Navy to use it with other aircraft, such as the MiG-29K carrier-based fighter, the indigenously designed Tejas light fighter, and the Rafale fighters supplied by France. Additionally, the BRAHMOS-NG can be offered to many foreign customers who operate Russian and European-made combat planes. Finally, miniaturization solutions developed for the BRAHMOS -NG can later be used by BrahMos Aerospace specialists in the development of a compact missile for the future FGFA fifth-generation fighter, which will carry its main weapons in internal bays.
The main challenge for BrahMos Aerospace and its Russian partners, however, is to develop a hypersonic missile. A mock-up of a BRAHMOS hypersonic version, designated the BrahMos-II, was unveiled at the Aero India exhibition in 2013. It was announced that the future missile has about the same range as the existing BrahMos versions, but will be able to reach the velocity of up to 7M, making it almost invulnerable to modern air defense systems. The project faces a whole host of complex technological challenges, such as developing a reliable hypersonic engine, a new targeting system, and new super-strong materials. Nevertheless, successful experience of cooperation between Russian and Indian specialists gives reasons to believe that they will be up to the task. A hypersonic version of the BRAHMOS will take the capability of the Indian and Russian armed forces to a whole new level, providing additional security guarantees for the Eurasian continent in the 21st century.
1. Shri Sudhir Mishra CEO MD BrahMos Aerospace honoured with The First Machinist Super CEO of the Year2015 Award //brahmand.com.
2. Russia and India to sign an agreement on developing a smaller version of the Brahmos missile in the summer of 2015 // RIA Novosti, February 18, 2015.
Centre for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies (CAST)