Extending the range of the Brahmos-A would be technically far more challenging than extending the range of the surface launched variants of the missile, since the missile developers would be forced to increase fuel capacity without increasing weight, possibly through use of composites. Also, they would need to factor in the consequences of any increase in length of the missile. It is possible that Brahmos Aerospace, on its own or at the behest of its Russian partner, would be tempted to take up the lesser challenge of modifying the surface launched variant of the missile. To prevent this from happening, the IAF must take ownership of the project and steer the upgrade to maximise return on investment.
The BrahMos missile is a variant of the Russian P-800 Oniks missile, marketed abroad as Yakhont…
In October 2016, when the Indian Prime Minister (PM) and the Russian President met for their annual summit on the sidelines of the BRICS summit in Goa, the two countries reached an agreement to develop a longer range variant of the BrahMos missile. Referring to the agreement, Russian President Vladimir Putin told the Russian media, “We have also agreed to improve the BrahMos missile which will be land, air and sea-launched. We will also work to increase its range,” said Putin.
In December 2016, Minister of State for Defence Dr Subhash Bhamre confirmed the agreement in a written reply in the Lok Sabha. “Subsequent to India joining the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), Russia and India have agreed to extend the range of BrahMos supersonic cruise missile beyond 300 km. The proposal for undertaking joint technical development work for extending range beyond 300 km has been executed between India and Russia.” The BrahMos missile has several variants. It is not clear at this stage which variant of the BrahMos is proposed to be upgraded. It would be nice if the range of all variants is extended and some would interpret President Putin’s statement above as saying as much. However, there would be major technical challenges in doing so.
The BrahMos missile is a variant of the Russian P-800 Oniks missile, marketed abroad as Yakhont. The Oniks reportedly has a range of 600 km, but its export variants like Yakhont and BrahMos are limited to a maximum range of 300 km in order to comply with Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) export restrictions. The BrahMos is significantly shorter than the Oniks (8.4m vs 8.9m) and slightly narrower (0.6m vs 0.7m). Both missiles weigh 3,000 kg.
The BrahMos was conceived and developed as a surface launched missile…
There are three variants of the BrahMos:
- Block-1 Anti Shipping Cruise Missile (ASCM) variant with a seeker optimised to locate and track ships.
- Block-2 & Block-3 Land Attack Cruise Missile (LACM) variants with discriminating seeker capable of picking out land targets from amidst ground clutter.
- BrahMos-A Air Launched Cruise Missile (ALCM) variant which can be carried and launched by an upgraded Su-30MKI aircraft.
The ASCM variant of the BrahMos is used exclusively by the IN. The LACM variant is used both by the IN and the Indian Army. BrahMos-A, which is still under development, would be used exclusively by the Indian Air Force (IAF) to attack land targets. The surface launched variants of the missile have the same external dimensions and weight, but BrahMos-A is significantly different physically; it has a smaller solid propellant booster and is lighter (2,550 kg vs 3000 kg) and shorter (7.9m vs 8.4m).
Despite its reduced size and weight, the BrahMos-A is the heaviest ALCM known. The Russian Kh-101/102 (conventional and nuclear versions respectively) ALCM, carried by Tu-95MS and Tu-160 bombers comes second with a launch weight estimated at between 2,200–2,400 kg.
A relatively limited inventory of missiles would provide adequate coverage, reducing procurement and maintenance costs…
As is evident from the photo at Fig 1, the BrahMos-A barely fits on a Su-30MKI, the largest operational fighter in the world. Fitted on the underbelly pylon of the aircraft, the missile protrudes ahead of the Su-30MKI’s air intakes. HAL used computational fluid dynamics modeling to establish that the missile’s protruding nose section would not disturb the airflow into the air intakes before committing to the upgrade.
For increased range, the BrahMos would need to carry more fuel, which would entail altering the dimensions of the missile to accommodate a larger fuel tank. The missile diameter, length, or both would need to be increased. Higher fuel loading and bigger airframe could result in greater weight. Launchers for the surface-launched BrahMos variants could be easily modified to accommodate the increased dimensions and weight of the missile, but not the launcher for BrahMos-A because of technical challenges that I will dwell on later.
A longer range surface-launched BrahMos represents a low hanging fruit, but it is important that the missile developer, BrahMos Aerospace, does not reach for it because the operational utility of an extended range surface launched BrahMos would be limited by challenges in targeting and in porting the upgrade to the ALCM variant of the missile.
The range of the BrahMos missile varies sharply with its flight profile and can drop to as low as 120 km if the missile is flying a lo-lo-lo flight profile. The maximum range of 300 km is achieved with a hi-hi-hi flight profile. Typically, the missile is programmed to fly a “hi-lo” or “hi-lo-hi” profile, in which case the range would be between 120 km to 300 km, depending on the duration of the individual legs. During hostilities, the Indian Navy (IN) would use the ASCM variant of the BrahMos to target enemy ships and the LACM variant to target coastal installation such as ports and radars. The Indian Army would use the LACM missile to target enemy formations and logistics hubs within or near the TBA.
Only the BrahMos-A can be fitted with a nuclear warhead and used in a strategic role…
With increase in the range of an ASCM, targeting and navigation challenges surface. To target an enemy ship at, say, 500 km range, the launch platform must rely on air/space based surveillance and relay, to detect and track the target and relay targeting information to the missile. In addition, the missile needs satellite based navigation to reach its target. Effective utilisation of a longer range BrahMos ASCM would require heavy investments to augment the IN’s surveillance and relay capability, so a longer range BrahMos ASCM isn’t the low hanging fruit that it first appears to be!
Similarly, the Indian Army would gain little from increased range of its BrahMos LACM because the Indian Army is primarily interesting in hitting targets within or near the Tactical Battle Area (TBA). A longer range BrahMos would give the maximum bang for the buck when aimed at static targets that are strategic in nature and that is just what the BrahMos-A ALCM was developed for!
The BrahMos was conceived and developed as a surface launched missile. The weight and size of the missile were not important issues during development of the weapon system. It is not surprising therefore that adopting the missile for air launch proved to be both technically challenging as well as expensive. Sukhoi developed Su-30MKI modifications for under-belly carriage of the missile and tweaked the fire control avionics to target and launch the missile. HAL strengthened the undercarriage to enable the Su-30MKI to take-off and land with the BrahMos missile. BrahMos Aerospace designed and developed the pylon for the humongous missile with design help from Sukhoi. The six-metre long pylon fabricated using high strength aluminium is the largest in the world and weighs 350 kg!
Fitting nuclear warheads on surface-launched BrahMos variants would be highly destabilising…
The BrahMos-A project was sanctioned in January 2011, after feasibility studies. The first live firing trial of the missile is due in February 2017. Operational induction of the missile is still a year away, at the very least. Eight years to modify a missile for carriage by just one aircraft type says it all! The IAF eventually seeks to integrate 216 BrahMos-A missiles on 42 Sukhoi fighters. The point being that only a limited number of Su-30MKIs would be able to carry the missile!
If range extension is first implemented on the surface launched variants of BrahMos, it is a moot point as to whether the upgrade would ever be ported to the BrahMos-A. The Su-30MKI has been stretched for enough for carriage of the Brahmos-A.
Maximising the Bang for the Buck
In order to maximise the bang for the buck, it is important that range extension is first implemented on BrahMos-A and then ported to the surface launched variants of the missile for two reasons.
- Airframe changes made to BrahMos-A would be more easily implemented on the surface launched variants of the missile than vice-versa.
- The BrahMos-A variant is the most versatile variant of the missile and can be used in a tactical as well strategic role.
Aerial launch makes the BrahMos-A far more versatile than its sibling variants.
Longer range BrahMos-A in combination with the range and penetration of the Su-30MKI would credibly counter Chinese medium range missiles positioned in Tibet…
Quick Deployment and Use
Securely stocked at one or two airbases, the BrahMos-A could be deployed and used in any sector of our land border within two-three hours to address an emerging threat. It could also be used to protect our island territories and Sea Lines of Communication. A relatively limited inventory of missiles would provide adequate coverage, reducing procurement and maintenance costs.
Longer range BrahMos-A in combination with the range and penetration of the Su-30MKI would credibly counter Chinese medium range missiles positioned in Tibet and targeting India. The IAF would acquire the ability to more easily disrupt operations by the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) from airbases in Tibet . It would pose logistics and operational challenges to the PLA that would deter adventurism on their part.
A longer range BrahMos-A equipped with a nuclear warhead would make the air leg of our nuclear triad very credible, something that isn’t the case today, because of the limitations of nuclear toss bombing. It is important to note that only the BrahMos-A can be fitted with a nuclear warhead and used in a strategic role. Nuclear armed ALCMs can be stocked and secured at a single airbase under tight control. Fitting nuclear warheads on surface-launched BrahMos variants would be highly destabilising because launch authority would need to be devolved to junior commanders and the nuclear warheads would be less secure.
Extending the range of the BrahMos-A would be technically far more challenging than extending the range of the surface launched variants of the missile, since the missile developers would be forced to increase fuel capacity without increasing weight, possibly through use of composites. Also, they would need to factor in the consequences of any increase in length of the missile. It is possible that BrahMos Aerospace, on its own or at the behest of its Russian partner, would be tempted to take up the lesser challenge of modifying the surface launched variant of the missile. To prevent this from happening, the IAF must take ownership of the project and steer the upgrade to maximise return on investment.