Missiles make might.
Key point: Once again, the Himalayan mountains have become a flashpoint between India and China.
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.
China is not a member of the regime, but would dearly appreciate the chance to deal in the market. India, on the other hand, would like to join the Nuclear Suppliers Group which regulates which nuclear technologies are permitted for trade. But China blocked its accession in June this year.
By adhering to the MTCR, India gained access to it—and now hopes to use that access as leverage versus China. Notionally, they could arrange a quid pro quo trading Indian NSG membership for Chinese admission to the MTCR. Whether it will work out that way remains to be seen.
Multiple Targets for Multiple Launchers
The BrahMos isn’t just an antishipping weapon—it also can hit ground-based targets, and is ideal for precision attacks against fixed installations such as radars, command centers, airbases and enemy missile batteries. It can also potentially carry a 660-pound nuclear warhead, though that doesn’t appear to be its primary intended use.
There are quite a few variants of the BrahMos missile designed to be used by the different platforms of the Indian military against either land or naval targets.
The Indian Navy’s BrahMos missiles mostly use eight-cell Vertical Launch System launchers. Six of its frigates and two destroyers have a single BrahMos launcher, while three of its destroyers have twin launchers. More BrahMos equipped ships are under construction.
The Navy has also successfully tested in 2013 a submarine-launched version which is expected to enter service in future vessels. Submarine-launched BrahMoses could potentially be launched fairly close to the target without being detected.
India has also developed the BrahMos-A, designed to be launched from its Su-30MKI strike fighters. Finding a ways to mount such a heavy missile on a fighter plane has taken years of work—in the end, the Su-30s had to be specially modified for the task. The first test flight was carried out in June this year. India has already requisitioned two hundred BrahMos-As, and plans to convert forty Su-30MKIs to carry them. This offers yet another flexible means to deliver the missiles close enough to their intended targets.
Finally, there are ground-launched Mobile Autonomous Launcher systems mounted on twelve-wheeler trucks. These are organized in regiments of five launchers with over 100 missiles. India is deploying a fourth missile regiment to Arunachal Pradesh, reportedly at cost of over 4,300 crore (over $640 million dollars.)
These are what have spooked the Chinese military, particularly since the new Block III missiles are designed to steep dive at seventy-degree angles to hit targets on the rear slopes of mountains. This has obvious application against the heavily militarized Himalayan border with China.
that India is pressing ahead with the development of even deadlier BrahMos variants. To begin with, some reports imply India tested in 2012 a version with a new satellite guidance system and a range of five hundred kilometers. Some argue that even the regular BrahMos may be capable of going further than its claimed 290-kilometer range.
India will also soon introduce the next-generation BrahMos-NG, which is smaller (only three thousand pounds,) faster (Mach 3.5,) and stealthier (smaller Radar-Cross Section.) It should be deployable from land, sea and air systems, including multiple missiles carried on fourth-generation fighters.
Additionally, India will soon be testing a scramjet-powered hypersonic BrahMos II missile capable of zipping along at Mach 7. Needless to say, these would be even harder to detect and shoot down and afford defending ships just seconds to react. The U.S. military has only just begun development a hypersonic missile of its own.
Russia, for its part, has appreciated the BrahMos’s commercial success, but seems to have only limited intention of fielding it: it may potentially deploy the system to Gorshkov-class frigates. It has more capable Zircon missiles (believed to be the model for the BrahMos II) in development and longer-range Oniks missiles already in service.
Showdown Over the Himalayas—and the South China Sea?
The BrahMos is a new game piece in India’s tense relationship with China. Chinese troops invaded India’s Himalayan border in a 1962 war that is still bitterly remembered in India. In the last decade, the Chinese border garrisons began to rapidly increase in size, leading to similar escalation on the Indian side. China’s close relationship with India’s historical enemy, Pakistan, and its development of military base in Gwadhar, Pakistan—seen as an attempt to encircle India—are another source of tension.
In the fall of 2014, Chinese President Xi Jinping visited India in order to improve relations. However, a group of Chinese border troops appeared to have disregarded the civilian leadership and launched an embarrassing (though fortunately nonviolent) standoff that cast a shadow on any progress made.
The BrahMos cannot reach very far into Chinese. Although China is upset about the BrahMos missile’s presence on its border, it probably should be more worried that India is announcing it is close to a deal for selling the weapon to Vietnam.
Suffice to say, relations between China and Vietnam have a very long and complicated history, including a war in 1979. They recently have chilled over Chinese claims to the South China Sea. A particularly low point came with a Chinese oil expedition in 2014 that began drilling in Vietnamese-claimed waters, causing violent protests and a naval confrontation.
The Vietnamese Navy isn’t going to match China’s rapidly expanding flotilla any time soon. But small Vietnamese ships with BrahMos missiles could pose a major threat to China’s larger military vessel. Thus, if Vietnam does acquire the weapon, this would affect the balance of power in the Pacific.
Therefore, India may attempt to cultivate an alliance with Vietnam in order to counterbalance China.
Other countries interested in the BrahMos include Malaysia, Brazil, Chile, Venezuela, South Africa and Indonesia.
Reading the Cruise Missile Tea Leaves
The politics of the BrahMos system also highlights the limited potential of a Chinese-Russian alliance. Russia historically has strong ties with both India and Vietnam. It’s relationship with China has been more complicated (notice how that word keeps showing up?) After an energy agreement in 2014, there has been much speculation of a Chinese–Russian alliance based on shared authoritarian ideology and a desire to counterbalance the United States. However, the sale of the BrahMos missile to India and Vietnam illustrates that while Russia wishes to remain on good terms with all three countries, it is not yet committed to an alliance with China the expense of its economic interests or its own concerns with its powerful neighbor.
What can China do in response to the threat posed by the BrahMos missile?
Simple! It can de-escalate the conflict with India. India is a democracy with all the messy internal political deliberations that implies—it’s not about to launch a massive surprise invasion of the Himalayas. A well-managed de-escalation wouldn’t have to carry a huge political cost. The average Chinese citizen likely doesn’t have strong feelings on the precise boundaries of the McMahon line.
Disputes over lightly populated Himalayan mountains shouldn’t constitute a truly substantive conflict of interest between the two countries—but they have been allowed to flourish into full blown military competition. It is obvious the two Asian powers are wary of each other. But both would be better served by reciprocated détente, allowing billions spent fortifying the border to be redirected to the economic needs of the two countries.
Sébastien Roblin holds a Master’s Degree in Conflict Resolution from Georgetown University and served as a university instructor for the Peace Corps in China. He has also worked in education, editing, and refugee resettlement in France and the United States. He currently writes on security and military history for War Is Boring. This article first appeared in 2016.
Image: Creative Commons.