BrahMos test-fired from Sukhoi: India’s emerging tactical cruise missile triad sparks Chinese apprehensions
As a result of the recent BrahMos test, Indian capability for stand-off precision war is substantially expanding leading to rising Chinese apprehensions.
A Sukhoi-30 MKI aircraft of the Indian Air Force successfully test-launched the BrahMos supersonic cruise missile's air-launched version on Wednesday. The missile was tested over the Balasore test-firing range against a sea-based target in the Bay of Bengal. With this test, India has commenced the drive to complete its tactical triad of the sea, air and ground-launched cruise missiles. The air-launched BrahMos will be tested for another year in a series of tests and inducted in the year 2019.
After Nirbhay subsonic cruise missile's launch this month, this test was the second successful test-launch. The importance of these successful tests in terms of the range, speed and impact of India's deterrence is enormous. In the last few decades, a stand-off precision-strike weapon has become crucial to warfighting.
Globally, the number, detection range and capability of air-search radars and fire-control radars of surface-to-air missiles have grown exponentially. The air-defence cover of major powers has become too dense to pierce, even for stealth fighters. In addition, airborne warning and control assets, over the horizon radars (OTHR) and satellite-based monitoring have brought a decisive shift in the air warfare methods. Accordingly, stand-off weapons, unmanned combat vehicles and lasers are emerging as crucial weapons of the future.
With a 1200-1500 kilometre combat range of Sukhoi-30MKI aircraft, the BrahMos can hit any target within the range of 1500-1800 kilometres around India. In addition, BrahMos' range is being extended to 600-900 kilometres, after India joined the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) in 2016. A BrahMos-ER (extended range) was finally tested in March 2017 to a range of over 400 kilometres and the 900 km one is due for testing by 2019. Moreover, the hypersonic BrahMos-2 is another version under development.
As a result of these developments, Indian capability for stand-off precision war is substantially expanding. BrahMos and Nirbhay may emerge as India's carrier-killer missiles in the naval domain.
A couple of squadrons of BrahMos-equipped Sukhoi-30MKIs, deployed each in the Andaman and Nicobar Command and the Indian west coast, will help to ensure a peaceful Indian Ocean. In addition, the threat of saturation strikes of these air-launched cruise missiles will neutralise naval ambitions of any Indian adversary in the region.
Regionally, BrahMos has an important place in the Chinese discourse over India's missile capabilities. Chinese media has been regularly highlighting its supersonic performance characteristics, penetration ability, anti-interference features and resistance to anti-missile interception capability.
It is also argued in China that if BrahMos is equipped with nuclear warheads then India's capability for air-launch of nuclear weapons will increase considerably. A United States report, which argued that a total of 64 BrahMos missiles could destroy a carrier battle group, has experienced frequent mention in the Chinese discourse.
Therefore, Chinese defence experts recommend that China counter India's tactical missile capability augmentation in three ways. First, they argue that core components and intellectual property rights of this missile are still in Russian hands. Moreover, most of cutting edge weapon platforms of Indian Armed Forces have some Russian role.
Therefore, if China increases its proximity with Russia, with strong linkages, it can prevent or restrict Indian access to Russia's cutting-edge weapons. If the Russian bear gets a large jar of Chinese honey and assurances of future refills, the Russian option can be minimised.
Second, even though India can extend the range of the BrahMos missile to 600-900 kilometres, a crucial component to ensure a successful hit is the long-range precision-guidance capability. Chinese experts argue that Indian capabilities in airborne-early detection and warning systems, mid-course guidance systems and long-range radar coverage are limited. The satellite-based guidance system also suffers from faulty atomic clocks and a limited number of satellites. Hence, as long as these capabilities do not improve, the threat of this missile will remain local.
Third, in terms of ground war, most of the Indian airbases are close to the India-Tibetan border. Therefore, China will be able to damage Indian air capability far more than India can with its limited range BrahMos. Indian BrahMos attack will certainly invite a Chinese response with CJ-10 long-range cruise missile which can even reach Delhi. Additionally, the mountainous terrain and dense coverage of HQ-9, HQ16A and other close-range air defence missiles will help neutralise the BrahMos threat for China.
In the naval domain, China believes that any combat will be a system based operation. Therefore, a combination of YJ-12 anti-ship supersonic cruise missile (KH-31 missile's Chinese version), HQ-9, HHQ-16, FL-3000 and CIWS guns will be used for China's fleet defence. Moreover, the advantage in detection capability and the defensive radius of the Chinese Navy will be crucial. Another strategy would be to either detect its heat signature or strive to destroy the launcher before the missile is launched.
Even a cursory study of the reports in the neighbourhood over the BrahMos missile reflects the unease, apprehension and a grudging acceptance of India's advantage in a no-contact war.
An extended-range, air-launched BrahMos with a capability to hit any target to nearly 2,000 kilometres would usher in a paradigmatic shift in the India-Pacific's security architecture.
However, India would need to increase the number of delivery platforms, as only 36 or 50 modified Sukhois will not be enough. The enhancement of long-range guidance capability is another major area that needs attention. The continued augmentation of tactical cruise missile triad makes India's adversaries uncomfortable. India should do it more.
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