May 10, 2007

Stratfor on BrahMos and the Export Market

Here is Stratfor's article on Indo-Russian joint venture BrahMos Supersonic Missile and its prospects in the export market.

The supersonic BrahMos anti-ship missile is being prepared for its first test-launch from a submarine, which could take place later this month. Already a well-tested design, the compact and versatile BrahMos also appears to have an export market waiting for it. Though the missile's true potential remains to be seen, it seems poised to achieve widespread proliferation.

Taking its name from a juxtaposition of the names of the Indian Brahmaputra and Russian Moscow rivers, BrahMos Aerospace Private Ltd. began as an Indian-Russian venture in 1998. However, the design work on the BrahMos missile can be traced to the Soviet Union in 1985 -- the fledgling SS-N-26, on which the BrahMos is based, had already been through substantial testing by the time the company was formed. From the beginning of the joint venture, the export market has been part of the BrahMos' future.

The world anti-ship missile market has been dominated since the 1970s by the French Exocet and the U.S. Harpoon. Compared to their predecessors, these missiles were compact and versatile. It was easy to find room on the deck of a ship for a few launcher canisters. They flew close to Mach 1 and, after a couple of design evolutions, were capable of being launched out of torpedo tubes or from aircraft. They quickly became the global standard, either through export sales or through widespread copying of the basic design.

Exocets were used in combat in 1982 in the Falkland Islands war, sinking the HMS Sheffield and another ship (a third was damaged). Five years later, the USS Stark was struck by an Exocet fired from an Iraqi Mirage F-1 fighter (although the U.S. frigate survived). Eventually the Exocet (and other missiles based on the same design) grew from a first-class naval weapon, which it remains, into a tool of nonstate actors. In July 2006, an Iranian-supplied, Chinese-built C-802 -- which, while not necessarily a direct copy, is similar to the Exocet in most significant ways -- was used by Hezbollah to attack the INS Hanit off the coast of Beirut.

But despite the Exocet's popularity, supersonic anti-ship missiles -- for a long time the sole purview of the Soviet Union -- are far more capable and devastating weapons. Missiles like the Soviet SS-N-19 Shipwreck and SS-N-22 Sunburn make naval planners nervous. At speeds up to Mach 3, when a supersonic sea-skimming missile appears on the horizon, response time is measured in seconds. Furthermore, at such speeds, the kinetic energy of the impact alone stands to do massive damage to a modern, thinly-armored surface combat vessel, even if the warhead fails to detonate. If the missile is destroyed at close range, debris traveling at high speed can still pepper the target, or even inflict more serious damage.

However, these weapons have proven too big and unwieldy to become truly successful export products. The Shipwreck was never exported, and China received the Sunburn only as a result of importing the Russian platform designed to carry it, the Sovremenny-class destroyer.

This is where the BrahMos comes in. Designed from the ground up as a supersonic missile, the BrahMos can approach speeds of Mach 3 -- three times as fast as either the Harpoon or the Exocet. The standard BrahMos missile can carry up to a 650-pound warhead, which is heavier than the Harpoon's payload and nearly double that of the Exocet. Touted as the "Universal Supersonic Cruise Missile" by the BrahMos joint venture, it -- like the Harpoon and the Exocet before it -- can be land-, surface-, sub- or air-launched and offers a substantial improvement in range from its predecessors.

Of course, the BrahMos is not perfect. The first of two major drawbacks at this point is the diameter. Unlike the Harpoon and Exocet, the BrahMos is too thick to fit into a standard 21-inch torpedo tube (or even the rarer 26-inch tubes). This means submarines will have to be modified to carry it -- not a particularly cheap or attractive option. Also, the BrahMos does not come cheap -- reportedly in excess of $2 million each, more than twice the cost of a Harpoon or Exocet. However, the improved capability could prove more than sufficiently compelling.

The BrahMos has already begun to be fielded on Indian naval vessels, and seems set to become a mainstay of the Indian military. Malaysia and Indonesia have also expressed interest -- Malaysia is expected to sign a formal deal later this week, and reportedly plans eventually to equip its new Su-30MKM Flanker jets with the missile. The export market, it would appear, is ready for an upgrade in capability and is willing to pay the price.

It is quite telling that the first potential export customer for the BrahMos is Malaysia. In other words, the first country outside of Russia, India and China to field a supersonic anti-ship missile is not another great naval power, but a modest one. The fact that Malaysia could soon field an offensive naval capability that was once the sole purview of the Soviet Union marks a fundamental shift in the maritime threat environment -- a fact that could ultimately change the playing field not just for navies, but also for worldwide shipping.

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And Malaysia is only the first. Other nations from Algeria to Venezuela might find the new capability similarly enticing. Nations such as Taiwan could be just as intrigued by the availability of a supersonic cruise missile -- a role that the BrahMos also can play with modified targeting and guidance -- for land attacks. Ultimately, however impressive the BrahMos' success in the export market proves to be, the genie is out of the bottle; a new generation of versatile, compact supersonic anti-ship missiles is here to stay. If the BrahMos fails to capture that market, Russia has alternative export products up its sleeve. [Stratfor]

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