Ever since China raised tensions in the West Philippine Sea by cordoning off Panatag Shoal in 2012,1 there has been a LOT of talk about the Philippines acquiring the Brahmos Missile for use against China’s naval fleet, with some of these talk even coming from some prominent politicians. Although the Department of National Defense (DND) never seem to seriously consider the Brahmos (at least not publicly), I thought it would be a “fun” blog to explore the merits and demerits of the missile as far as the Philippines using it.
The Brahmos is a supersonic Anti-Ship Cruise Missile (AShCM) that could be launched from ships and land vehicles, with new versions under development that could be launched from aircraft and submarines. It is made by a company called “Brahmos Aerospace” which is a joint venture between the state institutions of India (Defence Research and Development Organisation or DRDO) and Russia (NPO Mashinostroeyenia). It first entered service with the Indian armed forces in 2005, and since then approximately 364 missiles have been produced, all used by India as the Brahmos has not yet been officially exported to any other country. The name “Brahmos” was derived from the main rivers of the two countries involved in the joint venture of its production, the “Brahmaputra” of India and the “Moskva” of Russia.
The Brahmos follows a “Hi-Lo” flight profile in order to reach its maximum range, meaning it initially cruises at medium to high altitude before dropping down to a very low altitude when it is estimated to be just below the radar horizon of the target. Guidance is via Inertial Navigation System (INS) supplemented by Global Positioning System (GPS) or Global Navigation Satellite System (GLONASS) during launch and flight. The missile then activates its own internal radar when it is estimated to be 50 km from its target. Other important physical and performance characteristics of the Brahmos are as follows:2 3
Length: 8.4 m
Diameter: 0.6 m
Total Weight: 3,000 kg
Warhead Weight: 200 kg
Maximum Speed: Mach 2.8
Maximum Range: 290 km
Minimum Altitude: 15 m (during Terminal Phase)
‘Brahmos: Speed Kills’
So how good really of an AShCM is the Brahmos? The main advantage of the Brahmos is its SPEED. The missile can travel at Mach 2.8, or that’s around 3,430 kilometers per hour (kph) at sea level. In comparison, most AShCMs (especially the ones available in the west) like Saab’s RBS-15 Mk3 for example are subsonic, traveling at only around Mach 0.8 or 980 kph.4 Put it another way, the Brahmos can travel at 0.95 kilometers per second (kmps), while the RBS-15 can only travel at 0.27 kmps.
What is more impressive is the fact that the Brahmos is actually faster than some cannon rounds, like the Oto Melara 76 mm gun found on a majority of ships around the world right now has a muzzle velocity of “only” 914-925 meters per second (mps),5 slower than the 950 mps that the Brahmos can travel. Hence, the Brahmos is not just a missile, it is actually like a gigantic cannon round.
One way to show how important this is in combat is like for example, assuming that a ship has a radar antenna height of 20 m means it will only be able to detect a Brahmos flying at 15 m above sea level starting at a distance of 35 km due to the Radar Horizon problem.6 Now, a Brahmos will be able to cross that 35 km distance in only 37 seconds, not a lot of time for the ship’s sensors and weapons to detect and react to it. In contrast, it will take an RBS-15 a full two minutes and ten seconds to cover that same distance, allowing for a more comfortable reaction time for the ship.
Worst is the fact that gun-based Close In Weapons System (CIWS) defenses have much shorter ranges than that 35 km when shooting at aerial targets, less than 6 km for a 76 mm gun and 3-5 km for the smaller caliber cannons. This means the main gun will only have around six seconds at most to shoot down the Brahmos, and even less at only 3-5 seconds for the smaller guns.
Its incredible speed will also pose problems for older radar sensors as some will have problems tracking such a fast object flying at such a low altitude with the “clutter” of the sea in its background, and if the radar isn’t able to track it, then the ship’s weapons and decoy systems won’t be able to react to it automatically.
‘The Maneuvering Bullet’
And even with the newer radar systems that can track it, the Brahmos has another ace up its sleeve in that it can also MANEUVER even though it is traveling at supersonic speeds during its “Terminal Homing” phase (i.e., when it is near its target). This ability to maneuver is not unique to the Brahmos, in fact most Anti-Ship Missiles (AShMs) can also do this, but what differentiates the Brahmos is that it can do it at a much higher speed. Remember that this is a missile that can cover a kilometer per second and is actually faster than some cannon rounds, hence as it goes thru its maneuvers, it will be covering a LOT of distance.
The combination of speed, distance covered and maneuverability makes it a lot more difficult to track at short ranges. In effect it would be like trying to shoot down a very large cannon round that can perform complex aerial maneuvers. And even if the automated systems can track it, there is also the issue of accuracy which will surely be degraded because of that combination of factors.
Missiles with capabilities like the Brahmos is one reason why most of the more advanced western navies are moving away from gun-based CIWS and moving to missile-based CIWS together with a good Airborne Early Warning (AEW) as their primary defense. The US Navy, for example, is now slowly moving to the combination of missile-based CIWS like the SeaRAM7 and RIM-162 Evolved Sea Sparrow Missile (ESSM, 50 km range)8 along with AEW as its “minimum” defense against supersonic AShCMs because one way to effectively defend against them is to spot and then destroy them from as far a range from the ship as possible.
Despite its intimidating capabilities, the Brahmos does have its share of weaknesses also, and the first of these is that, just like most AShMs in the world right now, it uses an Active Radar Homing (ARH) system, meaning it uses an internal radar to be able to home in on its target, and as we have seen in my previous blogs,9 10 such homing systems in actual combat conditions are susceptible to being decoyed off using Electronic Counter Measures (ECM). The manufacturer claims that the Brahmos has strong resistance to active spoofing and jamming, but whether that is true remains to be seen. For now, unless proven otherwise, I am more inclined to believe that just like any other ARH missile, it can be decoyed off, PROVIDED that the ECMs are activated on time. If the ship for some reason is unable to activate its ECMs in time, or runs out of one component of ECM which are decoys, or is in the process of reloading its decoys when the Brahmos spots it, then it is likely to be toast.
The second weakness of the Brahmos is its Large Heat Signature. It needs a large, hot engine with a lot of thrust for it to travel that fast. Another heat source is what’s called “Aerodynamic Heating” caused by the friction of the air on the aircraft’s body, and the faster the speed, the higher the friction, causing the missile’s outer casing to be heated to a higher degree. And since it is a large missile, there is a lot of area for the air to heat up.
Some radar sensors might have trouble tracking the Brahmos, but Infra-Red (IR) sensors will actually have an easier time tracking it. Most ships now have IR sensors on gimballed mounts, but these can only cover a limited area at a time. This is the reason why new, Passive Infra-Red Staring (PIRS) systems like the Thales’ Artemis11 or Rafael’s Sea Spotter12 are being pushed into service on ships of some western navies to counter also supersonic AShCMs. These PIRS systems provide 360 degree coverage and are “always on” to detect targets, especially of supersonic missiles like the Brahmos with large heat signatures.
Its third weakness is its Large Size and Weight. In order for it to travel that far and that fast, it needs to have a lot of fuel, hence its enormous size. For example, its ground/surface launched version weighs 3,000 kg, almost four times the 800 kg weight of an RBS-15, meaning you can carry around four RBS-15 for every single Brahmos missile. In fact, for a missile of its weight it has a relatively light warhead, only the same as that of a RBS-15 at 200 kg, with most of its weight is allocated for fuel.
For vehicles, the Brahmos’ size and weight means the ground’s ability to carry the weight of the vehicle and the missiles will have to be carefully considered constantly. For ships, topweight issues for the launcher and missile will likely be a problem for smaller ships. For aircraft, forget about putting one on a single-engined aircraft like the JAS-39 Gripen. You would need at least a twin-engined aircraft to carry it, and not just any twin-engined aircraft, it will have to be a large one, like the Flanker family of aircraft. Even then, aircraft like the SU-30MKI can only carry one at a time. To carry more, you would need bomber-sized aircraft to haul it around for some distance.
These missiles could be mounted on large converted transport aircraft, but that would be akin to suicide when attacking fleets with air cover since they just won’t have the speed to get away quickly enough to safety, especially since China does have a lot of Flankers in their inventory. This is why Russia uses supersonic bombers to attack fleets with AShMs.
‘The Russian Problem’
Another critical issue about the Brahmos is that it is partly made in Russia, and as far as the world’s politics is right now, Russia and China are forming a very close alliance,13 and this could be a liability for the Philippines during times of war. For example, during the Falklands War, the Exocet missile that Argentina used was made by the French, who in turn were close allies of the British. So what did the French do? They of course first went out and revealed important details about the Exocet missile to the British so British ships could defend better against them.14 Such a scenario between the Philippines, China and Russia could also likely happen.
Of course, the Exocet still managed to sink or damage a couple of British ships despite France’ revelation of the Exocet’s secrets to the United Kingdom, but this brings us to another problem: Embargo. When the Falkland’s War started, France subsequently refused to ship any Exocet missiles anymore to Argentina,15 this is the reason why Argentina only had five operational missiles during the entire duration of the war. Russia could also do the same, withhold critical components for missiles to be shipped to the Philippines if war between us and China breaks out.
We could stock up on the Brahmos missiles, but missiles have shelf lives and will need to be refurbished after a certain period of time, and they will be used extensively and run out in wartime. We could switch to another missile system later if the embargo comes, but then that will not be easy as most of our tactics, strategies, operational and maintenance competence will be based on the Brahmos, and will have to start back from square one again if we switch to another missile.
Now, the Brahmos is also built via a joint-venture with India, and India have no love lost with China either, hence there is the possibility that India could still provide complete missiles to the Philippines on their own in case problems with Russia comes up. But there are LEGAL issues that could keep this from happening, and Russia will likely not allow this to happen without raising a fuss. And even if it is possible for India to supply complete missiles, there is still the issue that we will end up with missiles with untested critical components whose reliability, accuracy and durability will be in doubt.
The Brahmos is a very capable missile, and it would be a very interesting weapon to have in our arsenal. It is basically a huge cannon round that can maneuver, and with a much longer range. Its long range will give us good coverage over our territories, and its supersonic speed and maneuverability will give China something to seriously think about. However, it does have its own share of weaknesses also, and personally I don’t favor getting it mainly because of the political issues tied with Russia.
I think we would be better off with western sources for military equipment for now, regardless of the fact that they may be less capable in some areas compared to the Brahmos. Maybe it is better to adjust and work around the lesser capabilities of the available AShCM options from western sources rather than deal with possible complications brought about by buying sophisticated weapons from Russia. If Russia wasn’t involved in its production, I wouldn’t hesitate agreeing with the Brahmos, but they are, hence my reservation. But of course, this is just my opinion.
A good alternative to the Brahmos could be Stealth AShCMs as these have some of the advantages of the Brahmos (i.e., difficult to counter), but none of its disadvantages (i.e., high heat signature, large size and weight). The only operational stealth AShCM right now in the western world is the new Naval Strike Missile (NSM),16 but it does have lesser capability also in that it has a smaller warhead of only 125 kg compared to the Brahmos or RBS-15, and lesser range of only 185 km. If we can wait around for a little while, we may be able to get the also stealthy but more capable Long Range Anti-Ship Missile (LRASM)17 which is expected to be available starting around 2018.
One last thing to consider is that in getting missiles like the Brahmos, it is CRITICAL to have a good long range targeting capability to go along with it also. Because of the radar horizon issue, the ship or ground vehicle launching it will likely never get to see the target it is shooting at, and target information will have to come from surveillance aircraft. I wrote a blog about this before,18 but that blog was based mainly on the assumption that we will be getting western AShMs. It will even be more important with the Brahmos because of its longer range, at least 33% or 100 km longer than most western AShMs. Simply put: The Brahmos’ long range will not be optimized if we don’t have enough long range surveillance aircraft to provide it with long range targeting information.
PHL Navy in standoff with Chinese surveillance ships in West PHL Sea,
RBS15 Mk3 Surface-to-Surface Missile (SSM), Sweden,
Oto Melara 76 mm,
RADAR DETECTION AND THE HORIZON DISTANCE,
- Raytheon Evolved Sea Sparrow Missile (ESSM), (https://web.archive.org/web/20140805093433/http://www.raytheon.com/capabilities/products/essm/) ↩
- MISSILE BOAT NAVAL BATTLE LESSONS, (https://rhk111smilitaryandarmspage.wordpress.com/2014/03/11/missile-boat-naval-battle-lessons/) ↩
MODERN LARGE SHIP NAVAL BATTLE LESSONS,
- Thales Artemis sensor, (https://web.archive.org/web/20161117065141/http://www.thales7seas.com/html5/products/195/ARTEMIS_BROCHURE.pdf) ↩
- Rafael Sea Spotter sensor, (https://web.archive.org/web/20131102035746/http://www.rafael.co.il/marketing/SIP_STORAGE/FILES/9/1019.pdf) ↩
A Powerful Long-term Alliance Between China and Russia Is Unnerving Washington,
How France helped us win Falklands war, by John Nott,
- French Deny Breaking Argentine Embargo, (http://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=2507&dat=19820726&id=PAE-AAAAIBAJ&sjid=bEkMAAAAIBAJ&pg=5263,4235569) ↩
Naval Strike Missile (NSM), Norway,
- Long Range Anti Ship Missile (LRASM), (https://web.archive.org/web/20140626040551/http://lockheedmartin.com/us/products/LRASM.html) ↩
AIRBORNE TARGETTING SUPPORT FOR THE PHILIPPINE ARMY’S ANTI SHIP MISSILES,