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Saurav Jha
Wednesday, April 09, 2014 at 09 : 49

India's missile build up gathers pace with Monday's Brahmos test by the Indian Army


Monday's test by the Indian Army (IA) of a deep penetration version of the Brahmos symbolizes the emergence of a new era in standoff strike capability for the Indian military as it readies itself for any potential two-front war with Pakistan and China. As precision guided munitions (PGM) have become more accurate, militaries across the world have looked to move key assets and storage facilities underground in order to fortify them from standoff strikes. Defeating such hard and deeply buried targets (HDBTs) requires terminal manoeuvring capabilities and warhead versatility that the Brahmos program has now demonstrated operationally. But the Brahmos is one of a whole new generation of highly accurate missile systems being developed by the Defence Research and Development Organization (DRDO) that can serve to give the Indian military an advantage if procured in numbers not just for their ability to defeat HDBTs but also for time-critical strike in all kinds of terrain with reduced collateral damage. It is therefore imperative that India gets the production side of affairs right through enhanced public-private cooperation with a view to achieving greater scale with the attendant reduction in costs.

The evolution of the Brahmos as a standoff strike system has been truly impressive. The Brahmos Block II evolved from the baseline naval strike Brahmos to provide the IA with the ability to discriminate targets from background clutter using the SCAN seeker head. The Block III exhibited steep diving capabilities that confer upon the missile the ability to attack targets on the reverse slope of a mountain. With the most recent test, IA has actually added a HDBT capability to the Block III signalling the use of a target discrimination system that can hit bunkers with penetrator warheads amidst mountain clutter. It is not difficult to see what all this adds up to - the capability to hold at risk HDBTs in all kinds of terrain (i.e including mountainous areas) with very little warning time for the enemy given that the Brahmos flies at speeds of around Mach 2.5 plus and is coated with radar evading material for good measure making it difficult for contemporary radars to get a lock on it.

Incidentally a newer naval version of the Brahmos has also entered production late last year which has exhibited terminal manoeuvring capabilities that make it a difficult proposition for even the latest generation naval radars. Indeed, the Americans are known to have been surprised by the degree of accuracy retained by the Brahmos even after performing S-shaped manoeuvres at high speed.

Beyond HDBTs, the Brahmos block III also confers upon the IA's artillery arm the ability to block mountain passes thereby bottling up ingressing forces. This naturally proves particularly useful in defending the frontier with China or with Pakistan in Kashmir. This would mean that India would be able to rapidly neutralize any advantage that China or Pakistan may look to gain by attacking first. But perhaps the greatest advantage of the Brahmos is that it is on its way to becoming a true tri-service missile with the air-launched version scheduled to begin testing in late 2014 and thereafter being rapidly inducted in 2015. The Indian Air force (IAF) is known to have ordered 200 missiles to arm some 40 Su-30 MKIs being modified to carry the missile as an initial order. The IAF's version may give a radius of coverage from the launching platform beyond the 300 km usually advertised for the ground launched version of the Brahmos.

Now while the Brahmos Block III will be the weapon of choice in the mountains for engaging high value targets such as the missile tunnels believed to be construction by the Chinese in the Pakistan controlled Northern Areas at short notice, the plains will see the greater employment of the cheaper Prahar missile. The Prahar with an engagement envelope of 60-170 km is ideally suited to attack enemy command, control and communication (C3) nodes and ammunition dumps located in the rear. While its basic guidance package is a ring laser gyro based inertial navigation system (RLG-INS) capable of receiiving satellite updates to remove accumulated errors it may subsequently also carry an additional terminal homing seeker head such as a millimetric wave(MMW) sensor which would enable the Prahar to take on enemy armour as well.

The Prahar which flies at speeds of up to Mach 4 can be launched in both stand alone and centralized modes from a mobile launch system (MLS) that can be configured on high mobility vehicles (HMV) of the 12x12, 8x8 and 6x6 varieties to carry six, four and two missiles respectively. The 6 x 6 HMV carrying two Prahar missiles is of course suited for operations in mountainous areas. Being a quick reaction missile capable of launching in salvo mode, it is possible that a large number of Prahar batteries may be activated in centralized mode during a conflict with either Pakistan or China to start attacking missile storage sites etc. Nevertheless, the Prahar's coverage is naturally limited by its range and for targets further in the hinterland a different system is required.

That role will conceivably be filled by the Shaurya canisterized surface to surface missile derived from the submarine launched K-15. The Shaurya carrying a warhead of up to a tonne and flying a distance of over 750 km is well suited to attacking important targets deep within Pakistan or on the Tibetan plateau. DRDO chief Avinash Chander describes the Shaurya as a 'shaped trajectory' system in that it does boost-glide but doesn't really leave the atmosphere making it difficult for anti-ballistic missile systems to intercept this missile. Its high speed of up to Mach 7.5 and the large payload carrying capacity mean that it can be used for strategic conventional strike as well. Trajectory shaping would allow it to undertake a steep glide bombing attack using runway denial munitions facilitating deep penetration before the bombs explode causing greater damage. The one tonne warhead also provides options for attacking transport hubs and even weapons factories. The IN could conceivably use K-15 armed nuclear submarines to attack shore based facilities.

However whether dealing with Pakistan across the Thar desert or with China on the Tibetan plateau the issue of neutralizing pop up mobile launchers will have to be dealt with. It is here that the Nirbhay ground launched cruise missile (GLCM) might play a role once India's own satellite navigation network is fully operational. Given its stealthiness and loitering capability, the Nirbhay could in theory 'steal behind' enemy defence to neutralize missile and rocket launchers as they emerge from tunnels or other shelters. The Nirbhay can also be used for' bombing runs' using cluster munitions on enemy airbases. The Nirbhay like the Brahmos is also envisaged as a tri-service endeavour.

All in all the picture that is emerging is of an Indian military posture looking towards indigenously developed missiles to gain long range conventional precision strike firepower. For this to truly realize its potential, certain factors have to come together. On the technological side, India needs to continue to invest heavily into the domestic development of C4ISR assets and roll out a global satellite navigation system sooner than later. The move to set up a regional navigation system has of course gathered steam with the launch of Indian Regional Satellite Surveillance System (IRNSS) - 1B this month. The entire constellation of seven IRNSS satellites needs to be put in place quickly. After all, each of the standoff strike weapons mentioned above has an INS that can potentially receive satellite updates. Naturally it would be unwise for India to depend on any foreign constellation to provide those updates. An Indian owned and operated satellite navigation system is therefore absolutely imperative. Simultaneously India must also look to put in place more surface scanning radar satellites it has in space as these could prove useful in locating mobile launchers especially on the bare Tibetan plateau.

At the same time India needs to also augment indigenous seeker fabrication capability to add terminal homing functions to the Prahar, Nirbhay and Shaurya. A long standing demand of the military scientific establishment has been the approval of a new detector fabrication facility costing about Rs 1000 crores. Indications are that the government may indeed have given the go ahead to this facility. In the area of seekers a number of collaborative ventures between DRDO and foreign partners may be underway. But it is important that any technology lessons learned are rapidly internalized and built upon to make India absolutely self-sufficient in both radio frequency as well as imaging infrared seekers.

At the end of the day the precision firepower scenario devolves into a numbers game. According to one scientist this write talked to an accurate missile could conceivably replace 3-4 sorties by strike aircraft in certain scenarios. But for a new firepower doctrine to be truly effective it must take comfort in raw numbers. Do remember that India's adversaries are also deploying roughly equivalent systems with the exception of the Brahmos ( I don't say Shaurya because the new DF-16 needs to be watched closely) which currently doesn't have a real equivalent(Moskit doesn't count) in the Chinese or Pakistani inventory. For India to leverage its impressive missile development programs as a disruptive move in the Asian geo-strategic landscape it must reduce costs in order to scale up actual production numbers.

Indeed PGM numbers across the world have been limited by the costs involved. India however can make a breakthrough in this regard, by dismantling the usual cost impediments. Indeed this is probably the real challenge behind India's move to augment its long range conventional firepower capability. To make this breakthrough India has to further creative public-private partnerships that reduce risk and synergize respective strengths to build rapidly in numbers. Shades of what is required have already been put on display by the Brahmos missile effort.

In November2013, Godrej Aerospace handed over 40 airframes to Brahmos Aerospace Pvt Limited (BAPL) of the air-launched version of the missile from its dedicated facility set up exclusively to serve BAPL's orders. A further hundred sets will be delivered by Godrej Aerospace by 2015. This partnership is a mere snapshot of a distributed public-private effort to build-up India's missile capability. It is important that the armed forces place appreciable orders and a continuous improvement eco-system delivers the required numbers quickly. Firepower augmentation must be pursued by India on a mission mode basis.

Follow Saurav Jha on Twitter @SJha1618


More about Saurav Jha

Saurav Jha studied economics (and debated politics) at Presidency College, Calcutta, and Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. He writes and researches on global energy and security issues and is a regular contributor to publications such as World Politics Review, The Diplomat and Le Monde Diplomatique, and has written for Deccan Herald, The Telegraph and Hindustan Times. He is the Consulting Editor of Geopolitics magazine. His first book, The Upside Down Book of Nuclear Power, was published in March 2010 to excellent reviews. He is presently working on The Heat and Dust Project, a quirky travelogue, based on an intense budget journey through India, co-authored with his wife Devapriya.