The BrahMos Cruise Missile in wider strategic context

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In its edition of February 4 “The Asian Age” carries an article on the specifications of the various versions of the BrahMos cruise missile which is an Indian – Russian co – development.

(n. b.: The BrahMos so far is the fastest cruise missile in use. A combination of a rocket booster and ramjet technology gives it a speed of ca. Mach 3 and from what can be learned from published information the latest version has a range of ca. 500km. Versions with a range of more than that are supposedly under development. Speed and the ability to change altitude to a very extreme degree makes it nearly impossible for air defence systems to intercept the BrahMos.)

Yet what makes the article particularly worth looking at are two brief statements which should not be overlooked as they allow for inferences regarding important aspects of India`s military strategy vis a vis China.

The first statement refers to the fact that the “Tigershark” squadron of the IAF which comprises SU – 30MKI equipped with BrahMos are since 20th January 2020 based on the Thanjavur air base in Tamil Nadu.

The second info of strategic interest refers to Delhi`s approval to station some regiments of BrahMos (number is not disclosed) in Arunachal Pradesh. These cruise missiles according to the article are supposed to aim at targets in the TAR and particularly at Chinese missile bases along the LAC (Line of Actual Control).

These facts of the case are in my view no isolated ones but carry importance within the same strategic context.

The respective train of thoughts is as follows:

In the (at present highly unlikely) case of a military conflict between India and China it stands to reason that such a conflict will arise from the fact that there are still some disputed sections along the LAC. All in all, there are confidence building measures in place which were further invigorated by the principle of “strategic guidance” as agreed on at the 2018 Wuhan “informal” meeting between PM Modi and president Xi. These confidence building measures including fixed procedures in case of military standoffs have so far prevented serious clashes but there is one serious point of disagreement which under certain circumstances might be the starting point of military conflict between the two Asian great powers: I am alluding to the dispute regarding the status of Arunachal Pradesh.

For India Arunachal Pradesh is a fully fledged state within the Indian “Union of States” whilst for China Arunachal is “Southern Tibet” to which China can lay equal claim as is the case regarding Tibet itself.

So, the case of Arunachal Pradesh constitutes an irreconcilable contradiction between the national self – concept of India as well as China.

If one follows the information which was published after each of the meetings between the special representatives on border questions of both countries the impression is imposed between the lines as if both sides had agreed on freezing the Arunachal – dispute until such a point in time when changed historical circumstances might allow for a completely new approach to dissolving that dispute.

In spite of this one should remain aware of the fact that if one day a military conflict between India and China would start, it will in all likelihood be the Arunachal – dispute which will be the starting point of such a conflict.

The most realistic scenario would be that if for whatever reason the Chinese power elite loses legitimacy with its subjects, it might be tempted to start a conflict in order to conjure up the need for national unity. As history shows a war of aggression is often started by hard – pressed power elites in order to deflect domestic trouble onto an (alleged) outside enemy.

What kind of conflict – scenario should be sketched in which BrahMos would play an important role?

If we take an advance by the PLA into Arunachal as a starting point one could expect that such an advance would be flanked by PLA combat operations at other sections of the LAC in order to deprive Indian armed forces of the possibility to concentrate to such a degree as would be necessary for to bottle up further advance by the PLA in Arunachal Pradesh.

Although Indian troops along the LAC and particularly in the Arunachal section would by no means be a pushover for the PLA it would not take a long time until the PLA would gain the upper hand. This is mainly due to the advantage which the militarily usable infrastructure on the Tibetan side of the LAC gives to the PLA in terms of fast providing of reinforcements and logistics.

There is no equally capable militarily usable infrastructure on the Indian side of the LAC although huge efforts have been made under the Modi – government to improve capacities of forward landing bases and to extend and upgrade the network of militarily usable roads along the LAC.

However if one looks at this situation, the function of Indian troops can  basically only be that of a tripwire which is supposed to provide India the time to take measures which would hit the Chinese side where it really hurts. In other words: The more time the PLA would need to overcome the Indian tripwire the better India could prepare to enact efficient countermeasures.

Against this background the significance of the BrahMos cruise missile becomes evident: It would be particularly useful to disturb PLA – deployment and particularly reduce the efficiency of Chinese logistics by neutralizing centres of command and control with pinpoint accuracy provided by an extremely favourable CEP (circular error probable).

The main purpose of BrahMos – deployment along the LAC and particularly in Arunachal Pradesh is gaining time to be able to enact countermeasures in the most efficient way possible.

Such countermeasures would certainly not be taken along the LAC where the BrahMos regiments would be supposed to strengthen the holding pattern of Indian troops but would most probably try to make use of the so called “Malacca dilemma”. Indian reaction to an advance of the PLA across the LAC and particularly into Arunachal Pradesh would be to strangle China`s economic “jugular vein” which means to block the Malacca strait for China`s indispensable imports of energy.

Presupposing that China is aware of the fact that India would play the “Malacca joker” in case of armed conflict with India, it is to be expected that China would make efforts to counterbalance that “joker” by enhancing it`s power projection capacities in the Bay of Bengal.

This again would require that the PLAN could make use of bases in one of the rim states of the Bay of Bengal. Efforts by China to increase politico – economic influence in Bangladesh as well as in Myanmar must among others also be seen as an attempt to be able in the middle and long term to relativize the unique strategic advantage which the use of bases on the Andaman/Nicobar islands gives to India.

The fact that the Andaman/Nicobar command (ANC) is so far the only Tri – service theatre command of the Indian armed forces shows very clearly how much India values this strategic advantage.

This strategic advantage is the most important deterrent regarding possible plans by China to advance across the LAC and to change the situation by means of force particularly in Arunachal Pradesh.

Even if China could in the long run gain the possibility of power projection against the forces of the ANC by enacting power projection from one or two rim states of the Bay of Bengal, this will by no means be the case in the foreseeable future. 

In the meantime any attempt to counter the Indian possibility to play the “Malacca joker” by increasing PLAN – capacities in the Bay of Bengal to a sufficient degree, would be an extremely costly and risky undertaking as long as PLAN – forces could not lean on land – bases.

The logistical problems which any Chinese operation against the forces of the ANC would encounter look nearly insurmountable and also at the tactical level of military operations, Chinese forces, the greatest asset of which in a Bay of Bengal war theatre, namely the Chinese fleet of submarines, due to Indian anti – submarine capacities, would hardly be able to unfold its potential to a sufficient degree: Particularly the growing number of the P -8I “Neptune” planes procured by India from Boeing, which can be considered one of the most potent weapons to be used in anti – submarine warfare would certainly be able to keep Chinese submarines in check.

As far as deployment of Chinese surface ships to a degree is concerned which could be a challenge to ANC – forces, this is equally unimaginable as a serious threat by Chinese submarines which would be supposed to frustrate Indian blockade of the Malacca strait.

Any concentration of PLAN – surface ships would be in striking range of the Indian SU – 30MKI which will be equipped with the BrahMos airborne version and which will be based at the Thanjavur air base in Tamil Nadu.

Again, - as in the case of deterring an advance by the PLA across the LAC, BrahMos would be a most decisive weapons system:

Any deployment of PLAN surface ships would be easy prey for BrahMos cruise missiles which could be launched from the Tamil Nadu based SU – 30MKIs.

So, the BrahMos cruise missile is in two ways a crucial factor of the China – specific Indian military strategy:

First, as outlined above it can extend the time of survival of the Indian “trip wire forces” in case of a PLA attack across the LAC for to provide enough time to activate blockade of the Malacca strait and secondly

It could, - in its air launched version and in combination with the P – 8I submarine hunters, help to pre-empt efforts by PLAN to enforce unblocked traffic through the Malacca strait.

Against this background one is safe to say that the BrahMos weapons system works a major deterrent for Chinese pondering the idea of a major attack on India and it is certainly an important guarantee, that war between China and India remains highly unlikely in the foreseeable future.

One last remark which is a political one:

The fact that Indian security vis a vis China depends that much on the BrahMos, which is the product of an Indian – Russian cooperation, - apart from other aspects of Indian – Russian cooperation, rules out any serious speculation about possible Indian – Russian alienation to a very high degree.

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Author: Prof Dr Klaus Lange