At least five countries are interested in purchasing Russia and India’s jointly developed BrahMos supersonic cruise missile.
This week, India’s Financial Express reported that Chile and Peru are now expressing interest in acquiring the BrahMos missile. The report quoted “diplomatic sources” as saying, “The Chilean armed forces are interested in buying the missile. There have been active discussions between the two sides.” It added that there have been “several inquiries” from the Peruvian government, and that this interest has only increased since India began testing BrahMos missiles from the Russian-built Sukhoi Su-30 MKI.
“Diplomatic sources” told the Financial Express that the joint company that runs the BrahMos missile program expects a great deal of interest from Latin American countries, because of the extensive use of Sukhoi and other Russian fighters in that region. Regarding the Su-30 specifically, the only Latin American country that currently operates the jet is Venezuela. But last year, Sergei Ladygin, the deputy head of Rosoboronexport, the Russian arms exporter, listed Colombia, Peru, Venezuela, Uruguay and Argentina as countries interested in purchasing the Su-30 or other Russian fighter jets. Peru’s Air Force currently has two Russian planes, the MiG-29 and Sukhoi Su-25. The Chilean Air Force currently relies on American planes, with the F-16 and F-5 serving as their combat aircraft.
Chile and Peru’s reported interest in the BrahMos brings the number of countries considering purchasing the cruise missile up to at least five. Reports last year, which were attributed to a BrahMos spokesperson and thus should be taken with a grain of salt, said that Malaysia, Indonesia and Vietnam were also interested in the missile. Hanoi has long relied on Russian-built planes, including roughly forty Su-30s. Notably, Indian pilots reportedly trained their Vietnamese counterparts to operate the Su-30s they purchased from Moscow.
While the Malaysian Air Force has some combat planes from both the UK (BAE Hawk) and the United States (Boeing F/A-18), but it also flies Russian, consisting of both MiG-29s (although it has grounded these) and Su-30s. Its fleet of eighteen Su-30MKMs carry both Western and Russian systems, including American-made five-hundred-pound GBU-12 laser-guided bombs.
Indonesia has the most diverse air force among the three, combining U.S. (F-16, F-5), UK (Hawk 200), and Russian (Su-27 and Su-30) combat planes. More recently, after years of flirtation, Indonesia recently signed a contract to purchase Russia’s most advanced fighter jet, the Su-35, which will help replace its fleet of F-5s.
Myanmar also recently signed a contract to purchase Su-30s from Russia, and could be another Southeast Asian nation interested in integrating the BrahMos cruise missile on these planes. At various other times, BrahMos Aerospace has suggested that the United Arab Emirates, South Africa, Brazil and Kazakhstan could be interested as well. It is unclear how serious any of these countries are about the missile, however.
The BrahMos is a two-stage supersonic cruise missile that was jointly developed by India’s Defense Research Development Organization and Russia’s NPO Mashinostroyenia. BrahMos Aerospace, the joint organization created to develop the missile, explains that it is a “two-stage missile with a solid propellant booster engine as its first stage which brings it to supersonic speed and then gets separated. The liquid ramjet or the second stage then takes the missile closer to 3 Mach speed in cruise phase. Stealth technology and guidance system[s] with advanced embedded software provides the missile with special features.” One of those special features is its ability to fly extremely close to the ground to avoid missile-defense systems. According to BrahMos Aerospace, during terminal phase the missile can fly as low as ten meters from the ground.
Notably, despite the missile’s immense speed, it actually weighs twice as much as America’s Tomahawk missiles. This speed-weight ratio makes the BrahMos incredibly lethal. As Sebastien Roblin has noted, “The combination of twice the weight and four times greater speed as a Tomahawk result in vastly more kinetic energy when striking the target. Despite having a smaller warhead, the effects on impact are devastating.”
Russia and India signed the agreement to build the missile in 1998. It was originally developed as an antiship missile, based on the Russian-made P-800 Oniks/Yakhont supersonic antiship cruise missile. The antiship variant was first tested in 2001. Later, a ground-based version was developed and first tested by the Indian army in 2004. Last year saw a number of interesting developments for the BrahMos. In the beginning of the year, India announced it had extended the range of one variant of the missile to four hundred kilometers. Then, in April, an Indian Frigate conducted the first test of a land-attack variant of the cruise missile. In November 2017, India’s press office announced that a BrahMos Air Launched Cruise Missile (ALCM) was test fired for the first time from a Su-30MKI fighter aircraft.
It is apparently this ALCM variant that would be of interest to Latin American and Southeast Asian nations. The initial tests of the BrahMos ALCM were against sea-based targets. Chile and Peru both border the Pacific Island on their western coasts. Of course, Malaysia, Vietnam and Indonesia are seafaring nations that sit atop strategically important waters in the South China Sea and the Malacca Strait (in the case of Malaysia and Indonesia). Malaysia and Vietnam are both parties to the South China Sea dispute with China. Indonesian officials insist their country is not a claimant to the dispute, but in reality it has been dragged into as China’s claims have expanded.