Weapons are the Combat Differentiators: The BrahMos Air Launched Cruise Missile
“Weapons differentiate between Air Forces and Flying Clubs” is an often heard adage. Weapons capability is an integral part of an Air Power matrix. In the last three months, a number of successful indigenous weapons trials in India indicate a positive move in the right direction even if a little late in certain cases and after multiple failures in others.
India’s dependence on foreign vendors for weapons and weapon platforms is well known and it is the largest importer of weaponry. Importing weapons acts as a stimulant for defence capability but it is short lived owing to severe limitations in terms of quantum (cost factor), quality (technology) and sustenance (maintenance support). Indigenous weapons development is therefore the key to efficient and effective security.
In July 2017, the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) developed Quick Reaction Surface to Air Missile (QRSAM) was successfully flight tested.1 This was followed by the successful final Development Flight Trials of Astra –the Beyond Visual Range Air to Air Missile (BVRAAM) – against a Pilotless Target Aircraft (PTA) in September 2017.2 On November 3, the indigenously developed light weight Glide Bomb, SAAW (Smart Anti Airfield Weapon), with an effective range of 70 km was tested.3 Then came, after multiple failures, the successful test flight of ‘NIRBHAY’, the Long Range Sub-Sonic Cruise Missile with an indigenously designed Ring Laser Gyroscope (RLG) and a range of over 700 km.4 And finally, on November 22, the most significant development in this class took place when the Indian Air Force (IAF) successfully fired the BrahMos, the world’s fastest supersonic cruise missile, from a Su-30 MKI fighter aircraft. With a warhead weighing 300 kg, this 2.5 tonne missile has an engagement envelope of 400 km. The operationalisation of the BrahMos Air Launched Cruise Missile (ALCM) will significantly bolster the IAF’s combat capability. BrahMos, with a multi-platform and multi-mission role, is now capable of being launched from land, sea and air, completing the tactical cruise missile triad for India.5
Test firing is one of the initial yet significant steps towards the operationalisation of a system. It will take a while before all the above mentioned weapons systems are declared fully operational and inducted for operational deployment. But the die is cast. Once operational, for the first time in India’s history, the armed forces will have a significant share of cutting edge weapons of indigenous origin.
Although already deployed as a ground based and sea based weapons system, the BrahMos ALCM adds a different dimension to combat capability. It converges the advantages of a missile system with the flexibility of air power. A standoff range of 300 to 400 km keeps the mother aircraft outside the lethal zone of all known terminal defence weapons. If need be, the mother aircraft can go deep inside the adversary’s territory with requisite combat support and carry out the attack on target systems hitherto not reachable. In practical terms, with this weapon, the effective range for engaging targets (radius of action) increases by 25 to 30 per cent and the size of engagement zone doubles.6
Carrying out attacks against targets defended by multi-layered air defence weapons systems has attendant risks. Non-stealth aircraft in a ground attack configuration have a large Radar Cross Section (RCS) given the imperative of carrying multiple external weapons. This leads to early detection by adversary surveillance and tracking systems. Besides early detection by the terminal weapon radars, the aircraft configuration imposes a severe limitation both in terms of its speed and manoeuvrability. Unless protected by multiple high powered Electronic Warfare (EW) warning and counter measure systems, there is a high probability that terminal weapons would be able to engage strike aircraft. This leads to either aborted attacks or loss of aircraft. All this can be avoided by carrying out an attack from outside the lethal engagement zone of the terminal weapon systems. For that, an air launched weapon with a range greater than the lethal zone of terminal weapons is required. The BrahMos ALCM is just that. Although BrahMos itself can be intercepted, owing to its relatively smaller RCS and high speed in the range of 2.8 to 3 Mach, interception is much more difficult than intercepting a fully loaded aircraft. This leads to a high assurance level of success of an attack.
Interaction between the primary damage mechanisms of a weapon (like blast, fragmentation or penetration) with the vulnerability of a target system defines the weapon’s effect on target. The amount of explosive in the warhead, the nature and type of casing along with the explosion initiation mechanism and timing determine the nature and extent of damage. The damage caused by each weapon assists in calculating the number of weapons required to achieve the requisite degree of damage on the target system. Owing to its high kinetic energy at the terminal stage, BrahMos has a high penetration potential but subject to the warhead retaining its shape during impact and penetration. The weight of its warhead, which indicates the quantum of explosive carried, indicates that the damage caused by BrahMos would be akin to one 1000-pound bomb. This is a limiting factor. In addition, the weight of attack is relatively low as only one such missile can be carried per aircraft. The low quantity of explosives carried coupled with the fact that one aircraft would be able to carry only one weapon necessitate a high force level. In other words, a very large number of aircraft loaded with BrahMos will be required to neutralise a large target. This can be offset by high weapon delivery accuracy, with a Circular Error of Probability (CEP) comparable to the dimensions of the vulnerable portion of the target around the aiming point or Desired Mean Point of Impact (DMPI).7 Therefore, terminal accuracy attains great significance. An accurate attack can result in damaging the critical sub system to make the target system non-functional and achieve the desired effect. With this size of warhead, sub 10 metre accuracy is ideal for most target systems.8
Three aspects of BrahMos that are still a work in progress are: extending its range, increasing its speed to hypersonic level, and shrinking its size so that three missiles can be carried by a single aircraft. While all three are steps in the right direction, the most significant change that is required is in terms of further enhancing the missile’s accuracy by fine-tuning its terminal guidance. Greater accuracy will actually reduce the number of weapons required to achieve the desired effect on a given target system.
Originally scheduled to be operational by 2012, the BrahMos ALCM is heading to become a reality after a delay of five years. Now is the time to step on the accelerator. Work needs to be carried out on finalising the modification of the aircraft in terms of structure, electrical and avionics, the manufacture of suitable pylons and changes in the weapon to ensure seamless compatibility and communication between the three. Necessary ground handling and support equipment and infrastructure will also have to be defined for storing, servicing, testing, conveying and loading of the weapon. Thereafter, work needs to be initiated with respect to the parallel processing on aircraft fleet modification, pylon manufacture, support equipment and infrastructure and weapon production. This will enable the availability of this unprecedented and game changing weapon delivery capability for operational deployment in adequate strength at the earliest. A similar approach also needs to be followed in the case of the other indigenous weapon systems that have been tested in recent months. These indigenous long range and accurate weapons in the air-to-surface, surface-to-surface, surface-to-air, and air-to-air categories in adequate quantity will partially offset the capability deficiency resulting from the IAF’s dwindling force structure.