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International relations

Philippines set to be first buyer of India-Russia cruise missile

BrahMos will boost Manila's coastal defenses, raising concern for China

A BrahMos supersonic cruise missile launcher rolls past during a Republic Day parade in New Delhi in January 2014.   © Getty Images

NEW DELHI/MANILA -- India and Russia are looking to export to the Philippines their jointly developed BrahMos supersonic cruise missile, a move that may unnerve Beijing, given its border standoff with New Delhi and territorial disputes with other neighbors in the South China Sea.

The BrahMos takes its name from two rivers -- the Brahmaputra in India and the Moskva in Russia. The missile is manufactured by an Indo-Russian joint venture, BrahMos Aerospace, which was set up in India in 1998 and is responsible for designing, developing and marketing the missile.

"All tests of contemporary versions [of the missile] are successful," said Roman Babushkin, Russia's No. 2 diplomat in New Delhi, in a recent online briefing. Babushkin added that Russia and India are "planning to gradually increase the range of these exclusive missiles and, of course, [to] begin exporting to third countries, starting with the Philippines."

Asked if it had already ordered the weapons, Arsenio Andolong, a spokesman at the Philippine Department of National Defense, told Nikkei Asia that the Southeast Asian nation had inquired about the missile but that the purchase "is still under evaluation." Adding, "It is part of our modernization program to enhance our territorial defense capability."

Last December, the Philippines said that it planned to buy the BrahMos for the army and air force to boost its coastal defenses. Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said the contract would be signed by the second quarter of 2020, and consist of "two batteries," according to the state-run Philippine News Agency.

A C130 transport plane sits on the tarmac at the Philippine Air Force headquarters at Villamor air base, Metro Manila, Philippines.   © Reuters

A BrahMos missile battery comprises three mobile autonomous launchers. The BrahMos would be the Philippines' first weapons system with deterrent capability, Lorenzana said.

Equipped with stealth technology and an advanced guidance system, the BrahMos can be launched from air, land, sea and underwater platforms and can carry conventional warheads weighing 200 kg to 300 kg. It has a range of 290 km and is supersonic, shortening flight and engagement time. The missile's speed makes it difficult for targets to disburse. No known weapon can intercept it, according to BrahMos Aerospace.

However, the COVID-19 pandemic appears to have delayed the purchase and some reports say the deal may now be signed early next year.

New Delhi and Manila earlier this month held an online meeting of their commission on bilateral cooperation, co-chaired by India's External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar and Teodoro Locsin Jr., his Philippine counterpart. They agreed to strengthen the two countries' defense engagement and maritime cooperation, especially in military training, capacity-building, goodwill visits and procurement of equipment.

China is likely to view these developments with concern, including the involvement of its ally Russia in supplying the BrahMos to the Philippines.

China has build a military installation on Fiery Cross Reef, located in the western part of the Spratly Islands group, in the South China Sea.   © Getty Images

Asked if the missiles are intended to boost the Philippines' defense posture in the South China Sea, Andolong told Nikkei that they "can be used anywhere, actually. That's included in the evaluation [as to] what role will it play in our territorial defense."

India has conducted several tests of the latest versions of the missile recently, amid monthslong tensions with China in eastern Ladakh, along their disputed Himalayan border.

On Oct. 18, the missile was successfully test-fired from the Indian Navy's indigenously built stealth destroyer INS Chennai, hitting a target in the Arabian Sea "with pinpoint accuracy," a Defense Ministry statement said. On Sept. 30, a BrahMos surface-to-surface ground attack cruise missile featuring many Indian-made subsystems was flight-tested. During the test, the missile cruised at a top speed of Mach 2.8, nearly three times the speed of sound.

Harsh V. Pant, head of the strategic studies program at New Delhi-based think tank Observer Research Foundation, pointed out that Russia plays an interesting role in the enterprise.

"Russia clearly sees China as a useful partner when it comes to their posturing vis-a-vis the West. But they are also being pragmatic when it comes to [their] defense exports," which are falling, Pant told Nikkei. He observed that apart from the Philippines, others, including Indonesia, Thailand and Vietnam, have also shown interest in the BrahMos. "If you have to make this defense venture economically viable, then exports are very important."

Under the Missile Technology Control Regime that India joined in 2018, avenues for selling the BrahMos overseas have opened up, said Pankaj Jha, a professor of defense and strategic affairs at O.P. Jindal Global University, pointing out that its range is being extended to 400 km from the original 290 km.

"The Philippines will be supplied with the land component of the missile," Jha told Nikkei, saying it was possible that it might acquire the naval version later.

"It is technically seen a 'carrier killer' sort of a missile if it is used from naval platforms," he said. If the Philippines buys the naval variant, "China will be paranoid. [They would] have a very potent killer in the South China Sea."

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