India's BrahMos supersonic cruise missiles are paraded through New Delhi. Photo: Kamal Kishore, Reuters
India's Brahmos supersonic cruise missiles are paraded through New Delhi. Photo: Kamal Kishore / Agencies

MANILA – India’s sale to the Philippines of its Brahmos supersonic cruise missile marks a key strategic turning point, with New Delhi firmly wading into the South China Sea disputes and Manila taking order of its first major cruise missile system.

Significantly, both countries are locked in long-standing territorial disputes with China, which can now expect to see more of the much-vaunted Brahmos missile system on its disputed borders in the Himalayas with India and in the South China Sea with the Philippines.

Upon closer examination, however, it’s unlikely that the Brahmos will significantly alter the balance of military power in the South China Sea, thanks to China’s recent deployment of cutting-edge missile defense systems on land and at sea in recent years.

The landmark US$375 million defense deal, however, is likely just the opening act in India’s gradual yet steady emergence as a major defense supplier and strategic partner to Southeast Asian nations – from the Philippines to Indonesia to Vietnam – which have been at the forefront of maritime disputes with a resurgent China.  

The Brahmos deal will also potentially serve as a springboard for more concerted efforts by the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) powers of India, US, Japan and Australia to enhance the deterrence capacity of smaller, aligned powers in the Indo-Pacific.

Despite its relatively large industrial-military complex, India has long been the world’s largest arms importer, just as other Asian powers including Russia, China, South Korea and Turkey have rapidly expanded their weaponry exports.

This was partly a reflection of India’s strategic reticence, which doomed earlier plans to export the Prithvi surface-to-surface missiles to Vietnam. But things have changed under the more assertive Narendra Modi government, which aims to increase annual defense exports to $5 billion by 2025.

In the 2020-2021 fiscal year, India’s defense exports hit $1.13 billion, reflecting the Asian power’s growing ambitions to become a major player in the global arms industry.

Brahmos missiles on display in an Indian parade. Photo: Facebook

Brahmos, jointly developed with Russia, is one of India’s most advanced weapons. With a range of 290 kilometers and a top speed of Mach 3, Brahmos has significantly improved India’s missile capability system since coming to service in 2005.

The highly dexterous supersonic missile system can be deployed on warships, submarines as well as fighter jets, giving the platform’s operators a wide range of options in its deployment.

The Philippines is set to become the first foreign customer for the land-based version of the prized missile system. For the past decade, the Southeast Asian country has been in a catch-up mode to develop a “minimum deterrence” capability amid rising maritime tensions in the South China Sea, mainly with China.

In 2012, just months after a China-Philippine naval standoff over the Scarborough Shoal, then-president Benigno Aquino III oversaw the passage of the Revised AFP Modernization Act, which kicked off a 15-year, three-phased, multi-billion-dollar military acquisition program with a particular focus on enhancing the Philippines’ aerial, naval and strategic deterrence capabilities.

The Brahmos, which is widely expected to be deployed for the defense of the Philippines’ strategic maritime borders, is thus an integral part of the Southeast Asian country’s quest to establish a minimum deterrence capacity against the more heavily armed China.

Last week, India appeared to celebrate the defense deal with the Philippines by successfully test-firing an advanced sea-to-sea naval variant of the Brahmos with “an extended range” from its newly-commissioned stealth-guided missile destroyer INS Visakhapatnam.

Nevertheless, there are widespread doubts as to whether the Philippines’ missile system acquisition will significantly change the balance of military power on the ground and at sea.

As my Asia Times’ colleague Gabriel Honrada pointed out, “The Brahmos may not be as effective as Philippine strategic planners hope due to improving Chinese missile defenses, relative obsolescence of the Brahmos and the Philippines’ limited possible missile stocks.”

China’s HQ-9 surface-to-air missiles at a military parade. Image: Twitter

Honrada notes “China is operating upgraded HQ-9 surface-to-air missiles that are optimized against supersonic threats on Mischief Reef, Subi Reef, and Fiery Cross Reef in the South China Sea” and “the Chinese missile system features advanced guidance systems, multi-target anti-jamming capabilities and interceptor missiles with maximum Mach 4.2 speeds compared to the Brahmos’ Mach 3.”

He also points out that China’s Type 052D destroyers and Type 055 cruisers are also equipped with the shipborne version of the HQ-9B.

Unless the Philippines acquires a significantly larger stockpile of the Indian-made cruise missiles, China’s “defenses significantly reduce the probability of a successful Philippine-launched Brahmos attack in the hot spot maritime theater.”

The true significance of the Brahmos acquisition deal, however, is its broader strategic implications.

For one, Brahmos Aerospace has developed an upgraded land-based version of the missile system with a range of 500 kilometers. Thanks to a new 200-acre Brahmos manufacturing center, which is set to be completed by 2025, India will be in a position to mass-produce advanced versions of the missile system in the near future.

Crucially, India is cooperating with Russia to develop Brahmos-II, a hypersonic version with a whopping Mach 5 speed and likely range of up to 1,100 kilometers. As a key customer, the Philippines will likely be in a good position to purchase the next-generation versions of the Indian missile technology.

Moreover, Brahmos, a joint venture between the Indian government’s Defense Research and Development Organization (DRDO) and Russia’s NPO Mashinostroyenia, marks a major non-NATO acquisition by the Philippines, which has historically relied on American-made weapons throughout the past century.

Thus, the BrahMos could serve as a springboard to significantly diversify the Southeast Asian nation’s pool of defense suppliers. That diversification could potentially include Russia, which similar to India has been offering affordable, modern weaponry to the region.

Ultimately, the Brahmos sale could also facilitate India’s burgeoning defense cooperation with key Southeast Asian countries. Currently, Indonesia and Vietnam are also in talks with India to acquire the Brahmos missile system.

A Vietnamese naval soldier oversees a missile test in the South China Sea in a 2016 file photo. Photo: Facebook

Confronting a wide range of maritime disputes with China, Vietnam has relied largely on a diverse pool of strategic partners, including Russia, to build up its deterrence capability.

New Delhi is currently also in talks with Hanoi about a possible sale of its surface-to-air Akash missiles, while Indian manufacturer Larsen & Toubro is set to provide high-speed vessels for Vietnam’s Coast Guard.

Down the road, India could potentially become a major provider of a full range of advanced yet affordable weaponry to China’s rivals in Southeast Asia.

As India builds up its increasingly sophisticated arms industry, it could also play a key role in Quad powers’ efforts to help smaller nations hold the line in the South China Sea and other major contested maritime zones in the region.

The rapidly institutionalizing Quad, in conjunction with like-minded European powers, has moved towards coordinated efforts aimed at countering China’s “vaccine diplomacy”, perceived as predatory investment practices and coercive naval activities across the Indo-Pacific.

The sale and even joint-development of sophisticated strategic weaponry is likely the next step in the Quad’s strategic overtures to frontline states such as the Philippines, Vietnam and Indonesia.

Follow Richard Javad Heydarian on Twitter at @Richeydarian