India is not a major arms exporter, something that Prime Minister Narendra Modi is keen to change. But there is one “Made in India” weapons system that half a dozen Southeast Asian countries seem most eager to buy: the BrahMos supersonic cruise missile.
According to the Swedish think tank SIPRI, India is the world’s largest importer of arms. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it is also one of the world’s smallest exporters of military equipment.
Between 2017 and 2021, India imported a staggering US$15.4 billion in military kit. But its defence exports amounted to a piddling US$302 million, making it a veritable minnow in the global arms business.
Exactly half of those exports went to one country: Myanmar (almost all of it bought on a line of credit extended to Naypyidaw by New Delhi). In contrast, during the same five-year period, South Korea rang up arms sales to Southeast Asia worth US$1.9 billion, France and Russia US$1.4 billion each, and America US$1.3 billion.
But the BrahMos supersonic cruise missile may be the first step to changing India’s relative position in the global arms market.
BrahMos is a joint venture established by India and Russia in 1998 (when Russian design bureaus were short of cash and needed injections of foreign currency to keep the lights on). The missiles were designed in Russia, but most of the hardware (and software) is manufactured in India. The name of the joint venture, as well as the missile itself, is a portmanteau of the Brahmaputra River in India and the Moskva River in Russia.
To be sure, BrahMos is a formidable weapon. Primarily an anti-ship missile, it can be launched from the sea, under the sea, on land and in the air. It is a ramjet-propelled supersonic weapon, which means it can pack a much more destructive punch than sub-sonic missiles such as America’s Tomahawk cruise missile. It hurtles through the air at Mach 3, or three times the speed of sound, making it very difficult for anti-missile defence systems to knock them out of the sky.
Although BrahMos has been in service with the Indian armed forces since the 2000s, it was not until very recently that a foreign country opted to buy it. In January 2022, the Philippines signed a US$375 million contract to buy three batteries for the Philippine Marines. Delivery is scheduled for later this year.
The Philippines has bought the on-shore version of BrahMos. What Manila will get is a fairly inexpensive sea-denial capability — in other words, a missile system that can be used to target hostile warships within 300 km of the coast.
Though Manila would never say so explicitly, it was clearly bought with China in mind, as the two countries have been locked in a tense territorial dispute in the South China Sea for decades. As such, the missile batteries are likely to be deployed to Luzon and Palawan Island, both of which face the South China Sea.
Other Southeast Asian countries are, reportedly, in talks to buy BrahMos: Indonesia, Vietnam, Malaysia, Thailand and Myanmar. The first three also have overlapping territorial and jurisdictional claims with Beijing in the South China Sea. India appears to be on the verge of selling BrahMos systems to one or more of those countries — most likely Indonesia or Vietnam.
It is unclear if Russia’s ‘no limits’ partner China has leaned on the Kremlin to try and forestall BrahMos sales to Southeast Asia.
Southeast Asian interest in BrahMos is music to New Delhi’s ears.
Money is one factor. Troubled by India’s dependence on foreign arms imports, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has promoted the development of the country’s indigenous defence sector, and set a target of US$5 billion in arms exports by 2025. This is a very ambitious goal, but further BrahMos sales to Southeast Asia would certainly nudge sales in the right direction.
Increased defence sales to Southeast Asia would also help thicken India’s strategic ties to the region, as well as facilitate Modi’s ‘Act East’ policy.
BrahMos missile sales to Southeast Asian states also garner geopolitical pluses for New Delhi. Much to India’s chagrin, its great power rival, China, has for decades been arming Pakistan, forcing the Indian military to devote significant forces to its western border.
Supplying BrahMos missiles to the Southeast Asian claimants would be partial payback. It would complicate Beijing’s expansionist policy in the South China Sea, and make it think twice before annexing any of the atolls under dispute.
China is probably displeased about Southeast Asian countries acquiring such a potent deterrent. The PLA-Navy cannot have failed to draw lessons from the sinking of the Russian cruiser Moskva in April 2022 by two Ukrainian sub-sonic cruise missiles. Although the PLA-N’s warships are a lot more modern and sophisticated than the Moskva, the incident highlighted how relatively cheap missiles can be used to devastating effect.
As noted, BrahMos is a joint venture between India and Russia. Both countries must agree on sales to third parties. But as India holds a majority stake — 50.5 per cent of shares vice Russia’s 49.5 per cent — Moscow does not appear to have a veto over who can buy it. It is unclear if Russia’s ‘no limits’ partner China has leaned on the Kremlin to try and forestall BrahMos sales to Southeast Asia. If it has, then clearly in the case of the Philippines it failed. Vietnam maybe the next interesting test case of China’s influence over Russia, and Russia’s over India.
America probably has mixed feelings about BrahMos. On the one hand, it is trying to attenuate India’s defence ties with Russia by expanding U.S.-India defence technology cooperation. In theory, Washington could also apply sanctions against both the makers of BrahMos and any of their customers. The 2017 Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) allows the US government to impose sanctions on countries that have dealings with Russia’s military-industrial complex. So far, Washington has used CAATSA very sparingly.
On the other hand, any support that India can provide to the Southeast Asian claimants to prevent Beijing from flexing its military muscle in the South China Sea is likely viewed in Washington with quiet satisfaction. It certainly did not oppose BrahMos sales to the Philippines, and probably will not stand in the way of further transfers to the region.
Ian Storey is Senior Fellow at ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.