In a bid to provide unprecedented punch to the Sukhoi-30 MKI fighter jet, India will conduct the maiden trial of BrahMos supersonic missile’s air version.
India has signalled its intent to strike enemy targets with devastating force early on in a conflict. On June 25 a modified Indian Air Force Sukhoi Su-30MKI aircraft carried a Brahmos-A (Air) supersonic cruise missile aloft for the first time, marking an important milestone in the development of the missile ahead of further flights and firing tests.
BrahMos-A – The BrahMos-A is a modified air-launched variant of the missile which will arm the Su-30MKI of the air force as a standoff weapon. To reduce the missile’s weight to 2.55 tons, many modifications were made like using a smaller booster, adding fins for airborne stability after launch, and relocating the connector. It can be released from the height of 500 to 14,000 meters (1,640 to 46,000 ft). After release, the missile free falls for 100–150 meters, then goes into a cruise phase at 14,000 meters and finally the terminal phase at 15 meters.
Individually, the Su-30 and Brahmos are powerful weapons. But when the world’s most capable fourth generation fighter is armed with a uniquely destructive cruise missile, together they are a dramatic force multiplier.
The twin-seat multirole fighter took off from the Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd airport in Bengaluru and conducted a 45 minute sortie with the missile attached to its underbelly. Developed jointly by India’s Defence Research & Development Organisation and Russia’s NPO Mashinostroyeniya, Brahmos-A is a modified variant of its basic configuration. “It features several design refinements, which include a lighter propulsion system (reduced to 2,500 kg from 3,000 kg) as well as redesigned fins and nose cap.
The BrahMos’ maximum speed of 3700 km per hour speed – literally faster than a bullet – means it hits the target with a huge amount of kinetic energy. In tests, the BrahMos has often cut warships in half and reduced ground targets to smithereens. The Sukhoi’s blistering speed will add extra launch momentum to the missile, plus the aircraft’s ability to penetrate hardened air defences means there is a greater chance for the pilot to deliver the missile on to its designated targets.
A hypersonic version of the BrahMos cruise missile, capable of flying at up to 5,000 kmph (around 3,100 mph), is expected to be created by 2020.
With India joining the 34-nation Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) in June 2016, which “removed the caps” on the range of the missile developed jointly with Russia, the armed forces are also testing an extended range BrahMos that can hit targets 450-km away. The MTCR basically prevents the proliferation of missiles and drones over the range of 300-km . As India became a member of the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), India and Russia are now planning to jointly develop a new generation of Brahmos missiles with 600 km-plus range and an ability to hit protected targets with pinpoint accuracy.
Why the Sukhoi-BrahMos option?
The Su-30MKI is an obvious choice. The SFC does not want untested fighters but the ones which can be relied upon to deliver nuclear-tipped missiles. The aircraft has a titanium airframe strong enough to fly a high-speed terrain following profile. The batch of 42 Sukhois will also have hardened electronic circuitry to shield them from the electromagnetic pulse of a nuclear blast.
Having a dedicated aircraft for the nuclear attack role offers India’s war planners strategic flexibility and increases the odds of success. Because ballistic missiles are used only as a weapon of last resort, they cannot really be deployed at will. Once released, they cannot be recalled and if shot down are not easily replaced.
Strategic strike force
In September 2010 India’s newly constituted tri-services Strategic Forces Command (SFC) submitted a proposal to the Defence Ministry for setting up two dedicated squadrons of aircraft comprising 40 Su-30MKI air dominance fighters. The task of this “mini air force” is to deliver nuclear weapons.
The picture became clearer in October 2012 when the Cabinet Committee on Security green lighted a programme to carry out structural and software modifications on 42 Su-30MKIs and acquire 216 air-launched Brahmos missiles. Until then, the Brahmos – the product of an India-Russia joint venture – was for exclusive use by the Navy.
In March 2015 the SFC received the first of these 42 Sukhois equipped with the air launched version of the supersonic BrahMos. This is the first time that the SFC, which at present depends on the Indian Air Force (IAF) for delivering nuclear weapons under its command, is acquiring its own aerial assets.
Currently, India’s nuclear delivery system is based on land-based ballistic missiles such as the Agni and Prithvi plus the IAF’s nuclear-capable Mirage 2000, Su-30 MKI and Jaguar fighter-bombers. The final element of the nuclear triad, submarine-launched ballistic missile, is still being tested.