Mission BrahMos: How India got the world’s most powerful cruise missile

The missile is named after two rivers, the Brahmaputra of India and the Moskva of Russia. Source: Boris Egorov/RIR

The missile is named after two rivers, the Brahmaputra of India and the Moskva of Russia. Source: Boris Egorov/RIR

The BrahMos project should be the benchmark for all future joint ventures in defence as it leverages the excellent rapport between India and Russia – at the scientific, academic, military and political levels.

India sucks at making weapons. The history of arms development in India is littered with the debris of numerous failed projects. The Light Combat Aircraft project is 30 years late; the jet combat trainer has been shot down by the air force; the army is not thrilled with the Arjun tank; we can’t even make a decent rifle for our armed forces.

In this backdrop, how did India buck the trend with the BrahMos – the world’s most powerful cruise missile?

Well, first up, it is very likely Defence Research & Development Organisation (DRDO) projects are sabotaged – by politicians and military brass who get kickbacks from defence imports, as well as foreign weapons manufacturers.

At the same time, India’s missile men are a class apart. Because missiles and rockets with a range of over 300 km are not – legally – sold in the international arms bazaar, India’s Integrated Guided Missile Development Programme (IGMDP) was given a free hand. The result was a series of short, medium and long range missiles that today form the core of India’s Strategic Forces Command.

Cruising along

The idea to develop an Indian cruise missile became crystallised after the 1991 Gulf War when the American Tomahawk cruise missiles crippled Iraq’s command and communication centres, leaving its armed forces exposed to air attacks. That a few hundred cruise missiles could isolate the 1.2 million strong Iraqi military in the space of a few hours was a wakeup call for India’s defence planners.

In their minds, the memory of the 1971 War – when the US Seventh Fleet had sailed up the Bay of Bengal to strike Indian military targets – was still a raw scar. Back then the Russian Pacific Fleet had arrived posthaste and placed a defensive wall around India. But in the early 1990s, India’s only ally was no longer able to repeat that effort. If the US came after India with Tomahawks, India would probably meet the same fate as Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.

BrahMos Corp CEO A. Sivathanu Pillai writes in his fascinating book ‘The Path Unexplored’ that it was after seeing the Tomahawk’s success that India decided to acquire a precision attack cruise missile. “This was to be our magical first strike weapon,” he writes.

Things kicked off in 1995 when legendary missile man – and later President – A.P.J. Abdul Kalam asked Pillai, then the programme director of IGMDP, to take charge as the CEO of an India-Russia joint venture (JV) that would develop a brand new cruise missile.

Many of Pillai’s colleagues, including senior bureaucrats, were of the opinion that a JV with Russia couldn’t be a success and therefore he should stay away from the project. Also, in the absence of quality requirements – let alone the promise of an order – from the armed forces, it was deemed an extremely risky venture.

There was also the prospect of internal sabotage. As Pillai reveals in his book, there were senior military personnel who wanted to scuttle the BrahMos project by declaring its performance unsatisfactory. Their plan was to continue India’s dependency on imports, which would result in more kickbacks for middlemen.

Missile of the future

The team associated with evolving a cruise missile started looking at various options in terms of propulsion, guidance and control, seeker and configurations. “As per the traditions set for IGMDP we wanted this missile too to be a futuristic missile, best in its class,” Pillai writes.

But how to make the missile futuristic? “The answer came during one of our brainstorming sessions, and it was to simply increase the speed,” he writes. It was basic rocket science – when the speed of attack increases, it automatically reduces the response time of the enemy.

According to Pillai, Russia was chosen because of the “deep rooted relationship” with the country in space research. “The Russian contribution in the development of Indian space research capabilities has been remarkable,” he writes. India’s first satellite Aryabhatta, the remote sensing satellites Bhaskara-1 and Bhaskara-2, and currently operational remote sensing satellites IRS-1A, IRS-1B and IRS-1C were launched by Russian launch vehicles.

The first Indian in space, Rakesh Sharma, spent seven days in earth orbit on a Russian Salyut space station. Russia also provided the cryogenic engine for the Geostationary Launch Vehicle – which will power India’s future manned space missions. India was preparing for its first manned space flight by 2016-17 but the Americans sabotaged the India-Russia cryogenic partnership. Read more on this here and here.

Choosing a Russian partner

NPO Mashinostroyenia (NPOM), the legendary organisation which developed iconic cruise missiles such as Malakhit and Granit as well as ICBMs and spacecraft, was chosen to work with DRDO on the future cruise missile.

One of the pluses in favour of NPOM was the company had provided crucial assistance in the development of the Akash surface to air missile. As well as helping DRDO overcome the problem with Akash’s supersonic engine, NPOM offered solutions in a number of other areas in missile technology. “Mutual understanding among the technical experts of DRDO and NPOM led to confidence building and envisioning of the future,” writes Pillai.

As a key DRDO man, Pillai travelled frequently to Moscow to hold talks with NPOM executives. On one such occasion the discussion moved to the performance of the Tomahawk cruise missile in the two Gulf Wars. Pillai told the Russian team he wanted India to have such a missile – but also that it should be superior to the Tomahawk.

As if on cue, the NPOM team started talking to each other in their language, in hushed voices. After the huddle, one of the team members told Pillai they already possessed a fully developed liquid ramjet engine which could possibly power a missile at supersonic speed. He said NPOM could not develop the missile because development activity had frozen in 1991, following the end of the Soviet Union.

On his next visit to Moscow, in 1993, Pillai met the legendary H. Yefremov, the then director general of NPOM. Yefremov disclosed the Germans had wanted to acquire the supersonic engine technology from Russia but NPOM had rejected the idea. “However, India being a close friend of Russia, it would be possible for Russia to agree for technology transfer and produce these engines in India," Yefremov said. “This would enable India to not only manufacture the engines but also configure a supersonic cruise missile.”

Moscow would have in all likelihood rejected the transfer of such sensitive technology but for Yefremov’s tireless efforts to get approval for the JV.

Pillai was then taken to NPOM’s inner sanctum in Moscow where all the crown jewels of its scientific efforts were kept. Barring the supersonic engine, all the other engines, missiles and spacecraft were covered to maintain secrecy.

High-level parleys

Things now moved quickly and an India-Russia joint feasibility team was set up. During deliberations the team discovered that NPOM’s new engine could be configured for supersonic flight if the two countries put together their technological assets.

The team discussed this possibility with Ronen Sen, Indian ambassador to Russia who suggested that instead of collaborative efforts, India and Russia should go for a JV. Sen wrote a letter to Kalam advising him to work out the JV format with independent status.

The proposal now went to Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao, also the Defence Minister. Rao, the prime mover behind India’s economic liberalisation, approved the JV. (It’s interesting to imagine the project’s fate if Manmohan Singh or I.K. Gujral had been the Prime Minister. Or if Mulayam Singh or A.K. Antony had been Defence Minister. It required a leader with cojones to give clearance to such a major project at a time when India’s bank balance was nearly zero.)

In fact, cash was an issue that almost derailed the project. In the backdrop of the post-disintegration chaos that prevailed in Russia in the early 1990s, NPOM was in no position to front up any share capital. “NPOM therefore came up with the idea that they will provide knowledge and technology as their share, to be valued at 50 per cent of the total capital,” writes Pillai. “The remaining 50 per cent required for full development would come as hot currency from the Indian government.”

The original estimate for the JV was $1500 million and India’s share was $750 million. This was not acceptable to the Indian side, which insisted that Russia also put up cash. After numerous visits to Russia by Pillai and his team, the amount was set at a more realistic $250 million. However, DRDO was of the opinion that a JV could be successful only if both sides contributed money in cash as investment. “It became a stalemate,” writes Pillai.

At this point, the new Indian ambassador Satinder K. Lambah suggested a radical solution: the debt repayments being made by India for the billions of rubles in Soviet era credit could form the share capital for the Russian side. This 'out of the box' idea brought big smiles on everyone's face, but first the idea had to be sold to both governments.

After several meetings with India’s Finance Ministry and the Reserve Bank of India, things started looking up on the Indian side. The DRDO team and NPOM representatives then approached the Russian Finance Ministry, where they were greeted by a top bureaucrat, a woman, who laughed at their proposal.

She said: “It was the Soviet Union but now it is the Russian Federation. It was friendship then, hence the rupee-ruble trade adjustments were made. But now for partnership, the dollar is the currency. How is it possible for me to take the debt as an investment?” She asked the team to clear her room.

Having run into a bureaucratic wall, the BrahMos team decided to pull some strings at the political level and got the project greenlighted.

Shareholding blues

Initially, BrahMos was incorporated with DRDO and NPOM holding 49 per cent each and an Indian financial institution holding 2 per cent. But because involving a third party would compromise secrecy, the financial institution was eliminated. The shareholding was now 50.5 per cent for DRDO and 49.5 per cent for NPOM.

The Russian side was keen for the JV to be a private sector company. Had DRDO’s share been 51 per cent, it would have become a public sector company falling under India’s Defence Ministry. “The Russians feared procedural formalities and government controls from the Indian side would delay the operations of the JV,” Pillai writes.

In hindsight, it was one of the best decisions made by an Indian defence enterprise. Free of government interference, BrahMos is today one of the most dynamic armaments companies in India.

There was one last hurdle. Moscow wanted to be sure India had the scientific and industrial depth to absorb a project of such complexity and magnitude, and despatched a specialist committee to India. DRDO selected certain key establishments – in Delhi, Dehradun, Hyderabad and Bangalore – to showcase India’s missile milestones.

“The Russian specialists were awestruck and very happy on seeing our development capabilities, especially in missile technology, guidance and control, software packages, computing capabilities and electronics systems. Their confidence levels shot up to high levels,” Pillai writes.

However, because of political turmoil in Russia in 1996-97, final clearance didn’t come until August 1998. And only in March 1999 was an agreement signed between the two countries.

Although three valuable years were lost, the DRDO-NPOM team wasn’t sitting idle. Basic design and consultancy work took place using the staff assigned to the company by the parent organisations.

Rapport matters

It was because of complete rapport between those at the top echelons in government and the scientific communities of the two countries that BrahMos achieved liftoff. First up, the friendship between Kalam and Yefremov and their belief in their respective teams was a key factor.

Yefremov’s academic stature and his role as a renowned rocket designer helped remove roadblocks and suspicions in the Russian bureaucracy.

On the Indian side, Kalam never turned down any of Pillai’s proposals. Similarly, when Kalam forwarded a proposal to Prime Minister Rao, the file came back with his approval the same day. This is something unimaginable in India where politicking comes first and national security takes a back seat. In India, even low-level personal assistants can delay projects of vital national interest by sitting on files. Sometimes they expect a bribe to clear a file; on other occasions they are paid by a competitor or foreign agency to block it.

But Rao was the right Prime Minister at the right time. Pillai remembers that while going through the JV documents, the Prime Minister nodded and said: “It is a good idea and if it clicks it has a good future.”

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