On March 9, 2022 at around 6:43 pm a high-speed flying object, later revealed to be the Brahmos missile, was tracked by Pakistan Air Force as it appeared on their air defence radars screens flying over Indian city of Sirsa in Haryana. After flying some 150 km in southwesterly direction it changed course curving 90 degrees to enter Pakistan airspace where it flew some 124 km before crashing near Mian Channu causing some damage to civilian property but luckily no loss of life. While Pakistan revealed the details of the incident next day in Inter Service Public Relations (ISPR) press briefing, India acknowledged the same 2 days afterwards calling it an accidental launch during routine maintenance and stating that a high level inquiry had been constituted to look into the incident.
This was indeed a major and a dangerous incident given the heightened animosity between the two nuclear armed neighbors who nearly went to war in February 2019 when an Indian Kashmiri youth blew himself killing around 40 Indian paramilitary personnel at Pulwama. India blamed the incident on Pakistan and carried out an air strike using standoff Israeli Spice weapons. Though the Balakot airstrike missed its targets, Pakistan retaliated with a counterstrike hitting in vicinity of Indian military targets. In the air battle that ensued at least one Indian aircraft was shot down and Indian pilot taken prisoner while Indian air defence missile system, in confusion, shot down its own helicopter killing 6 Indian Air Force personnel. According to Bloomberg, Pakistan was at the verge of deciding on retaliatory strike in response to the recent Brahmos launch but held back after it discovered that the missile was unarmed, i.e. devoid of a warhead.
Brahmos is a flagship joint Indian-Russian project named after Brahmaputra and Moskva rivers in the two countries. It is based on Russian P-800 Oniks missile albeit with reduced range of around 290 km to keep within MTCR limitations. India’s Defence Research and Development Organization (DRDO) takes a lot of pride in Brahmos, having developed ground, ship and air launched versions, claiming it to be a highly accurate and an unstoppable multi-domain strike weapon. Using solid propellant booster to launch the missile its liquid ramjet engine takes over to propel it at Mach 2.8 which is consistent with the speeds tracked by the Pakistan Air Force. From what little has been shared by India, it seems to be the land based version fired out of Transport Launch Canister (TLC) that ended up in Pakistan.
The accidental firing of a missile raises a lot of questions on safety and reliability of Indian missile and defence technology as well as on its command and control systems, training and maintenance regimes and perhaps even on the radicalization in its armed forces following the similar trends in the Indian society. Given the deadly nature of military weapon systems and the destruction they can inflict, safety is the foremost concern in their design. Even the smallest weapons like a pistol have multiple levels of safety. For example the famous Glock pistol, devoid of external safety, has three internal safeties besides the loaded chamber indictor, to prevent accidental discharge. Despite these reliable internal safeties, external safety was a requirement when the gun was put up for US army XM17 pistol selection trials. Similarly even the ubiquitous artillery shells have multiple safeties that are sequentially disarmed when fired out of canons. The multi-layered safety features common in mechanical weapons and munitions, are even more secure and fool proof in the highly sophisticated missiles systems controlled through complex electronics and computerized command and control systems. All this is to ensure prevention of unintended firing while the weapon is in stowage, during performance of maintenance actions, or when deployed.
Typically, a canisterised missile is secured inside a canister through mechanical fasteners and fitted snug with sabots to prevent it from getting damaged in transportation and movement. The missiles are also attached through an umbilical data cable to the launcher from where it receives the targeting coordinates along with fire control inputs to launch successfully. The canister covers are either secured through exploding bolts, lifted using hydraulic or electro-mechanical actuators or membranes that rupture from overpressure or by the missile cone as its booster fires. The mechanical fasteners are among the physical safeties that have to be automatically removed before the missile can leave the canister. Similarly launch authorization codes have to be entered in the fire control computer, a physical key inserted, targeting data, flight path, way points, attack profile, positioning data, passed to missile’s onboard computer and its inertial navigation system initialized before trigger can be pressed to start the launch cycle that sequentially removes the electronic and physical safeties to successfully launch the missile. During this process the launch platform and missile’s onboard computer exchanges data several times and launch is automatically aborted in case of any anomaly. From several videos released on Internet, it appears that Brahmos has a complex post launch profile; after ejecting from the launcher, its lateral thrusters fire to reorient the missiles before its protective nose cover is ejected by firing of at least two small rockets, it is only then that the main rocket increases its thrust to attain supersonic speeds necessary to fire up the ramjet sustainer engine. This complex sequence cannot go right in an accidental launch unless the weapon system has severe quality control issues and/or faulty safety mechanisms in its design as well as in the command and control system and this seems to be the case with the Brahmos.
Quality and maintenance issues and poor spare support in Indian weapons systems are well known. Yet the country seems to be in a hurry in trying to export its faulty weapons to other countries. For example India sold seven Dhruv helicopters to Ecuador for a discounted price. Of these, four crashed while the remaining three were grounded and later put up for disposal by the Ecuadorian government. India blamed the crashes on pilot errors, faulty maintenance and poor spare parts supply but this does not explain more than sixteen accidents and crashes in Indian service. Despite poor safety record India has gifted the same helicopter to Maldives and Nepal just as it keeps pushing the sale of its faulty and now dangerous Brahmos missile system.
After a frenzy of efforts and offering several incentives, India signed a deal worth $ 375 Millions for supply of Brahmos missile system to Philipines. After the recent accidental launch incident, its diplomatic and military officials are scrambling to save the deal. Philippines is rightly skeptical of the viability and safety of the Brahmos missile system. The missile’s claimed accidental launch not only raised the risk of war but also endangered the commercial air traffic flying through the area. In case of Pakistan, aircraft flying on two routes were endangered but in busy airways crisscrossing around Philippines, the danger is manifold. This becomes apparent with one look at the air traffic on flight radar websites. Similarly Philippines sits astride the busy and sensitive waterways of South China Sea where Chinese have built naval and air bases on Spartly Islands disputed by Philippines. Any accidental or unintended/unauthorized launch of Brahmos missile would not only endanger the shipping in the area but will be tracked by the network of Chinese air defence radars in the area and in an increasingly tense environment decisions to retaliate could be followed through, endangering the already fragile peace in the region.
Despite the aggressive marketing to position Brahmos as the best ant-ship cruise missile system in world it has several limitations and drawbacks. Its frontal air intake and long air duct leading to the ramjet decreases the internal space for the warhead. Hence despite its very large size it carries only a 200 kg warhead comparable to much smaller Harpoon and Exocet missiles. Large size resulting in large radar cross section coupled with the need for the missile to fly at high altitude to achieve long range and use of high powered radar makes the missile more susceptible to detection at long ranges and countering with soft and hard kill counter measures.
No wonder the US and other Western Navies have not gone the high speed path for their current and future anti-ship missiles. Despite having mastered the ramjet technology decades back, they have chosen stealth, very long range, data link, cooperative engagement and retargeting capability, multi-sensor fusion and artificial intelligence for the US Navy’s Long Range Anti Ship Missile (LRASM). Similarly the multi senor Naval Strike Missile (NSM) has been selected for frigates, LCS and ground based launchers. Chinese also having developed and displayed its own copy of P-800, Brahmos-like, CX1 ramjet missile several years back instead choose a different shape for its operational ramjet powered HD1 missile. Even India having developed and deployed Brahmos on ships, Su30 MKI aircraft and ground launchers has armed its Jaguars and P8I with US Harpoon missiles.
The recent accidental or unauthorized launch of the Brahmos missile is likely to be blamed on the Indian Air Force group captain in charge of the Mobile Command Post’s Mobile Autonomous Launchers (MALs). The real technical flaws in its design and safety will never be revealed. In this era of rekindled major power competition, nations need to be very careful in choosing reliable, safe and controllable weapons systems and those likely to encounter rouge missile suddenly fired upon them need reliable detection and interception capabilities.
*About Author: Humais Sheikh, has completed his Master’s from Quaid-I-Azam University Islamabad in Defense and Strategic studies. He is an independent defense analyst and Ex. Vice president of Defense and Strategic Studies student’s society.