Saturday, May 21st, 2022 09:13:04

Boosting cruise missile capability

By V. Shankar
Updated: February 1, 2021 5:17 pm

The last century was a transformative period in the history of modern warfare as new generation kinetic weapons took to the skies after the World War-2. Starting right from the first Gulf War in 1990 and ending with the Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Syria campaigns in the first two decades of the 21st century, the world witnessed the usage of game changing aerial weapons which tipped the balance in the aggressor’s favour in the opening hours of the war. Such weapons play a very pivotal role not just in maintaining conventional deterrence, but also in executing tactical level nuclear strikes over enemy’s ground-based infantry and armoured mobile formations in case of an escalation.

The emergence of turbofan powered terrain-hugging cruise missiles, which can fly at lower altitudes (below enemy radar coverage) and at treetop heights, are some of the most formidable and destructive weapons in the contemporary battlefield. A heavy barrage of air-launched, ship-launched, submarine launched and ground-launched projectiles during wars can take out the enemy’s airfields, dams, bridges, railheads, army garrisons, anti-aircraft positions, heavy-artillery bases, underground nuclear weapons storage facilities and other important strategic installations in the opening hours of the war, thus softening enemy resistance and clearing the way for an aerial kinetic bombardment campaign and simultaneous ground incursions inside hostile territory. Unlike heavyweight ballistic missiles, which have larger CEP (Circular Error Probability) and can be used for devastating nuclear strikes on enemy cities, cruise missiles are lightweight, highly manoeuvrable and tremendously accurate. Such weapons are jet-propelled flying bombs raining surprise death on the enemy.

Whereas some cruise missiles with larger RCS (Radar Cross Section) can be engaged with ground-based SAM (Surface to Air) Air-Defence (AD) missile units, the task becomes almost impossible if the incoming missile is flying at supersonic speeds. At lower altitudes and at subsonic speeds such deadly flying weapons can be engaged Within Visual Range (WVR) with the help of high-calibre anti-aircraft machine guns like the CIWS, L-60 and L-70 systems through Line of Sight (LOS) automatic fire target engagement. But a supersonic missile flying at speeds of Mach 2.8 (almost 3500 km an hour) will give very little reaction-time to the enemy for a counterattack and counter-engagement of the projectile in mid-course flight.

Moreover, if the weapon is launched in air-launched configuration from a fighter jet or a bomber aircraft, the high-velocity release of the missile and increased range provides extra kinetic energy to the package for long range Beyond Visual Range (BVR) target engagements from aerial platforms. So, it can be confidently stated that an air-launched supersonic cruise missile is the enemy’s worst nightmare in the 21st century tactical level conventional battlefield as the enemy will be dead even before they come to know what exactly hit them.

 

A deadly supersonic blow

India’s cruise missile capability has largely evolved as a credible conventional level deterrence since the turn of the new millennium. The ramjet powered BrahMos supersonic cruise missile with a proven range of up to 280 km which was further enhanced to 450 km during recent tests, and having a maximum potential range of up to 800 km has been serving as the primary heavy-strike weapon of the Indian Army and the Indian Navy since the last two decades. The terrain hugging missile powered by a first stage solid-propulsion based booster motor and a liquid fuelled ramjet second stage engine, can fly at

treetop heights and execute sharp manoeuvres before high velocity impact on the target with speeds of up to Mach 3 (3700 km an hour). The high Mach numbers ensure a deadly impact on the pre-designated target in ‘fire and forget’ mode and enhances its role as a kinetic kill weapon against high value enemy targets. Developed from the Russian ‘P-800 Oniks’ anti-ship missile system, BrahMos can prove to be a great force multiplier in the conventional battlefield.

While compared to other tactical cruise missiles in its class, the BrahMos flies at almost 3 times more velocity and has almost 2.5 times more range. The missile also carries the USP (unique selling proposition) of having 4 times more seeker range and 9 times more kinetic energy in the terminal phase while being compared to other widely used cruise missiles. The TNT based conventional warhead weighing up to 300 kg acts as a high-explosive device which can even take out deep underground bunkers of the enemy. BrahMos is also capable of carrying anti-armour warheads which can wipe out entire mechanised infantry columns and tank units of the enemy. With slight customisation, BrahMos is capable of carrying tactical nuclear warheads in pure-fission and compact boosted-fission configurations which can land devastating punches on hostile garrisons, cantonments, railheads and airbases.

The ground-based launchers of BrahMos are based on a TEL (Transporter-Erector-launcher) vehicle-based Mobile Autonomous launcher (MAL)-based canister packages made from maraging steel which gives the firer a rapid shoot and scoot capability. The sealed canister package enhances mobility of the TEL truck and also increases the missile’s shelf life. India and Russia have decided to jointly manufacture up to 2000 BrahMos missiles by the middle of the current decade of which 50 percent can be exported to third nations. At present the Indian Navy has 100 such missiles deployed onboard warships whereas 100 have been kept as backup inventory.

At present, the Rajput-class destroyer- INS Rajput has four BrahMos missiles in two twin inclined launchers whereas INS Ranvir and INS Ranvijay are armed with one 8-cell Brahmos VLS launcher leading to a total of 16 missiles. The Talwar-class frigates- INS Teg, INS Tarkash, INS Trikand and three Shivalik-class frigates are also armed with one 8-cell Brahmos VLS launcher amounting to a total of48 missiles. The 2 each of Kolkata-class and Visakhapatnam-class destroyers also position the 8-cell Brahmos VLS launchers leading to a total of32 missiles. Moreover, the submarine-launched version of BrahMos is also undergoing rigorous testing after the maiden flight test was successfully executed from an underwater pontoon in 2013. All six futuristic diesel-electric conventional submarines being planned under ‘Project-75I’ will be equipped with VLS launchers and the SLCM (Submarine Launched Cruise Missile) version of BrahMos.

The Indian Army also boasts of having the devastating weapon in its arsenal. More than 288 BrahMos missiles are actively fielded by the army whereas 288 more have been kept as backup reserves. The Indian Army possess one regiment of BrahMos Block-1, two regiments of BrahMos Block-2 along with a single regiment of Block-3 of the weapon system. Indian Army’s Rajasthan based Regiments- 861, 862 and 863 and Arunachal Pradesh based Regiment- 864 possesses 72 missiles each. Regiment-861 is armed with the Block-1 versions whereas Regiments- 862 and 863 are armed with the more advanced Block-2 versions. Only Regiment-864 boasts of the latest Block-3 version of BrahMos.

At present, 40 Sukhoi-30MKI fighter jets of the Indian Air Force are also being upgraded to carry the air-launched cruise missile version of the weapon (named BrahMos-A). More than 200 BrahMos-A missiles are currently undergoing the acquisition process. Plans are also underway for deploying BrahMos-A onboard the Indian Navy’s Ilyushin Il-38 and Tupolev Tu-142 maritime patrol and anti-submarine warfare (ASW) aircrafts. A lighter Next Generation (NG) variant of the missile is planned to be developed for deployment onboard the IAF’s LCA-Tejas, MiG-29 and the upcoming Dassault Rafale fighter jets.

Meanwhile, all tests of BrahMos ALCM (Air Launched Cruise Missile) from a Sukhoi-30 fighter jet have been successfully completed. With the conclusion of the tests, the ALCM  version of BrahMos has been approved for final operational deployment with the Indian Airforce in battle-ready configurations.

Moreover, the upcoming NG (Next Generation) version of the missile will be ready for integration with Tejas and MiG-29 fighter-bombers of the IAF. In future, each Sukhoi-30 and MiG-29 jets will be able to carry 2 BrahMos NG missiles whereas each upgraded Sukhoi-30 fighter-bomber will be capable of carrying 5 BrahMos NG weapons. The NG version will make the weapon system capable of integration over multiple platforms including tactical bombers and even helicopters. Work is also under progress for developing an air-to-air version of BrahMos which will be capable of taking out enemy AWACS (Airborne Early Warning and Control System) aircraft and mid-air refueller tanker planes from standoff ranges.

 

Hypersonic punch

After the successful deployment of the BrahMos-1 system, research is on progress towards developing BrahMos-2 which will be a hypersonic cruise missile having a range of up to 450 km and capable of flying at speeds of up to Mach 7 (8650 km an hour). The missile will be powered by an air-breathing Scramjet (Supersonic Combustion Ramjet) engine. The deadly weapon system has been named BrahMos-2 (K) in a tribute to former Indian president and eminent scientist- Dr APJ Abdul Kalam. BrahMos Aerospace has already signed a memorandum of understanding with IISc-Bangalore in 2011 for setting up a ‘Centre for Excellence in High Speed Aerodynamics.’ It is believed that advanced heat-resistant materials which can withstand tremendous heat due to heavy friction with air during hypersonic atmospheric flight of the missile are currently being developed at IISc-Bangalore. The project is at an advanced stage of realisation and BrahMos-2’s initial prototypes may be flight-tested by the end of this decade. Theoretical work for the project has already been completed.

Indigenous subsonic systems

Nirbhay is an indigenously developed long-range all-weather subsonic cruise missile with tremendous manoeuvrability. Having an operational range of between 1000 and 1500 km with a 300 kg warhead and powered by a solid-propellant booster in the first stage and a turbofan jet engine in the second stage, the missile can be compared to America’s Tomahawk land attack cruise missile. The missile is configured with a Ring Laser Gyroscope (RLG) and Inertial Navigation System (INS) based guidance, navigation and control system. Nirbhay is armed with a radio-altimeter for height determination and has tremendous loitering and target re-engagement capabilities. Being a terrain hugging weapon, it can fly at tree-top heights of even 100 meters, thus evading enemy radars during midcourse flight and giving very little reaction time to the enemy. Nirbhay has undergone 7 test-flights since out of which 3 has been successful. Meanwhile, the Gas Turbine Research Establishment (GTRE) under the DRDO is also in the process of developing a Small Turbofan engine (STFE) named ‘Manik’ with 4.25 kN of thrust which will be capable of powering a 500 km range UCAV (Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicle)-launched variant of Nirbhay missile. As of now, the ground-based versions of Nirbhay are based on six-axle TEL based MAL vehicles with every launcher carrying 4 missiles. Moreover, air-launched, ship-launched and submarine-launched variants of the weapon system are also in the works.

 

Warship-based weapons

With a range of up to 124 km and capable of carrying a warhead weighing 221 kg, the Harpoon is a formidable air-launched stand-off weapon system. The missile is also capable of executing ground-strike roles and is in the process of integration with IAF’s Jaguar fighter bombers and Indian Navy’s P8I maritime aircrafts. India has already ordered 24 Harpoon Block-2 missiles for the navy and another 22 missiles for the IAF. Plans are also afoot to arm the Shishumar-class diesel-electric submarines with Harpoon missiles.

Another advanced weapon system which are in widespread deployment with the Indian Navy is the Exocet cruise missile system. Designed and manufactured by MBDA, the Exocet is the mainstay weapon of the Kalvari-class of conventional diesel-electric submarines which are being built for the Indian Navy under ‘Project-75’. All six Kalvari-class submarines, i.e. INS Kalvari, INS Khanderi, INS Karanj, INS Vela, INS Vagir and INS Vagsheer will be armed with the Exocet missile system. The subsonic missile having a launch mass of 670 kg is designed to carry a 165 kg warhead up to 180 km range. Over 40 Exocet missiles are on order for the Indian Navy, whereas 40 such missiles are already deployed onboard IAF’s Mirage-2000 fighter-bombers. Moreover, MBDA is in the process of forging a joint venture partnership with Larsen & Toubro for manufacturing the Exocet MM-40 missile for fulfilling the medium range anti-ship missile requirement of the Indian Armed Forces under the union government’s ‘Make in India’ programme. The MBDA-L&T Joint Venture has already proposed the missile to the Indian Armed Forces while responding to an RFI.

Indigenous hypersonic killer

The ongoing HSTDV (Hypersonic Technology Demonstrator Vehicle) project will be one of the most devastating tactical-level hypersonic cruise missile in India’s arsenal when it is commissioned into the Indian Armed forces after flight-testing of prototypes in the near future. Powered by an indigenously developed scramjet engine and capable of flying at potential speeds of up to Mach 12 (14,817 km per hour), the monster can evade any kind of anti-aircraft and current generation endo-atmospheric anti-missile systems in the world due to its super-hypersonic velocity.

Next generation hypersonic strike weapons can give the county a true global-strike capability in terms of next generation FOBS (Fractional Orbital Bombardment System)-based manoeuvrable multiple independent re-entry vehicles in ballistic missiles, and long-range cruise missiles. Improved research and development initiatives in hypersonic rocket propulsion will not just provide devastating firepower to the Indian Armed Forces, but can also pave the way towards low-cost access to space for launching of satellites into low earth orbit in the near future.

 

By V. Shankar

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