Saturday, April 1st, 2023 01:05:44

Enhancing cruise missile capability

By Amartya Sinha
Updated: February 10, 2023 6:20 pm

The last century was a transformative and transitional period in the history of contemporary warfare as new generation kinetic strike weapons took to the skies after the second world war. 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, and now as visible in the ongoing Russia-Ukraine War, the world has 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 critical role not just in maintaining conventional deterrence, but also in executing tactical level nuclear strikes over enemy’s ground-based infantry battalions and armoured mobile formations in case of an escalation.

The emergence of turbofan engine-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 conventional battlefield. A heavy barrage of air-launched, ship-launched, submarine launched and ground-launched cruise missiles 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 clearing the way for an aerial kinetic bombardment campaign and simultaneous ground incursion 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, tremendously manoeuvrable and highly 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 actually hit them.

A deadly supersonic punch

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 three times more velocity and has almost 2.5 times more range. The missile also carries the USP (unique selling proposition) of having four times more seeker range and nine 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 various 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 of 48 missiles. The 2 each of Kolkata-class and Visakhapatnam-class destroyers also position the 8-cell Brahmos VLS launchers leading to a total of 32 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 future 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 cruise 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 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 operationally deployed with the Indian Air Force in battle-ready configurations in peninsular India.

Moreover, the upcoming NG (Next Generation) version of the missile will be ready for integration with Tejas and MiG-29 fighter-bombers of the Indian Airforce. In future, each Sukhoi-30MKI and MiG-29 jets will be able to carry two BrahMos NG missiles whereas each upgraded Sukhoi-30 fighter-bomber will be capable of carrying five 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.

Battleship-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 weapon system which is 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 missiles in India’s arsenal when it is commissioned into the Indian Armed forces after long-duration 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), it can evade any kind of anti-aircraft and current generation endo-atmospheric anti-missile systems in the world due to its super-hypersonic velocity. The first prototype is a 5.6-meter-long aerial vehicle which is featuring a flattened octagonal cross section with mid-body stub-wings and raked tail fins along with a 3.7-meter rectangular section air intake. The scramjet engine is located under the mid-body, with the aft-body serving as part of the exhaust nozzle. Two parallel fences in the forebody are meant to reduce spillage and increase thrust. Part span flaps are provided at the trailing edge of the wings for roll control. A deflectable nozzle cowl at the combustor end can deflect up to 25 degrees to ensure satisfactory performance during power-off and power-on phases. Surfaces of the airframe’s bottom, wings and tail are made up of Titanium alloy, while Aluminium alloy comprises the top surface. The inner surface of the double-wall engine is Niobium alloy and the outer surface is made from Nimonic alloy. Designing and ground testing of technologies regarding aerodynamics, aerothermodynamics, engines and hot-structures of the weapon system is already complete. Work is currently in progress on mechanical and electrical integration, control and guidance systems along with their packaging, checkout system, HILS (Hardware in Loop Simulation) and launch readiness. HSTDV will be capable of carrying conventional, nuclear and thermonuclear warheads up to unspecified ranges. According to a credible source in the DRDO, the third prototype is ready for a longer duration flight endurance test which can be executed soon. The preparations for the third test come after the missile was successfully tested for a duration of up to 20 seconds on September 7, 2020. The third test (codenamed- HS-03) may witness the launch of a modified booster with slow burning propellant. With further enhancement and miniaturisation of the vehicle, it won’t be a surprise if India develops a scramjet rocket-powered manoeuvrable hypersonic atmospheric re-entry vehicle which can act as a nuclear/thermonuclear payload onboard the Agni-V and the upcoming Agni-VI Intercontinental range Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs), thus proving to be a huge strategic-level force multiplier for the nation in the long run.

Must take the legacy forward

At a time when India is emerging as a great 21st century world power with blue-water naval capabilities along with rapidly transforming ground and air forces, next generation hypersonic strike weapons can give the county a true global-strike capability in terms of FOBS (Fractional Orbital Bombardment System) in ballistic missiles and long-range cruise missiles. Improved research and development activities 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 satellites into low earth orbit. While India is somehow on the right path, policymaking still remains in a quagmire due to possible geopolitical pressures and involvement of various vested interest groups including arms control lobbies. With an Islamic Pakistan and a communist China in the neighbourhood, the strong Hindu Nationalist Indian government under the decisive and visionary leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi must not bow down before pressure groups. Being the third largest military power and the fifth largest economy in the world, India is already a global power with superpower ambitions, and hence we must openly show the middle finger to arms control lobbies and cowardly pacifists. The process of India’s rigorous and widespread weaponisation should continue rapidly in an unabated manner over the coming years.


By Amartya Sinha

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