India’s “Carrier Killer:” The Air-Launched BrahMos Missile

Last week, a modified Indian Air Force (IAF) Sukhoi Su-30MKI fighter jet took off from Kalaikunda airbase in West Bengal and fired a BrahMos supersonic, nuclear-capable cruise missile at a target ship in the Bay of Bengal. Flying over a distance of 260 kilometers, the missile effectively destroyed the vessel. This test is a game changer for Indian offensive prowess in the Indian Ocean region and will act as a potent aircraft carrier killer due to its speed, range, and launch platform.

Technical capabilities

press release from the Indian Ministry of Defence said “the air launched BrahMos missile is a 2.5 ton supersonic air to surface cruise missile” with a range of over 400 kilometers. This particular missile test signifies a major leap for the BrahMos project and vastly expands India’s anti-access bubble in the Indian Ocean. Fitting this missile on fighter jets enables Indian forces to quickly respond to targets at long-range distances. As such, this capability now acts as both a deterrent to enemy attack and as an offensive weapon.

The mating of the missile with the aircraft, followed by its clean separation during the launch, represents a significant technological achievement by IAF and Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) engineers. The development of an air-launched platform makes the BrahMos an ideal aircraft carrier killer that can keep enemy Carrier Strike Group’s (CSG) far from the Indian mainland.

A joint venture between India and Russia, the BrahMos derives its name from Brahmaputra and Moskva rivers. Previous versions have already been deployed by the Army and Navy. In fact, the anti-ship variant was the first to be tested and subsequently deployed on frontline warships, greatly augmenting the Navy’s first strike capabilities. BrahMos began as an anti-ship warfare missile which means it already has the ability to pick and destroy solitary ships operating in the vast expanses of the ocean. The Army variant designed to strike targets in urban environments with pinpoint accuracy was deployed later. Both these variants were major force multipliers for the Indian military, but it is the air variant which tips the scales for India in the region in terms of India’s anti-access reach.

Going into further detail, the BrahMos’ ability to overcome the defenses of a CSG is significant. Namely, an aircraft carrier is always escorted by a battle group, which creates a layered self-defense bubble around the carrier. As such, a single incoming missile, even at several times the speed of sound, could be shot down by the formidable air defense systems of the CSG. But a volley of multiple BrahMos missiles fired from several Su-30MKI aircraft would be a tall order to intercept.

It only takes one successful hit to cripple the carrier and thereby render the CSG meaningless. More than the loss of the carrier capability and carrier’s enormous cost, the blow to morale due to the loss of personnel and national pride would also be crippling. It must be remembered that carrier operation is a significant technological and financial challenge and few nations on this planet maintain them.

Implementation and regional implications

This context demonstrates BrahMos’ potency. The missile will also contribute to India’s conventional deterrence in that the missile and launch aircraft operate in a highly dense electro-magnetic space and air defense cover. Having fighter jets equipped with BrahMos missiles allows Indian forces to deploy those missiles outside the range of enemy air defenses and destroy command and control centers and other critical infrastructure. Once the missile is launched, the fighter aircraft can scoot away quickly before the adversary can react. The Su-30 has a maximum speed of Mach 2 (or 2,470 kilometers per hour) and an in-flight range of 3,000 kilometers which can be further extended by mid-air refueling, vastly expanding the operational footprint. The IAF plans to modify at least 40 Su-30MKIs to carry the BrahMos missiles. Another factor which further enhances this capability is the increasing range of the BrahMos. The range is being extended in stages since India joined the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) in 2016 from the original 290 kilometers to 450 kilometers. Work is underway to expand this to 600 kilometers.

It is yet to be seen how countries in the Indian Ocean will react to this development. When speaking of the regional “footprint” of BrahMos in the Indian Ocean, China provides the underlying subtext as India’s only adversary that operates a carrier and is building more. China’s actions in the Indian Ocean region have already caused concern among Indian strategic thinkers, including the 2014 docking of a Chinese submarine in Colombo, Sri Lanka. In a recent Navy Day press conference, Indian Admiral Sunil Lanba reported that there are eight Chinese PLA Navy ships deployed in the Indian Ocean at any one time. As such, the successful test of the air-launched BrahMos last month may impact Beijing’s strategy towards the Indian Ocean region.

In sum, last month’s test is the first in a series of many developmental tests needed to fully validate the BrahMos missile before it can be operationally deployed. However, once inducted it will bring important improvements to the capacity to the IAF in keeping adversaries at a distance.


Image 1: Zoomed In via Flickr.

Image 2: Marina Lystseva via Getty Images.

Posted in , Air Power, China, Deterrence, India, Military, Missiles, Russia, Security

Dinakar Peri

Dinakar Peri is Defense Correspondent at The Hindu newspaper, actively covering defense and strategic affairs for one of India’s leading national dailies. Prior to journalism, he was an Associate Fellow at the Centre for Land Warfare Studies (CLAWS), an autonomous think tank of the Indian Army and on special projects with the Centre for Joint Warfare Studies (CENJOWS). He holds two degrees, an MBA in Business Sustainability and an MSc in Biotechnology. He has been a biology researcher and worked at the Indian Institute of Chemical Technology (IICT), Hyderabad and the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR), Mumbai.

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4 thoughts on “India’s “Carrier Killer:” The Air-Launched BrahMos Missile

  1. It states that instability in South Asian region is very soon going to rise and will indulge a new trends for arms race to equalize each other.

  2. India’s mountainous expenditures over the development of its military program including nuclear weapons and missile technology are in fact a threat to the peace and stability of the region. And also giving a source of igniting a arms race in the region. India acclaims of locking up in a never ending arms race with China but China is in lead to India. In order to counter Chinese influence in the region and also to make it down in military adventures India would be needing a strong, and well equipped military force. And in doing so believe me this arms race might end or not but the people in India would die because of hunger and unhygienic conditions in the country and its already happening so. I am amazed that the foreign (Washington based) scholars or experts appear blissfully unaware of the looming Indian missile challenge, and its day by day tests or preferring to ignore it while fulminating against Pakistan, Iran and North KOrea.

  3. Indo-US cooperation in high-tech defence equipment has raised concerns in Pakistan that have compelled it to look for advanced weapons technology. Such compulsions may create a path towards destabilization of the strategic balance in the region. India and Israel in future may also work in partnership to induct Dvora-III vessels into the Indian Navy to secure an edge over Pakistan when it comes to contesting claims between the two countries over the Exclusive Economic Zone in the Arabian Sea, specifically in the Sir Creek area. With the changing strategic dynamics, Pakistan finds itself in an altogether different position.

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