The accidental firing of an unarmed BrahMos missile into Pakistan has resulted in the sacking of three Air Force officers. In all probability, the speed and mode of delivering justice, within five months of the incident, must have been guided by the imperatives of secrecy.
While the accident could not have occurred without the failure of safety systems at multiple levels, human error must have been the prime culprit. Moreover, it was not a combat situation where the psychological impact of danger and uncertainty could have fuelled the error, which was the case in the accidental shooting down of an Mi-17 helicopter in Kashmir, a day after the Balakot air strike, that resulted in the death of six IAF personnel and one civilian. Two IAF officers were punished.
The impact in the recent BrahMos case, however, was more in terms of national embarrassment. Fortuitously, the absence of damage to life and property stymied Pakistan’s reaction and rationality demonstrated by its authorities prevented crisis escalation.
Taking BrahMos beyond uni-Service perspective
BrahMos missile, which carries a conventional warhead, is the outcome of a successful India-Russia joint venture that commenced in the late 1990s. The supersonic cruise missile is now operational with all three armed forces, with the IAF having incorporated it as a weapons system in the Su-30. The missile gives Indian military a definite advantage because it is a good mix of the range of the aircraft with the range of the missile.
Recent reports indicate that the range of the missile has been increased from 290 km to 350-400 kms and in addition, there is an anti-ship version that can boost India’s strategic reach in the Indian Ocean, a reach that is aided by India’s island territories like Andaman and Nicobar. But it cannot substitute for seaborne naval aviation in the form of an aircraft carrier. The aircraft carrier not only provide air cover to the surface fleet but also facilitate anti-submarine capabilities through carriage of airborne platforms by way of fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters.
The operational potential of the BrahMos missile lies in its ability to damage or destroy critical infrastructure of the adversary. The land-based mobile platform and the air-based Su-30 can provide a deadly combination to interdict the adversary’s lines of communication and critical infrastructure, especially through the destruction of bridges, air bases, ammunition depots, etc.
Ideally, the bulk of India’s BrahMos assets should be deployed against China as the mountainous terrain provides scope for interdicting the crucial and challenging operational logistics needed by offensive forces. However, due to legacy reasons and our reluctance to rebalance from the western to the northern front, BrahMos units like the one involved in the accidental firing continue to be deployed on the west. The case for thickening up land and air-based BrahMos assets on the northern border is strong, especially when these assets are mobile and can be redeployed with adequate prior preparatory measures.
So, why do the Army and the Air Force operate the same land-based BrahMos missile? The answer lies in the notion that there are Service-specific target sets that are best engaged by assets under their direct control. A similar logic animated the debate when the Army and the Air Force sparred over the control of attack helicopters, a debate that has been managed more than settled. The result is that deficiencies in optimum synergy relating to training, operational effectiveness and logistics remain.
Missile targets are sensitive in escalatory terms because of the tactical value and the strategic effects they produce. Engagement of such targets will be subject to varying degrees of control depending on the stage and level of the conflict. The entire spectrum of target sets has to be centrally evaluated and allocated for engagement based on operational imperatives. Therefore, aircraft-based BrahMos would be allocated targets at longer ranges while land-based ones would engage targets outside the range of artillery and rockets.
Of course, other considerations like warhead effectiveness on the specific target would also come into play. The point to note is that assets like BrahMos should not be viewed for utilisation through the narrow Service-specific perspective. Therefore, the arguments of the IAF and the Army regarding the control of armed helicopters aren’t applicable. All land-based surface-to-surface firepower could remain with the Army. The accidental firing of the BrahMos should prompt the authorities to make the change.
Chance to learn missed lesson
One of the greatest strengths of the BrahMos is that it is produced in India and promotes the vision of atmanirbharta (self-reliance). The numbers on order by the Army are, however, still low, primarily because of competing necessities that have to be balanced because of budget constraints. This is a pity considering the potential of the BrahMos. It also illustrates the fact that even after development, weapons systems do not easily flow into the kitty of the armed forces. It is a problem that only the political leadership can rectify.
If there can be a positive outcome of the BrahMos accidental firing, let it be that our political leadership, which is besieged by the competing demands of development and security, makes a paradigm shift, favouring additional financial support to the demands of India’s external security imperatives. Worse, the existing inadequacy is even holding back the realisation of capabilities that we possess.
As Prime Minister Narendra Modi commissions the Cochin Shipyard-built aircraft carrier INS Vikrant on 2 September, the capability developed must lead to building the next carrier. It is a decision that has been intolerably delayed, which has frittered away some of the advantages India could have had, considering it is among the few nations which have been operating aircraft carriers for more than six decades. It’s an asset that China does not have, an asset whose paramount importance cannot be measured. The failure to capitalise on the experience of manufacturing the country’s first indigenous HF-24 Marut fighter aircraft cost us dearly, which reflects now in the Indian Navy rejecting the light combat aircraft (LCA) for INS Vikrant.
Both BrahMos and INS Vikrant can provide insights into India’s short sightedness in refusing to be guided by a long term strategic vision shaped by geopolitical realities. The least we can do is leverage existing capabilities even as we aspire to develop additional ones.
Lt Gen (Dr) Prakash Menon (retd) is Director, Strategic Studies Programme, Takshashila Institution; former military adviser, National Security Council Secretariat. He tweets @prakashmenon51. Views are personal.
(Edited by Prashant)