Singapore Airshow

An Indian-Russian supersonic missile could be a problem for China

Key Points
  • India and Russia have jointly developed the world's fastest supersonic cruise missile and plan on exporting the technology to allies.
  • If Southeast Asian nations such as Vietnam acquire the missile, that could raise concerns in China.

BrahMos Aerospace, a joint venture between India and Russia, has developed what it calls the world's fastest supersonic cruise missile. The namesake rocket may now be exported globally — a potentially concerning development for the world's second-largest economy.

A BrahMos spokesperson told CNBC at this year's Singapore Airshow that discussions were underway "with a number of countries," adding that the company would only sell to "responsible" nations friendly with both New Delhi and Moscow.

The BrahMos weapon system in full display during a rehearsal for India's Republic Day Parade on January 23, 2018 in New Delhi.
Mohd Zakir / Hindustan Times / Getty Images

Many Southeast Asian countries, including Malaysia, Indonesia and Vietnam, are reportedly interested in purchasing the state-of-the-art BrahMos missile, which has a flight range of nearly 300 kilometers.

Hanoi is currently locked in a territorial dispute with Beijing in the South China Sea, so a purchase of the missiles could be seen as an escalation from the Chinese perspective.

If the transaction materializes, "that would demonstrate an Indian willingness to arm a state right on China's doorstep for the first time," said Shashank Joshi, senior research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi's administration has denied reports that it was selling to Hanoi, but officials in the communist state have hinted that a deal was in place.

Dubbed "the carrier killer," the BrahMos can be launched from land, sea and air. Low maintenance requirements make it the most cost-effective model among existing cruise missiles systems, according to the firm. The rocket is able to precisely target enemy assets such as bunkers and radar systems, similar to what U.S. Tomahawk missiles did to Islamic State infrastructure.

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Potential sales of the BrahMos are concerning for Beijing, said Sameer Patil, director of the Centre for International Security at Mumbai-based think-tank Gateway House.

The missile "will significantly upgrade military capabilities of any country buying it," he warned. "This is particularly true for some Southeast Asian countries, which have a territorial dispute with China."

China's foreign ministry has not yet responded to CNBC's request for comment.

The missile's current range means that "if India wanted to use it from the sea, it would have to get dangerously close to the enemy's shoreline," Joshi explained. "From the air, it would only be able to strike a limited number of Chinese targets in Tibet." But "Russia and India are working to double the range of the missile, and this will make it more flexible and dangerous," he added.

New Delhi and Beijing have a deep-seated rivalry characterized by border spats and suspicion of each another's political ambitions. Moscow, on the other hand, enjoys a strategic relationship with Beijing so Russian President Vladimir Putin is expected to be mindful of Chinese concerns when finalizing BrahMos sales.

Beijing boasts its own array of lethal arms, however, so it may be unfazed if neighbors acquire the supersonic device.

The country recently tested a new kind of ballistic missile with a hypersonic glider — vehicles that can fly at low-altitudes and avoid detection by radars — according to The Diplomat. Known as the DF-17, the medium-range rocket is the latest in Chinese hypersonic technology.

The BrahMos is a particularly relevant project for Moscow, explained Zoe Stanley-Lockman, a Singapore-based defense analyst: "BrahMos is one of a few Russo-Indian cooperative programs that Moscow uses to bolster its own defense industry and redirect part of the U.S. share of Indian arms imports away from Washington," she said.