Philippines-India relations

EXPLAINER: Philippines to finally get India-made BrahMos missiles – what does it mean?

Bea Cupin

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EXPLAINER: Philippines to finally get India-made BrahMos missiles – what does it mean?

BRARMOS TEST. The Indian Navy launches the INS Mormugao's maiden Brahmos Supersonic cruise missile firing.

Indian Navy

The Philippines expects the ground system to arrive by early February and the missiles themselves by March 2024

MANILA, Philippines – Before the first quarter of 2024 ends, the Philippines will finally enter the “supersonic age,” said National Security Council (NSC) spokesperson Jonathan Malaya on state-run PTV4’s Bagong Pilipinas Ngayon.

Malaya was referring to the pending delivery of the BrahMos missile system, almost two years after Philippine and Indian officials formalized a $370-million contract to purchase the anti-ship missile system.

The NSC official said the ground system would come by the first week of February 2024 while the missiles themselves would arrive in March 2024. The Philippines is set to receive three batteries of the coastal defense missile system.

But what does the delivery mean for Philippine defenses, and India’s place in the region’s defense and security puzzle?

2022 deal

The contract to acquire the missile system was formalized in January 2022, during the tail end of the previous Duterte administration.

Joshua Espeña, vice president at International Development and Security Cooperation (IDSC), said the system itself is not enough. “The BrahMos cruise missile system enables any military to have anti-access/area-denial capabilities against enemy naval surface platforms – as the manual says. But acquiring the system per se isn’t a game-changer; it is operational design, and the strategic vision that informs it, that matters most,” he told Rappler.

In short, the BrahMos missile system is only a piece of the country’s bigger defense puzzle.

“For instance, if we talk about China’s overall capabilities employed in the South China Sea, the thing is that the Brahmos fired from AFP’s platforms might be intercepted mid-air. I am skeptical whether the AFP can afford such wastage of munitions in times of war considering financial constraints,” he said.

It’s up to the military, for instance, to also make sure it’s able to learn how to neutralize the “kill chain” of a potential enemy for the Brahmos munition “to pack a punch.”

“These points are serious factors for conventional deterrence in peacetime. But this doesn’t mean the AFP won’t be able to overcome this; we only need to temper our optimism with a healthy take on defense planning. We need more than BrahMos,” he added.

According to the BrahMos Aerospace website, the company is a joint venture between the India-based Defense Research and Development Organization and Russia’s NPO Mashinostroyeniya. The company was established in 1998 following an agreement signed between India and Russia.

BrahMos supersonic cruise missiles are “two-stage missiles,” according to the company’s website. A propellant booster engine brings the missile to supersonic speed, separates, then a liquid ramjet brings it to 3 Mach speed, according to the company.

BrahMos promises a flight range of up to 290 kilometers with supersonic speed and can be launched from land, a ship, or from a fighter aircraft. The Philippine Marine Corps’ Coastal Defense Regiment is set to operate the system.

In February 2023, 21 personnel from the Philippine Navy completed their shore-based anti-ship missile system training ahead of the BrahMos delivery.

West Philippine Sea concerns

The pending delivery of the BrahMos system, while still just a piece of a larger puzzle, is already a huge boost to the Philippine military, as it shifts to external defense from decades of focusing on internal threats from insurgencies.

“The acquisition of the BrahMos will add an important layer of deterrence towards the Philippines’ quest to secure its sovereignty and sovereign rights in the West Philippine Sea,” explained geopolitical analyst Don McLain Gill, a lecturer at the De La Salle University Department of International Studies.

Former defense chief Delfin Lorenzana, who signed the contract in 2022, touted even then that the missiles would “provide deterrence against any attempt to undermine our sovereignty and sovereign rights, especially in the West Philippine Sea.” It was an interesting choice of words, especially since under former president Rodrigo Duterte, the Philippines took a friendly stance towards China, which claims almost all of the South China Sea – including the West Philippine Sea – as its own.

The situation has certainly changed since President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. took office. While promising to be a “friend to all, enemy to none,” his administration has been stronger in asserting its sovereign rights in the West Philippine Sea, which includes the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone (EEZ) within the South China Sea.

China was ruffled over the Marcos administration’s seeming pivot, including moves to grow closer to treaty-ally the United States. Manila and Beijing have tried to de-escalate tensions through diplomacy.

At the same time, Marcos and his defense and security officials have been keen on forging closer ties with existing and even new like-minded countries who are all concerned over China’s growing aggressive actions in the South China Sea.

“Other than just the acquisition, the purchase of the supersonic cruise missile will also open doors for closer defense cooperation with a rising India. Manila and New Delhi converge greatly in regional goals and objectives. Thus, it is likely for both democracies to continue working closely amid the geopolitical shifts in the Indo-Pacific, explained Gill.

The geopolitical analyst pointed out that Philippine-India security relations “gained significant momentum” beginning 2016, just as Duterte promised a pivot to China and away from the US.

Ties go beyond the military – the Philippine Coast Guard and the India Coast Guard have signed several agreements, including a memorandum of understanding on “enhancing maritime cooperation” in August 2023.

Gill expects bilateral ties to only improve. “It is likely for the bilateral partnership to strengthen further due to the alignment of interests between both states towards maintaining the rules-based order,” he observed.

Like the Philippines, India has also had to deal with an ever-aggressive China. In mid-2023, India and the Philippines were among the many countries that protested China’s new “standard map” which featured the 10-dash line that claimed most of the West Philippine Sea. China’s land area in the map includes Arunachal Pradesh and the Aksai Chin, areas also claimed by India.

India as defense provider

India, through the years, has been focusing on its defense industry. Espeña pointed out that while it’s primarily for its own consumption and to ensure its independence from exports, India has also needed to export because of economies of scale.

Gill explained that India has been working to grow its defense manufacturing sector as part of its atmanirbhar bharat or self-reliance goal. He added that the interest in forging security ties with countries like the Philippines, and its push to improve defense exports indicates India’s “desire to play a larger and more proactive role as a security provider and partner in the Indo-Pacific and beyond.”

“As the world’s largest democracy, the fifth largest economy, the fourth most powerful military, and the second largest standing army, India is positioned to exercise its leadership at the international stage by becoming the voice of the Global South,” he said.

Gill singled out the 2023 State of Southeast Asia Survey, where India was ranked second as a “preferred alternative partner country” for the region, as the superpower competition between the US and China intensified.

In the Philippines, however, India ranks low – even lower than China – among countries Filipinos prefer the Marcos administration work with “in view of the continuing tensions in the West Philippine Sea,” according to a Pulse Asia survey commissioned by think tank Stratbase.

The survey was held in early December 2023 and released in mid-January 2024, before more concrete delivery dates for the missile system were announced.

Partner of choice in or even leader of the developing world is a position that China wants for itself.

As a country in the middle of a region which Marcos himself said has “arguably the most complicated geopolitical situation in the world right now,” it only serves Philippine interests to look beyond the usual partners.

While the BrahMos system, part of the upgrades under the long-delayed Horizon 2, is finally set to arrive on Philippine shores, the AFP has reportedly finalized the list of upgrades it wants under Horizon 3.

“We must remember that we buy not out of pity for other states’ rate of sales but for our national interests: to improve our defense posture to shape the regional order,” Espeña said.

Would India figure prominently in that as well? It’s certainly not impossible.

“India’s respect for national sensitivity, its prioritization of strategic autonomy, its growing material capabilities, and its democratic adherence continues to make it an emerging partner of choice in the developing world,” said Gill. – Rappler.com

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Bea Cupin

Bea is a senior multimedia reporter who covers national politics. She's been a journalist since 2011 and has written about Congress, the national police, and the Liberal Party for Rappler.