Amidst a tense military stand-off with Chinese troops at the Dolam tri-junction in Bhutan, reports today sprung up in Vietnam suggesting that India had begun supplying BrahMos missiles to the country following a long pending deal — a provocative proposition given the atmosphere, and a story that immediately exploded across media in both countries.
What followed was hours on a diplomatic roller-coaster ending in a frantic wall of denial raising questions over where these reports emerged from and whether Vietnam is actually anywhere near acquiring the high-performance missile system from India.
Vietnam, one of Beijing’s arch-adversaries in the region, at first didn’t confirm or deny the reports. Vietnamese media appeared to confirm the purchase, but later altered their headlines, apparently after the story exploded on Indian social media. The report linked to above later altered its headline to play down the BrahMos point.
Indian news reports followed up too, but at the time this report was filed, word was still awaited from the Indian Ministry of Defence, which administers one half of the India-Russia BrahMos Corp. joint venture headquartered in New Delhi. Sources said the deal had reached ‘finality’, but provided no further specifics. India’s Foreign Ministry, taking questions from journalists, pointed to a ‘clarification’ from the Vietnam government to local reports in that country, though it isn’t immediately clear what clarification has been provided. There remained ambiguity over whether someone at Vietnam’s Foreign Ministry jumped the gun and then rolled it back once the story went big in both countries.
— Devirupa Mitra (@DevirupaM) August 18, 2017
What appears fairly certain is that while talks have been at a ‘final stage’ for a while now, they haven’t been concluded just yet. What we do know is that the potential sale of BrahMos missiles to Vietnam has been a deeply controversial issue vis-a-vis China. For a country whose every move has made Beijing bristle, Vietnam’s intended acquisition of BrahMos missiles is an overtly provocative act, given that sea denial is explicitly what the BrahMos weapon system is really about. Analysts see India’s move as a strategic investment in a rising counter-power to China in the region — if and when BrahMos missiles do move to Vietnam, they’ll follow deals for naval vessels and the possibility of Akash SAM systems following suit. Last year, India’s then Defence Minister called upon private Indian firms to help upgrade Vietnam’s battle tank electronics and to help fit the country’s Mi-8/17s fleet with software-defined radios.
That China consistently arms India’s other rival neighbour Pakistan, a known sponsor and haven for terrorism, has only eased the path towards what was always will always be a controversial decision for India. Sensitivities about being counted as an exporter of lethal weapons in a region rife with proliferation has always stalled decisions. That the Vietnam deal could be ever be closed suggests not just unprecedented political re-alignment, but also a bit of a magical process. Neither has been achieved just yet.
Other countries known to be interested in the BrahMos missile include Malaysia and Brazil. India and Russia are also developing the BrahMos NG, a smaller version of the missile facilitating a three-missile loadout option, and a hypersonic BrahMos-II. The submarine-launched version of the BrahMos is currently under test too, though it will see integration first only on the boats India builds under Project 75(I).
While Russia builds the engine and seeker, India’s Defence Research & Development Organisation (DRDO) builds the guidance system and fire control system on the BrahMos. The export push to Vietnam, it it ever flies, will makes history for another crucial reason — it will be India’s first export of a major offensive weapon system to another country. It would also be a major and long belated victory for BrahMos Corp. which has fought for over a decade to supply its product to foreign customers.
While clarity is awaited on the numbers and BrahMos intended to be supplied to Vietnam, the missile system is undergoing major changes in India. Entry into the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) has also allowed India to open up the BrahMos’s range capabilities, with a final system that will be able to hit targets out to just under 1,000 km, formidable specifications for a supersonic weapon system. On another front, the air-launched BrahMos-A is all set for its first test firing from a modified Indian Air Force Su-30 MKI in a matter of days.