By Rezaul H Laskar
India’s BrahMos Aerospace and the Philippines on Friday signed a deal worth almost $375 million for the Philippine Marines to acquire three batteries of the BrahMos cruise missile, a shot in the arm for New Delhi’s efforts to emerge as an exporter of major defence hardware.
Philippine defence secretary Delfin Lorenzana, who signed the contract with BrahMos Aerospace chief Atul Dinkar Rane, said the supersonic missiles will “certainly beef up the firepower of the Philippine Navy”.
Lorenzana added the BrahMos missiles will provide “deterrence against any attempt to undermine our sovereignty and sovereign rights, especially in the West Philippine Sea” – the official designation for the eastern part of the South China Sea included in the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone and claimed by China.
Rane described the deal as the first signed by India for a major weapon system and said it “paves the way for many more to come”. He told ANI, “This deal opens the doors for all defence equipment [made] in India, not just the BrahMos but all the other systems which we are making.” He added a “lot of countries” have shown interest in the BrahMos system but “making defence deals is not an easy job”.
The Indian envoy to Manila, Shambhu Kumaran, said the deal marked a decisive step forward in India’s Indo-Pacific engagement and established the country as a trusted partner. “Today we are one step closer to elevating ties between our democracies to a strategic partnership and our shared objective of a free & peaceful Indo-Pacific,” he tweeted.
Hindustan Times first reported in December 2019 that the Philippines was set to become the first country to buy the BrahMos missile. Both sides were keen on signing the deal during a proposed visit by President Rodrigo Duterte early in 2021, but the plan fell through because of widespread disruptions caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.
The defence deal will not go down well with China, whose aggressive behaviour in the disputed South China Sea has taken its relations with the Philippines to a fresh low. The Philippine Marines intend to use the BrahMos as a shore-based anti-ship missile, and the South China Sea is one of the potential areas for deploying the system.
“The BrahMos supersonic cruise missiles will certainly beef up the firepower of the Philippine Navy, particularly the Philippine Marines Corps Coastal Defense Regiment,” Lorenzana said in his remarks at the signing ceremony that was conducted via video and a face-to-face meeting attended by officials of both countries.
“Its system will provide counter-attack capabilities within the Philippine exclusive economic zone (EEZ). As the world’s fastest supersonic cruise missiles, the BrahMos missiles will provide deterrence against any attempt to undermine our sovereignty and sovereign rights, especially in the West Philippine Sea,” he said.
In July 2016, the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague dismissed China’s claim to much of the South China Sea in a landmark ruling, which also said Beijing’s activities within the Philippines’ EEZ, such as illegal fishing and building artificial islands, infringed on Manila’s sovereign rights. The ruling was rejected by China.
Lorenzana said the acquisition of the BrahMos missiles for the Philippine Navy was first conceptualized in 2017, and President Duterte approved its inclusion in the “Horizon 2 Priority Projects” under the military’s revised modernisation programme in 2020. He added: “Equipping our navy with this vital asset is imperative as the Philippines continues to protect the integrity of its territory and defend its national interests.”
Earlier, Lorenzana had signed the “notice of award” – or the acceptance of India’s proposal for supplying the missile – for the Philippine Navy’s shore-based anti-ship missile acquisition project. The deal includes the delivery of three batteries, training for operators and maintainers and an integrated logistics support (ILS) package.
The Philippine Army is also interested in acquiring the BrahMos and a separate deal is likely to be concluded later this year, people familiar with the matter said. Friday’s deal could also pave the way for more Southeast Asian nations to acquire the missile jointly developed by India and Russia.
Thailand, Vietnam and Indonesia are among the countries that have shown an interest in the BrahMos, which has a range of 290 km and can carry a 200-kg warhead. Thailand and Vietnam have had discussions with the Indian side on the weapon system and an Indonesian Navy team visited India some years ago to explore the possibility of fitting the missile on its warships.