India has reached an agreement to supply the Philippines with the BrahMos anti-ship cruise-missile system, officials from both sides said, in a deal that could help counterbalance recent Chinese assertiveness over disputes in the region.
The sale represents the first time that India has exported the BrahMos, which is made by an Indo-Russian joint venture based in New Delhi. It also comes as India expands defense ties with the U.S. and its allies in response to China’s growing military heft.
The government of the Philippines—a U.S. treaty ally—wrote to BrahMos Aerospace Private Ltd. on Dec. 31 to accept a proposal to buy three batteries of the supersonic missile system for $375 million, according to two Indian officials and Philippine Defense Secretary
Each battery comprises two missile launchers, a radar and a command-and-control center, and can fire two missiles within 10 seconds, one of the Indian officials said, adding that a contract was expected to be signed this month.
Mr. Lorenzana said in a
post on Friday that the missiles would be operated primarily by the Philippine marines’ coastal defense regiment and that the deal included training for operators and logistics support.
Retired Rear Adm. Rommel Ong, who served as the Philippine Navy’s second-in-command until 2019, said the missiles were designed in part to counter China, which contests the Philippines’ claims to land features and fishing grounds in the South China Sea.
China has rapidly expanded its military capabilities and activities to enforce its claims in recent years, including by building seven heavily fortified artificial islands.
Disagreements have flared recently, such as in mid-November when Philippine officials accused Chinese coast guard ships of deploying water cannons against Philippine resupply vessels heading to a disputed shoal in the South China Sea.
“In terms of threat perception, our concern is the rapid increase in the PLA navy,” Mr. Ong said, referring to China’s People’s Liberation Army. He said the Philippines doesn’t have the industrial capacity to support a massive shipbuilding program of its own. “Based on those considerations we developed what we called an asymmetric solution to the problem, and that means looking for a sea-denial capability that doesn’t require much resources.”
Mr. Ong said the anti-ship missiles would be dispersed from north to south in the Philippine archipelago, to cover the west coast, which faces the South China Sea.
China’s foreign ministry didn’t respond to a request for comment.
The Philippines is buying the shore-based variant of the BrahMos that has a range of 290 kilometers (180 miles) and flies almost three times the speed of sound at Mach 2.8, one Indian official said. That is sufficient to cover some of the disputed area of the South China Sea, where Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei also have claims.
“From being the world’s major arms importer to starting the exports of BrahMos, it’s a big feat for India’s defense exports,” said the Indian official. “BrahMos will strengthen the defense capabilities of the Philippines and not create any imbalance in the South China Sea.”
Talks were under way with several “friendly countries” in the Middle East, South America, South Africa and Southeast Asia that had also shown interest in buying the BrahMos, the official said.
The deal with the Philippines was under negotiation for nearly five years and hit a roadblock in 2020 as Manila cited budgetary constraints amid the Covid-19 pandemic. In early 2021, however, the two countries signed an agreement enabling government-to-government deals on defense equipment.
India is one of the world’s biggest weapons importers and the sale represents a boost for Indian Prime Minister
efforts to expand his country’s aerospace and defense exports to $5 billion annually by 2025, compared with about $1 billion in 2020-21.
It also reflects a strategy of proactive defense diplomacy that India has adopted in response to China’s expanding naval activities across the Indo-Pacific and its recent operations around the disputed Himalayan land border with India, where Chinese and Indian forces clashed in 2020.
“The deliveries can help prevent a naval imbalance of power in the Indo-Pacific and increase deterrence capabilities of smaller countries facing a giant China,” said Sreeram Chaulia, dean at O.P. Jindal Global University’s School of International Affairs, in Sonipat, India.
Mr. Chaulia said China had been a mainstay for weapons sales to Pakistan —India’s longtime adversary. “India arming the Philippines or Vietnam or Indonesia with advanced weaponry carries the message that the Sino-Pakistan nexus can have broader regional consequences,” he said.
Richard Heydarian, associate professor at Polytechnic University of the Philippines, said the acquisition showed that while many countries in the region couldn’t match China’s naval power, they are seeking out weapons systems that could deter conflict. “Smaller countries, by calibrated acquisitions of state-of-the-art and asymmetric capabilities can develop this overall minimum deterrence,” he said.
John Bradford, a senior fellow in the maritime security program at Singapore’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, said this was the biggest and most significant Indian arms sales to the Philippines, and might be part of an effort by the Philippine military to diversify beyond its major arms suppliers, including the U.S. and South Korea.
“There’s a certain amount of shopping for good value, not just diversification,” he said.
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