LiveFist EXCLUSIVE: The Truth About BrahMos - Part III

Part III
The Export Quagmire for BrahMos

One of the interesting things about BrahMos is just how gung-ho its CEO Dr A Sivathanu Pillai is about the programme's success. I spoke at length to Dr Pillai on Tuesday evening to get a full fix on the programme's export worries. But before I lay out the facts, let me quote Dr Pillai on what he told me last evening.

"I will see that BrahMos is exported before long. That is my challenge. And we will accomplish it," he said.

Ok, now first let me clear up some stuff that the press has been reporting with impunity for years now. Malaysia is not going to be the first international buyer of BrahMos. In fact, apart from preliminary inquiries and a visit by the country's Deputy PM to the BrahMos facility, nothing further has taken place. The country's warships are currently on the verge of a large-scale upgrade programme in the hands of BAE Systems. BrahMos is yet to receive clearance to talk directly to BAE about possible integration of BrahMos as part of the comprehensive upgrade programme. Secondly, the Malaysians are actually more interested in the air-launched BrahMos for their Su-30MKMs (a separate element of these series will focus on where the air-launched version currently stands).

Dr Pillai told me that two countries (he did not reveal their names, but I'm guessing Chile and Brazil -- I'm sure at least one of these is right!) were "waiting for us to clear the decks for supply of the missile system". You heard right: the MoD still hasn't fully approved the export of the BrahMos system to these two countries.

"I am clear which country we will supply first, how many numbers, when etc. I am just waiting for the clearance and a clear-cut instruction to proceed with the final discussions. My opinion is, if we are not smart to export now, we will lose the market. The world will not wait for India. Competitors are already looking to make products that match ours," Dr Pillai told LiveFist.

Now here's where the roadblock is: a Supervisory Council comprised of members from both governments jointly created a document listing out the countries that could be tapped as possible customers. The Indian component of the council comprises DRDO chief M Natarajan, Secretary Defence (Finance) and a Joint Secretary from the Ministry for External Affairs. The document basically drew out four categories of countries:

Category I listed the principal customers, i.e. India and Russia. Category II listed Egypt, Chile, South Africa and Brazil -- basically the "friendly countries" identified by both countries jointly. Category III included Indonesia, Malaysia and the Middle East -- basically the brief here was to start discussions, but don't commit. And Category IV were shipbuilding nations, where BrahMos could discuss weapon integration packages for final warship products. This document was presented to the Cabinet Committee on Security almost two years ago. Till now, there has been no response. There is nothing official on which countries the BrahMos can be sold to. Which begs the question -- why the hell hasn't the Cabinet approved the export of BrahMos? Who in the CCS is impeding a final endorsement?

Defence Minister AK Antony has now ordered Dr Pillai to give him a fresh paper through DRDO on the countries plan -- basically a proposal on the original proposal submitted to the CCS! Dr Pillai is still working on this document and will submit it shortly. So there you have it -- despite a clear-cut plan from BrahMos on countries just waiting to buy BrahMos from India.

Dr Pillai said, "Buyers don't care if Russia inducts the missile or not. They are convinced that the Indian armed forces are inducting it. Some chiefs want to see live firings. Some want to see the missile integration on warships. We are processing these requests."

But the fact remains that countries have made inquiries about why Russia hasn't inducted BrahMos (more about Russia and BrahMos later in the series). And this has made it that much harder for Dr Pillai and his team to push their product abroad.

When I asked Dr Pillai about the embarrassing run-in when Russia tried to sell the Yakhont to Indonesia, he said, "When there's a joint venture, both countries should abide by it. But we have full faith now in each other. No playing around."

The systemic roadblocks to exporting BrahMos are now plain for you to see. What's holding up the clearances from the government. If BrahMos is so convinced that it has two orders in the bag, why is the government dragging its feet? Has DRDO played spoilsport in the CCS? Or is the government being overly sensitive about exporting its first ever weapon. Answers to some of these questions will be touched upon through the rest of the series.

(Tomorrow: Part IV - Hitches in the Air and Submarine Variants of BrahMos)

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