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Homepage » Defence » Interview
Brahmos: a story of success
Monday November 1, 2010 15:53 MSK / Vladimir Karnozov
An interview with Dr. Sivathanu Pillai, Chief Executive Officer and Managing Director of the BrahMos Aerospace joint venture.

The BrahMos joint venture with India and Russia is often cited as a success story. Why has BrahMos become a benchmark in international cooperation?  

It was in the early 1990s after the Gulf War when the Indian Ministry of Defence realized the importance of cruise missiles. Indian scientists thought that we, too, needed to have cruise missiles. During the 1991 war in Iraq, a large number of Tomahawk missiles were launched by the U.S. to destroy much of Iraq's capabilities. Our analysis showed that a first attack with cruise missiles was the main reason why Iraq was not able to deploy most of its military power.

India believed our cruise missiles should be very stealthy, flying at very low altitude and striking with precision. After seeing the whole world in terms of development, we decided to take the long road and go off the beaten path…selecting not a subsonic cruise missile solution, but choosing instead a weapon with supersonic speed. We think that the key to "future war" is speed. A supersonic missile needs a highly capable engine to reach the desired speed. This is why we focused on solid propellant technology. India already had experience in solid ramjet technology. At first, we thought we would go for a solid propellant ramjet to propel the missile to its supersonic speed. But with solid ramjet has limits in the Mach number that can be attained, whereas a kerosene-based ramjet can reach up to Mach 7. So in future we want to grow. After understanding this, we were looking for who has the right technology?

In India, we are very experienced with guidance systems. We have our own functional navigation systems, along with excellent experience in onboard computers through the Indian Prithvi and Agni ballistic missile programs. Fortunately, our friends at NPO Machinostroyenia were working with us as consultants. There was a time when Russia and its companies were in a difficult financial position after the Soviet Union's break-up. As a result, the roots of our cooperation led to a fruitful arrangement very quickly. Both of us needed each other. One brought its achievements and funding for R&D, the other technologies for a supersonic engine. Based on this, it was decided we would develop the supersonic missile in India, making use of Russian propulsion technology. We realized that it would take from five to seven years for the technology transfer - and this is only enough to bring it into the system. So it was going to be a long time. Therefore, we thought it would be better to do things in parallel: work on the propulsion system in an approach that involves the engine directly. If we went shopping for such an engine, we would find many restrictions for its use. This is a highly-guarded technology for any nation. So we found the way to work together in a joint venture configuration. The name for this cooperation was derived from Brahmaputra and Moskva - two big rivers of our respective countries. This is about how the whole thing started. The missile is now in service.  

What was the role of Gerbert Efremov in the BrahMos story?

At that time, he was the Director General at NPO Machinostroyenia. He has done a lot for us. Luckily, he had a clear vision - he could see the future. He was also able to keep the people motivated and positive. He was good at R&D. This opened the money flow for the company. Also, cooperating with India brought in work for his company. We had many requirements for India's cruise missile...and we still do. This means more work will be given to Russian specialists. Efremov was perceptive enough to see this potential.

If it was not for Efremov, could BrahMos have happened?

I don’t think it is possible to answer this question, as anyone who is heading a design bureau naturally wants to protect his own people. At that time, there was little opportunity to receive worthwhile funding from the Russian government. Working with India on BrahMos provided an opportunity, and Efremov understood this. 

Within your joint venture, do you actually employ Russians along with the I ndians staff members? How many Russians currently work at BrahMos Aerospace? 

Frankly speaking, the number of Russians is not large. Basically, BrahMos Aerospace is an Indian company. Russia's role is mainly design and development. The Indian responsibilities lie more with design of the ground systems. The complete ground system has to be designed by the Indian side. We needed many people for this, and we run a large unit for such activity. Our Indian staff also is responsible for project management, marketing and exhibitions. Although the number of Russians is small, more people can come from Russia and stay here in India when required. We have a center in Moscow, and one in Delhi in which they can communicate.  

Then you actually employ Russian passport holders?
Yes, they work in my company. 

India has had a long history of relations with the Russians. First, it was the S oviet Union, and then Russia. These relations survived the change from communism to capitalism. Was this change for the better in I ndo-Russian relations in your area?

When Perestroika came, I saw a big disturbance in the Soviet Union and then in Russia. Up until 2000, there were many problems: political, economic and social. But after Putin came, things started to change. The whole situation started to stabilize. The Mafia’s influence is less, and I think people now feel safer. Things actually improved in Russia. So I think it is for the best. 

Is it easier for you to work with the Russian now? or was it better 15 years ago?

In the early 1990s, there was financial crisis, and the mentality was one of survival. People and companies wanted to survive. Good engineers were prepared to take any job, having been forced to work in such low-paid jobs as drivers. Today the situation is different. Most young people learn English; they can work in IT and other modern technologies. It has come a long way, creating many good jobs. Skilled people are no longer dependant on the military industry to get a good job. So the military industry’s importance has come down, while that of the civil industry has increased. So it is quite different today that it was 15 years ago. 

Increasing the speed for India’s cruise missile is likely to require a larger weapon. Do you think you will need to involve more Russian companies into a BrahMos 2 version?

We are not aiming to make it bigger. Currently, the BrahMos PJ-10 land-launched missile weighs 3 tons. It is quite big actually. There is a special version to meet the air force requirement. We are adding fins and this version weighs 2.5 tons. 

Do you think you can keep the launch weight under three tons, while increasing speed to Mach 5 and then further onto Mach 7?

We have reduced the weight to 2.5 tons for installation on aircraft, while the land-launched version weighs 3 tons. Even this is heavy. When considering this missile for use on a Sukhoi fighter, we are thinking of a lower weight. Besides, the shorter a missile, the better it is. 

How will the BrahMos joint venture company develop?

It is the first India-based joint venture that handles the design, development, production and marketing of a complete weapon system. We have done well so far. It has been a shining example of cooperation between India and Russia. So far, Russia is very happy with this cooperation. We are also satisfied on the Indian side. So, this company has been very useful.

I think a larger production domain has to be arranged. It also is time to see how our product is being used in service by the armed forces. Knowing customer requirements and working to satisfy customer requirements over the entire lifecycle of a weapon are important for any defense company. That is what we are trying to focus on now. 

Indian Defense Minister Arackaparambil Kurian Antony and his predecessor, Pranab Mukerjee, have repeatedly said that BrahMos has been an “exemplary case.” Their desire is to use this successful experience and extend it to other projects, including the M ultirole Transport Aircraft. What is your advice to other top managers who want to start projects such as the MTA?

My first advice is that any joint venture should be under equal partnership. Both sides should bring in their respective competences. If one side is weaker, the other takes all. So, the first thing is to establish the competence. Competence is what matters. A second important point is the user requirement. You should know the customer. If a system is to be developed but the customer is not interested, then you are in the position of having to go after him, begging. And that is not a good sign. Third, you should establish a firm base of competitiveness. And then you will have to globally raise the competitive capabilities. 

Is 50/50 participation good for other joint projects?

Equal participation is important. 

What would you think the authorities of India and Russia should do to ease assist such endeavors in the future?

If it is a new development, various difficulties will need to be overcome. Difficulties can hamper any development. It is necessary to defeat the difficulty and succeed. For that, you must be able to grow your capabilities to overcome such challenges. In other words, your company must be viable. And remember: all of this is a continuous process. 

Is the environment right for new joint ventures between Russia and India?

Yes, I think so. Importantly, BrahMos is the first joint venture between Russia and India in the defense sector. We did not have such experience before, and our cultures are different. We do not welcome the problems, but we welcomed friends. There should be mutual trust between the two sides. Trust is a major component, along with competence. Traditionally, we are friends, and this makes it easy to work. If there are secrets, these are not for good friends. Good friends will always find ways how to stay together. We do find ways to work together. And that’s the strength. 

Even though we have BrahMos as a good example, there are very few other joint ventures involving Russia and India. Why is this so?

Yes, it is true that BrahMos is the only successful example. Why there are so few? People are an important element of the formula, and when adding the final element that has been missing, the whole thing turns into a success. 

Sivathanu Pillai: In India we are really dependant on Russia.

Do you have any messages for the employees of United Aircraft and its industrial partners?

In India we are really dependant on Russia. And we have been for a long time. Since 1960s, the Indian Air Force relies on Sukhoi, MiG etc. All of its primary types of military aircraft have had a Russian origin. Our cooperation has been well established in the area of defense. Now, it is a high time we expand our cooperation into the field of civil aircraft. There is a big requirement for modern civil passenger aircraft. Today, no passenger aircraft are produced in India, while Russia produces a number of types. At the same time, HAL and other local companies have amassed a good knowledge in aviation. The local people say "sophistication knowledge." They can develop good cockpits, computers and composites. So it would be good for us both to join forces. The aircraft industries of Russia and India - beginning in India with Hindustan Aeronautics Limited - can succeed together.  

Do you mean HAL can succeed working together with UAC through a joint venture on a 50/50 basis?

Yes. Using a joint venture could be the right step to develop a new aircraft together. We foresee three different aircraft: one would be sized at less than 50 passengers; the second would have a capacity of fewer than 100 passengers; while the third would be for the market requiring seating of less than 200 passengers.  

Do you think one joint venture would make all three aircraft types? And is now the time?

Answer to both questions is: “Yes.” The global aircraft industry is in a downturn. We had better start now so that we can develop our aircraft and have it ready to enter the market at a time when the demand will be picking up. We live with cycles; our industry tends to go through seven-year cycles. As a result, I believe we had better do things now before others move into action. 

However, some buyers would shy away from Russian-built civil aircraft, even though they may respect Russia’s military equipment?

But everything is in our own hands, and all the capabilities are there. HAL has the support from India’s government. Russian specialists support HAL activities in India. They worked with them before, and they work hand-in-hand with us now. Russia has deep roots in India. The creation of a joint venture between HAL and the Russian civil aircraft industry will help us both do better.

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