Analysts say Manila’s planned acquisition of the world’s fastest supersonic missiles will boost its ability to defend its coastal areas. Defence secretary Delfin Lorenzana last year said the Philippines was ‘not yet 25 per cent’ of the way to achieving minimum credible defence capability

Manila’s planned acquisition of the world’s fastest supersonic cruise missiles from India would boost the Philippine armed forces’ ability to defend coastal areas amid an ongoing dispute with Beijing over the South China Sea, according to analysts.

Jointly developed by India and Russia, the BrahMos PJ-10 can be fired from ships, submarines, aircraft and ground launchers. The missile, which has a range of 290km and flies at three times the speed of sound, was tested several times last year by Indian armed forces at sea and on land.

Indian media have reported that the country’s army has already deployed a number of BrahMos missiles at points along its disputed, undemarcated border with China, known as the Line of Actual Control.

The agreement signed on Tuesday by Philippine defence undersecretary Raymund Elefante and Indian ambassador Shambu Kumaran lays the groundwork for Manila to procure the missile from New Delhi, and comes as the countries develop closer security ties.

If a contract is signed, the Philippines would be India’s first foreign client to acquire the missile system, and it would represent the first major defence equipment sale by New Delhi – which has itself grown closer to the United States – to Manila, one of Washington’s two security treaty allies in Southeast Asia.

Analysts said China would be watching these developments closely, with the Philippines mostly obtaining its arms from the US. “Obviously the opponent here is China,” said Jose Antonio Custodio, a security and defence consultant who is a non-resident fellow of the think tank Stratbase ADR Institute. “We do need these missiles to strengthen our defence against China.”

In asserting its territorial rights to the South China Sea, the Philippines is both outclassed and outnumbered militarily by China. Last year President Rodrigo Duterte said it was better for the Philippines to pursue “diplomatic endeavours” with China over the South China Sea dispute because “China has the arms. We do not, so it’s simple as that.” In an October senate hearing, defence secretary Delfin Lorenzana admitted the Philippines was “not yet 25 per cent” of the way to achieving minimum credible defence capability.

Custodio said the “very lethal” BrahMos missiles were usually mounted on land-based mobile platforms, but the Philippines could also mount them on ships. “We have the modern ships to launch them, actually,” he said. “We have the platforms, like frigates from South Korea, and the Hamilton cutters from the US, but we don’t have the budget to configure the ships.”

The analyst added that the Philippines had been aiming to acquire cruise missiles for years. “This has long been planned, since during the [2010-2016 administration] of president Benigno Aquino III, when studies were being done by the navy. They were already talking about the BrahMos back then.”

Defence secretary Lorenzana in 2019 said the department would buy the BrahMos the following year, with plans to initially equip an army artillery unit, but the funds were instead diverted to the Philippines’ response to the Covid-19 pandemic.

New Delhi reportedly offered a financially strapped Manila a US$100 million soft loan to acquire the missiles in December, but President Rodrigo Duterte was reluctant to accept the offer.

When the agreement was signed on Tuesday, Lorenzana gave no details about how Manila would pay for the BrahMos missile. According to the Philippine security blog MaxDefense, “since funding could be an issue, the credit line being extended by India to the Philippine government might be used, and may even be expanded beyond the US$100 million credit peak”.

Former senator Antonio Trillanes, a critic of Duterte, told This Week In Asia: “This deal doesn’t come as a surprise to me because it’s another opportunity for corruption for Duterte’s Davao group. They really don’t care whether it is not the preferred weapon/item of the end users in the [armed forces] as long as they maximise their kickbacks.

“An intent to buy doesn’t mean there already is [funding],” said analyst Custodio, who added that it was unclear whether there were provisions for the missiles in this year’s budget.

He said acquiring the BrahMos meant more than just buying missiles. “A modernisation program requires careful and precise measures to ensure that purchases are maintained properly. You can’t just buy missiles without building supporting infrastructure and training manpower to maintain the systems. You buy the entire package.”