Why India Needs a Large Aircraft Carrier: An Ex-Submariner Makes the Case

The best instrument for projecting power in the Indian Ocean is a large aircraft carrier that can operate heavy multi-function aircraft that outmatch shore-based aircraft.

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India recently overtook the UK to become the fifth-largest economy in terms of GDP and is due to overtake Germany, perhaps by 2025, to become the fourth-largest economy.

As a maritime nation that geographically dominates the Indian Ocean and the biggest Indian Ocean, India needs to project this power to play a dominant role in the ocean and the littorals of choke points that provide access to the water body.

The best instrument for projecting such power is a large aircraft carrier – large enough to operate heavy multi-function aircraft that outmatch shore-based aircraft. Smaller carriers perform a different role in providing air cover to a fleet operating in the oceans, under the control of an integral early warning aircraft like the E-2c Hawkeye. 

The evolution of the large aircraft carrier

Admirals who were brought up in battleships refused to acknowledge for many years that the capital ship of the future would be the aircraft carrier. They did so by fudging the results of the war games played in the 1930s, giving the battleship favourable odds.

But the truth was established once and for all at Pearl Harbour, after which the last of the reluctant admirals began to acknowledge that the Mahanian ‘big battle’ would be decided by carrier air power.

Nevertheless, the carrier was still considered a sea-control ship. It would decisively affect the result of a battle at sea in favour of the fleet operating aircraft carriers. Nobody imagined the carrier as a power-projection platform until the Americans began to build the 60,000-ton Forrestal-class carriers. These affected the course of the Korean War by operating off Korea and establishing air superiority over Chinese MiG-15s and MiG-17s.

Also read: Opinions Divided on Whether Indian Navy Should Acquire a Third Aircraft Carrier

Other navies also aspired to have aircraft carriers, but their vision was limited to sea-control or air-control ships that would ‘protect’ the home fleet from air attacks by enemy warplanes and simultaneously sink enemy surface warships. The age of the power-projection carrier was still some years away.

The only navy that came close to attempting to build a carrier for power projection was the French, which fielded a number of carriers operating aircraft carrying nuclear bombs. Smaller navies like the Spanish, Italian, Australian and Brazilian operated aircraft carriers under 30,000 tons, mainly as air defence ships. The Royal Navy was ambivalent by wanting to remain in the aircraft carrier game but investing inadequately in large carriers. 

It was in the 1960s that the realisation dawned on the Americans that carriers were meant for more than winning battles at sea.

The US Navy increasingly found itself as being the sole means of implementing US foreign policy against Soviet attempts to foster ‘wars of national liberation’. This meant the application of force, or the threat of using force, at short notice in various parts of the globe.

The decade-long Vietnam War was largely supported by carrier aviation, as were the Israelis in the build-up of tension in the Yom Kippur war. The largest part of the Cold War requirement of overseas application of force was met by the Kitty Hawk-class carriers of approximately 60,000 tons, and later on by the Enterprise class, which were 90,000 tons. 

As a world power, the US began to find itself embroiled in more and more wars overseas, where it became necessary for either a quick application of air power or the threat of using air power. Doctrinally, the shift to a power-projection capability became more and more important, at short notice, leading to the construction of nuclear-powered aircraft carriers. This shift towards land attack weapons was observed simultaneously with the Tomahawk sea-launched cruise missile (SLCM) becoming the primary armament of all surface ships.

Naval vessels from five nations sail in parade formation for a rare photographic opportunity at sea. Photo: US Navy/PH3 Alta I. Cutler, Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

What about India’s realisation?

In the case of the Indian Navy, after the 1971 war, the primary armament of the surface ship had already become surface-to-surface missiles. Aircraft carriers are now required for power projection, as befits the world’s fifth-largest economy. So, it is clear that there is no contest between aircraft carriers and submarines vis-a-vis importance in the Indian Navy.

In fact, even submarines are shifting their main armament from anti-ship to land attack weapons. The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Navy has ambitions to build five supercarriers, obviously for power projection in the Indian Ocean through which 65% of its oil and gas passes. Its strategy in the Pacific would be one of sea-denial, riding on the back of its anti-carrier ballistic missile capacity.

So what India currently takes for granted – a free and open Indo-Pacific – will have to be fought for, as China’s GDP approaches that of the US, and the PLA seeks to replace US hegemony with its own carrier force riding on the back of the military benefits of its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

In the Indian Navy, no submariner of repute has expressed the opinion that submarines should be acquired instead of aircraft carriers. To influence the choices seen to be available to nations along the Gulf littoral, the Red Sea littoral and the Malacca straits littoral, power projection carriers are imperative. We have already seen how the absence of carrier airpower affected the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) operation in Sri Lanka and the liberation of Male. 

The Straits of Malacca are critical to denying access to the PLA Navy in times of war. Nothing less than a 60,000-ton carrier will do, operating either the F-18 or the Rafale, for India to dominate the Indian Ocean. If Cochin cannot accommodate a 60,000-ton carrier, the government should bypass the Atmanirbhar Bharat initiative and order a carrier from the UK of the Queen Elizabeth class, which cost the British government just Rs 32,000 crore and was built in six years.

The accusations of vulnerability against large carriers also don’t hold up. All warships have to go in harm’s way. No weapon system is more vulnerable than the common infantryman – a human being, but that does not make soldiers obsolete. The large carrier is not a naval asset but a national asset – its very presence influences the choices seen to be available in all Indian Ocean littoral countries. 

Admiral Raja Menon was a career officer and a submarine specialist in the Indian Navy. He commanded seven ships and submarines before retiring in 1994 as assistant chief of naval staff (operations).