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

Questions of employability aside, the eye-watering cost of a new aircraft carrier has become increasingly difficult to justify given the existing materiel shortfall within the Navy and Air Force in the face of ever-shrinking defence budgets.

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This is a revised version of an earlier report carried in The Wire in December 2020 in view of INS Vikrant’s commissioning on Friday. It includes additional information to that carried previously.

New Delhi: The commissioning of the Indian Navy’s (IN’s) 43,000-tonne Indigenous Aircraft Carrier-1 (IAC-1) as INS Vikrant on Friday has, yet again, ignited the debate over the force acquiring a third carrier, one for deployment on each seaboard, and one in reserve.

Successive Indian Navy chiefs of staff have reiterated the necessity for IAC-2, to supplement INS Vikramaditya (formerly, Admiral Gorshkov), the 46,000-tonne refurbished Russian Kiev-class vessel, and now INS Vikrant, but their entreaties endure without resolution. For, sadly, a declaration of intent by naval chiefs is simply not enough to convince the federal government of the third carrier’s deterrence and operational efficacy for multiple reasons.

Over years, these deliberations have been dominated in military circles, not only by the astronomical cost of the desired Vikrant-class carrier – tentatively named ‘Vishal’ – but also its overall employability in an environment of burgeoning anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) capability via long range ballistic and cruise missiles, which China has effectively honed.

Besides, even within the navy, senior officers question the monetary logic of building a new carrier at the cost of inducting additional submarines – whose numbers had depleted to 16 boats, of which 11 diesel-electric conventional platforms were between 20 and 34 years old, and nearing retirement.

Moreover, these conventional boats were eight fewer than the 24 the navy was projected to operate by 2030, in accordance with its Maritime Capability Perspective Plan (MCPP) and efforts to acquire additional submarines were mired in procurement muddles.  Correspondingly, equally critical surface combatants like corvettes, mine-sweepers, destroyers and frigates were also in short supply, as were naval utility helicopters and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and other badly-needed assorted missiles and ordnance.

Also read: Inadequate Warships, Delayed Procurement: How Make in India Is Plaguing the Defence Sector

These naval officers’ reasoning centred on the unresolved debate in other navies around the world – between operationally pursuing a ‘sea denial’ strategy, largely by deploying submarines, or alternatively, seeking a ‘sea control’ approach via costly and relatively more vulnerable carrier battle groups (CBGs) which entail an inordinately large number of surface and underwater escorts.

The IN’s Doctrine, however, opts for CBGs on the grounds that these comprise the most ‘substantial’ instruments in securing the latter aim of sea control as they possess ‘ordnance delivery capability of a high order’. This, in turn, the Doctrine states, would assist the navy in prevailing over the enemy’s ‘Centre of Gravity’ by degrading his Decisive Points.

Consequently, in May 2015, the Ministry of Defence (MoD) had sanctioned Rs 30 crore to the Directorate of Naval Design (DND) in New Delhi to begin conceptualising plans for IAC-2, but little or nothing progressed thereafter. Yet, despite such obstacles, the IN has persevered, albeit incrementally, with the IAC-2 project and in December 2017, former IN chief Admiral Sunil Lanba declared that the navy had determined the ‘form and fit’ of the 65,000-tonne platform that would be equipped with a Catapult Assisted Take-Off But Arrested Recovery (CATOBAR) system to launch its fighters.

For this task, the navy was considering acquiring the costly General Atomics Electro Magnetic Aircraft Launch System (EMALS) from the US, a procurement it has extensively discussed with the US Navy (USN) in the Joint Working Group on Aircraft Carrier Technology Co-operation (JWGACTC), established in January 2015. Thereafter, the IN had conducted at least three rounds of preliminary discussions on its planned carrier with the USN, but senior officers said it remained primarily a ‘talking shop’ till MoD approvals were secured to definitively progress IAC-2.

The DND, however, believes the EMALS system would enable the IN to induct fighters heavier than the MiG-29K/KUBs that presently operate off Vikramaditya and, for now from Vikrant, in addition to at least 26 multi-role carrier-borne fighters (MRCBF) that are prospectively under acquisition for the latter platform. These – either the French Rafale (M) or Boeing’s F/A-18E/F fighters – would presumably also be deployed aboard the anticipated IAC-2.

Be that as it may, one former naval chief conceded to The Wire that a major debate was needed on whether or not to build another aircraft carrier, as any such programme had ‘massive’ financial implications.

“India needs to decisively convince itself that, operationally and doctrinally, the navy needs a third carrier; but it was also imperative that it should not come at the expense of other military projects and weapon system requirements,” he added, declining to be identified.

The financial ramifications of building a 65,000-70,000 tonne conventionally-powered ‘flat top’ carrier – tentatively capable of embarking 50-60 fixed and rotary wing platforms, attaining speeds of up to 30 kts for an estimated Rs 80,000-90,000 crores – were dire in times of continuing economic recession and declining military budgets.

The IN remains desperately short of funds and in recent years, has been forced to tighten its belt by reducing its long-standing requirement for 12 Mine Counter Measure Vessels to eight, and that for 10 Russian Kamov Ka-31 Helix early warning and control helicopters, to just six platforms. Earlier in November 2019, the MoD had sanctioned the import of six additional Boeing P-8I Neptune long-range, maritime multi-mission aircraft for $1.8 billion, instead of the 10 that the navy had wanted.

IN officials also said that the reduction in such equipment purchases was part of its initiative to ‘rationalise’ its expenditure after the MoD had consistently failed in meeting its demands for additional funds for long-delayed vital acquisitions. According to former IN chief Admiral Karambir Singh, the ongoing resource crunch had forced the navy to revise its goal of operating 200 warships by 2027 in keeping with its MCCP, to just 175. At his annual press conference in December 2019, the IN chief stated that the navy’s share of the annual defence budget had dropped from 18% in FY2012-13 to merely 13% in FY 19-20 and that fielding even the reduced number of 175 platforms, was ‘optimistic’.

Also read: The Mystery of the MoD Granting Emergency Materiel Purchasing Powers to the Services, Yet Again

Hence, to mitigate shortages, Admiral Singh had advocated upgrading technology and weaponry on existing and under-construction platforms and finding cheaper substitutes. The MCCP had also envisaged the IN operating 458 fixed and rotary wing platforms by the end of this decade; but in view of the prevailing financial resource crunch, these numbers, too, had been revised downwards to around 320, naval sources said adding that even these quantities were ‘aspirational’.

Furthermore, much to the IN’s chagrin, the late former Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) General Bipin Rawat had strongly opposed the navy acquiring a carrier. On at least two occasions, the late CDS, responsible for acquisitions and India’s overall military force development, had stated that the navy needed ‘more submarines than carriers, which themselves require their own individual armadas for protection’. General Rawat had also, somewhat appositely, declared that any platform on the (sea) surface could be easily picked up by satellites and knocked off by missiles.

Nevertheless, two years later, with General Rawat having died in a helicopter accident in December 2021 and with no successor in sight for nearly nine months, the IN had one less obstacle to overcome in its endeavour to acquire IAC-2.

Additionally, other navalists had also batted in favour of upgrading the military capabilities of the ‘unsinkable’ Andaman and Nicobar archipelago by creating an A2/AD maritime ‘exclusive zone’ around it to deter, amongst others the hegemonic People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN).

David Brewster, a security analyst from Australia’s National University, too, had suggested that India pursue this strategy, instead of inducting ‘sinkable aircraft carriers’. “And though the archipelagos could not move,” he reasoned, “augmenting its miliary potential was likely to be far cheaper than an aircraft carrier. What is more, it would not sink,” Brewster added.

The other principal opponent to financing a carrier for the IN remains the Indian Air Force (IAF), that too is competing for a greater share of depreciating annual defence budgets as it grapples to make good its rapidly declining fighter, helicopter and transport aircraft shortages, amongst other essential equipment.

“We need to prioritise our military equipment procurements in keeping with regional threats and limited financial resources that are fast reducing,” said military analyst Air Marshal V.K. Bhatia (retd). Under these precarious financial conditions, an aircraft carrier would not only be a costly indulgence, he added, but also entail fielding a platform that remains victim to layered missile defence systems employed under China’s evolved A2/AD strategy.

“After all, even the USN considers this Chinese missile capability a serious threat to its advanced nuclear-powered carriers operating in the region,” the three-star fighter pilot added.

Other IAF officers declared that Anglo-French fighters like SEPECAT Jaguar IM/IS and multi-role Russian Sukhoi Su-30 MKIs fitted with enhanced maritime strike capability and extended strike ranges via in-flight re-fueling, could project power more economically and securely than a carrier. The IAF’s maritime Jaguar IM fleet, for instance, is armed with AGM-84L Block II Harpoon missiles of which India acquired 24 units in 2010 for $ 170 million, and will soon be fitted with Israel Aerospace Industries-Elta EL/M-2052/2060 multi-mode active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar for sea-borne operations.

And, in January 2020, the IAF had commissioned its first Su-30MKI squadron, armed with the BrahMos-A(Air) supersonic cruise missile with a 292 km strike range, at Thanjavur on India’s southeast coast to monitor the country’s eastern and western seaboards and the wider Indian Ocean Region (IOR). Military planners said that deploying the Su-30MKIs armed with the BrahMos-A to police the IOR was a strategically prudent move in response to China’s expanding naval footprint in the area. They said that the Su-30MKI with its 1,500km operational range – without the assistance of mid-air re-fueling, and much further with it – would enhance the IAFs capability to engage potential targets with pinpoint accuracy.

All that being said, the third carrier for now, remains little more than a gleam in the IN’s eager eye.