IDSA COMMENT

India’s Future Aircraft Carrier Force and the Need for Strategic Flexibility

June 1, 2010

A Three Carrier Fleet by 2020

India has long striven for a three carrier fleet comprised of one carrier battle group stationed on each seaboard, and a third carrier held in reserve. This would enable Delhi, by rotating ships, to continuously protect both its flanks, since aircraft carriers regularly require long periods of maintenance at berth. The struggles and travails that the Indian Navy has encountered while doggedly pursuing this goal, what with the seemingly interminable negotiations surrounding the purchase and modernization of the ex-Admiral Gorshkov, and the chronic delays in construction of the IAC, or indigenous aircraft carrier, have become somewhat emblematic of the sometimes frustratingly ponderous rhythm of India’s naval expansion.

It would seem now, however, that Delhi’s long-sought quest for a three carrier force is at last edging towards fruition. Indeed, it was announced earlier this year, shortly before Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s visit, that a price finalization for the future Vikramaditya had finally been reached. The 44,500 ton ex-Soviet vessel, which is undergoing an extensive modernization, (70 per cent of the structure will be completely renewed) will carry 16 new MiG-29K aircraft, as well as an assortment of Kamov-28 and Kamov-31 helicopters. Now that the price has been finalized, the Vikramaditya is expected to arrive in late 2012 or early 2013.

It will be joined, hopefully little more than a year later, by India’s first indigenously built aircraft carrier, a 37,000 ton ship, which, like the Vikramaditya, will be equipped with a STOBAR (short-takeoff, barrier-arrested design) and is slated to field a slightly smaller air wing of 12 MiG-29K Aircraft. Both aircraft carriers will also in time carry India’s indigenously designed LCA, or light combat aircraft. The IAC project, which will embody a significant milestone in India’s shipbuilding capacities once completed, has been plagued by difficulties from the outset, be it due to budget-related quibbling over its tonnage, insufficient quantities of high quality steel for the hull, or, some say, Cochin Shipyard Limited’s struggle to adopt a modern modular assembling technique to speed up construction. Recent reports, however, seem to indicate that the IAC is back on track, and that there is a good chance that it will be launched later this year, and commissioned in 2014/2015.

Following its launch, the Indian Navy is expected to officially out its plans for a second home-built aircraft carrier, the ubiquitously named IAC-II, which will be both larger and more formidable than its predecessor. Details surrounding the vessel were long murky at best, but information has now begun to surface, although many aspects remain somewhat sketchy. The Chief of Naval Staff, Admiral Nirmal Verma, indicated in December 2009 that the IAC-II would be sizeably larger than the IAC-I, with a displacement of 50,000 tons.1 It would also have a more modern launch system, either via steam catapult or, as some as yet unconfirmed rumours have suggested, an EMALS (Electromagnetic Aircraft System). It is also unclear whether the carrier will be conventionally or nuclear-propelled. In any case, its larger size and more efficient launch system will enable it to field an aircraft wing that is superior both in size and diversity. An RFI (Request for Information) has thus been issued for 40 new multi-role fighters. It is hoped that Cochin Shipyard, having already run through all the hoops while constructing the first IAC, will be able to deliver the second carrier with greater alacrity. If this is indeed the case, one can fully expect the Indian Navy to boast three operational carrier groups by 2020 at the latest.

What would be the strategic ramifications of such a quantum leap in India’s naval capabilities? Over the years so much time and energy has been devoted to the pursuit of this “constabulary” blue-water force,2 that scant attention has actually been paid to the tactical options and possibilities proffered by India’s new carrier fleet. Here follows an attempt to briefly summarize the panorama of uses India’s carrier force could serve in future contingencies, be they wartime or during peace, as well as the need to protect what some sceptics have termed the “white elephants” of modern naval warfare.

Strengthening the Elephant’s Hide: Protecting India’s Aircraft Carriers

An aircraft carrier is undoubtedly one of the most potent symbols of national power. This symbolic potency, however, can rapidly morph into a disadvantage, if the fear of its loss irreversibly damaging the nation’s morale prevents it from fulfilling its full spectrum of wartime capabilities. In the past, an unsavoury blend of political indecisiveness and inappropriate threat assessments have frequently stunted Indian aircraft carriers' tactical flexibility in times of conflict. During Operation Vijay, for example, which was conducted in 1961 to successfully wrest Goa from Portugal, the INS Vikrant was instructed to keep clear of the embattled enclave when a foreign submarine was detected. Similarly, in 1965, fears related to the INS Vikrant’s severe deficiencies in terms of anti-submarine warfare played a part in the decision to maintain her under refit.3 In 1971, the Vikrant was able to operate relatively unimpeded off the Bay of Bengal only because the Pakistani submarine PNS Ghazi had already been sunk. In 2002-2003, during Operation Parakram, the INS Viraat was hastily retrofitted with the Israeli Barak Anti-Missile System once it dawned on Naval Headquarters that it would be particularly vulnerable to submarine-launched Harpoon missiles.4

The most recent existential threat to India’s carrier force takes the form of China’s newly inducted anti-ship ballistic missile, the DF-21, which can reportedly hit a moving target while travelling at a speed of Mach 10. Whereas before it would have been extremely difficult to locate and target a fast-moving carrier, China’s progress in the field of ISR, notably via satellite surveillance, has rendered such a feat increasingly possible. It would seem, however, that the Indian Navy is determined to break a historical pattern of being more reactive than proactive when it comes to dealing with threats to its carriers, and it was recently reported that Lockheed Martin had held talks with Indian authorities regarding a potential collaboration with the DRDO, which would result in an integration of the future Prithvi Air Defence Shield (PADS) with the firm’s celebrated phased array AEGIS missile defence system.5 Although it is not yet certain whether the AEGIS system could ward off a DF-21 strike, it would certainly provide the Indian fleet with a greater degree of anti-missile protection. An abiding concern however remains the prohibitive cost of such a system, as it is estimated that equipping a Kolkata class destroyer with an AEGIS defence system would more than triple its cost.

Preparing for Diverse Combat Contingencies

India’s Maritime Strategy lays out a wide gamut of roles for the Indian Navy in times of war. It is stated, for example, that it will be expected to perform operations ranging from “distant credible sea denial over large areas of the Indian Ocean” to “distant sea control in selected areas of the Indian Ocean to protect economic interests and mercantile traffic,” to conducting “phased operations” which will result in the use of maritime power to support land or air-borne strikes.6 India’s carrier fleet will therefore have to display a high degree of tactical flexibility. This can be accomplished in part by reconfiguring the vessels’ air wings depending on the nature of the crisis at hand. A flotilla of Chinese submarines could be met by an eastern carrier fleet more heavily geared towards anti-submarine warfare, with a flight deck comprising a greater number of maritime patrol aircraft or Seaking and Kamov ASW helicopters. An anti-piracy operation in a large body of water may require less strike aircraft and more maritime surveillance capabilities in the shape of patrol aircraft or UAVs. MARCOS commando strikes could be facilitated by increasing the number of helicopters aboard, or by adding specific Special Forces ammunition and equipment modules on board.

In the course of the next two to three decades, China’s string of pearls, which is still very much in its embryonic phase for the time being, may gradually take on a more decidedly military nature. This would require Indian naval practitioners to develop a capacity for opposed amphibious landings. The fleet’s amphibious component has received a considerable boost over the past few years with the induction of the 17,000 ton INS Jalashwa in 2007, as well several smaller landing ships. Direct amphibious assaults may become less feasible in time, however, as the gradual proliferation of medium and long-range anti-ship missiles renders landing craft ever more vulnerable to a devastating hit which would obliterate not only the ship but also the precious amphibious strike force it hosts.7 Aircraft carriers can play an important role by providing a first over-the-horizon attack, either by air strike or by the air-borne insertion of special forces. This would serve to isolate and soften up the beachhead before engaging in a full heliborne assault, supplemented by the landing craft and LSTs ferrying in reinforcements.

Vital Humanitarian Platforms

Aircraft carriers can prove to be extremely valuable assets when responding to humanitarian emergencies or engaging in NEOs (non-combatant evacuation operations). A carrier can provide a self-generating supply of fresh water, medical assistance or engineering expertise to populations in dire need, and have revealed themselves time and time again to be vital humanitarian platforms. The participation of the INS Viraat in the 2004 tsunami relief effort comes to mind, as does the recent action of the USS Carl Vinson off the coast of Haiti. Much can be done, nevertheless, to further bolster a carrier’s humanitarian response skills.8 First, the air wing can be reconfigured in order to field more helicopters, as well as vertical lift aircraft, such as the recently upgraded Sea Harriers, which can gain access to rough terrain. Secondly, medical modular facilities can be installed on board in order to enhance the carrier’s medical responsiveness. Finally, a command centre can be set up so that key government personnel and civil response teams can coordinate their efforts via the carrier’s communication systems. This could be extremely useful, for example, in the event of disruption of landlines or the destruction of government offices.

Conclusion

In less than a decade, India’s naval force structure will have undergone a seismic shift, able to continuously deploy carrier groups on both seaboards. In order for the Indian Navy to efficiently project both hard and soft power throughout the Indian Ocean Region, its commanders will need to display a degree of strategic flexibility by learning how to leverage the many uses of Indian’s new aircraft carriers. Only this way will they prove themselves to be the formidable force multipliers, both in peace and war, required to lead the Indian Navy into the 21st century.

  1. 1. “Second Indian Aircraft Carrier will be Larger says Indian Naval Chief,” retrieved on http://www.expressindia.com, January 6, 2010.
  2. 2. James R. Holmes, Andrew C. Winner and Toshi Yoshihara, Indian Naval Strategy in the Twenty-first Century (Routledge, 2009), p. 90.
  3. 3. Commodore (Retd.) Ranjit B. Rai, “The Indian Navy’s Aircraft Carriers,” India Strategic, January 2009.
  4. 4. Ibid.
  5. 5. Vijay Sakhuja, “Asian Navies Gear Up For Ballistic Missile Defence at Sea,” South Asia Defence and Strategic Review, April 2010, retrieved at http://www.defstrat.com/exec/frmArticleDetails.aspx?DID=235
  6. 6. Freedom to Use the Seas: India’s Maritime Military Strategy (Integrated Headquarters Ministry of Defence (Navy), 2007), p. 100.
  7. 7. See, Edward Hooten, “Assault Ships and Landing Platforms, Asian Capabilities,” Asian Military Review, July 2007, pp.16-21.
  8. 8. For an absorbing and detailed study of the many roles for an aircraft carrier, see John Gordon IV, Peter A. Wilson, John Birkin, Steven Boraz, Gordon T.Lee, Leveraging America’s Aircraft Carrier Capabilities, Exploring New Combat and Non-Combat Roles and Missions for the US Fleet (RAND Publications, 2006).