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Build that Aircraft Carrier, quick!

The Duke of Wellington’s description of the Battle of Waterloo – “The nearest run thing you ever saw in your life, by God!” also describes the Sino-Indian stand-off at Doklam that ended last month in a mutual pullback. But we must also consider what might have happened had it come to hostilities, and the frank answer would be: Besides China’s infrastructure and equipment advantages on the land border, India would have been caught short even in the theatre where it enjoys strategic advantage over China – the maritime domain in the Indian Ocean.

All of this year, the navy’s proposal for building a second indigenous aircraft carrier, INS Vishal, has gone back and forth between the defence secretary and the navy. The ministry lets it be known that a hurried decision would be unwise, since an aircraft carrier is such a high-value platform that it would block badly needed procurements for the army and air force. Meanwhile, on March 31, underlining how much concern it really has for equipment procurement, the ministry surrendered Rs 7,000 crore of unspent capital funds – more than what it would have paid out last year had a contract been signed for building the carrier.

INS Vishal is set to be one of the military’s most long-drawn procurements, with the navy itself having taken years to identify its precise requirements. After extensive consultations with the US Navy, India’s admirals concluded they required a nuclear powered aircraft carrier of at least 65,000 tonnes, embarking at least 50-55 aircraft and a high-tech electromagnetic catapult to launch aircraft quicker and with greater payloads than the ski-jump that currently equips Indian carriers. At the heart of a carrier battle group, which would include multi-role destroyers and frigates, the Vishal would be able to control swathes of the Indian Ocean or project power across the Indo-Pacific.

While the defence ministry goes back-and-forth over the Vishal, the navy makes do with a single carrier, INS Vikramaditya, which carries just 26 unreliable MiG-29 fighters and 10 helicopters – an insufficient capability to battle a serious foe. The first indigenous carrier, INS Vikrant, which Cochin Shipyard Ltd (CSL) is building with agonizing slowness, will be ready for displays and galas by 2019, but for battle only by 2022-23. Given the eight-year time overrun in building the Vikrant, CSL would surely take more than a decade to build INS Vishal, once the order is placed. And that seems nowhere in sight.

In contrast, China – latecomers to aircraft carriers – is vaulting ahead. Having learnt the ropes on a rebuilt Ukrainian carrier that it renamed Liaoning, the People’s Liberation Army (Navy), or PLA(N), launched a second carrier in April, called the Shandong. Going by the speed with which China churns out warships, the Shandong should enter PLA(N) service in 2020. Chinese analysts say this will be followed by a state-of-the-art carrier, with capabilities similar to INS Vishal. Eventually the PLA(N) would operate 5-6 carriers, while the Indian Navy operates three.

The power balance is shifting not just in platforms but also skills. An aircraft carrier is only as good as the experience and skill of its crewmembers, particularly those that operate its aviation complex. A large number of operating procedures – including space management, split-second launch procedures, deck discipline – make the difference between launching an aircraft every 30 seconds, and a launch interval of three minutes.

This is especially true of “catapult launches”, in which an aircraft is accelerated to take-off speed by a steam catapult under the carrier’s deck. In the 1960s and 1970s, the navy operated the Sea Hawk fighter off the original INS Vikrant – developing catapult-launch skill sets similar to the US Navy today. In 1983, when the “vertical take off and landing” Sea Harrier replaced the Sea Hawk, the navy’s skills at catapult launches began attenuating. The decisions to buy HMS Hermes (later INS Virat) and the Gorshkov (now INS Vikramaditya), both in the ski-jump launch tradition, and the decision to build the new INS Vikrant with a ski-jump, has killed India’s catapult launch tradition altogether. The new INS Vishal will return to the catapult launch tradition, but navy skill sets would have to be built afresh.

Also dogging the INS Vishal is a tired old debate over whether aircraft carriers are an asset or liability in modern warfare. Like most military arguments, its roots lie in the battle for resources. Air forces the world over view the aircraft carrier as a navy intrusion into the aerospace domain. Air forces simplistically describe carriers as enormously expensive, floating airfields that could be sunk by a single torpedo or anti-ship missile. Air forces claim that shore-based fighters, with their ranges extended by mid-air refuelling, can strike maritime targets hundreds of kilometres away. Finally, opponents argue that aircraft carriers require an entire flotilla of warships to escort them, tying up destroyers, frigates, corvettes, submarines and minesweepers in essentially protective duties.

Then, there is submariners’ opposition to aircraft carriers – an internal navy contest for resources, framed as a strategic debate between “sea control” and “sea denial”. The aircraft carrier battle group is the prime instrument of sea control, dominating an area that could be thousands of kilometres away – e.g. shipping lanes in the southern Indian Ocean from/to the Horn of Africa – with its aircraft-based surveillance and strike capability, and the surface and sub-surface strike capability of its accompanying warships. The option of shore-based air support starts becoming less persuasive as the carrier’s operating area moves further into the ocean, but the “sea denial” option – predicated on submarines ambushing surface vessels on predicted routes – retains validity. Proponents of sea denial argue that a submarine fleet costs less than a carrier, spreads risk across a large number of platforms, while still denying the enemy the use of the sea lanes, choke points and harbours that the submarines interdict. What they seldom mention is that submarines cannot hope to achieve three-dimensional control over a large expanse of ocean, far from one’s shores, which is the basic task of a carrier battle group. There is also the question of vulnerability of submarines when they surface to charge batteries or communicate with their controllers.

In any case, the navy is not choosing between aircraft carriers and submarines – it needs significant capabilities in both. It has an expansive, internationalist mandate of protecting the global commons, responding to natural disasters and being a net security provider in the Indian Ocean. This is over and above the national wartime objectives of protecting two coastlines, projecting power across the Indian Ocean, and supporting the land battle through the maritime domain. The debate has been settled in the navy’s long-term maritime capability perspective plan, which specifies three aircraft carriers and a fleet of 24 submarines. It is time to start building these quickly, before the navy is embarrassed in war. Perhaps we should remind ourselves of another Wellington aphorism: “Wise people learn when they can; fools learn when they must”.

By - Ajai Shukla


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