By Sashank Rajaram
INS Vikrant, India’s first indigenously built aircraft carrier, has given the country’s militaristic capabilities a new lease on life. As it joins an elite list of becoming only the sixth country in the world to build such a complex war machine, India has proved what in-house capabilities are all about. Yet, along with the celebrations, an age-old maritime debate has once again surfaced: Should India build another aircraft carrier? Analysing the question through various perspectives, this article looks at the historic and geopolitical implications of owning an aircraft carrier.
2nd September 2022 would forever be etched in Indian history as a day of great pride and celebration. After nearly 25 years, India finally commissioned its first indigenously built aircraft carrier—INS Vikrant. Named after its illustrious predecessor, the reincarnated Vikrant is the first among the Indian government’s flagship Indigenous Aircraft Carrier (IAC) project which aims to promote domestic manufacturing of the behemoth vessels. Designed by the Navy’s Warship Design Bureau and built by the Cochin Shipyard Ltd., INS Vikrant is 212m long with a displacement of 42800MT. The aircraft carrier boasts 2300 compartments including rooms that can accommodate its 1700 crews. Powered by four gas turbines, besides eight power generators producing 24MW of power, Vikrant has a cruise speed of 28knots. While the idea to build an aircraft carrier was conceived in 1989, it was only in 1999 under Prime Minister Bajpayee that the design for INS Vikrant finally took off. Though one could question the inordinate delay, the commissioning of INS Vikrant has thrown the spotlight on the Indian Navy and raised the question of whether India needs another aircraft carrier given the changing geopolitical scenario.
Before exploring the necessity of a new aircraft carrier, it is important to go back to the past for a better context. One of the most enduring debates in naval warfare is the one between aircraft carriers (ACs) and submarines. It began during WWII when the Allied forces focused on ACs and the Axis powers, particularly Germany, developed the Undersee Boats (U-Boats) that later came to be known as submarines. A larger part of the debate revolved around the aspect of sea control and sea denial. While countries with ACs were able to conduct operations in far-off regions, submarines – with their stealth and torpedoes that could sink naval vessels – were regarded as the perfect counter to prevent any naval aggression. Even after the war, the West followed the American doctrine and expanded its AC inventory. In contrast, the East bloc, led by the Soviet Union, invested heavily in sea denial and built a large armada of super silent submarines. However, apart from the ideological aspect, there was also an element of cost considerations that stood behind these debates. The Soviets quickly realised that they could not afford large, competent machinery with the richer West and hence, found deterrence and tactical balance through sea denial. And the trade-off was not a terrible one either.
For example, during the 1971 Bangladesh Liberation War, the US 7th Fleet Taskforce, led by USS Enterprise – the world’s biggest AC (then) and the first nuclear-powered one – sailed towards the Bay of Bengal in aid of Pakistan. At the same time, intelligence reports had come in that the British Navy led by HMS Eagle was also closing in on India’s territorial waters from the West. While the stated agenda was to ‘secure the interests of American and British nationals in Chittagong’, it was explicit that both the navies would coordinate a pincer attack to intimidate India. Sensing the imminent threat, New Delhi sent an SOS to Moscow. The Red Navy responded by dispatching 16 Naval units and 6 nuclear-powered submarines from Vladivostok to block the advancement of the USS Enterprise, thus proving that an advanced submarine was as good a match for an AC.
India: An Aircraft Carrier Advocate
But when it comes to India, though the country’s military revolved around Soviet equipment, it caught the ‘carrier bug’ early. In 1942 at the height of WWII, the British Royal Navy commissioned a bunch of majestic class ACs. However, as the war ended, the project could not be fully realised due to post-war budget constraints. One such vessel whose construction was put on hold was HMS Hercules. Sensing an opportunity, the Indian government purchased the incomplete carrier. The construction was completed in 1961 and was named INS Vikrant. Becoming the only Asian country to own an AC then – particularly as a former colony that had recently gained independence – sealed the deal and put an end to the ACs v/s submarine debate in the Indian Navy for a long time. Yet, the threats posed by submarines were not completely nullified.
For example, during the Indo-Pak war of 1965, a seven-ship task force led by Pakistan’s PNS Babur got close to the city of Dwarka in Gujarat with obvious religious messaging. Termed ‘Operation Dwarka’, the Pakistani forces continued to fire unopposed for 48 hours before retreating. Though there were no casualties on the Indian side, the attack showcased the country’s naval vulnerability despite possessing an AC. Though rejected by the Indian Navy, one popular opinion was that the Indian Navy was wary of PNS Ghazi – the only submarine on the subcontinent then – and it did not wish to engage it in an all-out battle.
However, despite the tensions revolving around ACs and submarines, India always believed in the might of the AC and so always looked at ways to have an AC—be it the INS Viraat, INS Vikramaditya or the recently commissioned INS Vikrant. But now, with the rise of China, there has been a growing demand among defence experts for other ACs to protect India’s long coastline. But with the enormous cost and time involved in building one, there are a lot of variables that need to be considered.
First Define, then Design
Ashely J. Tellis, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, believes that to answer whether an AC is required or not, a country must determine its geopolitical objectives and define them geographically. If its sphere of influence is within 1000km of its territorial borders, Tellis believes that an AC is not required for military operations. For context, if India wishes to increase its presence in and around Karachi and Gwadar, then a new AC is unnecessary as a shore-based aircraft would do the job of surveillance, attack, and defence just as effectively as an AC. However, if geopolitical interests extend beyond 1000km, towards East Africa, Southeast Asia, etc., then a new AC would become necessary as it would provide a mobile military base.
Interestingly, the type of aircraft on an AC is also equally relevant. As Tellis says, the Indian marine aircraft such as the TEJAS and Hawk Mk 132 are small, manpower intensive and pack too little firepower. For example, the 45 MiG-29K aircraft that the Indian Navy operates provides a very narrow range, and subsequently limited combat capabilities. Their inadequate time station (the time one spends on air) also makes them maintenance heavy. In short, the aircraft that India currently operates gives too little bang for too much buck. On a side note, Tellis also points out that to be a potent force, an AC needs to be in the 65-ton category. A larger AC will be able to house close to 40-50 aircraft, allowing it to conduct attack operations.
And that is where the Navy is currently working. Having realised the constraints that obstruct growth potential, preparations for building the next indigenous aircraft carrier – INS Vishal – have already started. However, the journey is not going to be easy. With an estimated cost of about ₹50,000 crores, the defence ministry would need to decide whether it can spend money again to build a third AC. But military logic cannot be expressed purely in monetary terms.
During the Kargil War, India’s then flagship AC INS Viraat played a critical role by enforcing a blockade against Pakistan. It was then that the Navy recognised the importance of INS Viraat’s companions. Speaking to the Economic Times, former commodore Srikant Kensur comments, “Considering our maritime interest requirement for power projection apart from maintenance considerations, we need at least three, preferably four or more aircraft carriers. So, if you want to have one aircraft carrier on either seaboard, then you need to have at least three aircraft carriers. So that, as and when required, at least two of them are operational all the time.”
Moreover, defence experts believe one should also take into consideration the rising geopolitical tensions when considering upgrading the Navy’s capabilities. In the recent past, the Indian Ocean Region with all its oil production hubs, trade routes, and choke points has emerged as one of the most strategically significant zones in the world. So, to maintain sovereignty and grab maritime opportunities, India would like to gain dominance in the region which wouldn’t be plausible without a powerful Navy.
Notwithstanding the arguments for another AC, there are also some evident disadvantages. Due to their mammoth size, ACs can be tracked quite easily via GPS. Also, with the advancement of nuclear-powered submarines, cruise missiles including nuclear-capable ones can be fired too. This makes any investment in an AC vulnerable and potentially risky.
That being said, the huge capital cost to build such a massive vessel at home as well as the shifting political emphasis has rarely given India the luxury of having 2 fully operational ACs. The new Vikrant, however, could change that. With such a long coastline and troublesome neighbours, India may require a fleet of AC to project itself as a potent force. As globalising maritime trade extends itself over maritime geopolitics, India inevitably requires infrastructures to sustain it. As policymakers deliberate over the cost and benefit of building a new AC, one must remember that a “good navy is a provocation to war; it is the surest guarantee of peace.”
Sashank Rajaram is a second-year student at Ashoka University, pursuing an Economics Major and Political Science Minor.