Since a few years now, India has been working towards procuring three aircraft carriers, commensurate with the mission and request of the Indian Navy to defend India’s sea coast and sea lanes. The three aircraft carriers are planned to serve the western, eastern, and southern seaboards. INS Vikramaditya is now expected to enter service in 2013, the first Indigenous Aircraft Carrier (IAC-1) is likely to be ready in 2014, while IAC-2 is expected in 2017, though the entire timetable may be delayed. At first glance, a jump from one, failing aircraft carrier in the Indian navy’s arsenal to three new ones sounds like a prodigious leap of 200% and more.
Defense minister Antony has gone on record to say that at least two Indigenous aircraft carriers (IAC) will be deployed soon, while Admiral Nirmal Varma stated that at least three IAC’s will be constructed [emphases added]. But, there is no firm production plan for an IAC in 2020 or subsequent IAC’s after that. From all that has been printed and published, it continues to sound that about three aircraft carriers battle groups (CBG) will suffice for India, such that once India has these three carrier battle groups its naval woes will be addressed. However, this paper argues that the concept that we may consider it sufficient to stop at three or four CBG’s is fundamentally flawed from a strategic perspective for India’s short and long term security needs.
However, while no one doubts that three aircraft carriers serve a considerable deterrence purpose, it should be realized that three aircraft carriers was a rationalized request by an impoverished Indian navy that was being repeatedly told by its political masters that there was no money with India to fulfill all the navy’s requests.
First of all, from a strategy perspective, three aircraft carriers are grossly insufficient for the new battle lines being drawn in the Indian Ocean shipping lanes that carry oil from the volatile Middle East and the new threats arising anew in the South China Sea. Next, neither the Bay of Bengal, nor the Arabian Sea, nor the southern seaboard are small lakes the size of a Black Sea where one CBG each could suffice; India’s exclusive economic zone, alone, amounts to an area that is 70% of the Indian mainland, which is huge for a navy to patrol, leave alone the fact that the entire Bay of Bengal and Arabian Sea are many times larger.
Without a shade of doubt, India needs one CBG in the Far East command to address the vital Malacca Straits from which 70% of world shipping passes. But while that complement is busy in the Malacca Straits, who will look after India’s eastern coast around Vizag and Chennai, a good 1000 miles distant from Port Blair and 30 hours travel time for fighting ships? This much time is much too much in war time. For instance, enemy submarines can sneak into the Eastern coastline, much like the PNS Ghazi during the 1971 war, but unlike the Ghazi, can cause havoc in a future war. By inductive logic, it can be argued that India thus needs a minimum of two CBGs in the Bay of Bengal. The Arabian Sea can similarly be divided into the southern area from Mumbai to Karwar/Lacadive islands, and the northern area from Mumbai reaching to Daman and Diu and the Makran Coast. That brings to two the number of CBGs required in the Arabian Sea. This arithmetic is actually simpler than made to be. It also needs to be realized that a naval defense force needs to be tightly integrated, with each fleet capable of supporting another and each complement being capable of rushing to the aid of another in time of war, which cannot be left to chance and luck. Only three CBGs flung far and wide do not fulfill the requirement of tight integration.
Now, leave one carrier group for the relevant areas of the Southern Indian Ocean, such as protecting shipping or infiltration around the Maldives or south of Sri Lanka, and we have a total minimum need for five CBGs at the very minimum just to firmly defend India’s vast coastline. Remember, India is not a small country, and large countries have large responsibilities, unless they want to be chiseled into smaller pieces. Force projection into the South China Sea to protect ONGC assets and exploration there, beef up presence at Na Thrang which is just across from China’s large naval base at Hainan island, and coordination with the navies of South East Asia require at least one more CBG; and protecting our western sea lanes from where 60% of India’s trade passes, including countering piracy and future threats from countries supporting Pakistan in the far west Arabian sea and Seychelles, where China recently expressed urgent interest, suggest one more CBG, taking a desirable force to seven aircraft carrier battle groups.
Thus, India just can’t stop at three after it has three aircraft carriers by 2017, as planned. What’s more dangerous is that if India disbands its aircraft carrier production industry, it will suffer from institutional loss of production infrastructure, talent, and expertise, which will be heavy sledding to regain in time of war or need. Disbanding production after producing a few is the worst thing anyone can do from an engineering, cost, and production management perspective. Getting production going again will be like starting from scratch, taking years to the process, and costing heavily. If India wants to conserve costs, it is advisable to continue producing aircraft carriers at regular production intervals after having entered into the motions. In addition, the engineers and managers will naturally gain expertise, and its manufactured carriers will expectedly get better and more modern with experience, incorporating improved avionics, missiles, propulsion, thrust, and naval architecture systems.
And then there is the obsolescence issue. After 20-25 years in service, older aircraft carriers will find themselves bereft of advancing technologies. What is India going to do then if it doesn’t have its own engineering and production lines moving? Will it seek to become dependent again on foreign countries, such as is the situation now, thereby threatening its independence? Socrates defined nations as states of war: the larger the nation, the greater the inevitable conclusion that it has to always think of itself at war, gearing all industries towards their defense potential.
In fact, whether India declared it or not, India has virtually been under threat or at war every day since independence; and every day India finds itself experiencing some cross border firing or other violations at either the Pakistani, Chinese, Bangladesh, Bhutanese, or Burmese borders, not to mention armament smuggling all along India’s coast and land borders, internal Maoist insurgencies, and proxy wars fought by Pakistan. Security is not something that a nation can take lightly, especially a fragmented nation such as India. Basically, it is well understood that the worse the health of any individual, the more care one needs to take for that person; so is it with nations, especially with India, whose military ratios compared to China are diminishing on a daily basis, despite India’s apparent attention to the matter.
Moreover, what happens if India disbands aircraft carrier production after producing two or three of them, and then finds itself in a shooting war where one or two aircraft carriers are sunk? Where will India get new aircraft carriers at short notice? But, if India already has aircraft carriers in production in such a situation, they can hope to soon enough replace the lost ones. In fact, it is a wise plan to aim to produce a full CBG every three years, whether there is an active war or not. And, India can really produce three submarines every three years to go with the aircraft carrier group, though production of four submarines a year in two production lines is immensely feasible and desirable for other reasons. It may not matter much whether the aircraft carriers are of the 25-50,000 ton size or 60-90,000 ton size; that discussion is likely to be dominated and controlled by cost factors. I am in favor of slimmer, trimmer aircraft carriers that can be produced faster and inducted into service quickly; in addition, smaller aircraft carriers will obviously be less expensive. However, it is well known that larger aircraft carriers carry a bigger, more lethal punch, and so are advantageous from the force perspective. The discussion of size could probably settle on a medium-size, 50,000 ton aircraft carrier, such as now planned for IAC-2. But what is even more important than size is that India has the aircraft carrier groups for flexibility, presence, engagement, and deterrence – just as a blue water navy must.
Naturally, an aircraft carrier is simply useless all by itself. That is why it needs the four dimensions of submarine power, surface power, its own air power, and satellite surveillance and guidance to protect itself. Moreover, the air power that an aircraft carrier can deliver is indispensable for naval battles that are best fought by simultaneously bringing all four dimensions into use.
Immense literature and analyses proclaim that aircraft carriers are dinosaurs that are like ducks for powerful anti-ship missiles, or worse, that a tactical nuclear missile is all it takes to destroy an aircraft carrier group. Let’s look at both these issues. First, there are, of course, anti anti-ship missiles that have various guidance options that can protect modern ships from incoming missiles, though it takes many more hits to keel over an aircraft carrier than it would to sink a frigate or other surface ship. Hence, there is some protection to an aircraft carrier owing to its mere size. But, to protect against missiles and torpedoes is also why aircraft carriers need a full complement of submarine and surface fighting ships at all times, not to mention its own air and space dimensions. India’s missile industry is reasonably advanced (though its quantum of production could be enhanced), its Brahmos missile is the fastest in the world, and its proposed aircraft carriers aim to carry the best anti anti-ship missiles. And let it not be forgotten that aircraft carrier groups are still a potent force in world navies, especially for force projection, which tends to balance the odds against them.
The second, nuclear component of battle is such that the stakes can be escalated by either side, in that if one party uses the nuclear weapon, the other will likely use it too, tit-for-tat; hence the nuclear argument is not specific to aircraft carrier groups, for it can be applied to army divisions on the move, cantonments and cities, defense production facilities, or armies encamped in clustered areas. No one in their right mind would say that we should not have cantonments and defense production facilities because they can all be wiped out with a tactical nuclear missile; similarly, there is no point not producing aircraft carriers simply because some maverick nation may decide on the nuclear option after losing its mind. The nuclear discussion is neither here nor there when it comes to building conventional military power.
Another important subject is the type of propulsion system the aircraft carrier should run on. Whereas there are all sorts of fears for India having aircraft carriers run on nuclear power, it must be remembered that diesel fuel is going to be impossible to acquire in just about 30 years from now – after the oil is depleted and comes down to trace amounts. Let no one be in doubt about that happening: the geological and petroleum engineers have convincingly proven that the world is past peak oil. The depletion of aviation fuel for fighter aircraft, gasoline for battle tanks and armored vehicles, and diesel fuel for fighting ships will forever change the landscape of war in only the next generation. At that time, only nations possessing nuclear powered ships will be able to best sustain their navies; alternately, ethanol will be required as a propulsion fuel. Hence for all the pros and cons of this fuel or that for India’s aircraft carriers, the depletion of oil argument trumps them all. If India’s navy does not want to be sitting ducks in the water in 25 years, they must plan a major switch to nuclear power for all major fighting ships; alternately, they must plan to grow enough sugar cane to produce and stockpile sugar ethanol, and modify their ships’ engines accordingly. Presumably, India can construct nuclear-powered aircraft carriers outside the restraints of the Nuclear Suppliers Group, by using its own nuclear fuel in closed cycle power generation systems. Professedly, India’s industrial capabilities are fairly advanced such that it doesn’t need to eat “grass” to do so, much as Pakistan’s Zulfiqar Bhutto prepared his countrymen in the aftermath of the Pokhran explosion.
India must also not do with its aircraft carrier production as it did in the 1979-1981 period with the design/production of submarines. At that time, India ventured on submarine production, began to put designs together, but scrapped the entire effort within a mere couple of years. The result was that it allowed our competitors (read Chinese) to gain a massive lead in submarine capabilities that now comes as impassable for India, much to India’s disadvantage. Despite the criticism that Admiral Sureesh Mehta came in for in 2009 by saying that India’s military is no match for China’s, there is immense truth in what he said, as any Indian rational military leader will appreciate. If push comes to shove in the future, even by accident, India could be bested by China in a naval showdown. One can only hope that India’s military planners (read cabinet ministers) are paying attention. It is, of course, shameful that the Planning Commission has no Member for defense production, which requires massive financial investment, and high caliber of technological talent and planning that are not something you can procure on the fly or assign to an IAS officer or politician to manage.
We know that the first prime minister of India gambled enough with defense capabilities to prevent it from growing teeth, allegedly losing his temper at the first C-in-C of independent India, General Sir Robert Lockhart, when he encouraged the prime minister in 1947 to have a “defense policy.” Hopefully, the lessons have been well learned, especially after 1962, and will not be repeated, though analysts definitely doubt that the lessons have been fully learned. (Let alone that, even Kargill’s lessons have not been learned fully, largely because India has not procured enough mountain guns (Bofors performed remarkably) and high-altitude helicopters for mountain fighting). India must subscribe to a long-term policy for developing naval capability, which is arguably both technologically and quantitatively the most under-developed of the three military branches vis-à-vis China.
Hence, the discussion on IACs must migrate from publicizing that “India will produce two, maybe three indigenous aircraft carriers” to “India will keep producing and improving its indigenous aircraft carrier production and carrier battle groups.” It will not hurt if by 2030 India has seven aircraft carrier groups – one every three years after 2017. Let it be said and done that India is developing aircraft carrier production systems as a permanent feature of its illustrious navy. We should aim to make Kautilya proud of the Indian nation he imagined.