Aircraft Carriers: Indian Strategic Thought and Acquisition Trends

Issues Details: 
Vol 10 Issue 4 Sep - Oct 2016
Page No.: 
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Aircraft carriers have a dominant position in the Indian naval strategic and tactical calculus
Dr Vijai Sakhuja
Monday, October 3, 2016
There is a strong belief in India that the neglect of the oceans resulted in domination by colonial powers and the maritime supremacy helped them to rule India during the 15th to the 19th Century. In the post-independence period, the dispatch of a naval flotilla by Indonesia to deter India against Pakistan, and the U.S. decision to dispatch Task Force 74 led by its aircraft carrier USS Enterprise in the culminating stages of the 1971 India-Pakistan war, further reinforced the critical necessity to develop naval power and preclude dominance by any external power.
Since independence, the Indian legislators have supported the strategic vision of the naval commanders and provided necessary fiscal resources to develop capabilities to ensure protect sovereignty and uphold national security. The current force structure and future acquisitions suggest that the Indian Navy is building platforms capable of long range sustained operations supported by large surface combatants including aircraft carriers, nuclear propelled submarines, and a host of manned and unmanned surveillance air platforms. There are over 40 different naval ships and submarines under construction in Indian shipyards and majority of these have been designed by the Indian Navy. 
These plans support the Indian Navy’s operational concepts that envision projecting power from the littorals into the seas and long distance operations. At the operational level, force formulations include geographically dispersed platforms but networked for power projection achieved through multi-mission air and sea assets.
In the above schema, an aircraft carrier finds a prominent position in the Indian naval strategic and tactical calculus. The naval planners argue that aircraft carriers are important power projection platforms and can launch aircraft in support of combat operations both at sea and on land, as also lifting of Special Forces during covert missions. In the tactical role, the aircraft carriers contribute to missions such as sea denial, sea control and long-range offensive operations. Organic air asset equipped with missiles adds to power projection capability of a force, assist in sea control/sea denial functions and contribute effectively to constabulary/benign tasks. Besides, carrier air operations provide speed and agility and can alter the aircraft mix for the entire spectrum of missions, combat –crisis- non-combat. The Indian naval planners and tactical commanders are continuously studying and conceptualising a wide spectrum of missions and exploit the ability of such platforms to transit the sea-space-shore interface.
Review of Aircraft Carrier Development Programmes 
Even before independence in 1947, Indian naval practitioners had watched with interest the role played by aircraft carriers during the Second World War, particularly in the Pacific Ocean where American and Japanese battles had cantered on aircraft carriers. After independence, the British assisted the Indian naval planners in developing a ten-year expansion plan which included building two fleets, one each for Bay of Bengal and the Arabian Sea, centred on four aircraft carriers and 280 ship borne strike and fighter aircraft. Thus, the Indian Navy’s carrier ambitions were clear and in the 1950s, the Indian Navy first unveiled its blueprint for a three-carrier force. 
Over the last five decades, the Indian Navy acquired three aircraft carriers from overseas - INS Vikrant (from UK in 1961); INS Viraat (from UK in 1986); and INS Vikramaditya (from Russia in 2014). It is currently building the indigenous aircraft carrier (christened as INS Vikrant) at the Cochin Shipyard and is expected to be ready by 2020. The latter two belong to the ‘light carrier’ category but fall in the ‘higher end’ of the class. There are also plans to build a larger carrier, 65000 tons, to be named as INS Vishal. 
India acquired the INS Vikrant (ex-HMS Hercules) a Majestic class light fleet carrier from United Kingdom in 1961 and it was tactfully deployed in the Arabian Sea during the Goa liberation operations and in Bay of Bengal for combat operations in East Bengal (now Bangladesh) during the 1971 India Pakistan conflict. The second aircraft carrier INS Viraat (ex-HMS Hermes) acquired in 1986 is due for retirement later in 2016. The Indian Navy commissioned INS Vikramaditya (Russian aircraft carrier Admiral Gorshkov) and equipped it with the MiG-29K fighter jets, and Kamov surveillance and anti-submarine warfare helicopters. 
As an ardent practitioner of carrier operations, the Indian Navy has strived to preserve the operational expertise for aircraft carrier operations as also to fulfill its vision of two carrier task forces as enunciated in the naval plans of 1947. This vision is supported by the indigenously designed, developed and constructed carrier INS Vikrant (37,500-ton carrier, also known by Project 71 Indigenous Aircraft carrier (IAC 1)). It can operate MiG-29K and LCA (Navy), the indigenous light combat aircraft built by Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) from a ramp with arrestor gear. INS Vikrant can host 30 aircraft and helicopters, configured to perform several roles and is likely to join the fleet by 2017-18.
India is now planning to build another aircraft carrier, 300 meters long-70 meters wide- around 60,000 tons. It could be of either a STOBAR or a flattop variety. This choice will determine the type of aircraft that the Indian Navy can be expected to acquire and operate from the carrier.  It has approached, through tenders, Russia, France, Britain and the United States to help build its new (nuclear-powered) aircraft carrier.
The US has taken the initiative and turned to India by leveraging the two-decade long bilateral defence cooperation. Both sides agree that it is time to graduate from a seller-buyer relationship to a higher plane involving co-development and joint production. Significantly, the US has responded favourably and India has decided to position the Defence Technology and Trade Initiative (DTTI) high on the agenda. As far as aircraft carrier is concerned, the EMALS-AAG (Electro Magnetic Aircraft Launch System-Advanced Arresting Gear) technology is high on the India US defence technology transfer agenda. The US is the leader in this technology and the EMALS works on the principle akin to the EM Rail Gun by using an induction motor to launch the aircraft and has at least three major advantages : (a) it is less complicated and more robust/reliable as the number of sub-assemblies and moving parts are less which results in low maintenance, reduced operating cost over the life cycles and require less manpower; (b) can launch a variety of aircraft which provides greater flexibility in tailored missions; and (c) the acceleration and deceleration in EMALs- AAG being linear, result in low fatigue on the aircraft and crew. Both sides have established a joint working group on aircraft carrier technology cooperation, but there is no discussion so far on offering nuclear propulsion technology for Indian aircraft carrier.
Russia has offered ‘for purchase’ to India an aircraft carrier called Shtorm or Project 23000E which is being developed by the shipbuilding research and development institute Krylov State Research Center (KSRC). It is believed that the offer also includes nuclear propulsion but the last nuclear propelled surface vessel built for the Russian Navy was the Kirov class and since then it has focussed on nuclear propelled submarines. In this context, the Russian technical assistance in the construction of the indigenously built INS Arihantis noteworthy. The Russian offer of the carrier should also be seen in the context of the fifth generation fighter (FGA) being jointly developed for the Indian Air Force, and could result in the development of a carrier-based variant of the FGA for the Russian Navy (Prospective Airborne Complex of Ship-borne Aviation – PAK SA). There is also a belief that the Russian offer comes in the backdrop of the US plans to transfer technology for IAC-2 or INS Vishal.
Similarly, there have been speculations that the possible sale of the French fighter jets to India would encourage India and France to explore joint development of carriers. Apparently, the French PA2 nuclear ship project (capable of more than 40 aircraft), a follow-on of the Charles de Gaulle, is an ideal platform and meets the requirements put out by India.  
In Conclusion
The Indian Navy has acquired rich experience in operating different types of aircraft carriers (British and Russian origin) and successfully made two important transitions. First, it has done the full circle by operating the CATOBAR (Catapult Take Off Barrier Arrested Recovery) to STOVL (Short Take and Vertical Recovery) and thereafter to the STOBAR (Short Take Off Barrier Arrested Recovery) carriers. Second, the Indian Navy has also gained valuable experience in operating diverse types of fixed and rotary aircraft from these ships. 
The Indian invitation to involve other carrier design, development and construction countries could lead to conceptualization of a sophisticated naval industrial complex as also joint development of fighter jets. It is believed that the Indian Navy has plans to acquire more aircraft carriers, but a combination of LPD/LHD variety of platforms would help the Indian Navy in expeditionary operations, HADR missions and other logistic support operations. Further, a combination of aircraft carriers and expeditionary platforms would help Indian Navy to obtain blue water capability that can potentially present a serious challenge to the growing combat capability and distant water deployment by the PLA Navy.
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