Aircraft Carriers Vs Shore Based Aircraft

Sub Title : A dispassionate analysis of the two types of assets

Issues Details : Vol 13 Issue 4 Sep/Oct 2019

Author : Air Marshal Anil Chopra, PVSM, AVSM, VM, VSM (Retd)

Page No. : 36

Category : Military Affairs

: September 26, 2019

The aircraft carrier has an aura of glamour and invincibility attached to it. However, in the age of missiles or bomb laden unmanned drone swarms the vulnerability of aircraft carriers needs mature consideration. This coupled  with the ability of shore based resources to be able to carry out tasks far away from home bases, makes a case for a dispassionate analysis of the celebrated icon of the seas-the aircraft carrier

Air power is an important means of prosecuting war. Like the Tank of the Armies, fighter aircraft of the air forces and submarines of the navies, the aircraft carrier has a glamour and invincibility attached to it. The seagoing airbase is equipped with a full-length flight-deck and  facilities for carrying, arming, launching and recovering aircraft. It allows navies to project air power deep into the sea without depending on land based airbases. However, in recent times  there has been a raging debate on the relative capability of power projection by shore based aircraft vis-a-vis aircraft carriers, especially in light of the vulnerability of aircraft carriers to state of the art munitions.

History of Indian Fixed Wing Naval Aviation

Indian Navy’s (IN) first naval air station, INS Garuda, was commissioned in Cochin on 11 May 1953, along with formation of the No 550 Squadron, with Short Sealand and Fairey Firefly aircraft. Sea Hawks were inducted in 1960. The very next year, the first aircraft carrier INS Vikrant (formerly HMS Hercules) was acquired. It operated the British Sea Hawk fighter-bombers and the French Alize anti-submarine aircraft and played an important role in liberation of Goa and the India-Pakistan war in 1971. She was decommissioned in January 1997, and initially maintained as a Museum ship in Cuffe Parade, Mumbai till 2012. The ship was sold through auction and scrapped in November 2014. In 1977 Ilyushin IL-38 aircraft were acquired. The BAE Harriers were inducted in the 1980s and operated from INS Viraat until March 6, 2016. Viraat was decommissioned in March 2017 at Naval Dockyards, Mumbai. The proposal to convert it into a Museum was not accepted, and it has now been decided that the carrier will be scrapped.

Navy’s Air Assets and the Future

IN has years of experience with all categories of aerial platforms. Currently the Indian Navy (IN) is seeking 57 carrier based aircraft and will soon invite request for proposals (RFP) for a Rs 95,000-crore tender. Also, IN has an ambitious Aircraft carrier building program.

The Mikoyan MiG-29 K was acquired when it was decided to acquire and refurbish Soviet aircraft carrier Admiral Gorshkov and rename it as INS Vikramaditya. IN has acquired 12 Boeing P-8I Neptune maritime patrol aircraft armed with Harpoon Block-II missiles, MK-54 lightweight torpedoes, rockets and depth charges.  In June 2019, India approved the purchase of ten additional P-8Is at an expected cost of US$3 billion. IN has inducted Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL) Dhruv and numbers will grow to 120 soon, to replace the Chetak helicopters in service for multi-utility role, including search and rescue (SAR) and armed patrols with night vision devices. The Navy may induct 20 Rudra armed variants. Kamov

Ka-25, Ka-28 and Ka-31 are used for anti-submarine warfare (ASW) and real-time network-centric warfare for the Indian Navy. Westland Sea King and Sikorsky SH-3 Sea King are used for ASW and search & rescue roles. IN operates at least two squadrons of Heron and Searcher Mk-II UAVs. The IAI-HAL Naval Rotary Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (NRUAV) is under development for an unmanned helicopter, capable of conducting ISR missions. In June 2017, US administration cleared sale of 22 Sea Guardian drones to India. UAVs are controlled from ships to increase the range of surveillance. There are also plans to introduce rotary UAVs. In December 2016, the IN rejected the Tejas Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) aircraft stating that it is too heavy and with an underpowered engine unsuitable for carrier operations. IN operates Hawk trainers. IN has issued a RFP for six medium-range maritime reconnaissance (MRMR) aircraft and has shown interest in 12 ShinMaywa US-2 amphibian aircraft. The proposed 57 multi-role carrier borne fighters, could have short take-off but arrested recovery (STOBAR) or catapult-assisted take-off but arrested recovery (CATOBAR) or both. The main contest could be between Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet and Dassault Rafale-M. IN is also looking for 123 naval multi-role helicopters (NMRHs) and 111 naval utility helicopters (NUHs). Flag Officer Naval Aviation (FONA) controls training, maintenance and other functions of naval aviation. Aircraft maintenance yards are at Kochi and Dabolim, and for Helicopters they are at Mumbai. INS Kadamba at Karwar, apart from currently berthing INS Vikramaditya can home berth two more aircraft carriers. The new naval base near Visakhapatnam is expected to be able to harbour two aircraft carriers, including the planned new Vikrant-class aircraft carrier. INS Rajali at Arakkonam is an important naval air station operating the P-8I aircraft. Kochi has an airfield. There are naval airfields in Andaman and Nicobar Islands including the southernmost at Cambell Bay.

Aircraft Carriers an Overview

The aircraft carrier is the most significant ship of the fleet that allows projection of air power in high seas without depending on shore based aircraft. Modern carriers are nuclear powered warships that carry many fighter-bombers, helicopters, and Airborne Early Warning & Control (AEW&C) aircraft. Tactically or even strategically, it is the flagship of a fleet. One of its great advantages is that, by sailing in international waters, it does not interfere with any territorial sovereignty and thus obviates the need for over-flight authorizations from third party countries. It reduces the transit time and distance of aircraft and therefore increases the time of availability in the combat zone. “The countries that aspire for strategic international influence have aircraft carriers. An aircraft carrier is 100,000 tons of diplomacy” said Henry Kissinger. As of August 2019, there are 41 active aircraft carriers in the world operated by thirteen navies. The US Navy has 11 large nuclear-powered carriers with over 80 fighter jets each. US Navy’s combined deck-space is over twice that of all other nations combined. China, France, India, Russia, and the UK each operate one large/medium-size carrier, with capacity from 30 to 60 fighter jets. Italy operates two light fleet carriers and Spain operates one. Remaining are small carriers mostly with a sizeable number of short take-off vertical-landing (STOVL) aircraft. Future aircraft carriers are under construction, or in planning, by Brazil, China, India, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States.

Carriers with CATOBAR generally carry the largest, heaviest, and most heavily armed aircraft for offensive strikes and power projection. All CATOBAR carriers in service today are nuclear powered. STOBAR carriers generally carry lighter fixed-wing aircraft with more limited payloads such as Sukhoi Su-33 and Mikoyan MiG-29K which are often geared primarily towards air superiority and fleet defence roles. The STOVL aircraft carriers operate Harrier jump jets, Yak-38 and the F-35B. Some carriers like Indian Vikramaditya have ski-jumps to assist the plane in getting airborne.

Carrier Based Aircraft

If you need air cover a thousand miles from the nearest land-based runway, the carrier-based aircraft win by default. Carrier-based aircraft are designed for operations from aircraft carriers and can launch in a short distance and are sturdy enough to withstand the abrupt forces of launching from and recovering on a pitching deck. In addition, their wings are generally able to fold up, easing operations in tight quarters. Carrier fighters are usually twin-engined which adds a certain cost in drag and weight but is important for long over-water flights, they are around 15-20 percent more expensive for their class. They can take on many maritime roles including air-to-air combat, surface attack, anti-shipping and submarine warfare, search and rescue (SAR), reconnaissance and airborne early warning and control (AEW&C) roles. Naval helicopters can operate from variety of ships. Boeing F-18 variants, Rafale-M, Grumman C-2 Greyhound, Lockheed Martin F-35B/C Lightening II, McDonnell Douglas AV-8V Harrier II, MiG-29K, Northrop Grumman E-2 Hawkeye, Sukhoi Su-33, and Chinese Shenyang J-15 are some of the fixed wing maritime aircraft. MQ-25 Stingray is a planned aerial refueling drone as part of the Carrier-Based Aerial-Refueling System (CBARS) program, evolved from the Unmanned Carrier-Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike (UCLASS) program. It is currently under development.

Indian and Chinese Carriers

China presently has one STOBAR 57,000 tonne carrier Liaoning (modified Kuznetsov-class) commissioned on 25 September 2012, with Shenyang J-15 fighters. A second carrier ‘Shandong’ Type 001A is a first generation Chinese carrier that was launched on 26 April 2017 and is under sea trials. She is scheduled to enter service in 2020. A third carrier, the 85,000 ton Type 002 is being constructed in Shanghai’s Jiangnan Shipyard for commission in 2023. She will be the first Chinese aircraft carrier to use CATOBAR. China’s next carrier Type 003 would be 110,000 ton, again with CATOBAR. It is yet to be decided if it will have nuclear propulsion. PLAN is planning to have four nuclear-powered carrier battle groups on the front line by 2035.

India’s 45,500 tonne STOBAR carrier INS Vikramaditya was formally commissioned on 16 November 2013. 34 aircraft can be accommodated, typically 24 MiG-29K and 10 helicopters, such as Westland Sea King, and the Ka-31. It is not capable of operating fixed-wing AEW aircraft. India started the construction of a 40,000-tonne Vikrant-class aircraft carrier, the Indigenous Aircraft Carrier 1 (IAC-1) in 2009 in Cochin shipyard. The new carrier will operate MiG-29K class fighters. The carrier was floated out of its dry dock in December 2011 and launched in August 2013. The ship is expected to start sea trials in February 2021 and enter into service in early 2023. A second 65,000 tonne Vikrant-class carrier INS Vishal is likely to be nuclear-powered with CATOBAR system to launch and recover heavier aircraft and unmanned combat aircraft. The Indian Navy evaluated the US Electromagnetic Aircraft Launch System (EMALS). EMALS system takes up less space and is far more efficient. But it is still a work-in-progress. Vishal will enter service only by 2030 due to the technical challenges involved in assimilating and integrating several advanced technologies for the first time in an indigenous carrier.

Limitations of Aircraft Carriers

Due to the busy nature of the flight deck, only 20 or so aircraft may be on it at any one time. In general, land-based fighter planes are almost always superior to naval versions, for the simple reason that they weigh less, and have better thrust-to-weight ratio/performance. A land-based fighter could be lighter, faster, longer-ranged and/or better-armed than a carrier-based equivalent. The distances traveled for combat in the open ocean tend to be farther, and the risk of running out of fuel presents a much greater concern for naval aviators. Generally, there are no alternative landing places. Most navies can afford only a single aircraft carrier out at sea. In case of a hit on a carrier or a major snag, the carrier is unavailable for rest of the operations. Therefore, there is a need for an effective land based alternative. The total air power launch and punch rate from a carrier is relatively very small. It works well where asymmetry is of very high order, as was the case with Americans in the Middle East.

Aircraft Carriers – Operational Issues

Lacking the firepower of other warships, carriers by themselves are considered vulnerable to attack by other ships, aircraft, submarines, or missiles. Therefore, an aircraft carrier is generally accompanied by a number of other ships to provide protection for the relatively unwieldy carrier, to carry supplies and perform other support services, and to provide additional offensive capabilities. The resulting group of ships is often termed a carrier battle group. There is a view among some military pundits that modern anti-ship weapons systems, such as precision munitions and missiles, or even ballistic missiles with nuclear warheads have made aircraft carriers and carrier groups obsolete and too vulnerable for modern combat.

Aircraft carriers also must operate according to strict launch cycles and cannot remain on station indefinitely. Carriers can surge to temporarily generate additional sorties but must eventually shut down. Carriers once built have a finite size, in contrast, the facilities at a land-based airfield can be expanded and are available for use 365 days a year, as they never have to return to port or refuel. The fact that land-based airpower is very effective against active shipping and naval forces has been amply demonstrated. WW II statistics indicate that land based aircraft sank 2.5 times more enemy maritime tonnage with less than a third of the sorties devoted to the mission. In the 1982 Falkland war, Argentina with just four Super Etendard aircraft armed with Exocet anti-ship missiles, penetrated British Task Force and sank the destroyer HMS Sheffields and a supply ship. 75% of British Task force was either damaged or sunk. It is clear that aircraft carriers may not be the most effective way to exert control over the oceans. Long-range aircraft with added aerial refueling can reduce the need for a floating base. The US Department of Defence (DoD) is conscious that the effect of a single Chinese cruise missile hitting a US carrier, even if it did not sink, would be politically and psychologically catastrophic. Same will be true for India. Many believe, a powerful submarine force could be much more effective against enemy shipping vis-a-vis the aircraft carrier. A significant part of the carrier based air effort has to be utilized to defend the naval task force itself. Therefore, offensive airpower for maritime interdiction gets restricted.

Ground Reality and Options for India

IAF has a large number of  SU-30 MKI. Many have been assigned for maritime role. Unrefueled range of the aircraft is over 3,000 km. The range with refueling becomes considerably more. In the recent exercise Gagan Shakti, IAF demonstrated air dominance over the entire extended area of the Indian Ocean Region (IOR), in support of the Indian Navy, by employing combat enablers like the IL-78 aerial refueler in conjunction with IAF’s maritime fighter aircraft, carrying potent long distance anti-shipping weaponry. Missions were flown to address both near and in depth targets with Su-30 and Jaguar fighter aircraft equipped with the potent BrahMos and Harpoon Anti ship missiles respectively. In the long range strike concept validation, the SU-30s, airborne from a base on the east coast near Kolkata engaged multiple targets, in the Western seaboard, at distances beyond 2500 Km, and landed at a southern base, thus covering a total distance of 4000 Km, in a single mission. Missions were also flown to simulate strikes over A&N Islands from the mainland.

The vulnerability of ‘aircraft-carriers’ needs mature consideration in the age of missiles or bomb laden unmanned drone swarms. There is a reason to worry about the vulnerability and cost of building, maintaining, and protecting them. Some call them ‘Floating status symbols’. The Vishal will be extremely expensive and may cost close to US$ 6 billion. The aircraft and weapons onboard would be extra. For this amount nearly 120 SU-30 MKI (US$ 52 Million) can be bought. Carriers can deliver only a modest firepower for their very high price and  their operational endurance is limited without local base facilities. China is targeting four aircraft-carriers, but it also has four times defence budget. Land bases surely cannot move but are far cheaper and they can’t be sunk. India needs alternatives. It can make a huge strategic complex at Andaman and Nicobar Islands with much less than the cost of the aircraft-carrier. The operational value of these islands, next to the Malacca Strait choke point between the Pacific and Indian oceans is phenomenal. The islands would also allow force projection into Southeast Asia and the South China Sea. Australia plans to upgrade the airfield at Cocos Keeling Islands in the northern Indian Ocean. China has reclaimed islands in the South China Sea and is making tie-ups with nations in the Indian Ocean by leasing ports and airbases. India needs similar tie-ups and needs to explore reclaiming some islands in Lakshadweep. Notwithstanding the advantages of shore-based aircraft, the Aircraft-carriers may still continue to be part of all the major navies of the world  because of the threatening role they can play in modern asymmetric warfare, like gunboat diplomacy of the past. Aircraft carriers facilitate quick and precise projections of overwhelming military power into such local and regional conflicts.