The Indispensability of the Indian Carrier Battle Group

Sub Title : An endeavour to set to rest a raging debate

Issues Details : Vol 14 Issue 6 Jan – Feb 2021

Author : Vice Admiral Pradeep Chauhan, AVSM**, VSM, (Retd)

Page No. : 39

Category : Military Affairs

: January 25, 2021

India’s geopolitical interests and the need to countervail China in the Indian Ocean make it imperative for India to possess a strong navy with blue water capabilities. To meet this requirement Carrier Battle Groups are indispensable. The article endeavours to put to rest the fierce debate involving the relative efficacy of the Indian Navy’s carrier-borne airpower versus that of the Indian Air Force supported by replenishment-tanker aircraft.

The ravages of COVID-19 pandemic notwithstanding, we are again at the cusp of an ‘Aero-India’ Exhibition.  This year, however, the debate over how best to optimise — if not maximise — India’s air and aerospace power and apply it effectively in the pursuit of national interests, over land and over the vast oceanic expanse of Indo-Pacific (or even just the Indian Ocean), seems muted.  Given the economic challenges that this pandemic has brought in its wake, the need to distinguish ‘cost’ from ‘cost-effectiveness’, and not be fixated upon the obvious “can we afford to?” to also examine the less obvious “can we afford not to?”, is pressing.  In short, the need to prevent ‘hope’ from being stifled by ‘hype’ is crucial.

It had been hoped that the fierce debate involving the relative efficacy of the Indian Navy’s carrier-borne airpower versus that of the Indian Air Force supported by replenishment-tanker aircraft would, by now, have been set to rest.  Sadly, however, it rages on, sometimes temporarily doused by informed understanding but then fanned into a mighty blaze by factional loyalties and ignorance.  To this combustible is added the ubiquitous grouping of armchair strategists and analysts whose utter lack of field experience or exposure does not prevent them from making amazingly ludicrous pronouncements.

However, with the Indian Ocean in its backyard and the strategic choke points on its periphery within striking range, India has every reason to exert influence in this region. The need gets more compulsive with the ever-growing presence of the Chinese Navy. The need for India to maintain a Blue Water Navy is a strategic opportunity whose time is ripe.

The Aircraft Carrier is the fulcrum of an integrated sea faring capability that is essential to exert influence in deep waters. However, the desirability and the defensibility of aircraft carriers is often seen more with an economic lens rather than security considerations. Some agencies within the nation also seem to think that submarines and aircraft carriers can be simplistically placed in an ‘either-or’ conditionality, and primacy accorded to the former.  The truth, however, is that like most simplistic responses to complex questions, this entire approach, is foundationally flawed.

There are two basic threads along which the issue tends to be addressed:

  • The first argues for and against the undeniably high ‘cost’ of aircraft carriers when compared with what an air force can deliver by way of equivalent aerospace capability.
  • The second proceeds down the path of ‘cost-effectiveness’ and seeks to examine the survivability (defensibility) of aircraft carriers in the prevailing and predicted battle-milieu.

The Question of High Costs

It is true that a contemporary (and future-ready) aircraft carrier costs a large amount of money, whether it is procured from abroad or constructed indigenously.  Along with its complement of aircraft, it is also expensive to operate and to maintain, especially when costs are computed over the several decades of its operational life. Open-source inputs have pegged the final cost of the Vikramaditya at some Rs12,500 Crore, while the indigenous construction of the Vikrant, will cost the exchequer some Rs 64,000 Crore. Some argue that the roles that are envisaged for the aircraft carrier could well be performed by shore-based air power of the Indian Air Force, with the clincher being the addendum, ‘at a much lower cost’. So, it becomes pertinent to examine how much an equivalent air force capacity and capability would cost.

The first fact is that an aircraft carrier can move a thousand kilometres in a single day.  In order to match this mobility, one would need multiple ‘coastal’, ‘inland’ and ‘forward’ airbases. There would be equally forbidding costs to be borne in the construction and periodic maintenance these air bases. For instance, just the replacement cost of one single runway on an existing air force base can exceed Rs 600 Crore. In the case of a Greenfield airbase, ‘construction cost’ would have to consider the costs of land-levelling and development, acquiring additional land necessary for safe take-off and departure flight-patterns and landing-approaches. At the USA’s Atlanta airport, for example, the 2013 cost of adding a fifth runway capable of handling jet aircraft was $1.24 billion (Rs 8,700 Crore).  In a fighter base, one would need to additionally account one or more parallel taxi-tracks, bombproof shelters and hangars, Air Traffic Control (ATC) and associated facilities, variety of radars, navigational beacons and communication equipment.  To this needs to be added costs of installing self-defence wherewithal – not just the missiles and/or guns, but their emplacements, ammunition-storage structures etc.

When these requirements (already included in the cost of the aircraft carrier) are aggregated, one ends up with a cost-figure significantly exceeding the overall cost of construction of an indigenous aircraft carrier. Remove the emotive content from the comparison, the aircraft carrier, with its operational life of 45-50 years, is readily seen to offer a far cheaper option.

In times of Peace or No War No Peace, a mobile maritime force centred upon an aircraft carrier are unsurpassed in their ability to provide a range of flexible and favourable geostrategic options:

  • Ability to shape perceptions (shaping operations) in a manner that is advantageous to the nation fielding such a force in the areas of its maritime interest.
  • These ‘shaping operations’ incorporate persuasive, dissuasive, deterrent, and coercive missions, which are collectively defined as the ‘diplomatic’ role of the Navy.
  • It is an invaluable source of ‘Maritime Domain Awareness’ (MDA) through direct and cooperative surveillance, the gathering and collation of intelligence on a regional basis, not only of goings-on on the sea surface, but below and above it.

These are vital strategic functions that shore-based assets of the Air Force simply cannot perform.

In times of war, there will be an inescapable need to mount and sustain operations-of-war at several hundred — if not thousand — kilometres from the Indian coast routinely and efficiently. At these distances, in times of conflict, the qualities of endurance and resilience that are inherent in warships enable them to ‘poise-in-theatre’ for protracted periods. Throughout this time, which can easily stretch over several weeks and months, airpower is critical to guard them against existential threats. A group of frigates and destroyers cannot be deployed in the theatre of combat without assurance of defensive and offensive air power. This airpower must be available both ‘here’ and ‘now’.

Thus, while there is little argument over the fact that modern, technology-derived, shore-based airborne platforms such as airborne refueller-aircraft could overcome the ‘here’ component of this twin requirement for sustenance of blue-water combat-operations, the ‘now’ component cannot be addressed merely by extending the range of shore-based aircraft — whether manned or unmanned.

Aerospace power that is an ‘embedded’ or ‘integral’ component of fleet-capabilities at sea is a sine quo non for combat-effectiveness and, almost invariably, even for the most fundamental feat of plain survival.

Once combat is joined, the need for air power increases exponentially and a force that is bereft of airpower facing an adversary that enjoys offensive and defensive air-cover is almost certain to be defeated.  Therefore, integral airpower, as embodied by a Combat Battle Group (CBG), remains a central operational concept of major navies; an aircraft carrier is not a ship by itself but an integral part of an entire combat-system – the CBG.  The CBG is a synergistic and a mutually supporting central point of reference.

Notwithstanding the acknowledged resilience of warships resulting from their very design with a host of damage-control and enhanced-survivability features, some analysts highlight the threats to an Indian CBG emanating from the acquisition by the PLA Navy and the Pakistan Navy of surveillance-satellites. However, the mere fact that one’s combat platforms face threats from an adversary must not be a reasonable cause to give up on one’s own combat capability altogether:

  • Is the very existence of shore-based aircraft of an air force not threatened by the same surveillance devices, strike aircrafts and contemporary missile-systems?
  • Is the existence of armoured regiments and artillery emplacements not similarly threatened in combat?

Is that, then a good enough reason to say that we ought not to invest in aircrafts, tanks or artillery?

It is important to recognise that there are several ‘types’ of aircraft carriers, which vary widely from one another in terms of displacement tonnage, physical dimensions, purpose or roles, means of propulsion, the number of aircraft they carry in peace as opposed to the number in combat, the manner in which these aircraft are launched and recovered, the extent and depth of on-board logistics and repair capacity and capability, and so on.  The following schematic helps maintain terminological exactitude:

As a consequence of foregoing typologies, the difference between a Carrier Battle Group (CBG) and a Carrier Strike Group (CSG) would be evident. A CBG is designed to attack enemy ships while protecting one’s own fleet units.  A CSG, on the other hand, is designed for land-attack — to attack heavily-defended targets on an enemy shore, while protecting its own fleet units.

War at sea is undertaken via what is known as the ‘engagement-cycle’. This involves the following activities conducted sequentially: (1) ‘Surveillance/Search’, (2) ‘Detection’, (3) Localisation, (4) ‘Classification’, (4) ‘Identification’, (6) ‘Tracking’, (7) ‘Combat Decision-making’ (whether to evade or to engage), (8) ‘Damage-Assessment’. The vulnerability of an Indian CBG in times of conflict needs to be assessed against these steps of the engagement cycle. Obviously, one needs to avoid the error of simplistically considering naval warfare as a game of ‘Hide and Seek’, where the ‘Hiders’ and the ‘Seekers’ are mutually exclusive entities with pre-defined roles. In truth, the hunter is also simultaneously the hunted and vice versa.

Is it Easy for the Enemy Aircraft to Destroy an Aircraft Carrier?

The first challenge is of combat-surveillance and resultant detection.  Since any contemporary Indian CBG can easily traverse 900-1,000 km in a 24-hour period, ‘real-time’ detection is needed.  The magnitude of this problem is huge: the area of the Indian Ocean is a staggering 73.6 million square kilometres (km2), the ‘Arabian Sea’ alone, about 38,62,000 km². Commercial light-weight satellites now provide global surveillance at 3 to 5 metre resolution.  The bulk of commercial nanosatellites, however, are focused on land and do not image vast tracts of the open ocean, except substantial coverage of ocean-areas such as the South China Sea, the Mediterranean and Persian Gulf. However, persistent satellite-based surveillance of a large oceanic expanse remains a significant challenge.  Moreover, satellite-based detection – including that by nanosatellites – calls for ground-stations. It is the ‘footprint’ of these ground stations that enable ‘real-time’ downloads of imagery (electro-optical, radar, infra-red, etc) of medium/large objects detected at sea. An adversary seeking to make the Indian Ocean ‘transparent’, must, therefore, possess an adequate number of well-located and sophisticated ground-stations. Multiple Low Earth Orbit (LEO) satellites will need to be simultaneously tracked and multiple communication bands employed by these ground stations. Although technology for ground stations for the larger Geosynchronous Earth Orbit (GEO) satellite classes is well-developed and stable, the same cannot be said for ground stations for LEO satellites. Obviously ground-stations – whether for GEO satellites or LEO – require ‘ground’. An adversary of India must, therefore, possess suitably located ‘territory’ upon which ‘ground-stations’ can be positioned. This is true even if these ‘ground-stations’ are modern, small, and/or portable ones.  All this is beyond the current or near-term capabilities of either of India’s likely adversaries.

If, on the other hand, the adversary chooses to deploy airborne radar, this would typically be achieved through shore based LRMP aircraft such as Pakistan’s P3C Orion and its replacement, the Embraer Lineage 1000 jetliner.   However, only one aircraft seems to have been ordered, even though the total order is reportedly for ten aircraft.  As things stand, Pakistan has some capability within the Arabian Sea, while China has minimal/marginal capability at the eastern fringes of Bay of Bengal.  The effectiveness of these already-limited capabilities will inevitably be further constrained by Indian Navy’s deployment of the CBG. Since one never plans to place one’s most valuable military-assets in a position of maximum disadvantage, it is realistic to expect that an Indian CBG will NOT be deployed where the enemy’s shore-based air power poses the greatest threat. Thus, the CBG will be deployed outside the unrefuelled combat radius of enemy’s shore-based Fighter Ground Attack (FGA) aircraft.

All carrier-operating navies recognise the unacceptable risks involved in operating aircraft carriers singly, keeping them in harbour, or deploying them in proximity of land.  Consequently, CBGs are put to sea well before the crisis deteriorates into conflict. They then ‘poise’ in a theatre at distances ranging from multiple hundreds or thousands of kilometres from the shore, that is, within distant deep ‘blue-waters’.

The next challenge after detection is ‘classification’.  In terms of traffic-density, Indian Ocean is the busiest of the world’s oceans, with over 120,000 ships transiting International Shipping Lanes (ISLs) every year.  Several of these ships are of a comparable size and speed to that of an aircraft carrier but are not warships. Thus, the process of correct classification is by no means simple.

Despite enjoying its reputation as a ‘hunter’, every LRMP Aircraft is acutely aware that when facing a CBG, it is simultaneously the ‘hunted’ and is extremely vulnerable to attrition by Combat Air Patrols (CAP) routinely mounted by modern, carrier-based fighter aircrafts. Such enforced evasion tactics on the LRMP aircraft add further challenge to search and detection.

Foregoing challenges notwithstanding, let us assume that a contact has been detected and is classified as aircraft carrier.

The next problem is of ‘identification’. This question is relevant because extra-regional aircraft carriers (especially US and French navies) are regularly deployed in both, Arabian Sea and Bay of Bengal. Although it is possible for an LRMP aircraft to conduct ‘search missions’ while using only passive means like ESM (Electronic Support Measures), acoustic devices (e.g. sonobuoys) and electro-optics, such a ‘search’ will yield a low ‘Probability-of-Detection’. Use of active means would make it vulnerable to the greater variety of Electronic Warfare (EW) Suites in the CBG (Modern Ships are a packed with Combative EW), ship-based fighter aircraft and Beyond Visual Range Missiles.

Assuming that the CBG has been detected, correctly classified and identified.  The attacker must now make a series of command decisions leading to the launch of weapons. Finally, for the big bang, the weapons must transit from their point of origin to the carrier. While all this is occurring, the carrier is moving.  If the CBG is not ‘tracked’ continuously — or at least continually, — positional errors become incredibly significant. During a 30-minute period, the Carrier could manoeuvre anywhere within a circle measuring 700 square miles.  Over 90 minutes, this area grows to 6,000 square miles! And yet, the requirement of continual/continuous tracking increases the probability of destruction of even a missile-equipped LRMP aircraft by carrier-based interception manifold.

LRMP aircraft-holdings in the inventories of our potential adversaries are severely limited and every loss of an LRMP aircraft imposes a severe penalty on the adversary’s overall capability in terms of maritime operations.

This is because it is these very LRMP aircraft that are also required to ‘trigger’ the launch of shore-based aircraft that have been earmarked for ‘Maritime Air Operations’ (MAO). Without this trigger, the MAO Commander does not know when exactly he should launch his Fighters Ground Attack (FGA) to attack the carrier. This is a critical input to him because in attacking the CBG at large distances from the coast, his aircraft will need to operate with several limitations:

  • They will consume significant amount of fuel in transit to and from their weapon-release line. Consequently, their time-on-target will be limited.
  • If a tanker-aircraft is deployed near the seaward limit of the autonomous radius-of-action of the FGA, the refueller itself will become a strategically important and attractive target for carrier-borne aircraft. Additional resources will have to be committed by way of air-defence fighter-aircraft to ensure its safety.

The enemy’s shore-based strike-aircraft will normally be operating well outside the cover of their land-based radars and hence be bereft of direction by their Fighter Controllers. On the other hand, the Carrier’s own fighters, operating in the ‘interceptor’ role:

  • Will have relatively more fuel and hence greater combat-time.
  • They will be operating within radar cover of the CBG, with their contemporary armament of BVR air-to-air missiles.
  • Would have the advantage of being directed by ship-borne fighter-controller.

The MAO Commander ashore cannot afford to fritter away the fuel-endurance of his aircraft by launching them too early and, yet he certainly cannot afford to launch them too late. The timeliness and accuracy of the ‘launch-trigger’ provided to him by his LRMP aircraft is a sine qua non for his operations.

Is it Easy for Enemy Submarines to Destroy an Aircraft Carrier?

Conventionally powered submarines will need to be redeployed to intercept highly mobile and comparatively speedier CBG.  This redeployment is achieved through ‘MR-Sub Cooperation’ (‘MR’ = ‘Maritime Reconnaissance’ aircraft, another term for an LRMP aircraft). The aircraft typically remotely triggers a shore-based Very Low Frequency (VLF) station and provides information required for one or more submerged diesel-electric submarines to undertake ‘Contact-Motion Analysis’ (CMA) and accordingly redeploy for interception.  Without LRMP aircraft, the dreadfully slow speed of conventionally powered submarines makes the business of redeployment a non-starter.

Therefore, if the CBG attains sequential or simultaneous destruction of the enemy’s LRMP aircraft, it incrementally cripples the ability of the adversary to sensibly deploy either shore-based FGA or submarines against it.

Conventionally powered submarines must also contend with challenges of their own. These are principally low speeds and very low endurance, the latter being an especially debilitating feature at high underwater speeds. Such submarines tend to be deployed in ‘choke-points’ — whether these are created ‘geographically’ or ‘operationally’.  For ‘mid-ocean deployments of conventionally propelled submarines to be even minimally effective, the adversary needs highly accurate and continually-updated tactical-intelligence with regard to the predicted direction of the CBG. Thus, a conventionally propelled submarine can be effectively redeployed for a mid-ocean interception of the CBG only through one or another form of protracted tactical cooperation with a LRMP aircraft.

The problems of maintaining instantaneous tactical communication with a deep-submerged submarine are immense. They frequently involve the aircraft remotely ‘keying’ a distant ‘Very Low Frequency’ (VLF) or ‘Extremely Low Frequency’ (ELF) facility located a great distance and often deep in the hinterland of the country.  Since the LRMP aircraft is restricted in its own freedom of deployment, it becomes very vulnerable indeed to attrition or destruction from carrier-based fighter-interceptors.  Thus, in dealing with a CBG, such cooperation between an LRMP aircraft and submarine is a non-starter. In any case, apart from its ‘blue-water’ positioning, the high speed of the CBG is an effective submarine-evasion measure, especially when overlaid by tactical manoeuvring involving frequent course-variations.

However, once a nuclear-propelled attack submarine (NATO refers to as an ‘SSN’) is introduced, the threat-equation changes sharply; their endurance limits are dictated by crew-fatigue and not battery-life. As such, they have no ‘indiscrete’ periods dictated to recharge batteries.  This is also true (to a limited extent) of diesel-electric submarines that are equipped with one or another form of ‘Air-Independent Propulsion’ (AIP). Where the SSN really scores over AIP-equipped diesel-electric submarines is its high underwater speed.  This, coupled with the fact that SSNs routinely carry a combination of torpedoes (both ‘anti-ship’ and ‘anti-submarine’) and anti-surface missiles, means that there are no ‘Limiting Lines of Approach’ (LLAs) for an SSN and the CBG faces an all-round threat.

While achieving this kill, the submarine must still be able to obtain an accurate fire-control solution through Contact Motion Analysis (CMA) and reach its launch position without being detected and prosecuted. As in all forms of Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW), earliest detection is vital.  Although technical means are available to the CBG to achieve long-range detection, tactical means will invariably have to be superimposed. Yet, there is no gainsaying that howsoever efficient, ASW measures taken by surface-ships against an SSN-threat are seldom adequate.  Airborne ASW, on the other hand, is more promising and this is where rotary-wing ASW aircraft (helicopters) become critical.  There is therefore a need to maximise the number of medium-range and long-range ASW-capable helicopters pointing to the need for a large aircraft carrier (displacing at least 65,000 tonnes).  Almost every Indian frontline surface combatant ship that might form part of a CBG is capable of embarking and deploying two specialised medium/heavy ASW helicopters. The deployment of one’s own SSN — in an anti-submarine (hunter-killer) role against another SSN — as an intrinsic element within one’s CBG is an option that has been extensively validated by the US Navy and, amongst several other advantages, holds much promise in dealing with the enemy-SSN threat.

Irrespective of the launch-platform, the threat of the anti-ship cruise missile has been greatly diminished by the very-effective anti-missile capability provided by various variants of the Barak missile, which is, today, fitted aboard every major surface combatant ship of the CBG, including the aircraft carrier.

It is fair to say that an Indian CBG has a well-proven ability to ‘take-on’ incoming anti-ship sea-skimming missile and to thereafter ‘take-out’ the launch-platform (whether surface, sub-surface or airborne). This sense of self-assurance and resultant rise in Fleet morale is no mean thing. It has resulted in a marked resurgence of creative and even audacious operational deployment-patterns.

However, there is an increasingly shrill debate over the issue of what has come to be known as the ‘Anti-ship Ballistic Missile’. The Chinese-made ‘Dong Feng 21-D’ is widely touted by some as being a ‘Carrier-Killer’, however, the respected analyst, Commander Otto Kreisher, USNR (Retd), points out:

“…For a ballistic missile to hit a target at 1,000 miles or more, it has to know where that target is located, with a high degree of accuracy. That’s complicated when the target — such as a carrier strike group — is moving at up to 34 miles per hour.  For the weapon to be effective, such a geographic fix must be updated constantly. To locate a carrier initially, China could use its over-the-horizon radars, which can search out more than a thousand miles. But the geographic accuracy of OTH radars at long range can be off by scores of miles… in a time of conflict, a patrol airplane or submarine attempting to get close to a carrier — shielded by its E-2D early warning airplanes, F/A-18 interceptors, and an anti-submarine screen of subs and destroyers — might not succeed. If the Chinese could get an accurate fix on the carrier, the data would have to be processed, and the missile prepared, programmed, and launched — a complicated command and control procedure that has to be routinely tested and practiced ensuring it works. The missile, its homing sensors, and guidance system would also have to function properly to reach and hit the moving carrier.

The very fact that this sort of threat to an Indian CBG is not an immediate one should not spell complacency but, rather, be taken to mean that we have a little time to prepare ourselves for the inevitable enhancement of maritime military capabilities by China and Pakistan.  Shore-based as well as sea-based ballistic missile defence capability — whether the US Aegis system or some indigenous one — is a pressing requirement for India.

Finally, those who point to the military-strategic cooperation between China and Pakistan as translating into an existential threat to an Indian CBG would do well to note that India does not play the strategic game alone, either.  India has competent, capable, and reliable partners, if not formal allies.  The most recent edition of the MALABAR series of naval exercises provides compelling evidence of the development of intensive and operationally relevant cooperation and interoperability between an Indian Naval CBG and a USN CSG. These are signals that are immediately received by China and Pakistan.  Should they, then, fall upon deaf Indian ears that seek to oppose the development of an Indian Aircraft Carrier?