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3 cheers for INS Vikrant & 3 questions for India’s leadership on naval doctrine

INS Vikrant is reason to celebrate. But does India need aircraft carriers? What kind & how many? What kind of firepower should India field & where will it come from?

Illustration by Soham Sen | ThePrint
Illustration by Soham Sen | ThePrint

The commissioning of INS Vikrant, the new avatar of the Indian Navy’s first aircraft carrier and flag carrier for almost five decades, is a day of celebration for India. And for good reason.

At about three times the original (42,800 tons versus 16,000 tons), it isn’t just the biggest warship designed and built in India, it’s also fully a swadeshi design.

That’s a matter of great pride as it places India among an elite list of nations with the ability to build such a warship. A list so elite, you can mostly count it on the fingers of one hand. Of course, we are excluding Britain for now.

You’d need to be a rare Indian indifferent to such national achievement, or maybe one from the somewhat less rare community of war-hating, give-peace-a-chance walas, to not join in the celebration.

We are none of these, so congratulations Indian Navy, its brilliant and evolving design bureau, engineers, marine warfare visionaries, and of course, India’s political leaders spanning 25 years and the tenure of three prime ministers beginning with Atal Bihari Vajpayee.

It was under his leadership that the designing process of this Make-in-India or Atmanirbhar carrier began. The Cabinet Committee on Security, under him, cleared the project for construction in 2002.

We can ask why it took India, with its engineering base, 23 years to commission this ship. Especially when the Chinese would build a much bigger one in just three to four years, and in any case, for the new Vikrant, the engines are American, GE imports.

The Chinese already have two fully operational carriers, one of them fully home-made, almost twice the size of the new Vikrant, carrying not only many more aircraft, but way more potent ones like the J-15 or other Chinese copies of Su-30 variants. The third, which the Chinese with their speed may operationalise as early as next year, is estimated to be in the one-lakh ton class.

But these are the perennial issues with India’s defence manufacturing. We’ve been fretting over these and will continue to do so. This is the time to look at the future with an open mind. Three immediate questions therefore arise.

The most important of which is, does India need aircraft carriers? And if so, what kind and how many? And third, what kind of firepower should — and can — India field from these mighty vessels, and where will it come from?


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Carriers versus submarines has been the most enduring debate in naval warfare for more than 75 years now. In World War 2, carriers, especially the giant American and Japanese ones, brought a new dimension to marine warfare. The Germans focussed on their submarines, or U-boats as these were called.

This is where the larger idea of sea control (carriers) versus sea denial (submarines) originated. During almost the entire Cold War, the Western world followed the original US doctrine, while the Soviet Navy and bloc invested heavily in sea denial. It built a large armada of super-silent and lethal submarines.

Much of the literature you read on that debate tells us that not only was the belief in submarine warfare almost ideological in the Soviet Navy, there was also a cost argument. The leaders of the Soviet Union knew they couldn’t afford to engage in a race against the much richer West to build large surface vessels with expensive air elements.

They were, therefore, to find deterrence and tactical balance through sea denial, with the threat of massive attrition that the loss of even one carrier-sized vessel would entail. We’ve read authentic accounts of how, when the US Seventh Fleet task force led by USS Enterprise sailed towards India while the 1971 war raged, it was stalked by Soviet submarines.

This began to change in the last decades of the Cold War. The Soviets went ahead and built a small carrier, ironically naming it after Admiral Gorshkov, the founder of its mostly submarine and missile-oriented Navy and the author of that doctrine. That, by the way, is the ship the Soviets sold to India. Renamed Vikramaditya, it is now India’s flag carrier. It moved up in size to 44,500 tons. In the interim, the Indian Navy had acquired another junked British vessel, HMS Hermes, which served as INS Viraat, at 23,700 tons, one and a half times bigger than the first Vikrant.

While much of India’s military was built around Soviet/ Russian equipment and training, say 1964-onwards, the Navy caught the carrier bug early. In 1942, the Royal Navy had commissioned a bunch of new carriers in what was called the Majestic class. Some were still semi-built when the War ended. One of these, HMS Hercules, was bought by India, completed at Belfast, and became the first INS Vikrant.

That won the surface combatant versus submarine debate in the Indian Navy for more than a decade, and with troublesome results. The 1965 war is not something the Indian Navy would like to talk very much about.

A seven-ship task force of the Pakistan Navy, led by cruiser PNS Babur, got close enough to temple town Dwarka on the Gujarat coast (with obvious religious messaging) to plaster it with their 5.25-inch guns unopposed. The Indian Navy did not join the fight. Not only because Vikrant was in dry dock, as it often was in its service decades, but also because there was a wariness about PNS Ghazi, the only submarine in the subcontinent then.

It was only after this that India acquired its first subs, the Soviet Foxtrots. But, in 1971 again, Vikrant had to be taken far away from the Arabian Sea for the same concern over the Ghazi (it was lured and sunk off Visakhapatnam in a storied operation) and the French Daphnes. One of those (PNS Hangor) sank the frigate INS Khukri not far from Diu.

Military doctrines tend to be much too durable, naval ones most of all. The Indian Navy has accordingly kept the idea of multiple carrier-based task forces close to its heart. It is the capital cost, inability to build at home in the past, and shifting political emphasis that has rarely given it the luxury of even two carriers at any point of time. The new Vikrant can change this.


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Which brings us back to the three questions we had raised.

I raised this question with the Carnegie Endowment’s Ashley Tellis, whose name the Indian strategic community is familiar with. Before that question, he said, you have to first decide what are India’s geopolitical objectives. If these are limited to say, a 1,000-km radius from its peninsula, it doesn’t need any carriers. Of course, this would easily take Karachi and Gwadar in its sweep. All this can be easily, and much more effectively, covered by shore-based aircraft, especially with mid-air refuelling.

If your vision is to be a player in more distant zones, he argued, say to East Africa and Southeast Asia, then you need carriers. But then, what kind of carriers? So far, he argues, (you can watch this part of the conversation here) the Indian Navy has made the worst possible choices. It’s bought/ built expensive, small carriers which are hugely manpower intensive and pack too little firepower.

The current complement of a maximum of 20 or so MiG-29Ks from these ships will give you too little range, weapon-load and time-on-station. We know that the navy just held trials for the next generation fighters, Rafale (Marine) and F/A-18. These give at least twice the fighting radius of a MiG-29 and much more warload. But then, he argues, these carriers are too small to pack a real punch. Not cost-effective, not value for money.

Forty years of research and experience at the US Navy, he says, shows that to be a potent force, a carrier needs to be in the 65,000-ton-plus range. Which is the Indian Navy’s vision for IAC-3. But again the question of numbers, costs, aircraft and so on will arise. In any case, money will have to be diverted for these from somewhere else. Will it be the submarines or more deadly missiles or other vessels? The IAF, the Army?

These are tough questions India’s military and political leaderships need to debate and decide on. Right now, let’s celebrate the arrival of the new INS Vikrant. Months before the first aircraft takes off from it for trials, it has already contributed by re-sparking this eternal doctrinal debate.


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