Why India needs a third aircraft carrier

Building the IAC-2, albeit with upgrades, modifications and greater local content compared with IAC-1 Vikrant, is also intended to prevent CSLs carrier-building expertise from lapsing into disuse

Published - June 11, 2024 12:49 am IST

The aircraft carrier INS Vikramaditya illuminated during the Full Dress Rehearsal of ‘Milan 2024’ on the Beach Road in Visakhapatnam. File

The aircraft carrier INS Vikramaditya illuminated during the Full Dress Rehearsal of ‘Milan 2024’ on the Beach Road in Visakhapatnam. File | Photo Credit: The Hindu

Recent media reports indicate that the Indian Navy’s long-standing demand for a third aircraft carrier is finally shuffling closer to fruition, with Cochin Shipyard Limited (CSL) set to begin the construction of an add-on Vikrant-class 40,000-odd tonne platform. 

Building the Indigenous Aircraft Carrier-2, or IAC-2, albeit with upgrades, modifications and greater local content compared with IAC-1 Vikrant, is also intended to prevent CSL’s carrier-building expertise, from lapsing into disuse. The navy remains palpably conscious of not re-experiencing the ‘lost decade’ between 1995 and 2005 when Mazagaon Dock Shipbuilder’s (MDL) submarine building expertise was allowed to deliberately dissipate.

This costly fumble led to MDL’s submarine construction facilities disintegrating, following the unresolved corruption scandal involving the Indian Navy’s purchase of four German HDW Type 209/1500 diesel-electric submarines (SSKs). These were thereafter resurrected in 2005 at a high cost, to licence-construct six French Scorpene SSKs, five of which have already been commissioned into Indian Navy service, while the sixth is due for induction by the year-end. Hence, the Navy’s keenness on averting such a bloomer with regard to CSL by insisting on a larger carrier of around 65,000 tonne, and settling instead for the ‘interim’ IAC-2.

Future, concerns

The IAC-2 would supplement INS Vikramaditya, the 46,000 tonne refurbished Russian Kiev-class vessel and the 40,262 tonne short-take off barrier-arrested recovery (STOBAR) Vikrant, fulfiling the navy’s enduring requirement for one carrier each for its two seaboards, and another in reserve.

The debate over IAC-2 has been plagued by numerous reservations like its astronomical cost of around $5-6 billion and its operational efficacy in an environment of burgeoning anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) capability honed by China and Pakistan. The A2/AD is essentially a multi-layered defensive strategy to deter enemy carrier operations.

Furthermore, recent advances in cruise missile technology have made it easier and cheaper for countries like China and Pakistan to conduct A2/AD operations. So much so that even the U.S. Navy considered China’s evolved A2/AD strategy a serious threat to its fleet, and remained wary of challenging it.

OPINION: A warship programme that must go full steam ahead

Moreover, within the Indian Navy, opinion was split between operationally pursuing a ‘sea denial’ strategy, largely by deploying submarines, or alternately seeking a ‘sea control’ approach via costly and relatively more vulnerable carrier battle groups comprising multiple surface and underwater escorts. Some also questioned the monetary logic of building a new carrier at the cost of inducting additional ‘killer-hunters’ SSKs whose numbers in the Indian Navy had depleted to 16, of which 11 from Russia and Germany were either beyond, or nearing retirement. These SSKs were eight boats less than the 24 which the Navy was projected to operate by 2030 in accordance with its Maritime Capability Perspective Plan (MCPP). Correspondingly, equally critical surface combatants like corvettes, nine-sweepers, destroyers and frigates too were in short supply, as were naval utility helicopters, unmanned aerial vehicles, and other assorted missiles and ordnance.

Financial constraints have forced the Indian Navy to revise its goal of operating 200 assorted warships by 2027 in keeping with the MCPP. These fiscal shortages had also reduced the Navy’s demand for 12 mine counter-measures to eight and an additional 10 Boeing P-8I Neptune long range maritime multi-mission aircraft, to just six.

Meanwhile, the Indian Air Force (IAF) along with the Indian Army was forever competing for a greater share of depreciating annual defence budgets, as it grappled to make good its fighter, helicopter and transport aircraft shortages, alongside other essential equipment. IAF veterans reasoned that under the prevailing penurious conditions, an aircraft carrier would not only be a ‘costly indulgence’ but more pertinently, entail fielding a platform vulnerable to formidable A2/AD threats.

Other IAF officers believed that SEPECAT Jaguar IM/IS and multi-role Russian Sukhoi Su-30MKI fighters, fitted with enhanced maritime strike capability and extended strike ranges, could project power more economically and securely than a carrier.

The IAF’s maritime Jaguar IM fleet, for instance, is armed with AGM-84L Block II Harpoon missiles and is also being equipped with Israel Aerospace Industries-Elta EL/M-2052/2060 multi-mode active electronically scanned array radar for sea-borne operations.

Upgrading capabilities

And, in early 2020 the IAF had commissioned its first Su-30MKI squadron, armed with the BrahMos-A(Air) supersonic cruise missile at Thanjavur on India’s southeast coast to monitor its seacoasts and the wider Indian Ocean Region. Military planners said Su-30MKI  would enhance the IAFs capability to engage potential maritime targets with pinpoint accuracy.

Other navalists favoured upgrading the military capabilities of the Andaman and Nicobar archipelago,  by creating an A2/AD maritime ‘exclusive zone’ around it to deter, amongst others, the hegemonic Chinese navy. And while the archipelago was undoubtedly ‘immovable’ it was likely to be cheaper than an aircraft carrier, besides being unsinkable.

Rahul Bedi is senior journalist based in New Delhi covering military and security affairs for a clutch of overseas publications and domestic news portals

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