Make waves with aircraft carriers - Broadsword by Ajai Shukla - Strategy. Economics. Defence.

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Monday 17 August 2015

Make waves with aircraft carriers

By Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 18th Aug 15

Last week, a navy delegation led by senior Indian admirals visited the United States (US) on a three-day mission that could eventually bind together the two navies for decades to come. A newly-formed “Joint Working Group (JWG) on Aircraft Carrier Cooperation” held its inaugural meeting in Washington after President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Narendra Modi agreed to cooperate in this field during the former’s Republic Day visit to India earlier this year. The JWG discussed how the US Navy --- the world’s most experienced and technologically advanced aircraft carrier power --- could assist India in building its own fleet of aircraft carriers. With India looking to build a “blue water navy”, i.e. one that can project power across thousands of miles of Indian Ocean, the first indigenous aircraft carrier, INS Vikrant, is already at an advanced stage of construction.

Indian naval planners have long argued the need to have three aircraft carriers in service. This would allow two aircraft carrier battle groups (CBGs) --- each a self-contained flotilla with air, surface and sub-surface capabilities --- to cover the Arabian Ocean and Bay of Bengal simultaneously, even whilst the third carrier is undergoing maintenance or overhaul. Each CBG, which includes a aircraft carrier, escort vessels (multi-role destroyers and frigates), anti-submarine corvettes, missile boats, logistics support vessels and submarines, is designed to engage in intense combat even without support from fighters operating from shore-based airfields.

The three-carrier dream remains elusive, even with two carriers in operational service today --- INS Viraat and INS Vikramaditya --- and a third, the INS Vikrant, likely to be completed in Cochin Shipyard Ltd (CSL) by 2018. INS Viraat, launched in 1953, is already the world’s oldest serving aircraft carrier and will retire when the Vikrant enters service. India’s third aircraft carrier, therefore, would only be the Vikrant’s successor, whenever that is built. Currently on the drawing board and referred to as INS Vishal (a name the navy has not confirmed) this could be the vessel that sees US-India high-tech naval cooperation bearing fruit.

Why does India need the US Navy’s help to build the Vishal, even after designing and building INS Vikrant in CSL? Because, India has only operated small aircraft carriers that displace less than 45,000 tonnes. The size of a carrier determines how many aircraft it embarks, the ballpark calculation being one aircraft for every 1,000 tonnes. The 45,000-tonne Vikramaditya embarks 36 aircraft --- thirty MiG-29K fighters and six Kamov helicopters. Yet this is not enough. Ideally, a CBG would like to field at least 50-55 aircraft when operating far from shore-based air support. That calls for at least a 65,000-tonne carrier, something that Indian shipyards have never built.

As important as numbers is the type of aircraft a carrier embarks. A crucial element of air battle is “airborne early warning”, delivered by AEW aircraft --- radar-equipped, airborne command posts that scan airspace for enemy aircraft, and direct friendly fighters towards developing threats. For this job, US Navy aircraft carriers embark the E-2D Hawkeye, a large, twin turbo-prop aircraft that could never get airborne from small carriers like the Vikramaditya or Vikrant. For this, the US Navy has long operated 100,000-tonne “supercarriers”, which launch aircraft with steam catapults --- a steam-driven piston that hooks onto the belly of an aircraft and accelerates it to take-off speed in just 2-3 seconds. The newest American supercarriers, starting with USS Gerald R Ford, which will join the fleet next year, feature an “electromagnetic aircraft launch system” (EMALS) that replace the steam catapult with an electromagnetic system that accelerates aircraft precisely to take-off speed. EMALS is smaller, lighter, quicker, and more powerful, and allows the take-off speed to be carefully calibrated for different types of aircraft, reducing stress and wear on their airframes. The electric power requirements of an EMALS system are too large for conventional generators to deliver; so nuclear propulsion is essential for a carrier fitted with EMALS.

This sums up the Indian Navy’s dilemma for its third aircraft carrier. It must choose between what it already has --- small, conventionally powered vessels that embark 30-35 combat aircraft that can be launched only slowly; or, alternatively, a large, nuclear-propelled vessel with EMALS that embarks 50-55 aircraft of varying types including force multipliers like AEW aircraft. The benefits of this are attractive, since this greatly enhances the power that a CBG can project. Even so, some strategists believe India would be unwise in investing so much money, capability and symbolism into a single vessel that might be sunk in war. Opponents of the “big carrier school” argue for greater numbers of smaller vessels like destroyers and frigates, covered by land-based aircraft (including those operating from archipelagic bases like the Andaman & Nicobar Islands) with their ranges extended by air-to-air refuelling.

It will be interesting to see in which direction the Indian Navy goes --- whether it chooses a conservative, tactical approach, like the army and the air force, or a bolder doctrine based on sea control and extended reach, of the kind that the US Navy imbibed from strategist Alfred Thayer Mahan. Henry L Stimson, US Secretary of War all through World War II, memorably described “the peculiar psychology of the [US] Navy Department, which frequently seemed to retire from the realm of logic into a dim religious world in which Neptune was God, Mahan his prophet and the United States Navy the only true church.”

Regardless of how doctrine evolves in the Indian Navy, their American counterparts already regard them as inevitable long-term allies. Last week, the Indian delegation was taken to the Virginia shipyard where the USS Gerald Ford is being completed, and introduced to EMALS. With the Defence Technology and Trade Initiative (DTTI) touted as the vehicle for easing US restrictions on technology, Defence Secretary Ashton Carter sees US assistance in aircraft carrier building as the lynchpin, and the two navies as torchbearers, of a close defence relationship. Strategist Ashley Tellis has argued that Washington might well assist India with developing a nuclear reactor for powering INS Vishal and future Indian aircraft carriers. But for that, a top-level request would be essential (i.e. PM-to-President) along with firmer assurances of strategic alignment. In the US system, every grant of assistance must be sponsored by the military service it relates to; and the US Navy will enthusiastically support the provision of cutting-edge technology to the Indian Navy if it believes that would bring it clear operational benefits.

Despite New Delhi’s ambivalence on strategic partnership with America, US vendors are delivering an increasing share of India’s arms imports, inexorably eating into Russia’s share (see chart). India has already spent close to $10 billion in outright US purchases; most of them government-to-government, while co-developing platforms like aircraft carriers have not gotten off the ground. Last week, America’s ambassador to India, Richard Verma, told a Delhi audience “I see no reason why the United States and India cannot build fighter aircraft together, right here in India.” While that may be a distant dream, New Delhi must work with the world’s premier aircraft carrier power to retain crucial control over our regional waters.


  1. whats the point...

  2. @Ajai sir

    India did a big mistake by not ordering the optional 6 C17 earlier, after lot of procrastination it ordered just 3 C17 lst week but unfortunately the last C17 came out of production last month and there is just 1 C17 left at Boeing plant.

    Either IAF has to make do with 10 C17 or it will have to give bigger order (more than 6) to keep the C17 line working

    Just hope IAF orders more C130J if needed asap rather than sitting on it for yrs


    Joydeep Ghosh

  3. Depends on the Maritime Strategy that we are looking at. With both Arabian Sea and Bay of Bengal capable of being covered by land/shore based AEWs, and the Indian Ocean also to a large extent covered by the AEWs from Andamand & Nicobar Islands - the moot question remains to what purpose do we need aicraft carriers big enough to launch AEWs??? Even for the air support in our Maritime Zone of interest, in the near to medium term, we should look at a mix of shore based and carrier based aircrafts to support the CBG(s).

  4. One big aircraft carrier projecting power with its flotilla against an enemy far from its own shores. So what is wrong with two smaller aircraft carriers projecting power with the same flotilla far from its shores. I would think having two carriers in a flotilla would be more advantageous, or is there this unwritten rule that only one must exist.

  5. India will need all the help it can get to build a 65000 ton carrier - the choice of propulsion will determine that extent. EMALS is a great concept. I heard one of the first presentations made by General Atomics in India. It would greatly enhance the capability but whether the power requirement of that system will be available from a conventional carrier will need careful consideration.
    I am a bit wary at the ease with which we are going with the Americans. Of the 10 Bn USD arms purchases from there so far, we have not got a dime's worth of technology - not even manufacturing technology. Also, so far all that we have got is lift capability for out-of-area ops be it the LPD Jalashwa, the aircraft or even the forthcoming Chinooks. Is that what they want us to have as part of their larger strategy for the region ? Does this also mean that we would remain dependent on them for any and all maintenance, lifecycle support, obsolescence management and upgrades? Wouldnt that be a major strategic vulnerability for an aspiring regional power ? What if the USA were to turn off the tap one day on something we may not agree on - its happened to us in the past and could well happen again. International relations , particularly those driven by national self-interest and realpolitik, as practiced by the US, can be notoriously fickle. The six pathfinders discussed in the DTTI do not have any timelines - who will decide their progress - us or them and the kind of technologies that are being discussed in those are way beyond anything we have the capability to absorb in the country now or in the near future. Maybe I am just being a prophet of doom and I would be happiest indeed to be proved wrong.

  6. India has been a victim of 'technology glamour' We are a nation that is quite unique in the world in that we have indigenous technologies to launch space crafts to Mars, latest rockets etc, yet in the field of defence production we seem to a oscillating between bouts of importing and fierce indigenisation calls. What we lack is a seamless integration of political vision, strategic doctine planning and technological base creation. This lack of integration results in political leaders, military thinkers and defence technology scientists not understanding the common way ahead for the country. The most telling impact of the lack of integration is the unimaginative and wasteful use of precious financial resources. This also explains why we have distorted levels of achievement in different areas. Visoinary leaders like Satish Dhawan, Abdul Kalam have achieved limited success in their areas of operation. What we need now is a political leadership which can truly call the shots and define this process of integration and give clarity in the way ahead for the other two groups in strategic thinking and defence R&D.

  7. NSR says ---

    India must build two more INS Vikrant class of carriers...

    One for Arabian Sea, one for Bay of Bengal, one for Indian Ocean, and most importantly one in the dock getting refitted...
    So a continuing presence will act as a great deterrent...
    It will also evolve Carrier Battle Group formation and operations...

    India should work with USA to go higher tonnage and EMALS but it should be further down the the serial manufacture will establish competencies and technology development and integration...

    After sufficient R&D and D&D, then India can use USA technology in 65000 tonne capacity carrier...
    UK is still using conventional propulsion in so India must use it too...

    When sufficient nuclear submarines are built,then India can go to nuclear propulsion...
    Keep going forward incrementally...
    Just remember Rafale and submarine fiascos...

  8. Converteam UK's EMCAT would probably like to have a word with the contention that Nuclear power plant is necessary to implement electromagnetic catapults.

    Not really sure how such a concept could get in anybody's head, it's electricity, who cares how it's made, after all? I'm pretty sure the American General Atomics' land-based development rigs for their EMALS was running off of grid electricity, i.e. a mix of natural gas, coal, wind, and nuclear. The UK's Queen Elizabeth class clearly demonstrated that em-catapults can be powered by CODAG gas/diesel generators.

    As other commentors noted re: India's areas of operations (vis-a-vis land-based AEW suitability), India has alot smaller area to care about (Northern Indian Ocean + adjacent Seas & Bays) than global-dominion-obsessed UK, so the equation should logically tend to favor CODAG more than nuclear: India doesn't need as high sustained speed as UK does for it's "expeditionary" wars because the distances India would consider aren't half as far, likewise the distances support vessels would need to travel are shorter which makes each supply run more efficient (transfered fuel vs. fuel spent in journey).

    And while General Atomics is certainly ONE technology provider that could sell India the tech for EMALS, there certainly exist others: Converteam has all the makings of an em-catapult but their customer ditched on them... clearly a desparate seller likely to agree to a cheap price. Russia is also going for em-catapults. Three vendors, might as well play them all off, if one is savvy...

    But other than sub-systems, better to stay away from American ship-building, it's horribly inefficient, both in construction techniques, and their carrier designs are nothing impressive either, the Americans just stick with them because they're afraid it would cost many billions more to start from scratch, and disrupt the build schedule they need to keep 11 super carriers afloat. European shipbuilders are leagues ahead, while EU budgets don't allow for huge carrier fleets, e.g. the Q.E. class modular build approach is vastly more efficient and quicker than the USN's super carrier program. South Korean shipbuilders could also be a source of knowledge there, and have done rather large LHDs at least.

  9. Except for the fact that an EAWCS necessarily requires a larger carrier, nothing else justifies it. A complement of 30 odd combat jets is adequate for every conceivable ops in the near future from the Indian perspective. It would make far more sense to operate two sub 50000 dwt carriers if they could have a suitable EAWCS to operate from it.


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