Navy makes a case for third aircraft carrier - Broadsword by Ajai Shukla - Strategy. Economics. Defence.

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Saturday 29 February 2020

Navy makes a case for third aircraft carrier

Opponents claim it will create another white elephant, but naval planners say funding is possible

By Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 1st March 20

With the military short of funds for modernising its arsenal, India’s most contentious and consequential weapons procurement debate is taking place over the Navy’s proposal to build a second indigenous aircraft carrier – Indian Naval Ship (INS) Vishal.

There are already two aircraft carriers – the Russian-built INS Vikramaditya, which joined the fleet in 2013 and INS Vikrant, which Cochin Shipyard Ltd (CSL) expects to make fully operational in 2022, INS Vishal, the third carrier, would allow the navy to operate two carriers while allowing one to be in the dockyard for repair, overhaul or upgrades.

Given the military’s modest capital budget of Rs 1.18 trillion ($16.5 billion) for 2020-21 – which is one-fourth of the total defence allocation of Rs 4.71 trillion ($65.8 billion) – the Indian Air Force (IAF) and the Army are opposed to committing a large chunk of money to a single naval procurement.

Tri-service chief, General Bipin Rawat, has made it clear that he too does not regard a third carrier as a priority. “What will be its effect on the Air Force and the Army? We have to… see the impact of the third aircraft carrier,” he said.

For the IAF, a third aircraft carrier would leave less funding for its own big priority: a $15-20 billion plan to buy 114 medium fighters. The army similarly wants the lion’s share of the capital budget to be expended on artillery guns, tanks, rifles and aviation assets such as attack helicopters.

However, this is as much about turf as about funding. Air forces have historically regarded aircraft carriers as naval encroachments into their domain; which is control over all combat aircraft. The IAF argument is that fighter aircraft, operating from well-protected shore bases, can support the navy fleet better than a handful of fighters operating from a vulnerable carrier that the enemy would be targeting relentlessly.

Navies worldwide have fought this turf battle, including Britain’s Royal Navy (RN). Old salts recount when Winston Churchill, as First Lord of the Admiralty (the RN used to have its own minister!), boarded an aircraft carrier in 1939 for a day at sea. While he was looking around, a siren blared and he found himself alone. Making his way to the ship’s bridge, Churchill asked the young lieutenant on watch what was happening.

The lieutenant pointed to the sky at a Messerschmitt 109 fighter circling the carrier. “Enemy aircraft,” he explained.

Churchill glowered at him. “Son, that’s a Luftwaffe (German Air Force) fighter! Always remember: the Luftwaffe is only the adversary. The enemy is the Royal Air Force.” 

In keeping with that relationship, a spate of recent articles in the Indian media has argued against buying a third carrier. These air power votaries have described aircraft carriers as “white elephants”, exorbitantly expensive in themselves, but also tying down a whole flotilla of escort vessels – frigates, destroyers, logistic support vessels and submarines – that make up a “carrier battle group” (CBG) with the firepower and staying power needed to survive and project power far from India’s shores.

A linked argument is that carriers are such powerful symbols of national prestige that the sinking of one would be a damaging psychological blow to national morale. This echoes the logic of the German Navy in World War I, which shied away from sending its vaunted dreadnoughts (heavy cruisers) into battle since they were “too big to lose.” 

The air power lobby also argue that it would be rash to spend some Rs one trillion on the massive, 65,000 tonne INS Vishal – with half that amount required for its aviation complement of 50-55 aircraft. Instead, that money would be better spent on more usable assets, such as frigates and submarines. 

The survivability of carriers is a question mark, say the air power theorists, since China’s People’s Liberation Army (Navy), or PLA(N), has over the last two decades implemented a potent Anti Access/Area Denial (A2/AD) doctrine to deter any repeat of the Taiwan Strait Crisis of 1996, when an American CBG sailed between Taiwan and China to signal support to the former. As part of the A2/AD strategy, China has developed weapons such as the Dong Feng 21D “carrier killer” ballistic missile that can supposedly destroy enemy aircraft carriers at ranges out to 1,500 kilometres.

The air power advocates acknowledge the fleet needs air support. However, they say it should be delivered from shore bases, through the IAF’s long-range fighters, such as the Sukhoi-30MKI and soon the Rafale, which can strike targets far in the Indian Ocean. Mid-air refuelling would increase the reach of land-based fighters, once India concludes its long-delayed acquisition of air-to-air refuelling aircraft.

Not so expensive

Top naval planners contest the notion of a “Rs 100,000 crore carrier.” A top admiral told Business Standard: “INS Vikrant, the first indigenous carrier (IAC-1) will have a final cost of Rs 19,800 crore. The defence ministry’s Cost Committee has fixed the cost of IAC-2 at Rs 40,000 crore – twice that of IAC-1. That caters for the larger size of IAC-2 (65,000 tonnes, compared to the 40,000 tonne IAC-2). It also caters for the IAC-2’s more sophisticated and expensive weaponry, and for inflation.”

Crucially, IAC-2 does not need a new air wing. The navy already has 45 MiG-29K/KUB fighters and the additional 57 carrier deck fighters currently under purchase will give the navy enough fighters for two air wings. A third air wing in unnecessary, since one of the three carriers is planned to be in refit at any given time.

The navy's "White Tigers" squadron, with its MiG-29K/KUBs

The navy plans to pay the Rs 40,000 crore cost of IAC-2 over a decade, which averages to an annual pay out of Rs 4,000 crore. Of the navy’s current capital budget of Rs 26,688 crore, 30 per cent – or Rs 8,000 crore – is available for new purchases. With the capital budget expected to rise by an annual 10 per cent, naval planners are confident they can afford the expense.

The Rs 40,000 crore projection for INS Vishal appears realistic, when compared with what the UK paid to build two similar, 65,000-tonne, conventionally powered carriers – HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales. Together they cost £6.2 billion, or about £3.1 billion (Rs 28,700 crore) apiece.

The navy, long at the forefront of indigenisation, underlines the benefits of building INS Vishal in India. While the IAF’s acquisition of foreign aircraft mainly benefit foreign corporations, the Rs 40,000 crore pay out on IAC-2 will go mainly to Indian medium, small and micro enterprises (MSMEs). For example, 2,100 Indian MSMEs are working on Project 17A – the construction of three stealth frigates in Garden Reach Shipbuilders and Engineers (GRSE), Kolkata.

Power projection in the Indian Ocean

The admirals also rebut the IAF’s claim that it can provide the navy adequate air support. India’s military doctrine requires the navy to project power far from our shores, as the “net security provider” in the Indian Ocean. Establishing “sea control” far from one’s shores – for example, off Africa’s western coast, or south of Indonesia – requires “persistent” air power, which can remain in the target area. Even if IAF fighters, operating from faraway shore bases, manage to reach the target area, they lack the endurance to remain there for any length of time. In contrast, a carrier can keep its aircraft on deck and launch them at short notice when they are needed.

There was some merit in the IAF’s contention that smaller 40,000-tonne carriers, such as INS Vikramaditya and Vikrant, which embark barely 20-24 fighters (along with 8-10 helicopters), are capable of generating only enough air power to protect themselves and their escort vessels, not to dominate large oceanic expanses. However, naval planners say that would certainly not be true of the 65,000-tonne INS Vishal, which would embark some 50-54 aircraft, including fighters, electronic warfare aircraft, airborne command posts and anti-submarine helicopters. Along with another ten-odd helicopters on the CBG’s other warships, INS Vishal can both protect and dominate.

Nor does the modern aircraft carrier need protection from a flotilla of escort vessels. INS Vishal’s integral anti-submarine warfare (ASW) weaponry, including the newly contracted MH-60 Romeo helicopters, would handily detect and destroy enemy submarines, especially when networked with the long-range P-8I Poseidon aircraft.

INS Vishal would also be armed with new-generation, long-range surface-to-air missiles (LR-SAM), which India and Israel are collaborating to upgrade, to detect and destroy incoming anti-ship missiles at ranges out to 250 kilometres. INS Vishal’s escort warships are needed less for protecting the carrier and more for enhancing the CBG’s sea control capability. Given that these are multi-role destroyers and frigates, capable of dealing with sub-surface, surface and air threats – the flotilla will be able to also detach task forces for independent missions.

The navy believes there is no alternative to aircraft carriers if we wish to control the Indian Ocean. The US Navy describes its flattops as “four-and-a-half acres of sovereign and mobile American territory”, which carry US military power to crisis spots worldwide. Former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger described a carrier as “100,000 tonnes of diplomacy.”

The Indian Navy is one of the world’s few with six decades of experience in aircraft carrier operations. Many others – such as Russia, China, Italy and Spain – are either learning on the job or forgetting the skills they once possessed. Emerging as a highly capable, three-carrier force would build on existing strengths, provide strategic heft to India’s “Act East” policy and encourage the US, French and British navies to partner India in developing the operational doctrines and technologies that will be needed to counter an increasingly assertive China.


  1. So "airpower advocates" who truly understand airpower would want to deprive the Navy of that very airpower by nixing the third carrier. Amazing!

    So in reality, "IAF advocates" who have

    a ) never even tried to incorporate expeditionary warfare in their doctrine leave alone in their exercises
    b) unlike the Navy never built up linkages with potential allies like Vietnam to operate from their bases,
    c) stationed the BrahMos equipped Su30s at Thanjavur under IAF control rather than under the Navy led triservices command at Andamans

    want to sell us this "Main Hoon Na" spiel so they can keep their title of India's sole airpower provider for the next century as well.

    The prestige argument is a bogus one, the third carrier - and not just any budget carrier but a 65,0000 tonne CATOBAR - with a proper air wing is what was required as of yesterday if we are to prevent the PLAN from walking all over us in a decade.

    And since it is a prime target, it does need a "flotilla" aka CBG to protect it. Whoever is floating this penny wise pound foolish idea of the carrier being able to do it on its own has little understanding of the business.

    Which carrier operating navy operates their carriers standalone?

  2. NSR says ---

    I have written about this topic before and will try again...

    Yes, India needs a third aircraft carrier immediately so it must start building an improved copy of IAC-1 as IAC-2 with all the lessons learned and also with all the new advancements made so far in the systems and subsystems...

    Indian aircrafts are Arabian Sea/Bay of Bengal/Indian Ocean specific Carrier Battle Groups only so India does not need a Vishaal class of aircraft carrier anytime soon...
    India can start thinking about it when it reaches $5 trillion economy...

    India needs three aircraft carriers and two CBGs to support them continuously...

    1. One AC and CBG for Arabian Sea/Indian Ocean area..
    2. One AC and CBG for Bay of Bengal and Indian Ocean area...
    3. One AC in dry dock for repairs and refits and refurbishements as these tasks sometimes take up to a year to two years depending on work flow and parts availability...

    Soo concentrate building an improved copy of IAC-1...

    Allocate much needed resources for submarines - SSKs with AIP, SSNs, SSBN, etc
    They will lstrike terror in the hearts of enemies...

  3. Shouldn't investment be limited to winning short term wars?? This is wasteful spending.

    1. An extra carrier will allow us to intimidate our adversaries and thus prevent any future war. This is much better than the economic burden of trying to win a two front war.

  4. I think Broadsword will need to do a running series on this topic. Even those in support of the carrier seem to be a bit fuzzy in their thinking and completely out of sync with the IN's doctrine.

    a. Fundamental question - Are you are fine with India playing second fiddle to the PLAN in the IOR? then take it to its logical conclusion and get rid of all the carriers and their air wings. If we are doing sea denial and not sea control as the inferior sea power, carriers are certainly a waste. But let the political executive and the CDS say this upfront in policy terms, not impose this upon the Navy and the nation through the backdoor.

    b. The Navy would love to have a sister ship to IAC-1 /new Vikrant. But then you can kiss goodbye having a larger CATOBAR carrier being approved for the next 50 years. The large CATOBAR carrier is not an ego thing - the military rationale has been covered ad nauseam including on this blog.

    c. Actually the navy needs 4 carriers - 2 on deployment and not necessarily in different fleets but in one task force, one in long term overhaul and one in minor overhaul/workup. So it is already sacrificing a carrier.

    d. How about not winning any wars long-term or short-term but deterring them which is what all military power is really about. Which AIP SSK, SSN or SSBN did the US sail into the Bay of Bengal or Taiwan Straits or Persian Gulf when it wanted to send a message? Copying someone when they are right should not be a source of shame but embraced wholeheartedly. See the PLAN for evidence.

  5. Critical Thinker2 March 2020 at 10:24

    I agree that the navy needs aircraft carriers but the solution to this is somewhere in between both arguments. Our budget can definitely not support an expensive 65k ton IAC especially with so many competing priorities even within the Navy. Not to mention the even more expensive fighter complement that it will come with. Gadgets like EMALS will only balloon the cost further.

    IF IAC-1 was kept well within budget then what should be done is to duplicate IAC-1 as IAC-2 with incremental upgrades. Forget the expensive EMALS and western fighter solutions. We should buy additional customized 45 Mig-29K's with the Zhuk-AE radar, latest electronics and EW systems capable of firing Astra missile, DRDO's anti radiation missile and the latest generation of Russian missiles like the 75deg HOBS missile RVV-MD. The fighter deal should also include an upgrade package for the 45 Mig 29K's already in service with the IN. Also additional latest variants of the Ka-31 AEW helicopters. This seems to be the most affordable option for now.

    Once the economy grows then the IN can plan for a 4th IAC with 1 CBG hosting 2 IAC's. This way the air wing on 1 carrier can be used for fleet defense while the 2nd air wing on the other carrier can be used for offensive missions. Which means 1 can be left for refit at all times and the 4th IAC can be left to guard the flanks.

  6. One more aircraft carrier, even if it is sanctioned today, will be operational only in the forties. So it should not be referred to as third carrier. Because by that time INS Vikramaditya will be close to the end of it's service life. The additional carrier will actually be the replacement of INS Vikramaditya.

  7. India needs to prepare for the war of the future rather than just for tomorrow.

    The war of the future will not be fought just militarily. It would involve a combination of modern weapons, artificial intelligence, diplomatic muscles, cyber, and space capabilities that can give a deadly blow to the enemy even before it could initiate a strike.

    India’s armed forces need to radically change the way long-term perspective plans are chalked out. Instead of focusing on adding more equipment for a conventional war scenario, there should be a single-minded focus on the use of modern warfare capabilities that countries like the US, China, Russia and the UK are already testing.


  8. This navy has no anti mine vessels, has no torpedoes for the little number of subs being built.

    Let them make improved version of IAC-1 ( able to carry F18, Rafale etc).
    What was cost escalation of IAC1 & why so delayed compared to China ?


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