A big stick for the Indian Navy - Broadsword by Ajai Shukla - Strategy. Economics. Defence.

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Thursday 4 November 2021

A big stick for the Indian Navy

In the new military architecture emerging in the Indo-Pacific, a third aircraft carrier will be essential for India


By Ajai Shukla

Business Standard, 5th Nov 21


Aircraft carriers – the name for warships that carry fixed wing fighter aircraft – have been in the news recently. In July, a flotilla of British warships, led by an aircraft carrier, the Royal Navy’s flagship, Her Majesty’s Ship Queen Elizabeth (HMS QE), transited through the Indian Ocean on her way to the South China Sea. This was the QE’s first operational tour of those contested waters and was intended to demonstrate the “Indo-Pacific tilt” in London’s security policy. In early October, the QE joined two American carriers – United States Ship (USS) Ronald Reagan and USS Carl Vinson – and a Japanese helicopter carrier, Japanese Ship (JS) Ise, to patrol the waters around Taiwan, where almost 100 Chinese military aircraft intruded into airspace that Taipei claims to control. This was a show of military power and intent that aircraft carriers are well suited for. Former US Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, had famously remarked: "An aircraft carrier is 100,000 tons of diplomacy."


On its way back to the UK in October, the QE-led flotilla (called Carrier Strike Group 21) trained with the Indian navy in the tri-service Exercise Konkan Shakti in the Arabian Sea. The navy did not field its lone aircraft carrier, Indian Naval Ship (INS) Vikramaditya, for the joint exercise. On August 4, a landmark day for Indian shipbuilding, INS Vikrant, the country’s first indigenous aircraft carrier (IAC-1), sailed out from Cochin Shipyard Ltd (CSL) for her maiden sea trials. With her systems performing to expectation, the Vikrant is currently undergoing a second round of sea trials. India’s top government auditor discovered that the Vikrant is 12 years late in construction and will end up costing 13 times what was budgeted. Yet, it will remain a potent tool for coercion and signalling. Former US President Theodore Roosevelt summed up his foreign policy as: "Speak softly and carry a big stick; you will go far." The US Navy supercarrier named after him, USS Theodore Roosevelt, bears the nickname: The Big Stick.


In the second week of October, the four big Quadrilateral Group navies – the Indian Navy (IN), United States Navy (USN), Japan Maritime Self Defence Force (JMSDF) and the Royal Australian Navy (RAN) – trained together in Exercise Malabar 2021. Amongst the frontline ships that participated were the carriers, USS Carl Vinson and JS Kaga.


Earlier, on September 15, the US further reinforced the military architecture for confronting China, joining hands with the UK and Australia to create an “enhanced trilateral security partnership” named AUKUS (Australia – UK – US). While its first announcement was that the UK and US would provide Australia with the classified technology and wherewithal needed to build and operate up to eight nuclear-powered attack submarines (SSNs), American aircraft carriers will form the spine of AUKUS.

In New Delhi’s corridors of power, however, debate still continues on whether the navy even needs a third aircraft carrier. Successive navy chiefs, including the current one, Admiral Karambir Singh, have publicly argued for having three carriers in service. This would allow two carrier battle groups (CBGs) --- each one with air, surface and sub-surface capabilities --- to project power in India’s eastern and western seaboards simultaneously, with the third carrier in reserve or undergoing maintenance or repair. An aircraft carrier, with integral air support from on-board combat aircraft, protects and gets protection from all components of the CBG  -- multirole destroyers and frigates, anti-submarine corvettes, missile boats, logistics support vessels and submarines – enabling the CBG to operate thousands of kilometres from land.


Opposition to a third carrier comes from the Indian Air Force (IAF), which claims it can provide air support to navy CBGs from shore-based airfields such as Car Nicobar and Thanjavur. It refers to the Andaman & Nicobar Islands as an “unsinkable aircraft carrier.” This viewpoint is backed by the tri-service chief, General Bipin Rawat, who has publicly declared that an aircraft carrier costs too much, is overly vulnerable to enemy attack and that more submarines should be bought instead. In fact, the further away from the coast the CBG operates, the less effective is shore-based air support, given the limited radius of action of fighter aircraft. And as a CBG sails further away, shore-based air support ceases to be effective at all.


For building a suitably powerful and capable IAC-2, India needs knowhow and skill from the US, French or British Navies, even after undergoing the experience of building INS Vikrant in CSL. That is because India has only operated small aircraft carriers of 44,000 tonnes or less. Size matters in an aircraft carrier, since that determines how many aircraft it embarks. Roughly, a carrier can embark and operate one aircraft for every 1,000 tonnes it displaces. The 44,000-tonne INS Vikramaditya embarks 36 aircraft --- thirty MiG-29K fighters and six Kamov helicopters. This air complement, however, is inadequate. A carrier that is operating beyond the reach of shore-based air support requires 50-60 aircraft to protect the CBG, while also retaining offensive strike capability against enemy targets. That calls for at least a 65,000-tonne carrier, something that Indian shipyards have never built.


Not all the aircraft on board a carrier are fighters or combat helicopters. There are also airborne early warning (AEW) aircraft --- radar-equipped, airborne command posts that control and direct carrier-deck fighters as threats develop. The US Navy uses the E-2D Hawkeye, a large, twin turbo-prop aircraft that needs a far longer deck for getting airborne than what is available in sub-45,000-tonne carriers like the Vikramaditya or Vikrant. The US Navy found the solution in 100,000-tonne “supercarriers” that 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 of the USS Gerald R Ford class have replaced steam catapults with an “electromagnetic aircraft launch system” (EMALS) that accelerates aircraft (including unmanned aircraft) precisely to take-off speed. EMALS is smaller, lighter, quicker, and more powerful, and allows the take-off speed to be calibrated for different types of aircraft, reducing stress and wear on their airframes.


It was earlier believed that EMALS requires so much power that a nuclear-propelled carrier would be essential. With a nuclear propulsion solution nowhere in sight, the Indian Navy is veering round to the belief that the answer could lie in the QE’s “integrated all-electric propulsion system.” That is based on two Rolls-Royce MT30 gas turbine alternators (36 Megawatts each) and four Finnish Wartsila diesel generators that each provide 10 MW. These generators drive electric motors provided by US firm GE Power Conversion, propelling the 65,000 tonne carrier at 32 knots (60 km per hour) and also power the EMALS.


Ultimately, an aircraft carrier’s combat power depends upon the robustness and combat power of the aircraft that it operates and what sortie rates it can generate. The Russian MiG-29K/KUB, which was specially developed to operate off IAC-1, has emerged as a major disappointment. Since it arrived, it has been riddled with problems relating to its airframe, RD MK-33 engine and fly-by-wire system. The serviceability of the MiG-29K ranged from a disgraceful 15.93 per cent to 37.63 per cent; and that of MiG-29KUB from 21.30 per cent to 47.14 per cent. Numerous defects relating to failure of airframe parts had occurred during deck operations, most of them caused by the high impact of the MiG-29K/KUB fighters during touch down. While MiG has made some improvements, the navy will have to expedite the ongoing procurement of 57 “carrier based multi-role fighters” from the global market, or the “twin-engine deck based fighter” that the Defence R&D Organisation is developing indigenously. Only then would IAC-2 be a carrier that can confront the Chinese Navy on equal terms.


  1. The piece does a great job on two fronts:
    1. It correctly identifies the IAF and its chronic insecurities wrt airpower of its sister services as the primary "internal" reason why IAC-2 has not been greenlit. One only wishes, like with the case of the IAF's shameful suppression of the Mi-17 fratricide that Ajai Shukla is not left as the lone Indian voice to state unpalatable but important truths about the IAF's troubling history of placing self-interest over national interest.
    2. It highlights that in a carrier group or task force the carrier protects and supports other units rather than only needing them for its own protection. Together they achieve critical "sea control effects" ranging from MDA to actual interdiction. Alleged "Experts" who talk about islands as "unsinkable aircraft carriers" and for an aspiring power like India with its unique maritime geography to switch to an allegedly "cheaper" sea denial doctrine are too clueless to understand their own incompetence.

    However the piece fails to ask one pertinent question.

    Why has a hyper patriotic, 56-inch chest wielding PM who on one hand grandly espouses Look East/Act East and SAGAR but on the other has allowed his NSA to
    a) first appoint the underwhelming Lt Gen Shekatkar to lead a committee that negated Indian military's need for expeditionary capabilities and
    b)then select a CDS who has spared no opportunity to undermine the Indian Navy's doctrine and capabilities as well.

    Modi's legacy already includes a shameless surrender of Indian interests in Ladakh. Will he preside over a maritime reversal as well?

    At least the much maligned Nehru overcame his doubts about India's need for aircraft carriers.

    1. Where exactly do we want our Aircraft Carriers to engage our adversaries on the high seas? We don't need Aircraft Carriers to patrol the Arabian sea and the Bay of Bengal, perhaps the P-81 Orions can do this. How far south of the Indian Ocean can we patrol with our maritime surveillance aircraft, that are also armed to destroy naval vessels? How many naval vessels can they engage at a time, of the adversary? To what extent does the Indian Navy need to patrol the seas and oceans?

  2. I will read this very interesting piece later, but it occurs to me that the main role in the future of US Aircraft Carriers is sea denial, against an adversary like China. It would be too much of a task to attack targets on land for the Carrier based aircraft. However, when targeting naval assets on the sea away from the Chinese mainland, these Carriers could be absolutely overpowering. The effect will be compounded if the US submarine force also acts in tandem.
    Much before any anti-ship missile can target the Aircraft Carrier, the ship will be the target of the Carrier based aircraft.

  3. # the mahasabha has waited 2,500 years for hegemony. from chandragupta maurya - he was a jain, to his grandson, ashoka - a buddhist. over the years jainism, buddhism were the state religions, and the mahasabha had to get-by with being compradors as the buddhist principalities were succeeded by sultans, khans, nawabs and their ilk. to be followed by portuguese, dutch, english principalities, with the last expanding to an empire that extended east of the indus all the way to the chindwin, and from the himalayan watershed down to the southernmost extent of the dakhin. the 1947 transfer of power, partition, and electoral democracy premised on the westminster first-past-the-post model ensured that any dominant minority would triumph over the bahujan. it is simply not going to happen that after waiting for two and a half millennium all will be frittered away merely to assuage the vanity of a few posturing as warriors - given this cohort's unimpressive rendering during 1962, and over three years in jaffna. not with standing the humbug intellectualisms of the cold-start doctrine, even a simple mobilization such as operation parikrama resulted in 1,874 casualties for the home side. communal riots with tanks, like T-20 or test match cricket do not count. nagpur-jhandewalan, and the mumbai-ahmedabad chambers of commerce have prevailed; witness the manifold increase in export by india of iron ore, finished steel, even cotton to shanghai, shenzen; and the sixty percent increase in imports from china post the eastern ladakh fracas. this cabal will prevail, and there will be business as usual. it may also be pertinent that the PRC owns, operates 96 ports around the world. and the sole-superpower, US of north america is timorously apprehensive. theodorebhai was the commander-in-chief of that country during the three years of the war on the korean peninsula, 40,000 of his soldiers were killed, 100,000 were wounded. can we imagine in india the death of 40,000 soldiers, 100,000 wounded. the brooks-bhagat report records that the entire soldiery of the first battalion of the sikh regiment turned tail, scarpered their well dug in, secure defences at nathu la even before any arrival of china's PLA. little wonder that an army officers training establishment, OTA gaya has been shut down only a year ago, even after eastern ladakh as there are simply not enough university graduates with any inclination join up even as privileged members of the officer corps.

  4. Aircraft carriers are for PROJECTING POWER to distant places.
    While India's role is to PROTECT AGAINST Chinese ships & submarines & possibly a couple of aircraft carriers entering Indian waters
    The last aircraft carrier costed 20,000 crore (just for the ship) and has obsolete MIG-29s that are barely servicable.
    The next carrier will (with more capabilities) cost double that (something like 40,000 crore) will need at least 40 modern aircraft (another 40,000 crore) and supporting ships/planes (at least another 20,000 crores.

    In comparison, 6 submarines cost about 50,000 crore, 40 aircraft another 40,000 crore and another 10,000 crore in 6 refueling tankers will be far more effective in stopping a Chinese fleet in the Indian ocean

  5. While the debate between CATOBAR (either steam or EMALS) and ski-jump based STOBAR carriers persists, is it possible to envision rocket-assisted take-offs to boost aircraft to take-off velocity carrying a full load, without having to deplete a lot of fuel to just get off the deck as in the case of STOBAR? Disposable rockets can either power catapults or the aircraft themselves. Must be a darn good reason why it is not a serious alternative or many navies will be pursuing it.

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