Building a blue-water navy: India needs another aircraft carrier and Super Hornets to fly off it - Broadsword by Ajai Shukla - Strategy. Economics. Defence.

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Thursday 4 August 2022

Building a blue-water navy: India needs another aircraft carrier and Super Hornets to fly off it

The decision on building a second indigenous aircraft carrier, which the navy is pushing for, will be crucial in determining India’s maritime future


by Ajai Shukla

Business Standard, 5th Aug 22


Last week, when Cochin Shipyard Limited (CSL) handed over Indian Naval Ship (INS) Vikrant to the Indian Navy, the shipyard was left with a large, empty berth where India’s first indigenous aircraft carrier, or IAC-1, had been under construction. Now, demanding answers were two questions: First, is there going to be a second indigenous carrier? And, if yes, what would be the size and specifications of IAC-2? The navy’s answers to those questions will determine India’s naval power for decades to come.


In addressing these issues the navy must remember two simple truths: First, an aircraft carrier exists to take its air wing into battle. And second, the types of aircraft in a carrier’s air wing and the efficiency with which they can be sustained in battle is the ultimate determinant of a carrier’s worth. By both these measures, the Indian Navy has fallen short. Its carriers have not generated the air power needed to justify the enormous expense of a carrier battle group – which includes the cost of the carrier itself, its air wing and the destroyers, frigates, corvettes and submarines that form a self-sufficient “carrier battle group” (CBG) needed to establish “sea control” over oceanic spaces that are hundreds, even thousands, of nautical miles away from our shores.


Since independence, India has cumulatively operated three aircraft carriers. The second INS Vikrant, which will be commissioned soon, will be the fourth. Two of these, the original INS Vikrant (19,000 tonnes) and the INS Viraat (28,000 tonnes) have been decommissioned, leaving the navy with only one serving carrier: The 44,000-tonne INS Vikramaditya. When the resurrected INS Vikrant joins the fleet later this month, the 45,000-tonne carrier will be the second serviceable carrier. As a rough approximation, an aircraft carrier can embark one aircraft for every 1,000 tonnes of displacement. That means that neither the earlier Vikrant, nor the Viraat, were able to embark more than a squadron of fighters (16-18 aircraft), along with the 4-5 helicopters needed for fleet tasks, such as anti-submarine warfare (ASW) and airborne early warning and control (AEWC). Even the INS Vikramaditya cannot embark more than about 25 fighters, which leaves it short of air power in crucial battle spaces and missions.


That is why the navy is pushing hard for IAC-2 to be a 65,000-tonne, flat deck carrier that is designed and built in India, with technical and tactical consultation from the US Navy – the global masters in aircraft carrier operations. For this, the two countries have constituted a “Joint Working Group” on aircraft carrier technology cooperation under the Defence Technology and Trade Initiative. If this carrier comes to pass, it will embark some 55 fixed wing fighters, ASW and utility helicopters and – in a first for the Indian Navy – aircraft like the fixed wing, radome-equipped E2C Hawkeye for extended maritime domain awareness (MDA) missions. Such aircraft are critical for establishing sea control and a flat deck carrier with a catapult launch facility is essential for launching them.


The MiG-29K that India ordered for INS Vikramaditya and IAC-1 has been a poor choice, being unable to absorb the pounding that carrier-based fighters receive while landing, when the pilot slams down his fighter at a precise spot on the deck so that it can engage a row of arrestor wires that drag the aircraft to a halt. However, after buying 45 MiG-29K/KUBs from Russia, naval acquisition managers have sent out a Request for Information (RFI) for 26 MRCBF (multi-role carrier-borne fighters). Evidently only two aircraft meet the specifications: the marine version of Dassault’s Rafale fighter; and Boeing’s F/A-18E/F Super Hornet, the US Navy’s workhorse that flies from all 11 of its carriers. The Super Hornet is the better choice, as is evident from the plethora of disadvantages in buying its rival, the Rafale – Marine. 


First, the Rafale – Marine does not come in a twin-seat version. The Indian Navy, which has specified that it requires eight twin-seat and 18 single-seat fighters, would only get that configuration in the Super Hornet. If, on the other hand, the navy were to buy 26 Rafale – Marine fighters, the eight twin-seaters would be available for training ashore, or for combat missions flown from ashore, but not for combat missions flown from the carrier deck. The IAF might conceivably use the French fighters in combat, but only from on-shore bases. On the other hand, if Super Hornets were to be bought, they would all – single seat as well as twin-seat versions – fly combat missions from the carrier, ensuring better use of our limited budget.


Second, flying the Super Hornet would ensure high inter-operability between the fighters, the aircraft carrier and a number of other platforms that the Indian military has bought, or could do so. They include the E/A-18G Growler, a highly specialised electronic warfare (EW) aircraft that accompanies the Super Hornets on missions, blinding enemy radar and thus enhancing survivability – a tandem capability that no other carrier-borne fighter in the world enjoys. The US government has not yet agreed to supply India the Growler, but is likely to do so in the future. But if the Indian Navy does not buy the Super Hornet now, they would effectively be closing the door on Growlers for ever.


Third, the interoperable platforms also include MH-60R Seahawk helicopters, the P-8I multi-mission maritime aircraft and the MQ-25 Stingray autonomous, carrier-borne tankers. If the Indian Navy does not buy the Super Hornet now, it may also be denying itself access to MQ-25 tankers, from US carriers in the future. The MQ-25, today a carrier-borne tanker, is likely to be modified for additional roles in the future. The Indian Navy has big ambitions at sea in the autonomous domains, including air. The Super Hornet could open the doors for this, if the US grants access to the MQ-25 someday, as US-India relations flower.


Fourth, the US Navy might also link the availability of EMALS/ AAG from General Atomics for the next indigenous aircraft carrier (IAC-2) to the strategic closeness that a sale of Super Hornets would bring. Fifth, a Super Hornet sale to India would create a higher degree of inter-operability with US naval forces in the Indo Pacific, as well as with the Quad militaries (both Australia and the US operate Hornets.


Sixth, the acquisition of Super Hornets would allow the Indian Navy continued access to the most capable combat aviation assets in the Indo-Pacific (the US has 11 carriers against only one French and one British carrier). The US Navy has employed aircraft carriers effectively for a century and working with them would help the Indian Navy absorb the best practices at sea. Some 700+ Hornets have accumulated a million plus arrestments at sea, against France’s far lesser experience of flying 40+ Rafale-Marines from a single aircraft carrier for 20-odd years. In fact, endorsement is best provided by the French Navy, which sends its pilots to the US to learn the art of tail-hooking. Finally, working with the US would help the Defence R&D Organisation learn global best practices in carrier operations as they design and develop the “twin-engine deck-based fighter” (TEDBF).


  1. Now you have become a paid marketeers for foreign defence Co.
    1) Our economy can't sustain 3 aircraft carriers
    2) we should be first focusing on enough submarines
    3) you are saying that they won't sell us ea18 growler if we don't buy their hornets?? Why did they sell us p8i, apache, etc? Nothing is tied to any other platform.

    Guess these defence ads on your blog are influencing your defenceman reports too ( notwithstanding the plain bias you have against the current govt)

    1. if we start building today a new carrier(65-70K ton displacement) would be built by 2035. By that time china would have 5+ carriers. Our economy by that time would be close to 7-10 Trillion.
      At that point of time, we would need to start a assembly line for Carriers and make one every 6-8 years. This is because by 2050 china would have 10+ full sized carriers and India cannot afford to play a defensive war. We need to be able to fight china in its home turf of south china sea.

    2. Just to clarify, are all folks who agree with the gist of this piece, that the govt needs to sanction IAC-2 immediately and the US has the strongest case for supplying the airwing, paid folks who have a bias against Modi govt?
      1. Because on the need for IAC-2, no less than the Standing Committe on Defence of the Parliament, which has members from the ruling party has backed the case Are they being accused as well? JWGACTC negotiations with the US happened under the Modi govt. Are they guilty of promoting US interests as well?
      2. "India's economy cannot sustain 3 carriers" is the claim. This economy is being run for sometime by Modi govt, and likely to be in the near future as well. So who has a bias against Modi and thinks he cannot deliver economic growth?
      3. "We should be first focusing on enough submarines". But that is precisely what the Modi govt has done - Rawat championed subs over carriers as CDS. So are the sub programs - SSK and SSN - stuck because Ajai Shukla writes articles championing carriers? He has also written extensively on subs, surface warships, and other navy acquisitions.
      4. "Nothing is tied to any other platform". The E/A-18's airframe is at least tied to the Super Hornet airframe. Also apart from the US who offers a Growler equivalent in the carrier-borne role?

      Finally, not to speak on behalf of Ajai Shukla but one cam imagine it is really hilarious to read taunts based on the blog being ad-supported from commenters who do not pay a single paisa for the content

    3. Lets say we start working with France(As you know France is working on a 75K ton displacement carrier on the same lines needed by Indian Navy) . IAC-2 will be delivered by 2035 at best, By that time we will have our own 5- Gen TEDBF.
      Lets not drag US into useless conspiracy theories. We cannot keep fighting defensive wars with chineese ba$tard$. We need to take the war to their door step.
      We have to understand that our economy will grow and we have to plan for the grown economy of 2030 and future. As the carriers take a decade or more to build.
      Unless and until we have 5-8 carriers by 2050(soviets came to same conclusion by 1985 and were too late by that time), we cannot take on chineese. We need to be able to fight chineese in south chineese sea and bust their hopes of ruling Indian Ocean.

  2. ssgns each with a 100 plus missiles would be far cheaper and survivable

    1. 1. The 100-plus missile carrying SSGN is a modification of the Ohio class SSBN of the US Navy. If Ajai Shukla writes a piece favoring it, will he be accused of being a US shill again?
      2. One SSGN carries a price tag of 2-3 billion USD based on economies from a build of 20 subs. Are you willing to give the Indian Navy a budget over 20 years for such a purchase?
      3. All undersea platforms are more survivable than surface platforms. Shall we do away with the surface navy altogether? Rather than one-line drive by comments, folks should at least spend 500 words describing their brilliant ideas to educate us all.
      4. Can subs, including 100-missile SSGNs do all the things that carriers do? No. Can carriers do the specific things that subs do uniquely well? No. Does your living room have a sofa/couch but no dining table, or vice versa?

      Also reflect why your Enemy Number One, China - the pioneer in "missile-based A2AD" has committed fully to carriers.

      Why Russia, who before China was the pioneer in "missile-based A2AD" (Bears/Backfires/Kirovs/SSNs) belatedly woke up and tried to catch up in the carrier business, with miserable results.

      Indian keyboard warriors and "experts" want to give up the one advantage its Navy has over China in a specialized sub-domain. What will be the cost of catching up once we realize the folly? You can't just go online and order a carrier. It is not a Tom Clancy book neither is actual naval warfare.

  3. There is no question about the fact that the Block-III Super Hornets are head and shoulders a better choice vs the Rafale M for all the reasons you have enunciated. I have a feeling that a decision will be forthcoming in favor of the F-18s before the end of this year. The CATSA waiver will certainly not be ignored by the decision makers at the MoD either.

  4. Good article Ajai. It makes perfect sense and I hope it goes that way too. Cheers Ravi

  5. Well written article. There are several more benefits of F-18 that you could add to the list. Price- If recent Kuwait deal can be used as a reference, F-18 are far cheaper than Rafale. Also, weapons used by F-18 benefit from commonality with NATO weapons offering substantial cost savings, wider options and upgrades compared to any French ones. Lack of anti radiation missiles on Rafale remains a frustrating deficiency. Buddy air-to-air refueling is available for F-18 that is lacking in Rafale which could be a game changer in blue water ops. Lastly, use of unmanned wingman in recent F-18 block III trials is of great significance increasing lethality without need for more expensive airframes and pilots.

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