Navy confronts hard decisions on the need for a third aircraft carrier - Broadsword by Ajai Shukla - Strategy. Economics. Defence.

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Thursday 18 August 2022

Navy confronts hard decisions on the need for a third aircraft carrier

INS Vikramaditya, India's only aircraft carrier, which would be joined this month by the newly built INS Viraat


By Ajai Shukla

Business Standard

15th August 2022


Last week, an opinion column in this newspaper argued for the early construction of a second indigenous aircraft carrier (IAC-2) for the Indian Navy. The first indigenous carrier, IAC-1, which has been constructed by Cochin Shipyard Ltd, will soon be commissioned as INS Vikrant. Alongside INS Vikramditya, which was bought from Russia in 2014, the Navy will then operate two 44,000-tonne carriers. 


The proposed 65,000-tonne IAC-2, which would take at least another decade in construction, would be the fleet’s third carrier. With one of those under repair or refit at any given time, the Navy would still have two carriers available and ready for operations.


The measure of an aircraft carrier’s power is its air wing. A carrier roughly embarks one aircraft for each 1,000 tonnes of displacement. Both Vikramaditya and Vikrant displace 44,000 tonnes, allowing each to embark 25-30 fixed wing aircraft, along with 10 helicopters of various kinds. The planned third carrier – the 65,000-tonne IAC-2 – would pack significantly more air power. It would go into battle with 54 fighters (three squadrons of 18 fighters each), enough aircraft for fleet air defence, as well as strikes ashore.


In addition, IAC-2 would embark about 10 helicopters, for anti-submarine warfare (ASW), airborne early warning (AEW) and casualty evacuation tasks. Its larger size would also allow it to embark tactical airborne early warning (AEW) aircraft, such as the Northrop Grumman E-2C Hawkeye – a priceless asset in the air battle.


IAC-2 would be imposing enough on the basis of its integral air power alone. But, in fact, IAC-2 would not fight alone. It would be the flagship of a carrier battle group (CBG) that would also include submarines, destroyers, frigates and corvettes, in addition to its own weaponry. These capital warships would give the CBG formidable anti-submarine, anti-surface and anti-aircraft firepower.


Yet, there are several reasons why the Ministry of Defence (MoD) has not ordered the building of IAC-2. First, there is no consensus within the military on the need for a third carrier. The proposal to build one has been publicly questioned by the former Chief of Defence Staff (CDS), General Bipin Rawat; and by successive Indian Air Force (IAF) chiefs. Given this opposition, the navy has a difficult task ahead to convince the other two services, as well as elements in the navy itself that India needs a third, large, expensive carrier.

If you can’t lose it, you can’t use it


Second, the navy faces a major hurdle in obtaining the budget needed for what critics now bill as a “Rs 100,000 crore carrier”. In fact, that figure is overblown. The cost of IAC-1 has come to about Rs 20,000 crore; and the MoD Cost Committee has fixed the cost of IAC-2 at Rs 40,000 crore. That caters for IAC-2’s larger size (65,000 tonnes, to INS Vikrant’s 44,000 tonnes), for its more sophisticated and expensive weapons and sensors, and for inflation.


The purported Rs 100,000 crore figure also includes the cost of an entire air wing, including fighters, helicopters and combat support aircraft. The Navy will have already paid for two air wings – 45 MiG-29K/KUB fighters were bought a decade back, while another 57 “multi-role carrier-borne fighters (MRCBF) are currently being acquired. Since only two CBGs would be sailing at any given time (with the third carrier in the dockyard), the Navy needs only two air wings, not three. 


India’s tri-service planners believe that the MRCBF’sbeing evaluated for carrier deck operations – Boeing’s F/A-18E/F Super Hornet and Dassault’s Rafale – have only a “limited affordability.” That leads to a “we cannot afford to lose it” mindset and, thence, to the conclusion: “we cannot afford to use it”. The Navy must acquire only platforms that it can afford to lose and, therefore, to use.


Third, the Navy has unwisely embraced the British and French notion that carriers must be a muscular 65,000 tonnes for the traditional carrier mission of obtaining sea control over a designated oceanic space. Instead of starting with size, naval planners must first identify the carrier’s operational role. This flows out of the National Security Strategy (NSS), which is framed by the National Security Council. The NSS dictates the carrier’s mission capabilities, from which emerge its size, design, weapons and sensors.


Instead of that  derivative process, South Block planners have committed themselves to advice from a US-India “joint working group” (JWG) on carrier design. This is going ahead with a US Navy-style “power projection carrier,” with formidable air power, as well as surface and sub-surface strike capability within the CBG. There has been little examination of whether the Navy’s requirements would be better met by a French-type “strike carrier”, which had an air wing built around the Etendard/Super Etendard surface strike aircraft, with a few F-8 Crusaders for fighter type roles that involved protecting the strike aircraft. 


The French “shore strike” model is relevant for the Navy, since one of its vital objectives is to keep the service relevant by influencing the all-important land battle. The newest French carrier, Charles de Gaulle,services this objective by embarking the Rafale multi-role fighter, which has both air defence and shore-strike capability


The Technology Perspective and Capability Roadmap of 2018 (TPCR-18), which projects future weapons profiles, is silent on the type of carrier the IAC-2 should be. All that the TPCR-18 says is: Aircraft Carrier, Quantity 01.


Ignoring an aircraft carrier pedigree


Fourth, the Navy has failed to live up to its 60-year-old pedigree of operating aircraft carriers. Both IAC-1 and INS Vikramaditya should be carrying at least 44 aircraft, going by the benchmark of one aircraft for every 1,000 tonnes of carrier. However, both vessels are short of that benchmark because the Navy – ignoring its own design capability, have contracted with a Russian design bureau for designing the aviation complexes of both INS Vikramaditya and IAC-1.


Fifth, Indian test pilots complain that the Navy has blindly accepted US statements that the E-2C Hawkeye cannot be launched from a ski-jump. They say the US firms have a vested interest in perpetuating that myth, in order to put a catapult as the launch system on IAC-2.


Perfected by the US Navy since World War II, a conventional catapult has a steam-driven piston system along the flight deck, which “catapults” the aircraft to 200 kilometres per hour, fast enough to get airborne.


The catapult that the Indian Navy is considering for IAC-2 uses a powerful electro-magnetic field to accelerate the fighter to take-off speed. Developed by General Atomics and called the “electro-magnetic aircraft launch system” (EMALS), this is on the latest US Navy carriers, starting from the USS Gerald R Ford.


Both current Indian carriers operate as STOBAR (short take-off but arrested recovery) vessels, but it remains to be decided whether IAC-2 would be a STOBAR carrier, or a CATOBAR (catapult assisted take-off, but arrested recovery) vessel. The possibility of putting an EMALS-assisted CATOBAR system on IAC-2 is being discussed in the JWG.


Finally, IAC-2’s size and specifications would depend upon whether the Indian Navy has an operational role for twin-seat Super Hornets, which would make it worth putting in the additional crew requirements that would be needed.


It is noteworthy that the Defence R&D Organisation is developing the indigenous twin-engine deck-based fighter (TEDBF) as a single-seat fighter. The future lies in “manned-unmanned teaming” or (MUM-T), which is the joint operation of manned and “unmanned airborne assets” (UAS) towards a shared mission objective. 


MUM-T UAS is increasingly regarded as one of the key innovations that will define future airpower. The system will incorporate smart, connected and modular UAS, connected by a distributed network of intelligence that will act as force multipliers for the manned aircraft. Overall, it is expected to enhance the team’s capabilities, while keeping the pilot out of harm’s way, but still in control. 


  1. Can one really trust IN’s judgement? Billions for second hand Russian junk ship and junk fighters. And now they want a third carrier that sails around as a target with no use case.

    SSGNs with 100 cruise missiles each are way more cost effective than a CBG that needs fighters to protect it and which carry missiles to fire at the enemy.

    Problem with SSGNs is they can’t be seen so no pomp

    1. Sir,
      I am certain that your views are shared by most arm chair warriors, as we have remained sea blind nation even after 75 yrs of independence. I would like to inform you that the role of Submarine and a carrier are completely different.
      Coming to your point of SSN with 100 cruise missiles, it shows your very poor knowledge about submarines and their capability.
      My request is to enhance ur knowledge first and thereafter comment. Don't act like a 'I know-all' Babu.

  2. Future IAC variant carriers don't need to operate legacy E-2C Hawkeye type early warning systems. Unmanned platforms that are much lighter and less expensive frankly and can also operate from smaller decks/shorter decks can be procured to service the need. So, that shouldn't be the yard stick for deciding whether the Navy needs a flat deck, catapult equipped platform in the future or not. That said, the big advantage of a catapult launched carrier is that it would enable aircrafts to take off with more payload. The other consideration is interoperability - which could be huge ! Do we want US or French Naval aircraft to operate out of our platforms in the future or our jets to take off from theirs ? That could have a huge bearing on what platforms we build in the future and the kind of fighter jets the Navy procures. I certainly think this consideration as a distinct possibility and should be factored in.

  3. The question to be asked is about power projection. Do we need to project power beyond 1000 kms of the Indian coast line? If yes, then we need large aircraft carriers. If not, we can have a shore based Air Force that can defend the coast line and all areas within the 1000 kms.

    If we need to project power in the Southern Indian Ocean, and there is no reason why not, then a third Aircraft Carrier is a must.

  4. If China can get an appropriately functioning Aircraft Carrier into the far reaches of the Indian Ocean, and if India cannot counter this happening, then in a number of scenarios, the Indian Navy will not be in control of the situation. What if the Chinese Navy can get more than one Carrier Battle Group into the distant reaches of the Indian Ocean? If China gets three such Carrier Battle Group's into the Indian Ocean, then will two Indian Battle Group's be adequate to meet this circumstance? What can India do in such a situation?


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