Sea control, or sea denial? Defining India's strategic intent in the Indian Ocean - Broadsword by Ajai Shukla - Strategy. Economics. Defence.

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Sunday 4 September 2022

Sea control, or sea denial? Defining India's strategic intent in the Indian Ocean

Should the Indian Navy be building more aircraft carriers? Or should it be relying more on a fleet of submarines?


By Ajai Shukla

Unsigned editorial in Business Standard

5th September 2022

The commissioning of the aircraft carrier, INS Vikrant, while undoubtedly a triumph for indigenous design and construction, raises three important issues. First, even after having taken 17 years to build, from steel cutting in 2005 to commissioning in 2022, the Vikrant is not yet operational. Flying trials will only be carried out only after the navy takes this floating airfield to sea. These trials involve checking out the integration between on-board aircraft facilities, aircraft launch and retrieval systems and the Russian designed Aviation Facility Complex, which integrates all flying operations. The defence ministry estimates that these trials would take another 12-18 months to complete. The navy claims that such time frames are in line with how long other advanced navies, such as those of the UK and France, have taken to design and construct carriers. The Royal Navy, with its rich history and experience of building aircraft carriers, took almost two decades to contruct its flagship, the 65,000-tonne Queen Elizabeth. INS Vikrant is significantly smaller, at 45,000 tonnes, and should have taken less time. Even so, it is true that the carrier’s flight operations can only be tested after the air wing is on board and the navy has taken over operational command and control.


The second question relates to the Vikrant’s indigenisation. The defence ministry claims that the carrier is 76 per cent Indian, but does not back that with details of what has been indigenised and what was procured from abroad. The construction of the carrier’s hull, superstructure, flight deck and its compartments mainly involves the low-tech job of cutting and welding steel, which the defence ministry claims has been 95 per cent indigenised. This seems credible, given that the production of warship-grade steel has been indigenised and Indian steel plants have supplied 26,000 tonnes of this specially strengthened steel for the Vikrant. However, the challenge of indigenising warship building lies less in the “float” dimension (hull and superstructure) and more in the “move” category (engines, gearbox, propellers and shafting); and the “fight” category (radar and sonar sensors, guns, missiles, torpedoes and software for integration, command and control software). In these last two categories, indigenisation is estimated to remain below 50 per cent.


The third question, a strategic one, is about whether India needs more aircraft carriers and, if so, how many. One school of naval thought would like the Indian Navy to execute a “sea denial” strategy, denying adversaries access to the Indian Ocean with a fleet of submarines. Others would rely on a strategy of “sea control”, in which aircraft carrier battle groups (CBGs) control large swathes of ocean with aircraft and missiles. For this, India would need at least three operational CBGs; two for India’s Arabian Sea and Bay of Bengal coastlines and a third, larger, carrier for long distance power projection wherever the need arises. A fourth carrier would be needed as a reserve for when any of the three operational carriers require refit or repair. This requires the navy to make do for this decade with two carriers, INS Vikramadity and INS Vikrant, while Cochin Shipyard builds a second indigenous aircraft carrier (IAC-2) and another shipyard, perhaps Larsen & Toubro’s Kathupalli Shipyard, builds a third. India, meanwhile, will need to define its strategic intent clearly.

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