Forgoing a third aircraft carrier due to budgetary constraints could be counterproductive

This newspaper recently carried an article, “Third aircraft carrier not required as military’s focus is on land borders: sources”. In it defence sources questioned the need for a third aircraft carrier citing budgetary constraints. They propounded the immediate requirement of a strong Army supported by a capable Air Force. There can be no two views about this. What needs deliberation is whether (a) naval warfare is undertaken just for the sake of naval warfare; and (b) a maritime country like India can ever be strong without a strong Navy, since it depends on the sea for over 97% of its trade.

An Incomplete Understanding

One source said the Indian Navy “has seen action only twice, 1965 and 1971, on the side lines of the land operations and the aircraft carrier had minimum role”. India has seen classic naval action only once, in 1971, which was also a decisive victory. The political directions available on record indicate that the involvement of the Navy in 1965 was kept to the minimum; in fact, it was prevented from operating beyond the north of Okha. That the 1971 war was land-centric is belied by documentary evidence. Both adversaries viewed sea communications as central to the war. Notwithstanding the attacks on Karachi by small missile boats, the ‘centre of gravity’ was on the Eastern front, where the carrier was deployed. Terming carrier involvement as peripheral displays an incomplete understanding of military history.

In An Odyssey in War and Peace, Lt Gen J.F.R Jacob noted the maritime orientation of the briefing by Gen Sam Manekshaw and the Director of Military Operations, Maj Gen K.K. Singh, who identified the ports as “prime objectives”. It reads: “At the meeting, held in the operations room, Manekshaw, K.K. Singh, Arora and I were present... KK Singh spelt out the objectives, maintaining that if we captured Khulna and Chittagong... the war would come to an end”. Gen Jacob recommended utilising “our naval superiority” to have an “effective naval blockade”.

The official history of the Pakistan Navy (The Story of the Pakistan Navy) acknowledges that “the success of Pakistan’s counter-plans hinged largely on reinforcements and resupply of the eastern theatre of war by sea... (by) breaking India’s naval blockade”. If the Indian Navy had not effectively stymied this plan, Pakistan was hopeful of a “stalemate” followed by international intervention. Almost a lakh Pakistani soldiers would possibly not have surrendered unless they had lost their “will to fight”. The Indian Navy, using its lone carrier, ensured that no reinforcements or supplies were forthcoming and no escape route was possible.

Indian Naval history (Transition to Triumph) also records that “by themselves the ships of the Eastern Fleet were too few and too slow to enforce contraband control and help would be needed from Vikrant’s aircraft. But the extraordinary extent to which Vikrant’s aircraft actually succeeded in assisting ships in contraband control and apprehending merchant ships, over and above their air strikes against East Pakistan, came to be fully realised only after the war.”

The contemporary argument that a carrier’s utility in “future war scenarios will be short and swift” is interesting. Pakistan Navy history laments “vague concepts” such as “a short, sharp war” leading to it being accorded a lower inter-service priority. This rendered it incapable of “providing protection to the sea lines of communication between the two wings” and led to the 1971 debacle.

Another shibboleth that needs discarding is the claimed ability of any air force providing effective air cover at sea. In 1971, for example, carrier-borne aircraft repeatedly attacked Chittagong and Cox’s Bazar airfields on the request of the Air Force.

Impact of Parochialism

There are other counterpoints to the article too. First, stating that China went in for a carrier only after building its army is a narrow interpretation. This may have been Hobson’s choice. Aircraft carrier operations take years to master even if a ship is available. Further, China’s 2015 defence white paper states that “the traditional mentality that land outweighs sea must be abandoned”. Even as China is reducing its land forces to focus on the sea, ‘sources’ are propounding that India do the exact opposite. Second, forgoing a carrier due to budgetary constraints is counterproductive. An indigenously constructed carrier can galvanise the economy given the large number of industries and MSMEs involved in the supply chain. Third, carriers being required only for global powers is debatable. India had initiated procurement of INS Vikrant within a few years of independence. Carriers cannot be built overnight. Planning for the future requires foresight. Parochialism and sea blindness in an era of COVID-19 budget cuts can have a long-term impact on comprehensive national power.

Captain D.K. Sharma, a retired Naval Officer, was the Spokesperson, Indian Navy, at the Ministry of Defence