by Yusuf T Unjhawala

India needs aircraft carriers – large ones with assisted take off at that, to secure the seas of the Indo-Pacific, to maintain peace, secure trade routes, provide security to the region, and in the event of a war, bring in lethal firepower. However, due to resource crunch with a slowing economy which has been further impacted by Covid-19, there is now a question mark over the acquisition of the proposed 65,000 ton aircraft carrier called Vishal with the Chief of Defence Staff General Bipin Rawat saying that the navy will have to prioritise between submarines and aircraft carriers. The navy has made it clear that it needs three carriers so that it has at least two in operation at all times – one for each of India’s seaboards.

India will be the world’s third largest economy in less than a decade. Trade constitutes 40% of its GDP, and nearly 20 million of its people live in foreign lands, many of which are in volatile regions. The navy needs all the resources to secure the country’s interests. Asking it to prioritise submarines over aircraft carriers is like asking the Air Force to prioritise air defence systems over fighter jets. While submarines are best for sea denial, the aircraft carriers are for sea control and power projection. Both are important and needed for a major power like India.

The arguments against aircraft carriers are, that they are expensive, obsolete and vulnerable to new generation of missiles. It is akin to the obituaries of the tanks which have been written for decades now in the face of advanced anti tank missiles, attack helicopters and close air support aircrafts. But the tank continues to survive.

Vishal is estimated to cost about $7 billion to build and a further $5-8 billion for its complement of fighter jets, helicopters and surveillance aircrafts. The cost of the aircraft carrier cannot be considered in isolation. It provides a mobile air base that can be called to action in any part of the world, particularly in areas of India’s interests – something that shore based or island based aircrafts cannot. Carriers take a decade to build with the costs spread over that period. It will need an initial funding to start the work and progressively increase as systems get integrated and the fighter jets ordered towards the latter half of construction. Moreover, an aircraft carrier has a life of nearly 50 years, which is twice other warships. That’s not a bad investment.

India’s economy will grow to about $4 trillion by 2025 and about $7 trillion by 2030. Assuming the current spending of 1.5% of the GDP on defence to remain stagnant, it will translate to $60 billion by 2025 and $100 billion by 2030 – net of pensions, and a cumulative spending of over $600 billion on defence during this decade. Of this, the navy will get $90 billion at its current allocation of 15%, of which nearly $50 billion will be capex.

The navy’s big ticket projects-its submarines will take nearly 40% of its decadal capex. The six P75i submarines are expected to cost $7 billion. The navy could opt to continue the existing Scorpene class with the addition of air independent propulsion. This could save at least $2 billion. The other program is the six nuclear powered attack submarines which are expected to cost about $14 billion. A higher defence allocation and an increase in the navy’s share cannot be ruled out considering the geopolitical scenario. Theatre commands, better inter-services procurement co-ordination & increase in indigenization reducing costly imports – will save money for modernisation. Although the current situation looks tight, money for a third aircraft carrier can be provisioned.

Aircraft carriers are not obsolete. The US operates ten and is building a new class of carriers, first of which is undergoing trials. The UK after pondering over the need for carriers went ahead and commissioned two. China has two and plans to operate at least six. Threatened by China’s increasing naval muscle, pacifist Japan announced to convert its two Izumo class of helicopter carriers into aircraft carriers. France operates the only nuclear powered carrier apart from the US.

An aircraft carrier is not a sitting duck as it is made out to be. It is escorted by destroyers, frigates and corvettes and submarines. For India, these are armed with the 290km range Brahmos supersonic anti ship cruise missiles which can take out enemy warships at that distance in about five minutes, travelling at 3,700 kmph. The sea skimming Brahmos will not be picked up by enemy ships until it’s too late. India is working on a longer range Brahmos that can strike up to 600 kms. These combatants including the carrier carry air defence systems to counter incoming missiles. A carrier is not easy to sink even if a missile hits it.

The carrier’s fighter jets, currently the MiG-29K on India’s INS Vikramaditya with a combat range of 850kms on fleet defence mission will be able to neutralise enemy combatants at long distances before they get close to the carrier. In the future, the carriers will be armed with even more advanced and potent fighter jets with Boeing’s F-18 Super Hornet and Dassault’s Rafale competing for the 57 jet program. India plans indigenous carrier borne fighter jets which will reduce acquisition costs. There are anti submarine helicopters onboard and the Indian Navy has the advanced P-8 surveillance, anti-submarine and anti-surface warship aircrafts – armed with anti-ship missiles and torpedoes. In the future there will be directed energy based defence systems.

With its air complement, carrier groups are able to control a huge expanse of the seas compared to other surface and sub-surface platforms on their own. In a conflict situation, say with Pakistan – a carrier task force will be able to bottle up Pakistan navy close to its shores and completely dominate the seas including cutting off Pakistan’s supplies and undertake offensive action against it. Or make it difficult for Chinese navy to enter the Indian Ocean to undertake offensive missions.

There is a thought that India should perhaps make another Vikrant class carrier which is under construction. The Vikrant is a 45,000 ton carrier similar to INS Vikramaditya. However, it will carry only about 26 MiG-29Ks operating off a ski jump, which restricts fuel and weapons payload. With a dismal availability rate of less than 50%, only about a dozen jets are available for operations. This restricts offensive missions, with majority of the jets on fleet defence duties. Reduced fuel load reduces the range, forcing the carrier to get closer to the enemy for any offensive operation – making the carrier group vulnerable to the enemy’s shore-based defences. A 65,000 ton carrier with catapult assisted take-off will enable its fighters to carry full fuel and weapons load. Catapult assisted take-off generates more sortie which is ideal for offensive missions. If the navy acquires either the Rafale or the Super Hornet, its offensive capabilities will increase tremendously. This carrier will also be able to launch surveillance and early warning aircrafts which cannot be operated from ski-jump carriers.

The Indian Navy’s area of responsibility ranges from the east coast of Africa to the Western Pacific, where it regularly deploys its assets for joint exercises, goodwill missions, military diplomacy and humanitarian assistance and disaster relief. With nearly 50% of India’s trade passing through South China Sea and China claiming the entire sea as its own, the Indian Navy will be called upon to secure India’s trade and increasingly likely to be challenged by the Chinese navy which objects the presence of foreign navies in the sea. While India does not conduct any freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea, China protests the Indian Navy’s presence.

The Western side carries the other 50% of India’s trade and 80% of its oil supply. The Gulf region is home to over eight million Indians and is one of the most volatile regions of the world. As a growing power, the navy’s area of responsibility will likely include the west coast of Africa in the future where India has considerable investments and growing. In fact India’s largest trading partner in Africa is Nigeria.

The argument, at least at the military level, is not against aircraft carriers – but money, leading to the question of prioritisation. India’s slowing economy is hurting its defence preparedness. But the question is, can India take the decision to not build a third aircraft carrier, based on what is expected to be a temporary economic slowdown – for a platform that will take at least 10 years to build and serve into the 2080s and thereby deprive itself of the most potent tool in military diplomacy?