India's indigenous aircraft INS Vikrant heading out to the sea

One of the most persistent fashions in military circles is predicting the demise of the aircraft carrier. It has become an article of faith among many analysts that the world's biggest warships can't hide in an era of precision-guided missiles and reconnaissance satellites, and it's just a matter of time before some upstart military power like China proves the point. The more colourful accounts of why carriers will be a waning factor in warfare describe a "line of death" in the seas near China that can't be crossed without courting catastrophe.

With one large carrier in service and another on the way, India has become one of the world’s pre-eminent naval aviation powers.

How did the program come about? Where is it going? And what is the strategic rationale for India’s massive investment in aircraft carriers?

Despite considerable economic challenges, India took carrier aviation very seriously in the years after independence. Unlike China or even the Soviet Union, India focused on carriers instead of submarines.

INS Vikrant, a Majestic-class light carrier, served from 1961 until 1997, fighting effectively in the 1971 war. INS Viraat, formerly the Centaur-class carrier HMS Hermes, joined the Indian Navy in 1987 and served until 2016. These carriers gave the Indian Navy long-term experience in carrier ops, as well as a compelling organizational logic for maintaining a carrier capability.

India’s carrier force has developed a three-pronged rationale for its purpose.

The first prong is support of a conventional war against Pakistan, which would involve strikes against Pakistani naval assets and land bases. Unfortunately, Vikrant and Vikramaditya would struggle in strike operations because of limitations on aircraft weight, although they certainly would attract Pakistani attention.

Second, the carriers make the Indian Navy the preeminent force in the Indian Ocean, better able to command the area than any foreign competitor. Indian carriers will always have better access to bases and support facilities in the Indian Ocean than China, the United Kingdom or even the United States, and the presence of the carriers facilitates the projection of Indian power and the management of trade protection.

The third prong involves geopolitical competition with China.

With the anticipated commissioning of its second large carrier, China has managed to leapfrog Indian naval aviation development in a relatively short period of time. Although China lacks India’s experience with carriers, it boasts a remarkably efficient shipbuilding industry and an increasingly sophisticated aviation sector, making it less dependent on foreign technology.

Although India may struggle to keep up with Chinese construction, it can leverage geography — proximity to bases — to its advantage in the most likely areas of any conflict.


Carriers are more survivable than land bases. The notion that carriers are losing their warfighting value because they are vulnerable is almost comically wrong. They are much more survivable than the overseas bases on which the Air Force and Army would have to depend for the simple reason that carriers are always moving. Aircraft carriers, move so fast they can outrun submarines, so keeping track of where they are is not easy. In wartime, carrier strike groups would keep hostile aircraft (including drones) at bay, and quickly disable enemy targeting systems.

Carriers are becoming more capable. New generation carriers can generate 300% more electricity than existing carriers while increasing daily aircraft sortie rates by about 25%. The really big change in the near term, though, is introduction of an Indian airborne stealth fighter on carrier decks which can fly considerably further than legacy aircraft without refuelling. The greater reach of these fighters, combined with stealth that makes it invisible to radar and networked sensors to enhance situational awareness, will make carriers and their air wings more lethal, more survivable.

Carriers are more economical than alternatives. Because aircraft carriers last for 50 years, the Navy only needs to buy one every five years to sustain its current fleet -- which works out to about six hours of federal spending annually. The cost of keeping three carrier strike groups (with destroyers and subs) continuously deployed overseas is a fraction of one-percent of federal spending. But the cost of waging war by other means could be much higher. The Air Force needs a basing network everywhere it might fight, since unlike carriers land bases can't be moved. And the smart bombs carrier-based aircraft use to destroy targets which are relatively cheap, whereas a cruise missile would cost much more to destroy the same target. Multiply the latter number by thousands of targets, and you're talking real money.


India has committed to carrier aviation, and has the resources and experience to develop a successful force. However, India still faces some big decisions, including the choice of a new carrier fighter and the design characteristics of its flagship class of fleet carriers.

Much will depend on how successfully India masters the difficulties of large-scale shipbuilding, and how well it integrates new technologies into the design and construction process. (Text Courtesy: WarisBoringNI)