At the doctrinal level, sea denial does not serve India’s expanding interests, counter security threats, or fulfil the aspirations as a security provider. Aircraft carriers are crucial to the Indian Navy's ability to control the seas

INS Vikrant has been commissioned into the Indian Navy by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. It is a proud moment for India to join a select club of advanced countries that build their own aircraft carriers. Though delayed by several years, INS Vikrant is a great achievement for the Indian Navy and Indian shipbuilding. While the Prime Minister rightly praised the Vikrant, his government has questioned the Indian Navy’s desire for a larger third carrier. The debate over it has been persistent and heated, owing primarily to a purported lack of funds.

Why India Needs Aircraft Carriers

Indian Navy’s maritime doctrine draws on the lessons of India’s colonisation on lack of sea control. Although the Europeans did not launch a maritime invasion, their control of the seas had a significant impact on India’s maritime trade, before eventual colonisation. Sea control is the central concept around which the Indian Navy is structured and considers an aircraft carrier as a primary asset. Sea control is the ability of the navy to act freely in an area of operation. Those who control the sea deny it to the adversary by default.

An aircraft carrier is a symbol of national power with tremendous operational capability. Depending on how they are used, it is also an excellent tool for diplomacy and political messaging to both friends and adversaries. It is a valuable asset to the project force. The vast oceans and limitations of land-based aerial assets to deliver adequate and sustained force over long distances necessitate carrier-based aviation. They can quickly move into an area of operation and operate independently for prolonged periods.

Developing a blue water navy centred on aircraft carriers to protect the country with vast expanses of seas surrounding it was felt soon after Independence. The British Majestic class aircraft carrier was acquired by India and commissioned as INS Vikrant in 1961, followed by INS Viraat in 1987, both of which were decommissioned after their service lives were completed. INS Vikramaditya was commissioned in 2013. A rapidly growing economy, expanding interests, a large diaspora spread throughout the world, including conflict-prone regions, and the rapidly changing geopolitical and geo-economic situation, as well as responding to natural disasters in the Indo-Pacific region, have increased the Indian Navy’s responsibilities.

India relies heavily on the seas for trade and energy. As a major regional power, India aspires to be a security provider. The United States, which has been policing the oceans, is becoming increasingly stretched. The balance of power is shifting to the Indo-Pacific, and the rules-based order that has kept the peace since World War II is being challenged by China’s rise. India must not only assume a large security role in the Indian Ocean Region in order to protect its interests, but also deny the same to an adversary filling any potential vacuum. To back up its diplomacy, India needs naval capabilities that persuade the region’s countries to entrust maritime security to India rather than looking elsewhere.

The Indian Navy’s maritime doctrine focuses on the application of naval power across the spectrum of conflict, including war, less than war situations and peace. The maritime strategy states that in order to provide ‘freedom to use the seas’ for India’s national interests, it is necessary to ensure that the seas remain secure. A key aspect of the strategy is shaping a favourable and positive maritime environment to enhance net security and develop capabilities for force projection and protection.

The Indian Navy’s primary area of responsibility is the Indian Ocean Region. But with its rapidly growing economy, interests and stature, India seeks to expand its influence. As External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar articulated, India would not be constrained between the Malacca Straits and Gulf of Aden. Our interests, our influence, our activities today go way beyond. The Indian Navy follows India’s diplomacy. The then Navy chief, Admiral Sunil Lanba, stated, the Indian Navy is deployed from the Pacific to the Atlantic and this is what we are going to do. The distinction between primary and secondary areas of operation will likely get erased in the future.

China will contest the Indian Ocean maritime space with its growing naval might. India has interests in the South China Sea and the Western Pacific, and it deploys naval assets to the region on a regular basis, as well as participates in exercises with friendly countries. The two countries’ land borders are likely to remain hostile for a long time, and India will have to use naval force in the event of an all-out land war, exploiting China’s vulnerabilities in the seas to force favourable outcomes.

Furthermore, India’s island territories of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands are over 1,000 kilometres away, unfortified, and vulnerable, making carriers critical for their defence in any event. India has been a first responder for humanitarian assistance and disaster relief as climate change and extreme weather events have become more common. Indian citizens in conflict zones rely on Indian armed forces to rescue them. Carriers bring not only massive force capabilities, but also relief and sealift capabilities, making them critical for India.

Why India Needs A Larger Third Carrier

The Indian Navy considers a third carrier an operational necessity. The Parliamentary Standing Committee on Defence recommends three aircraft carriers for Navy — “to bridge operational deficiencies thus arising, three aircraft carriers are an unavoidable requirement to meet any eventualities”. Three carriers are required to have at least two deployed operationally while the third undergoes maintenance or refit.

Smaller carriers, such as the INS Vikrant, carry only 20-24 fighter jets and their ski-jump design limits combat capabilities due to reduced fuel and weapon payload. With jets required for fleet defence, the number of aircraft available for offensive missions is reduced. A 65,000-ton carrier will be able to carry up to 40 fighter jets and full fuel and weapons loads with catapult assisted takeoff. This carrier will also be able to launch force multipliers such as surveillance and early warning aircraft, which cannot be launched from ski-jump carriers.

Money And Prioritisation

The late Chief of Defence Staff, Gen Bipin Rawat, asked the Navy to choose between nuclear attack submarines (SSN) and aircraft carriers due to resource constraints, stating that India is not an expeditionary force. The reasoning is flawed because it may be taking into account how the United States uses its carriers. Carriers are the most powerful sea control tools around which the Indian Navy is structured. The Navy is unequivocal in its need for a larger third carrier, describing it as non-negotiable. It rejects the carrier versus SSN argument, stating that both are required and that the SSN will be a critical component of its future carrier battlegroups. In its maritime capability perspective plan, the navy claims to have budgeted for carriers, submarines, and maritime patrol aircraft.


The supposed lack of funds, and the subsequent push to prioritise submarines, appears to compel the Navy to shift its doctrine from sea control to sea denial, while shifting the nation’s security outlook from maritime to land-centric. Sea denial is the tactic of denying an adversary access to the seas, which is primarily accomplished with submarines. Carrier battlegroups include submarines, which is why the Indian Navy refuses to view the two as binary and does not consider sea control and sea denial to be mutually exclusive. Vulnerability of the carrier due to detection by satellites and long range missiles has been cited, particularly the Chinese DF-21 and DF-26 ballistic missiles, dubbed carrier killer. The Chinese have yet to demonstrate operational success in hitting a ship travelling at 30 knots. These land-based missiles lack the range to reach the Indian Ocean, where Indian carriers will be primarily deployed. A carrier is a highly protected asset that controls vast areas of the seas and is difficult to sink. Even if a couple of missiles hit it, it will not sink.

Doctrines derived from learnings dating back to India’s colonisation cannot be discarded. It will have serious security consequences. Small countries with a brown water navy benefit from sea denial. Since Independence, India has envisioned a blue-water navy. At the doctrinal level, sea denial does not serve its expanding interests, counter security threats, or fulfil the aspirations as a security provider. Aircraft carriers are crucial to the Indian Navy’s ability to control the seas.

Yusuf T Unjhawala is the editor of Defence Forum India