The case for more carriers
Carriers are an essential element of sea control. According to India’s maritime doctrine, “Sea control is the central concept around which the Indian Navy is structured, and aircraft carriers are decidedly the most substantial contributors to it. This is because they possess ordnance delivery capability of a very high order, often greater than the balance fleet units in the Task Force. This is by means of their substantial integral air power, which provides integral, ubiquitous and enhanced combat power, with extended reach and rapid response capability.”
At a bare minimum, India should have three carriers – one for each seaboard, with a third on standby. India was without a carrier task force for six months in 2016 as its lone flattop INS Vikramaditya was undergoing maintenance.Having three carriers on call is an ideal situation but is possible only if funds allow. If the Navy is prepared to sacrifice other platforms to divert funds to the second carrier, where does it propose to get money for the support vessels?
For, an aircraft carrier doesn’t travel alone. It usually operates with, and is at the centre of, a composite task force, including multi-purpose destroyers, frigates, submarines and logistics ships. The carrier task force is a self-contained and balanced force, capable of undertaking the entire range of operational tasks.
We do not want a situation like that in 1971 when a limping Vikrant was sent into battle along with only four light frigates (one of which lacked sonar) and a lone submarine to provide anti-submarine protection. In his book No Way But Surrender, Vice Admiral N Krishnan writes, “Even assuming that no operational defects developed, it would still be necessary to withdraw ships from the area of operations for fuelling. The basic problem was that if reasonable anti submarine protection had to be provided to Vikrant and the escort ships had to be in close company for this purpose, then how were 18,000 square miles to be kept under surveillance?”
The Navy had deployed the entire complement of the Vikrant’s aircraft in offensive operations against East Pakistan, leaving none for the carrier’s defence. It was a calculated risk that paid off. Had Pakistan been in possession of another long-range submarine, the story may have been different.
Don’t cannibalise the Navy
While aircraft carriers are symbols of prestige, the bits and parts needed to win wars must not be neglected. Sadly, this has happened. For instance, India’s submarine strength currently stands at 15 vessels and is behind Pakistan’s fleet of 17.
Even North Korea, which can barely feed its population, has a fleet of 70 subs, which is why the United States carriers keep a safe distance from the Korean peninsula.
Submarines are the true predators of the deep and will allow India to wreak havoc on its adversaries during a war. A fleet of 24 subs (the sanctioned strength), but ideally 50 undersea vessels, can target every task force in the Indian Ocean. During the 1999 Kargil War, it was a submarine, and not a carrier, that was poised to deliver the first blow had India decided to escalate the conflict. INS Sindhurakshak was deployed very close to Karachi and had its torpedoes trained on the harbour installations.
As well as subs, India needs to spend on other less glamorous but critical weapons platforms such as missile boats, frigates, stealth ships, minesweepers, land and ship attack missiles, torpedoes, shore-based radar, close-in warfare weapons, electronic warfare suites and maritime satellites.
The Navy as a force multiplier
India cannot – and should not – match China carrier for carrier, but it should emulate the Chinese strategy of shipbuilding to boost the economy. Admiral Bhagwat points out that the Chinese military and political leadership had declared as a matter of state policy that shipbuilding would be the springboard for China’s industrial development. For India, this is especially advantageous because it is hemmed in to the north and the northeast, and the only strategic space the country has to manoeuvre is in the oceans.