The launch of INS Vikrant, India’s second aircraft carrier, is truly a moment of pride for the nation. It took thirteen years to build and cost over Rs 20,000 crore. Aircraft and helicopters for it have yet to be procured. Its construction provided 15,000 personnel with direct and indirect employment. It also led to collaboration between 550 companies of which 100 were micro, small and medium enterprises.
It has a 76 per cent indigenous content, which is laudable. With its launch, India joins the elite group of nations which construct their own carriers. An aircraft carrier has a life span of forty-fifty years, during which it undergoes multiple upgrades and refurbishing. Vikrant’s launch has opened doors to discussion on whether India needs a third carrier. The navy has been insisting that India must possess a three-carrier navy as its security challenges have grown over the years.
As PM Modi stated during the launch, ‘earlier, security concerns in the Indo-Pacific region and Indian Ocean have been ignored. Currently, this region is a major defence priority. Hence, we are working in every direction, from increasing the budget for the Navy to increasing its capability.’ As the Indian economy grows, so will its trade, most of which would be sea-bound; securing it is the navy’s responsibility.
Added are security challenges posed by the Chinese navy and its efforts at enhancing Pakistan’s naval capabilities. As the Chinese navy expands, its footprint in the Indian Ocean would increase. However, force levels operating in the Indian Ocean would remain restricted. Its berthing of submarines earlier and military research ship recently in Hambantota in Sri Lanka, acquiring a naval base in Djibouti and possibly another in Gwadar would necessitate India possessing adequate naval power.
India’s navy does need a blue water capability but does this only flow through aircraft carriers is the question. The navy also contends that in case India possesses three aircraft carriers, at any one time, two would be available.
INS Vikramaditya, India’s other aircraft carrier has been unavailable for the past two years, undergoing refurbishment. Simultaneously, there is a counter view that the age of aircraft carriers has passed. Its cost of construction, maintenance and alternatives, including use of island territories as airbases, and submarines for sea denial are cheaper and more viable. The guns versus butter argument will never cease.
Added is their vulnerability to long-range missiles such as the Chinese DF 21D and DF 26. Loss of an aircraft carrier in operations is degrading for the nation. Further, with India not possessing expeditionary designs, aircraft carriers are considered unnecessary by a few experts. Even amongst naval strategists there is a debate on whether India must invest in a third carrier or build additional submarines, whose strength has reduced to 16 from the desired 24.
Most submarines currently in service are also nearing retirement. India’s defence budget will always be limited, from which all three services will seek their share. Those opposing aircraft carriers claim that submarines can effectively provide a ‘sea denial strategy’ as against a ‘sea control strategy’ created by ‘Carrier Battle Groups (CBG).’ In their opinion sea denial is a better option for a country like India, which lacks financial resources. On the contrary, the official naval doctrine advocates CBG and sea control as it would enable degrading the enemy’s naval power.
As the naval chief, Admiral Hari Kumar, mentioned, ‘It’s not about either carrier or submarine, but the right balance between ships, submarines and aircraft.’ The third aircraft carrier, which the navy desires, is expected to be of 65,000 to 70,000 tonnes as compared to INS Vikrant of 45,000 tonnes. It is estimated to cost approximately Rs 80,000 to 90,000 crore, including provision of aircraft and helicopters.
Such an expenditure could impact other modernization plans, as additional budgetary allocations are unlikely to be forthcoming, despite recommendations of the 15th Finance Commission. Shortfall in funds has already impacted the navy. It has reduced its projections for a 200-warship navy by 2027 to 175. It has also lowered its demands for helicopters and P 81 Maritime multi-mission aircraft. Before committing to additional expenditure for a third aircraft carrier there is a need for it to reassess its ability to manage its budget and continue with modernisation of the rest of its fleet.
The army and air force, though officially silent on the navy’s demand for a third aircraft carrier, have also been concerned about depleting budgets and the impact on their share in case the navy’s case for a third carrier is accepted. The air force is more concerned as its squadron strengths are rapidly depleting.
General Bipin Rawat, as the CDS, was firmly against a third carrier, pushing for sea denial employing submarines and developing India’s island territories as air bases. Air power strategists claim that employing air to air refuellers would enhance the range of fighter aircraft to support naval operations from shore-based airfields.
The Su 30MKI is claimed to possess a 1,500 km range which could be expanded with air-to-air refuellers. IAF’s fighter fleet is equipped with Harpoon and Brahmos cruise missiles to support naval operations. There is no doubt that aircraft carriers are a projection of a nation’s capabilities in peace time. However, in the operational context, Indian aircraft carriers are unlikely to be employed beyond the Indian Ocean region, for which a two-carrier fleet is sufficient.
To ensure availability, reducing downtime in refurbishment is therefore of greater importance than creating a reserve. The navy must also consider whether it possesses the necessary flotilla to operate three CBGs, in addition to its routine movements.
If the intention of procuring a third is availability of two in case of refitting of one carrier, then it may well be a very costly war reserve. There is also a need to assess whether constructing operational airfields in Andaman and Nicobar would be a cheaper and more balanced option as compared to building a third aircraft carrier.
An indepth assessment must be made before the decision is taken. Based on lessons learnt, the third aircraft carrier can be built in under 10 years, hence decision-making cannot be delayed.