Blueprint To Bluewater: The Indian Navy’s Journey From Carriers To Supercarriers

Blueprint To Bluewater: The Indian Navy’s Journey From Carriers To SupercarriersIndian Navy’s aircraft carriers INS Viraat and Vikramaditya in the Arabian Sea in January 2014. (Indian Navy)
Snapshot
  • If India is to face off against the threat from foreign navies, it needs carriers – several of them. A navy without airpower is a sitting duck.

    The Indian Maritime Doctrine of 2015 states that the future fleet will be based on three carrier battle groups (CBGs).

    Although the old dream of making the Indian Ocean an India’s ocean is no longer part of the navy’s doctrine, dominating the blue waters is part of the plan.

In August 1947, within a week of India attaining independence from British rule, an Outline Plan for the reorganisation and development of the Indian Navy was prepared by Naval Headquarters. In its preamble, the plan paper said:

India will never attain security or pre-eminence till she is in a position to maintain her position against every aggressor....A navy commanding the respect of the world is not a luxury for her but a vital necessity.

Two years later, naval strategist Keshav Vaidya wrote in The Naval Defence of India that the newly independent country should try to be the undisputed power over the waters of the Indian Ocean. The Indian Navy, he emphasised, should become “an invincible navy to defend not only her coast but her distant oceanic frontiers”.

The lofty ambitions of India’s strategists were, however, brought down to earth by the political leadership which was adamantly opposed to beefing up the military. Barring a few, like Deputy Prime Minister Sardar Patel, who supported a “strong navy”, the Gandhians, including Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, had an aversion for the military.

Luckily for India, Britain had a partly built aircraft carrier – a legacy of the Second World War – which the Royal Navy was looking to offload. Governor General Louis Mountbatten prevailed upon Nehru to buy the 16,000-tonne vessel. Mountbatten hoped that by offering it a British carrier, the Indian Navy could be persuaded into becoming the bulwark of a Commonwealth naval alliance. Plus, the Royal Navy would pocket some cash in the bargain.

India did not toe the line on alliances with its former oppressors, but it agreed to buy the vessel. So, instead of being consigned to the scrapyard, the warship was completed and commissioned into the Indian Navy on 4 March 1961 as the INS Vikrant. And that’s how India achieved the miracle of a poor country acquiring an aircraft carrier.

Carrier strategy pays off

The Indian Navy’s early investment in the carrier paid handsome dividends. In the 1971 War, INS Vikrant, supported by just two warships, bottled up the Pakistan Navy’s eastern wing in Chittagong harbour. More than 97,000 Pakistan Army troops were planning to escape on board these ships, which were to make a dash for the open sea. Vikrant’s vigil – and the sinking of several Pakistani merchant vessels by its jets – hastened the largest capitulation of troops since General Paulus’ Sixth Army surrendered in Stalingrad in 1943.

The Indian Navy received another bonus, thanks to its flagship. In November 1971, well over a month before the declaration of war, the Pakistan Navy had despatched an American-gifted submarine named PNS Ghazi – with the mission to sink the Indian carrier.

When Indian intelligence got wind of the Ghazi plan, the navy hid the carrier in the Andaman & Nicobar Islands – over 1,500 km from the mainland. The navy then built an elaborate ruse that lured the Ghazi. First, it positioned its largest warship, the INS Rajput, off Visakhapatnam harbour and created heavy radio traffic that mimicked the Vikrant’s. Secondly, the port authorities placed huge orders for food and supplies that would normally be required when a ship of Vikrant’s capacity sails in.

The Ghazi took the bait and started laying mines in the port’s channel. But the hunter became the hunted on 4 December that year, when it blew up and sank in the harbour. While the Indian Navy claimed that it was INS Rajput’s depth charges that caused the explosion, the Pakistanis say their submarine was destroyed by an internal explosion. Whatever caused the explosion, the Indian Navy definitely got good bang for its carrier.

No power like sea power

Despite the proliferation of new carrier missiles from Russia and China – which has spent billions on the development of a ballistic anti-carrier weapon – the carrier continues to inspire awe. “The aircraft carrier in the 21st century continues to remain the most conspicuous symbol of a nation’s maritime power,” says former Commodore and author C Uday Bhaskar. “Nothing projects raw combat power like these citadels of maritime power.”

In the 2009 report ‘China’s Maritime Rights and Navy’, Senior Captain Li Jie, an analyst at the Chinese navy’s strategic think tank, Naval Research Institute, agrees: “No great power that has become a strong power has achieved this without developing carriers.”

If India is to face off against the threat from foreign navies, it needs carriers – several of them. Providing security cover to its maritime trade with land-based airpower solutions would require a huge number of aircraft. It would also require treaties – that may be revoked – for landing on foreign bases.

A navy without airpower is a sitting duck. Says Bhaskar:

Can India afford not to have aircraft carriers for air-defence and anti-submarine roles? The survival of the surface fleet in the modern world is highly suspect without carriers for their defence. Technology has altered the equation and the carrier is (now) needed to protect the surface fleet.

But despite Vikrant’s stellar performance, India’s political leadership did not shed its continental mindset. No effort was made to construct a carrier at home, and India continued to rely on hand-me-down carriers from Britain (INS Viraat in 1987) and Russia (INS Vikramaditya in 2013).

The upshot: the navy is down to a single carrier after Viraat sailed into retirement last year. Worse, the sole carrier, Vikramaditya, is currently in dry dock, which means if war breaks out, the navy will have to manage without its 44,000-tonne flagship.

New breed of carriers

The Indian Maritime Doctrine of 2015 for the first time states that the future fleet will be based on three carrier battle groups (CBGs). This means if one is undergoing refit or repairs, there will always be two carriers available – for the eastern and western seaboards.

The first of India’s new-generation carriers is the 40,000-tonne Vikrant class IAC I, or Indigenous Aircraft Carrier I. It will feature STOBAR (short takeoff but arrested recovery) and ski-jumps. The carrier was floated out of its dry dock at Cochin Shipyard Ltd (CSL) on 29 December 2011 and launched on 12 August 2013.

Ship construction involves the following stages: production, keel laying, launch, outfitting, basin trials, contractor sea trials and final machinery trials. Currently, INS Vikrant is at the outfitting stage, and the final bill is estimated at $3.76 billion.

While INS Vikrant will be smaller than India’s current flagship, INS Vikramaditya, the next vessel, INS Vishal (IAC II), will be a 65,000-tonne beast. This new supercarrier will purportedly feature significant design changes, including possible nuclear propulsion and catapult-assisted takeoff but arrested recovery (CATOBAR) and the electromagnetic aircraft launch systems (EMALS) from the United States (US).

In the summer of 2015, Russia, France, the United Kingdom (UK) and the US received requests for technical and costing proposals regarding the design of India’s new aircraft carrier. The two top contenders are Russia and France, given that India operates aircraft from both countries. However, the dark horse appears to be the US, which could nose ahead with its EMALS.

Russian Shtorm

Russia has offered its Shtorm supercarrier design. Powered by either nuclear or conventional propulsion, the ship can remain at sea for 120 days and sail up to 30 knots or 55kph. It can accommodate a crew of up to 5,000 and can carry 80-90 deck-based aircraft.

There are two problems with this offer. One, Russia has never built a nuclear-powered carrier before, although it has plenty of experience in building other types of large nuclear-powered vessels, including submarines. Second, the 1,082 foot long Shtorm will have a displacement of 1,00,000 tonnes, which is well over India’s initial requirement. Does India need such overkill?

Going by the past record, Russia may have the edge. Not only does Shtorm dovetail with the ‘Make in India’ pitch, but Moscow also has a good record of transferring cutting-edge technologies to Indian manufacturers.

Says Russian military analyst Ilya Kramnik:

It is important to eliminate the Americans from the possibility of participating in this project. All that Washington can really do under these circumstances is to try to push India to abandon the idea of using a nuclear power plant, and then attempt to sell New Delhi a converted boiler and turbine aircraft carrier of the ‘Kitty Hawk’ variety. The option is possible, especially if India decides it needs to save money.

According to Kramnik, the US usually refuses to work in consortiums with competitors, especially Russians. “The situation, in which India suddenly would place MiG-29K fighter jets on an American-built carrier, is almost impossible,” he explains.

It can be assumed with a high degree of probability that, in accordance with the longstanding tradition of the Indian military, none of these bidders will be chosen as the “sole” contractor. Rather, a multilateral consortium will be built, in which each participant will play a well-defined role.

American pitch

It would be unprecedented if the US goes ahead with the transfer of EMALS technology to India, which is not a close ally like the UK, Norway or Italy.

However, the US appears to be seriously wooing India. Chief of US Naval Operations, Admiral John Richardson, says India and the US are making progress in talks on the joint development of an aircraft carrier, potentially the biggest military collaboration between them.

Richardson said the two sides had held talks on a range of issues relating to the next-generation Indian carrier from its design to construction. "We are making very good progress, I am very pleased with the progress to date and optimistic we can do more in the future. That’s on a very solid track," Richardson said while in India in February this year.

India and the US have formed a joint working group on aircraft carrier technology cooperation, but there is no clarity on whether the Americans will offer EMALS technology for Indian aircraft carriers.

EMALS could be a game changer. Defence News explains:

Using electromagnetic technology, the system delivers substantial improvements in system maintenance, increased reliability and efficiency, higher-launch energy capacity, and more accurate end-speed control, with a smooth acceleration at both high and low speeds. By allowing linear acceleration over time, electromagnetic catapults also place less stress on the aircraft.

In simple language, carrier-based aircraft operate under suboptimal capacity because of their short takeoffs. For instance, the stated combat range of a MiG-29K is 700km, but in real combat it would be a lot lower because it cannot take off with a full tank of gas. EMALS makes life easier for navy pilots.

Vikrant and Vishal: Less than smooth sailing

While talks proceed on the future carrier, Vikrant’s construction has not kept in step. A report tabled by the Comptroller & Auditor General (CAG) on 26 July 2016 says the programme has suffered delays because of drastic revisions right through the carrier’s timeline.

While the Defence Ministry and the Indian Navy insist the ship’s final delivery timeline is December 2018, the CAG report, ‘Union Defence Services Navy and Coast Guard’, says the delivery of the carrier with completion of all activities is likely to be achieved only by 2023.

A key area where things went wrong is General Arrangement or GA – the document based on which the ship is designed and constructed. The GA drawings principally represent volumes, spaces, compartments, bulkheads, hull forms, decks and main equipment.

According to the CAG report,

There were more than 4270 changes to the GA document by the Indian Navy and, due to design changes, more than 1150 modifications in hull structure had been done by the shipyard. Frequent modification to the hull structure was one of the main reasons for a delay of approximately two years in hull fabrication.

Steep learning curve

CSL clearly lacked the experience required to handle a project of such a gigantic scale. A technical audit of the shipyard carried out by France’s DCN discovered the shipyard had “never built warships and was not used to the complexity of their designs, hull and systems”.

The shipyard’s organisation was mostly vertical without enough functional links between various departments. “It had no real project management central organisation and was working with many separated departments.”

To adapt CSL to produce an aircraft carrier, DCN prescribed basic proposals with respect to augmentation of the shipyard’s infrastructure, organisation and human resources, which included creation of a shipyard project management team and a liaison team.

CAG observes:

Since CSL was constructing an aircraft carrier for the first time, it was incumbent upon them to fully implement the DCN proposals so as to execute the project within approved timelines.

However, this was not done, and the project management team remained a weak one.

Delays are inevitable because this is India’s first aircraft carrier project. But it really shouldn’t take 24 years to construct a medium-sized aircraft carrier. After all, it takes the US only seven years to authorise, construct and deliver a 1,00,000-tonne carrier with nuclear propulsion.

Nuclear vs conventional

According to Eric Wertheim, the author of Combat Fleets of the World, the odds of India needing the bluewater capability a nuclear carrier would bring, are small. “If you’re looking at regional operations, then I think it makes less sense to do nuclear propulsion,” he told the US Naval Institute.

However, the Maritime Doctrine of 2015 lays out that the India Navy’s strategic vision will no longer be limited to the northern Indian Ocean, but will extend to the southeast Indian Ocean, Red Sea, western coast of Africa and the Mediterranean Sea. The new carriers are not only aimed at countering the growing Chinese presence in the near seas but if needed, the Indian Navy must have the capability to sail out to distant troubled spots.

In terms of gas mileage, conventional aircraft carriers are the biggest guzzlers of fuel. The USS Independence, for instance, consumes well over 5,67,000 litres of fuel a day. An oil-importing country like India can ill afford to burn that much fuel.

Nuclear-powered carriers cost more to build but are more energy-efficient. They can remain at sea for up to a year or more and only need to return to port for crew rotation. They also require less downtime during maintenance as compared with a conventionally powered ship.

In a paper titled ‘Nuclear Propulsion For Naval Platforms: The Navy's Perspective’, Captain Vikram Bora and Commodore K J Singh argue that if India wants to take full advantage of the latest technologies, then nuclear is the way to go. “In the case of large surface combatants like aircraft carriers, nuclear power provides high propulsive power and long endurance, whilst also catering for the requirement of short bursts of very high electric power for aircraft launch systems on certain state of the art platforms,” they say.

“Nuclear propulsion is an area of technology which is essential for any navy aiming for a global presence,” the authors maintain. “The technology has enormous potential, both for surface combatants and submarines.”

On the flip side, decommissioning a nuclear power carrier is a nightmare and can take years, compared with just weeks for a conventional ship. The cost is estimated at $500 million per ship.

Way forward: Look to the past

Since Rig Vedic times up to the last Chola kings, the Indian Ocean was literally India’s ocean. However, in the later half of the previous millennium, India became dominated by land-centric rulers from Central Asia who had little maritime knowledge or interest. Consequently, India yielded control of the sea to the European powers.

However, with the rise of the Marathas in the early eighteenth century, the focus on sea power returned. The Marathas enjoyed many tactical successes against the western navies. Notable among these was the Maratha blockade of British-held Mumbai port that led to the British East India Company ceding a ransom of 8,750 pounds. In the year 1721, the Maratha Navy even defeated a Portuguese-British combined assault on Alibagh.

The Maratha Admiral of the Fleet, Kanhoji Angre, defeated the Western navy of his day. For 33 years until his death in 1729, the Indian fleets remained undefeated. Wrote British historian Charles Kincaid in the History of the Maratha People: “Victorious alike over the English, Dutch and the Portuguese, the Maratha admirals sailed the Arabian Sea in triumph.”

Although the old dream of making the Indian Ocean an India’s ocean is no longer a component of the navy’s doctrine, dominating the blue waters is part of the plan. Or to use former Admiral Vishnu Bhagwat’s words, enhancing India's force projection capability is a “national requirement on the strategic frontier, not at the doorstep”.

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