INS Vikrant's Induction Revives Old Debate — Does India Need A Third Aircraft Carrier And Now?
The Indian Navy's argument is that the third aircraft carrier is an operational necessity.
The commissioning of INS Vikrant into the Indian Navy earlier today (2 September) has ignited the debate on the requirement of a third aircraft carrier.
The last time this debate was raging, it had exposed fissures within the security establishment.
The former Chief of Defence Staff, General Bipin Rawat, had argued that acquiring more submarines to boost under-sea capabilities must be a priority as the submarine fleet is dwindling.
However, the then Indian Navy Chief, Admiral Karambir Singh, had said that a new 65,000-tonne aircraft carrier remains non-negotiable.
The navy's argument is that the third aircraft carrier is an operational necessity.
It needs a third aircraft carrier to ensure that at least two are operational at all times — one on the eastern seaboard in the Arabian Sea and the other in the Bay of Bengal, on the western seaboard, while the third carrier undergoes maintenance and repair.
Aircraft carriers are necessary for India to have the capability to dominate the Indian Ocean and project power away from its shores — western Indian Ocean, for example — as shore-based assets are limited by their range.
In the National Maritime Security Strategy released in 2015, the navy says that the central concept around which it will be employed is "sea control", for which it would need "Carrier Task Force, consisting of Carrier Battle Group(s) with integral Anti-Air Warfare, Anti-Surface Warfare and Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW) capability" etc.
"Aircraft carriers are central to fleet operations and the concept of sea control, as they offer flexibility and versatility of a very high order. These mobile airfields combine substantial integral air power with mobility, to provide ubiquitous and enhanced combat power across vast maritime spaces, and the advantage of rapid redeployment," it says.
Moreover, even if shore-based aircraft can launch strikes at targets deep in the Indian Ocean with aerial refuelling, their capability to provide air cover to the fleet at sea would be limited.
The argument has gained traction in the backdrop of the rapid expansion of the People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) of China, now the largest Navy in the world in terms of the number of platforms, and its ever-increasing presence in the Indian Ocean region.
The PLAN currently has two operational aircraft carriers, Liaoning and Shandong. At 65,000 tonnes, both these carriers are significantly larger than the 45,000-tonne INS Vikrant. Last month, China also launched a new 80,000-tonne carrier christened Fujian.
The flat-top is equipped with a catapult-assisted take-off but arrested recovery or CATOBAR system to launch aircraft at maximum take-off weight and a full payload.
Another argument in favour of the third aircraft carrier is that the gestation period of the project is likely to be long, and India must start now to capitalise on the learnings and the industrial capabilities developed during the construction of INS Vikrant.
The supporters of the idea have also argued that sanctioning the design, development and construction of a third aircraft carrier now makes sense because it may take years, if not a decade, to build a 65,000 tonne carrier, which will not look anything like INS Vikrant, the only carrier India has ever built indigenously.
If the development of the next carrier does not start now, the capabilities developed for the construction of INS Vikrant would be lost.
Additionally, development and testing may take years, and the carrier would be ready only sometime in the 2030s if work on it begins now.
But many, including those seen close to the current security establishment and believed to reflect its views, seem unconvinced.
At the core of the argument against prioritising new aircraft carriers is the development of anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) capability to deny the adversary's naval assets, including carriers, the freedom to operate in battlefield.
With the development of carrier killer missiles, like China's DF-21 D and DF-26, many have questioned the survivability of aircraft carriers.
For example, DF-26, which is believed to have a maximum firing range of 1,800-2,500 miles, has been dubbed as a threat to US aircraft carriers in the western Pacific and the South China Sea.
"We are not expeditionary forces that have to deploy around the globe. We have to guard and fight only along our borders and, of course, dominate the Indian Ocean Region. I think the Navy needs more submarines rather than aircraft carriers, which themselves require their own individual armadas for protection," Rawat has said in 2020.
Rawat's point on prioritising submarines over carriers is critical not just because a carrier may be vulnerable to missiles like DF-26, but also because developing a 65,000-tonne carrier and equipping it with fighters and other weapons systems is prohibitively costly.
Not only does the Indian Navy have fewer submarines than it needs, but most of its conventional submarines are also around 20 to 30 years old and will have to be replaced over the next decade.
For these reasons, the navy will have to invest heavily in its submarine arm over the next few years, which will leave little money for a new aircraft carrier and its air component.
Investing in submarines has become imperative with China deploying submarines to the Indian Ocean region and conducting oceanographic research in India's near-seas, which returns data critical for operating and detecting submarines in these waters.
With the navy insisting on a third aircraft carrier and the government yet to announce its decision formally, this is where the debate currently stands. Or, perhaps, the debate has ended, at least within the government, with a decision to maintain ambiguity.
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