Can India economically afford a Third Aircraft Carrier for Indian Navy!

NewsBharati    17-Jul-2021   
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India’s Chief of Naval Staff insists on the need for “Third Aircraft Craft Carrier” to deter and dominate the Indian Ocean Region (IOR), and “Power Projection” and “Influence operations” over the Asia-Pacific Region; but Chief of Defense Staff negates the proposal.
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The estimated cost of INS VISHAL (65,000 tonnes), the third aircraft carrier on paper, is Rs.1, 50,000/- projected for 2030. What about its add-on costs (55 aircraft – 35 fixed wing and 20 rotary) and life-cycle maintenance costs? Together, they will be phenomenal. In contrast, PLAN will have at least 6+1 aircraft carriers (Type 003 85,000 tones, CATOBAR launcher and type 004 with laser and rail guns) to gain naval ascendency in the Pacific, but project power into the IOR with one carrier battle group (CBG).
“Freedom of Navigation” on the high seas should be the end objective of all countries; and not complete domination/command over the seas. Neither U.S. nor China can dominate/command seas. Even “Sea Control” doctrine/concepts require de novo review due to induction of anti-access and area denial systems like the Brahmos missiles, underwater unmanned autonomous vehicles (UUAVs), Unmanned Aerial Combat Vehicles (UACVs), Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs)/Drones, mines/sensors.
Key factors that govern the need for “Third Air Craft Carrier” include: Geostrategic importance of the IOR; India’s Geostrategic significance; Emerging Strategic and Operational Environment; Strategic Competitors and Opportunities; Competitors Force Levels; Aircraft Carriers Force levels and Life-Cycle costs; IN Roles; and Alternate Options and Choices.
Geostrategic Significance of the IOR
The geostrategic significance of the IOR is well recognized – third largest ocean in the World covering 20% of the Earth’s water surface. Three strategically significant out of seven key world’s choke points are in the IOR: Malacca strait; Strait of Hormuz; and Mozambique Channel. More than 80,000 ships a year transit Malacca strait. There are 51 coastal and landlocked states and home to 2.7 billion people (around 35% of global population). From resource-rich Africa and the energy-dense Middle East to South Asia’s labor markets and manufacturing industries, peace and stability of the IOR is crucial: over 16.8% of oil reserves, 27.9% of natural gas reserves, 35.5% of global iron production; 17.8% of gold production in 2017, 28% of global fish capture in 2016 and other strategic material and including undersea minerals, besides climate change, fishing, drug smuggling, and human trafficking. Alternative route is impossible to navigate for large ships. Any disruption along Sea Lines of Communications (SLOC) will impact the entire lobe’s energy security and supplies chains.
Geostrategic significance of India
India’s geostrategic significance is extraordinarily unique: DAGGER jetting into the IOR with the Andaman Nicobar Island Territories like “SHIELD” or “IRON CURTAIN” straddling SLOC through Malacca Strait. Indira Point of Great Nicobar Island is 145 km or 80 nautical miles from Rondo Island of Indonesia. Also, India’s mainland straddles the SLOCs in the Arabian Sea. Distance between Bhuj to the Strait of
Hormuz is 1380 kms. Kanyakumari, southern tip of the mainland overlooks the southern part of the IOR. The A & N Islands, in conjunction with bases on the mainland, can exercise sea control by land/shore based combat aircraft with refueling capabilities, UACVs/Drones, UUAVs and “Surface to Ship” missiles and operating in collaboration with nuclear powered submarines, frigates, destroyers, missile boats, mines with satellites and underwater sensors providing 24x365 surveillance and monitoring capability.
Emerging Strategic and Operational Environment
Strategic conundrum is real. Large number of actors in highly complex bipolar and multi polar partnerships are shaping the IORs “Emerging Strategic and Operational Environment” due to economic and maritime interests/linkages. With the rise of China, competition/rivalry is intensifying to include: between U.S. and China; China and India; between middle powers like Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Iran and their Gulf allies; France, UK, Russia, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Australia and South East Asian countries; and other littoral nations. With end objective to preserve and maintain peace and stability in the IOR, a large number of multi lateral groups are associated with the IOR like the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IOR), the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium (IONS), GCC, SAARC, ASEAN, QUAD etc.
Strategic Competitors and Opportunities
China has World’s largest Navy. Its maritime strategy has made paradigm shift: Near seas defense vs. far seas protection”. China greatest vulnerability is the Malacca Strait – Malacca Dilemma. China, as the largest emerging economy of the world, is dependent on the Gulf Region and the SLOCs for over 80 percent of oil needs and strategic economic interests in the littoral nations of the IOR. And, the dependency on one narrow choke point is a key constraint in its strategic ambitions in South Asia, Africa, the Middle East, the Mediterranean, and beyond. China is bidding its time – 2030 and 2049!! By 2049 China aims for a military capable to fight and win wars and project power globally. The Maritime Silk Road and Belt and Road Initiative provide opportunities to collaborate on economic and military issues.
Known focus areas of PLA planning are along the SLOCs from China to the Strait of Hormuz and Africa. Building on its antipiracy missions with its first base in Djibouti in 2017, China is planning for additional military logistics facilities to support naval, air, and ground forces projection. China is the only one with a diplomatic mission across all six island nations. China has developed ports/base facilities in Djibouti, Dar es Salaam-Seychelles, Gwadar-Pakistan, Hambantota-Sri Lanka, Chittagong-Bangladesh and Kyaukpyu-Myanmar. The Chinese are establishing a military base in the leased Maldivian island of Feydhoo Finolhu Island until 2066 that would tilt the geopolitical balance towards China. When joined together, the ports appear to be a “string of pearls” around the neck of the Indian subcontinent.
China is also planning to develop base/logistics facilities in Cambodia (Ream Naval Base), Myanmar, Thailand, Singapore, Indonesia, United Arab Emirates, Kenya, Tanzania and Angola. The SSF runs tracking, telemetry, and command stations in Namibia and Pakistan. China provides personnel to UN operations in Somalia, Sudan, South Sudan, Mali, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Western Sahara, Cyprus, Lebanon and elsewhere in the Middle East. In July 2019, China hosted the first China Africa Peace and Security Forum in Beijing attended by representatives from 50 African countries.
In order to counter Chinese influence in the IOR, the U.S. has adopted a New Defense Strategy - shift from the past Pacific-centric strategic focus to the Asia-Pacific centric. The U.S. is maintaining a military base on the island of Diego Garcia (United States/UK/Mauritius) in the Chagos Archipelago. It is also exploiting opportunities to use the key island territories - Cocos Keeling (Australia), Reunion (France), Andaman and Nicobar (India). And, the “QUAD” initiative is in pursuit of “Free and Open Indo Pacific (FOIP)/Freedom of Navigation strategy.
France is a major player in the western Indian Ocean through Reunion Island, key partner in French speaking Madagascar and Comoros with facilities in Djibouti. France is a member of the Indian Ocean Commission, the only forum that brings together the French-speaking islands of the region. India has finalized logistics exchange deal with France. UK maintains its footprint in Chagos (British Island Territories). In 2020, Russia announced the establishment of a new naval base in Sudan for a period of twenty-five years. This provides Moscow with strategic access to the Red Sea and by extension to Bab el-Mandeb, one of the key choke points in the Indian Ocean.
Recently, there is a race by new players such as Saudi Arabia, UAE and Turkey to build naval and military bases right across the Horn of Africa. Saudi Arabia has recently finalized a deal to establish a naval base in Djibouti. Its close ally, the UAE has built major naval and air facilities at Assab in nearby Eritrea and runs a training center in Mogadishu, Somalia. The UAE has long provided financial and political support to small Indian Ocean island states. Turkey has existing military facilities at Qatar and at Mogadishu. The Turkish Navy has been an active participant in anti-piracy operations.
If the big powers want the small island nations as allies, they must pay attention to their nontraditional security concerns like climate change, fishing etc. These issues also carry strategic implications: for fishing vessels and scientific missions used for surveillance and reconnaissance purposes. Hence, they will significantly impact the region’s ongoing geopolitical competition. Thus, all actors with interests in the IOR will have to think through their smaller partners’ nontraditional security challenges if they want to address their own national security interests.
Force Levels of Competitors
The overall force levels of key competitors in IOR are given in the Table below:

Understanding China’s vision, strategic threat concerns and multi front-multi domain force levels is critical. China faces US Navy force projection in “Sea” domains, both surface and sub surface in the Pacific. Its current vision is to deter and limit US Navy Super carrier operations beyond “Second Island Chain” in the Pacific. So, it is accelerating its efforts to acquire sophisticated anti-ship missiles, aircraft careers and submarines. The improved DF-26 (3000-4000 km), known as “medium-size ship killer” is to reach the “Second Island Chain” in the western Pacific Ocean, all the way to the US base on Guam. Now, its strategic shift is from “Near Seas Protection to Far Seas security”.
PLAN is the REGION's most powerful navy -- with some global reach, In reality, the real combat power of PLAN is surface warship fleet of 2 aircraft carriers, 50 destroyers, 49 Frigates and 71 Corvettes and submarine fleet of 79 platforms. China has three-fleets: North Sea Fleet, East Sea Fleet and South Sea Fleets. The South China Sea role is presently with the South Sea Fleet. Most important, PLAN aircraft carrier endurance without refueling is limited to less than week. That makes them more suitable for use in places like the South China Sea rather than in far oceans like the IOR sans permanent base facilities.
As per reports, China is on its way to build a world-class power projection navy by 2049 to wage high-tech naval war. PLAN will make use of AI, Drones, cyber weapons and use of killer apps, space based control of surveillance and creation of a defensive umbrella with offensive capabilities. The newest planned Chinese carrier - Type 003 (displacement of around 85,000 tones CATOBAR carrier started in 2017 and to be launched in 2021) - is to be equipped with a nuclear power reactor and electromagnetic catapults with more firepower and greater range. As per reports, the Type 004 featuring nuclear propulsion with weapons like lasers and rail guns also started construction in 2017.
PLAN is also focused on submarine fleet modernization effort - world’s biggest attack-sub fleets, with five JIN-class nuclear models (JL-2 nuclear capable missile range more than 8000 Kms) and at least 50 diesel models. Two nuclear-powered attack submarines (SSN) - SHANG-class SSNs (Type 093) – are already in service. China is building four improved variants of the SHANG-class SSN. In the next decade, China will likely construct the Type 095 guided-missile attack submarine (SSGN).
In contrast, the U.S. Navy surface warship fleet is 11 aircraft carriers, 70 destroyers, 22 Cruisers, 1 Frigate and a submarine fleet of 73 platforms. Both nations have under construction platforms and planning additional ones. The US Navy capability, albeit PLAN substantial numerical disadvantage, is more tonnage -- bigger and heavier armed ships like guided-missile destroyers and cruisers. General Atomics MQ-9 Reaper (sometimes called Predator B/new/Predator-B/ER version with VTOL/STOL capabilities) are force multipliers. The US has a significant edge in cruise missile launch capability: more than 9,000 vertical launch missile cells on its surface ships to China's 1,000 or so. Meanwhile, the US attack submarine fleet of 50 boats is entirely nuclear powered, giving it significant range and endurance advantages. The U.S. can employ one CBG in the IOR as deterrent force on required basis.
Aircraft Carrier Force Levels and Life Cycle Costs
As of January 2018, there are 41 active aircraft careers in the world operated by 13 countries. The US Navy has 11 active nuclear powered Super carriers carrying 80 fighter jets (down from around 50 in post World War II era). In addition, the US Navy has nine amphibious assault ships used primarily for helicopters, although these also carry up to 20 vertical or short take-off and landing (V/STOL) fighter jets and similar in size to medium-sized fleet carriers.
China has three medium-sized carriers. Russia, France and India have one medium-sized conventional career each with capacity from 30 to 50 fighter jets. Others nations include: two light fleet careers operated by Italy and one by Spain (1); and Helicopter carriers are operated by Australia (2), Egypt (2), France (3), Japan (4), South Korea (1), Thailand (1) and the United Kingdom (1).
By roles aircraft carriers are classified under four categories: fleet carriers; by configuration – CATOBAR or STOBAR or STOVL or Helicopter carrier; by size of displacement like Super carriers, displacing over 70,000 tones or greater; and by power of propulsion: nuclear powered and conventional.
Life-cycle Costs of Super carriers are astronomical. "At $14 billion apiece, one of them can cost the equivalent of nearly an entire year's shipbuilding budget," Hendrix (USA) notes. A Nimitz-class Super carrier carries around 5,000 people onboard. And, U.S. carrier strike group costs $25 million per week for routine operations, rising to $40 million during combat operations. And, the loss of a single carrier could conceivably demoralize the nation. "For this reason, the modern carrier violates a core principle of war: Never introduce an element that you cannot afford to lose," Hendrix writes. Losing a platform with nearly 5,000 souls onboard would be extraordinarily demoralizing to the nation.
Operational Effectiveness of Air Craft Carriers
Super carrier advocates consider them to be cost-effective than a larger number of smaller carriers. Those who favor aircraft carriers highlight that since World War II, no aircraft carriers has been sunk. Launching an open attack against a carrier strike group, with its own cruisers, destroyers, and submarines, is almost certainly a suicide mission. But, they fail to highlight that they have been operating in low-threat, permissive environments almost continuously. At no time since 1946 has a carrier had to fend off attacks by enemy aircraft, surface ships, or submarines.
As per US experts, the probability of operational effectiveness in the “New Operational Environment’ is low beyond 2030. Writing in the National Review in 2015, retired US Navy Captain Jerry Hendrix made the case that aircraft carriers are simply not suited to the future of naval warfare. Carriers are systems designed in a different historical age to deal with a very different historical context. But while sinking an aircraft carrier is difficult, it’s not impossible. Now, technological developments have placed the carrier’s survivability into question. Due to high-tech developments of a variety of different cruise missiles launched from different platforms with ALCMs, and ASBMs, the chances for CBGs operating near the land mass is difficult. Also, combat range of most of those planes is only 500 miles. This means that, even steaming at 30 knots, the carrier would spend 15 hours under an A2AD threat in order to carry its planes close enough to hit land targets. Sea-air-land launched precision-guided hypersonic missiles, UUAVs and high performance submarines make carriers impossible to defend.
Indian Navy (IN) Roles
Viewed in the context of highly complex and dynamic emerging strategic environment in the IOR, it is beyond India’s economic means to fantasize by itself to exercise command/domination of the IOR. Strategic partnerships are an imperative. No use for IN to insist on a wide variety of roles, which are in circulation in public domain: Naval Warfare, Force Projection, Sealift and Nuclear Deterrence; Sea control, Security of SLOCs, Maintaining Influence in IOR, Safeguarding Vital Interests Overseas, Security of Island Territories, Non-military Missions and politico-diplomatic forays; in conjunction with other Armed Forces of the union, act to deter or defeat any threats or aggression against the territory, people or maritime interests of India, both in war and peace, etc.
Admittedly, assigned roles are vague and general. Some may view force projection or project influence in India’s maritime area of interest restricted to IOR. Others may interpret force projection to include Asia-Pacific region. Few may even opine “India’s maritime area of interest” even beyond Asia Pacific region and also extending to Antarctica. It is time to spell out specific vision and roles for IN.
Current IN Force Levels and Capabilities
The current IN force level is covered in the foregoing: 150 ships and 300 aircraft. Add to them other force multiplies like the 10 x Boeing P-8 Poseidon aircraft (2 more on order), armed with torpedoes, Harpoon anti-ship missiles, other weapons, and can drop and monitor sonobuoys, for anti submarine warfare (ASW), anti-surface warfare (ASUW), and shipping interdiction roles. India has purchased AGM-84L Harpoon Block II missiles and Mk 54 All-Up-Round Lightweight torpedoes for P-8I.
Only INS Vikramaditya, 45,400 tones, modified Kiev class (STOBAR carrier), was formally commissioned in 2013. Today, INS Vikrant is undergoing sea trails and likely to be commissioned in 2020. The third carrier INS Vishal, nuclear-powered with CATOBAR with a displacement of over 65,000 tons, estimated to cost for full complement is over Rs.1, 50,000 crores likely to be spread over 5-8 years times span. Inevitable will be cost escalation due to time over run and advanced technologies thereof.

By 2027, IN is likely to have 198 warships. Ships and submarines under construction include: one aircraft career and one in sea trials; submarines - six conventional Scorpène, six nuclear powered and two midget for special operations; four stealth guided destroyers; stealth frigates - seven under Project 17A and 10 Talwar class; corvettes (ASW) – 4+8 Kamorta class, 16 Shallow water and six Next Gen; 12 mine countermeasure vessels (MCMV).
By current force comparisons and future projections, India cannot economically afford to match Chinese Navy in number of combatants or technologies. Therefore, India needs to examine the feasibility of alternate options and choices to retain balance and equivalence in the emerging strategic and operational environment. In particular, take advantage of its geography.
Alternate Options and Choices
“Wise learn from others experiences”! India can learn from Chinese experience in the South China Sea. China has turned submerged reefs/rocks into military bases advancing claims over South China Sea as its EEZ territory. No need to undertake such extravagant projects due to India’s geography. Add to it, technology lag in military technologies like UACVs, UUAVs, DEW systems, sea-bed sensors etc.
Undeniably, post Covid-19 Indian economy can ill afford Rs.1, 50,000 crores carrier project cost. What about add-ons, maintenance and life-cycle costs? Just either for show of force or rescue missions in peace times, no need to opt for “White Elephants” in pursuit of great power status that is indeterminate. For sea control mission over SLOCs (largely close to mainland and A & N Islands), IN has other means available like “Sea Control destroyers and frigates” besides submarines of different types. Unless Indian economy accelerated at double-digit pace for the next 10-years, the third aircraft carrier is beyond sustaining capability.
IN should, therefore, opt for a cost-effective fleet-mix in short and med term contexts instead fantasizing major naval war. “Sea based vs. Air based vs. Land based” systems, concepts and their operational effectiveness and costs must determine “multi domain” choices instead of archaic “uni domain centric” numbers/size obsession. An in-depth cost-effective study is, therefore, an imperative. A revolutionary new fleet that is marked by lower costs and ruthless efficiency is the need of the hour.
Fortunately, geography of 572 A & N Islands chain offers cost-effective alternate options. Great Nicobar-Nancowry, Katchal and Comorta group-Car Nicobar- South Andaman-North Andaman Islands stretch over nearly 790 kms. Infrastructure exists on many islands to develop military bases to deploy surface based fighters, UACVs, helicopters, shore-to-ship missiles, UUAVs, submarines and combatant ships. And, conjointly they offer cost-effective option to deter adversaries to dominate the IOR and ensure blockade of Malacca strait in case of war. Also, on the East and West Coasts of mainland, vital infrastructure already exists. With careful selection, they can mutually support each other in IOR.
Most critical is the deployment of Integrated Undersea Surveillance System (IUSS) in the Great Channel submarine ridge line in both peace and war like the systems employed in the GIUK (Greenland, Iceland, and the United Kingdom) gap in northern Atlantic Ocean and similar one in the Northern Pacific Ocean to detect submarines and UUAS. Furthermore, there are a wide range of Naval mines classified in three major groups - contact, remote and influence mines – that can be activated in times of war by laying them with aircraft, submarines, Naval surface fleets, merchant ships, attack divers and dropping from the shore etc.
Currently, India has only established radar outposts or surveillance systems in Seychelles, Madagascar and Mauritius. In Maldives, China has advanced its relations at the cost India’s influence. According to the latest satellite images, the Chinese leased Maldivian island of Feydhoo Finolhu Island until 2066 for $4 million has undergone a facelift (Military Base).
Opportunities for strategic partnerships with other actors with interests in the IOR and the Asia Pacific Region need to be carefully assessed and forged. They must be based on reciprocity for mutual advantage. Strategic partnership with the U.S. (Cocos-Keeling Islands), Australia (Darwin) and Chagos Islands (British Indian Ocean Territory) is an imperative to provide access to Southern IOR and the Antarctica which is nearly 9072 kms from the Southern tip of Indian mainland - Kanyakumari.
Instead of persisting with the proposal of “Third Aircraft Carrier”, IN must consider additional submarines of various types, UACVs, UUAVs, fighter and other aircraft, shore-to-ship, Brahmos missiles - Ship-launched, Surface-launched, Submarine-launched, Air-launched and BrahMos-II) for deployment to cater for operational requirements. The BrahMos-II is expected to have a range of 1,000 kilometers (620 mi; 540 NMI) and a speed of Mach 8. Advanced technologies such as directed energy, electromagnetic rail guns, and hypersonic propulsion systems must find place.
To perform designated roles in the IOR region including the A & N Islands, all forces must be grouped and placed under two Integrated Maritime Theatre Commands (IOR MTC and A & N MTC). In sum, INs projection for the yesterday model “third Aircraft Carrier”, which is economically unsustainable from life-cycle costs, needs pragmatic reconsideration. Decision makers must consider the advantages of geography, strategic partnership opportunities and high-tech developments before opting for credible cost-effective IN mix. Forging strategic partnerships – military, economic and technology coalition’s bilateral and multilateral collaboration and cooperation - is a vital imperative.