The Necessity of a three Carrier fleet
The Indian Defense Budget for the year 2020-2021 stood at US $ 66.9 billion dollars – making India the fourth greatest spending nation on defense. Sounds great, doesn’t it?
Well, no. Closer inspection reveals that of the nearly US $ 67 billion, some US $45.8 billion dollars has been allocated to Defense Services Estimates (DSE) which is basically the money that the three services, DRDO and allied R&D organisations can actually spend – the remaining being spent on pensions and salaries.
This represents a paltry sum for capital expenditure that is, the money available for upgradation and modernization of the armed forces, their growth and indeed, any sort of expansion. Given the critical lacunae in several core areas of the three services, the defense budget has come under criticism for being too restrictive.
Given the government’s priorities and slow down in the economy overall, this paradigm is unlikely to change anytime soon.
The present reality leaves the three services and the Indian Navy especially, in a bind. The Navy has traditionally received the least share of the defense budget – and yet, thanks to visionary leaders early on in the 50s and 60s, and sustained support, the Indian Navy today operates vessels that are mostly designed and built in India, a bluewater capable navy that is almost completely homegrown.
The Navy today, and the Navy of the Future:
The Indian Navy today is a comprehensive multi-dimensional force comprising of an aircraft carrier with MiG29K 4.5 Gen fighters, 23 Principal Surface Combatants, 14 conventionally powered SSKs, 1 SSBN, 1 SSN and a large and substantive fleet of amphibious vessels and smaller corvettes and patrol vessels.
That said, the Navy also has a modern, capable air arm comprised of P8I LRMPs, Do228s, KA31, Ka28, Dhruvs and SeaKing helos. As things stand, the IN can bring more power to bear in the IOR than any other navy sans the United States Navy, whose CBGs still retain far greater levels of force projection.
The Navy does face acute shortages of:
1. Mine warfare ships – there are currently none in operational service, although OPVs, Corvettes and other ships can conduct mine laying and mine clearing operations – the situation is not ideal.
2. Amphibious LHDs – large flattop mini carriers dedicated to amphibious operations with stern wells that enable the launching of Landing Craft. A proposal to build 4 of these is hanging fire.
3. AIP equipped hunter-killer submarines. The Navy’s P75 Scorpene program proceeds apace, with 2 submarines having joined the active fleet and the remaining 4 either in sea trials or under construction at Mazgaon Dockyard Limited, Mumbai. Built with French assistance and know-how, the Scorpenes represent a welcome strengthening of the underwater arm of the navy, adding to existing 4 Type 209 SSKs and 8 remaining Kilos (Russian Project 877 EKM - one Kilo, the Sindhurakshak was lost in a fire accident and another, the Sindhuvir has been transferred to the Myanmar Navy). But these additions are not sufficient, given the age of the Kilos and a Project 75I to build six more seems to have made precious little headway.
4. ASW Helos – the IN operates an aging fleet of British built Westland SeaKing Mk42Bs for its ASW role, and while they have been upgraded, there are not enough helos to cover all principal surface vessels of the fleet. On the 25th of February, 2020 a deal was signed with Lockheed Martin for 24 MH60R ASW helos from the American company – this patches over the immediate requirements but another strategic program to build 123 NMRHs in the country still looms ahead.
In addition to the above big-ticket programs, the Navy has embarked on a massive expansion drive to build possibly a 200 ship fleet by 2025, to maintain India’s supremacy in the IOR.
This plan has resulted in a total of 41 warships of various types under construction within India as of this moment, including and not limited to an aircraft carrier, destroyers, frigates, diesel-electric submarines, nuclear submarines, OPVs, ASW corvettes, landing craft, etc etc.
Carriers in the 21stcentury, still relevant?:
Figure 1: Carriers from India, US and Japan and their escorts during Malabar 2017
The carrier and its air group, together with escorting surface units and submarines emerged as the principal strike force of modern navies in WWII, displacing battleships and their large-caliber guns from the “tip of the spear” – this transition was a result of the far reach of carrier-borne strike aircraft and their lethality with the first major demonstration being the raid on the Italian harbor by Taranto by a mere 12 Swordfish biplanes – a template repeated on a far larger scale by the Imperial Japanese Fleet on December 7th, 1941 during the Pearl Harbor raid.
These two instances and later, the battles of Coral Sea, Midway, the Philippines Sea, Samar, and the sinking of the Musashi and the Yamato (largest battleships ever built) without the former ever getting into striking distance of their guns clearly demonstrated the carrier battle group’s supremacy.
Arguments have been made during the Cold war and more pertinently today, that modern-day Anti Ship cruise missiles and AIP equipped stealth submarines make the carrier a liability. Given the cost of a modern-day fleet carrier, its crew and air compliment (which runs to several billion dollars), the carrier seems, indeed, to be a major liability – whose loss could cripple a navy.
But I argue otherwise, the Carrier and its Battle Group still retain their primacy and as a matter of fact, offer several unique capabilities that no other naval unit can.
There is one major campaign in the not so distant past that clearly demonstrates the criticality of carriers to modern conflicts:
The Falklands War:
Figure 2: HMS Invincible during the Falklands campaign
Britain was a rescinding power when in 1982, Argentina invaded and occupied the Falklands Islands in South Atlantic. Even so, thanks to the unique combination of the BAe Harrier VTOL jets and the British task force built around the HMS Hermes (a proper fleet carrier) and the HMS Invincible (a hybrid cruiser-carrier) the British conducted a successful counteroffensive and retook the Falklands, in spite of the threat of modern jet fighters and Sea-skimming Exocet missiles possessed by the Argentinians.
In short, the Royal Navy task force sailed more than 8000 miles to the Falklands, set up quarantine zone around the islands, defended the fleet from air attack by Argentine Air Force consisting of Mirage IIIs, IAI Neshers, A4 Skyhawks and even Canberra bombers, provided close air support to the British Army units throughout the invasion, and also ensured logistics support to the troops with the use of onboard helicopters.
The successful campaign would have been impossible had the British not had the two carriers – the integral air group of 42 Harriers, SeaKing helicopters were vital and their absence would have given the Argentines complete freedom to strike at will, and British ships would have been lost (more than the 4 warships that were actually lost).
Indeed, the Sea Harriers shot down 20 Argentine aircraft, while losing 6 – a very respectful ratio, given the SHAR’s inherent low speed and vulnerability to fast supersonic jets.
Figure 3: HMS Hermes, Falklands campaign
Carriers in the Indian Navy:
Figure 4: INS Vikramaditya (L) and INS Viraat (R) sailing together
While the IN did use the carrier battle group offensively in the 1971 war, operating in the Bay of Bengal, conducting strikes and interdiction sorties against then East Pakistan targets using its complement of Hawker Sea Hawk jet fighters and Breguet Alize strike aircraft, the threats it faced then pale in comparison to the threats faced today by a prospective CBG.
There are however two instances when the IN operated the Viraat and her battle group that are relevant to this article:
Operation Jupiter (Sri Lankan Civil War)
For two years, the Indian Peace Keeping Force had been deployed to Sri Lanka, to ostensibly maintain peace and forcefully reinforce the ceasefire between the Sri Lankan Armed Forces (SLAF) and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). This article will not foray into the morass that was the entire operation and needless interference in another sovereign nation’s internal affairs, but we must understand the background to Op Jupiter.
In November 1988, the Presidential elections in Sri Lanka posed a new contingency – the safety of President Jayawardene in case his party lost the election. As a precautionary measure, Operation Jupiter was planned to evacuate the President and his immediate family to safety. The Navy positioned at Tuticorin a Seaking-capable frigate, INS Godavari (and later INS Taragiri), with a Marine Commandos team embarked. As it happened, the President’s party was re-elected. When Mr Jayawardene’s term expired in January 1989, Mr Premadasa became the President of Sri Lanka He had been a staunch critic of the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord. He came to power on a political promise that he would “Send back the IPKF”. Between March and July 1989, he initiated a dialogue with the LTTE, which is presumed to have resulted in a ceasefire between the LTTE and the SLAF. He then tried to buy peace with the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) – a leftist political party – but to no avail – their subversive activities increased. He then served the Indian Government with an ultimatum to withdraw the IPKF by 29 July 1989, this being the second anniversary of the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord.
Quoting from Vice Adm. Hiranandani’s comprehensive book, “Transition to Eminence” :
As the deadline approached, tension mounted. The JVP-incited violence intensified. Mr. Premadasa announced his intention to bring out the Sri Lankan Army (from their barracks) on 29 July 1989, to patrol the Northern and Eastern Provinces. This led to planning for the contingency of misguided, unprovoked action against the IPKF by wayward units of SLAF. Operation Roundup was planned to counter any backlash from the SLAF in the Northern and Eastern provinces. Operation Trojan was planned to evacuate Indian nationals from Colombo, in the face of opposition. The third operation, a modified version of the earlier Operation Jupiter of December 1988, was also planned in case the need arose to evacuate Indian nationals with the support of the SLAF.
Operation Jupiter: The aircraft carrier, Viraat, was at anchor in Bombay. On 18 July 1989, it was directed to embark all weapons and stores and arrive at Cochin on 20th July. Captain (later Admiral and Chief of Naval Staff) Madhvendra Singh was the Commanding Officer of Viraat during Operation Jupiter. The following excerpts are from his recollections recorded in “The Magnificent Viraat – Decade and a Half of Glorious Flying”: “Throughout that afternoon and early evening, ammunition barges, ration boats, aircraft launches, and fuelling barges continued to supply Viraat all that she had asked for and needed. It was a truly remarkable effort and the monsoon weather did not make it any easier. Viraat sailed at three o’clock that night in lashing rain.
The ship picked up the first two Sea Harriers off Goa on the 19th morning and two more Sea Harriers off Mangalore on the 20th morning. She entered Cochin on the 21st morning to embark the support equipment of the Seaking Squadrons. Helicopters were assembled from all over the country. One Seaking 42 C and two Chetaks were embarked in Bombay; two Seakings Mk 42 and two Chetaks from Cochin and one Seaking Mk 42 C each from Coimbatore, Vishakhapatnam and Taragiri. A fifth Seaking Mk 42 C embarked later, as also 3 officers and 54 sailors of the Indian Marine Special Force (IMSF). With all 15 aircraft on board, Viraat sailed from Cochin to begin the workup of her air wing and IMSF detachment.
While the Viraat was proceeding south, the 7th Battalion of the Garhwal Rifles which was at Pithoragarh in the Kumaon Hills was ordered to get ready for the mission. On 24th July, they moved by road from Pithoragarh to Bareilly and on the morning of the 26th they were airlifted by IL-76 aircraft to Trivandrum, where they arrived in the dead of night. They were immediately put into state transport corporation buses and moved during the night to INS Garuda in Cochin where they arrived early morning of 27th July.
On the 27th morning, Viraat was asked to embark the battalion with her helicopters. It was quite a task. When an Army battalion moves, it moves with everything to sustain itself. Besides the men and their equipment, arms and ammunition, this included rations, jeeps, chairs, tables, tents, and even cupboards! It was a wet and windy day. Regardless of the weather, the men of Viraat worked tirelessly for the next six hours to complete the combat embarkation of the battalion by the afternoon. With rotors running, 4 to 7 helicopters at a time were on deck being unloaded, refuelled when required and quickly launched for the next load. A total of 76 helo sorties of Seakings and Chetaks were carried out that day to embark 366 personnel, 36 tonnes of stores, 2 jeeps and a motorcycle with Viraat remaining 8 to 10 miles from the coast. “Overnight, the Viraat had been transformed into a commando carrier. From a strength of about 1,000 in Bombay, her personnel strength rose to 1,800. Each man had a bunk, the Garhwalis were in their allotted messes and we still had 200 bunks kept vacant for evacuees and 60 bunks for any casualties in an improvised afloat hospital.
The next morning, training began of working up the soldiers for an airborne assault operation. First, dry runs were conducted with helos switched off on deck. These were repeated till the embarkation and disembarkation times were brought down to a bare minimum. With dry runs completed, they practiced embarkation and disembarkation with rotors whirring overhead and finally they rehearsed the actual assault phase at INS Garuda with echelons of one company strength repeatedly practicing airborne assault and evacuation. By the time they had completed their training, the 7th Battalion Garhwal Rifles had transformed from a footslogging infantry battalion into a formidable assault team, which had totally integrated itself with its base – INS Viraat.
The Viraat and her task group continued to operate at / off Cochin for another two weeks, ready to execute the mission if ordered. On 12th August, we were ordered to disembark air squadrons, as the mission in Sri Lanka would no longer be required. The aircraft flew away as quickly as they had come and the ship returned to Bombay.
For both the Garhwalis and the Viraat, it had been a very happy and educative association. Both were richer for the experience and both will, for a long time, look back with pride and nostalgia on a mission well executed. While Operation Jupiter was not launched, both units were fully prepared and both believe that in their own small way, they helped to make the operation unnecessary. “In view of this operational association, the Garhwal Regiment was affiliated to INS Viraat on 2 February 1990 and this association remains to this day.”
General VN Sharma was the Chief of Army Staff from 1989 to 1991. He recalls: “As a result of a deal with the LTTE that he would call for the withdrawal of the IPKF, Mr Premadasa succeeded, in June 1989, in politically displacing Mr Jayawardene as the President of Sri Lanka. Immediately on assuming office, he asked that the IPKF withdraw. I was firm that under no circumstances would the Indian Army leave in circumstances that might, historically, sully its fair name. As and when it did leave, it would be with ‘bands playing and flags flying high’ as appropriate for a friendly army departing after rendering assistance.
In Sri Lanka, the JVP and the LTTE fomented anti-India feelings. Political tension mounted. It became necessary to plan for the evacuation of our High Commission officials. I met Mr Premadasa in Sri Lanka and convinced him of the perilous situation he might be placed in if miscreants decided to displace him and how only the Indian Armed Forces could protect him from mishap. Mr Premadasa was duly ‘persuaded’.
As tension continued to rise, plans had to be made for the contingency that the Sri Lankan Armed Forces might oppose the evacuation from the High Commission. A battalion of troops was embarked in the aircraft carrier Viraat, which, along with an armada of naval ships, remained out of sight. When tension eased, the armada withdrew. In due course, the Army left Trincomalee with bands playing.”
Political interaction between the two Governments had defused the crisis and the contingency plans were deactivated by mid August 1989. De-induction started in August 1989 and by October 1989, the bulk of the IPKF were withdrawn.
An interesting fact to be noted is that it was the British who had originally modified the Hermes as a commando carrier, and had then reconverted her into a strike/ASW carrier. This ability of the Viraat to carry troops and LCVPs came in handy during the planning and lead up to the Operation Jupiter!
Operation Talwar (Kargil War – 1999)
During the infamous border clashes in the summer of 1999, fought at foreboding heights of the high Himalayas, the Indian Navy played a critical but unsung role in pressuring Pakistan to withdraw to its side of the LoC.
As early as 20th May, 1999, Naval Headquarters (NHQ) issued directives to the Western Command to “enhance security measures”. Western Naval Command immediately swung into action – deploying a Leander class frigate and two missile boats to the Gujarat area along with Dornier maritime patrol aircraft to closely monitor approaches to Indian territorial waters.
On 23rd May, further directives were issued to prevent Pakistani preemptive action, monitor all Pakistani naval forces and secure offshore assets.
By 27th May, the entire western fleet, including INS Viraat and her task force had deployed to the Northern Arabian Sea. Additionally, NHQ deployed a guided missile destroyer off Saurashtra and additional Dornier 228s to monitor Pakistani Naval Forces.
By June, units of the Eastern Fleet arrived in the operational area of the Western Fleet, fully armed and supplied. This was picked up by the media and news eventually reached Pakistan. The Pakistan Naval Headquarters, sensing trouble, dispersed all of its vessels away from Karachi and advised them to “steer clear of the Indian Navy”.
By mid-June, Pakistani reported that it had readied missiles with nuclear warheads, in an attempt to threaten India. In response, the Indian Naval units moved even closer to Pakistani coast and the task force began exercises, practicing crippling strikes against Pakistani assets (including both missile strikes and strikes from Sea Harriers operating from the Viraat).
International media reports of an Indian Naval Contingent of about 30 capital ships stationed a mere thirteen miles from Karachi shook the Pakistani establishment. The ships were essentially threatening a complete and absolute blockade of all Pakistani seaborne trade.
Pakistan PM Nawaz Sharif announced a full withdrawal on 14th July, 1999. He later recalled “we had only six days of fuel stocks left”.
Operation Talwar was a stellar success, the Navy was able to pressurize an adversary nation into submission without actually escalating into full-scale war. Op Talwar was also the first time the Navy conducted an operation in support of what was essentially a territorial skirmish along the border.
The Viraat and her task force played a pivotal role in the success of Op Talwar.
In summary, a modern day Carrier Battle Group provides any aspiring naval power with the following benefits:
1. The ability to exercise Sea Control and not just Sea Denial (that submarines and land based air power does)
2. Ability to exert tremendous military and diplomatic pressure on maritime powers – blockades, air defence zone, just the sheer presence of a CBG can often cause belligerent powers to come to the table.
3. A surface battle group without aircraft carriers is vulnerable in the extreme to hostile air power, while the presence of a carrier with her air wing greatly reduces the potential of a rival, if not completely eliminating aerial threats.
4. Carriers are by their nature multipurpose – the long flight deck is often critically used in situations as diverse as HADR ops post a major natural disaster to as we saw, being used as the core of a punitive expeditionary force with its own organic infantry in Op Jupiter.
So, in the context of the Indian Navy, a carrier battle group is not only necessary, but paramount if we have to meet our security challenges, especially given the increasing Chinese forays into the IOR, the vulnerability of IOR littoral states to Chinese pressure tactics.
The Gods forbid, but if tomorrow, a need arises for decisive intervention in Maldives, or Seychelles, or to even evacuate Indian expatriates from a collapsing Middle Eastern state, it would prove impossible for the Indian Navy to do much about it, without the inherent domination that a CBG would provide.
Both the Indian government and the Navy understand this, and in the next year, 2021, the IN will return to being a two carrier fleet.
Arguments for a Third Carrier:
So, why is the Navy insisting on three carriers?
There are several good reasons:
1. Carrier construction is a niche skill-set. It takes a great deal of expertise to be able to design, build and operate an aircraft carrier. The operation part is well in hand, given that the IN has been operating aircraft carriers since 1961, and it learned from the Royal Navy, one of the pioneers in carrier operations.
The design and building part is new, and the INS Vikrant will be the first carrier to have been designed and built in India when she is commissioned some time next year. It would be foolishness of the highest degree to let the Cochin Shipyard lie idle once the ship is completed and we would have a re-run of the submarine experience (MDL’s submarine assembly line was shut down in the 90s and it took a lot of time and effort to reopen it – as skillsets were lost)
2. Three carriers would ensure that no matter what happens, one CBG will always be operational while one other is in repair/refurbishment and the 2nd in sea acceptance trials. A 33% operational rate among CBGs is generally the norm, and is also why the US Navy has between 10-11 carriers at any time, with 4-5 being operational at any time.
3. Even if the navy were to start right now, it would take 10 – 13 years to design, build, conduct trials and then commission a carrier, so there would be no massive one time cost. Rather payment would be gradual and over several years. This would ensure no fund crunch for other projects (thought the Govt really needs to increase the CAPEX), and would also mean that as the Vikramaditya gets old, the 3rdcarrier would come in to replace her as the flagship.
4. The Indian fighter program is undergoing very drastic changes, and the program seems to have finally gathered steam. The success of the NLCA team, conducting arrested landings and short take offs from the Vikramaditya are most welcome. A third carrier program, with CATOBAR/EMALS due for commissioning 10-15 years from today will very conveniently tie in with the navalised ORCA/TEDBF program under construction.
In concluding, recent media reports do indicate that the IN is willing to push on with its plans for a third carrier, and makes its case to the CDS.
I wish them the very best with their endeavor, and do pray that this article provided the reader with some understanding of the IN’s reasoning.