The 1941 attack on Pearl Harbour was the day aircraft carriers came into their own. In one stroke, aircraft launched from Japanese navy carriers wiped out the battleline of the United States’ Pacific Fleet and brought forth an era of unprecedented sea power. From that day on, aircraft carriers are synonymous with sea control and maritime dominance.
The Indian Navy’s experience of operating carrier battle groups goes back a long way. Both our earlier aircraft carriers — INS Vikrant and INS Viraat — served with great distinction but they belonged to a different generation. Being of World War II vintage, they were no longer relevant to the concept of maritime operations. Graded as a super carrier with multiple capabilities, its mobile battery of MiG-29K aircraft provides the INS Vikramaditya battle group great potency.
So why does the Indian Navy need such formidable capability when India has only regional aspirations? The size of an aircraft carrier had been an unresolved debate for many years and had many facets: cost and capability being the most important. But the Falklands conflict of 1982 put an end to this debate: when the battle ensued in the South Atlantic, the Royal Navy Task Force found itself handicapped by the limited capability of its two small carriers, both of which were as old as INS Vikrant and INS Viraat. The British navy lost four major warships with hundreds of casualties.
The lesson was obvious: the operational outcome of a sea battle hinges on the capability of the aircraft carrier in the battle group. Having operated carrier battle groups for more than half a century, India remains the only country in the region that has such a capability. The Chinese navy is yet to operationalise its first aircraft carrier. So the induction of INS Vikramaditya has to be seen in the right perspective.
Moreover, the concept of maritime operations is also different from land-based missions. Unlike land forces that operate in proximity to the nation’s borders, a navy could be tasked with a wide range of missions. Not only must it be ready for all situations but also be prepared to raise the threshold of confrontation. To face such challenges, the navy must remain solidly in the forefront of technology. This is where a new generation aircraft carrier like INS Vikramaditya provides the cutting edge.
For the Navy, INS Vikramaditya is a force multiplier, especially in the Indian Ocean Region where India has a geographical edge. It provides the nation with credible options to play a stabilising role within our region, gunboat diplomacy and conflict prevention being important spin-offs.
The presence of a versatile battle group led by INS Vikramaditya could alter the strategic landscape of the region and its implications are unlikely to be lost on China since its energy life line in the Indian Ocean would be of concern.
But navies have always had a professional understanding among themselves. They know what INS Vikramaditya means. And since they operate in a common medium, they also know how to keep their distance.
Sushil Kumar is a former chief of the Indian Navy
The views expressed by the author are personal