For Navy, small aircraft carriers limit options - Hindustan Times
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For Navy, small aircraft carriers limit options

Dec 04, 2023 10:15 PM IST

India’s naval planners deciding to opt for a smaller carrier seems to be the result of diminishing options

Last week, India’s Defence Procurement Board, a key defence ministry agency, approved a plan for the Indian Navy (IN) to acquire a second indigenous aircraft carrier. To be built at a cost of over 40,000 crore, the IAC-II will be modelled on INS Vikrant, India’s first indigenous aircraft carrier, commissioned in September 2022. The new warship is intended to bolster India’s maritime security posture against China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy, whose expanding incursions into the Indian Ocean region have generated anxiety in New Delhi. Even so, the move raises questions about the advisability of a second “light” 40,000-tonne aircraft carrier for the Indian Navy, instead of a “big” 60,000-tonne plus flattop.

The IAC-II will be modelled on INS Vikrant PREMIUM
The IAC-II will be modelled on INS Vikrant

Last week, India’s Defence Procurement Board, a key defence ministry agency, approved a plan for the Indian Navy (IN) to acquire a second indigenous aircraft carrier. To be built at a cost of over 40,000 crore, the IAC-II will be modelled on INS Vikrant, India’s first indigenous aircraft carrier, commissioned in September 2022. The new warship is intended to bolster India’s maritime security posture against China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy, whose expanding incursions into the Indian Ocean region have generated anxiety in New Delhi. Even so, the move raises questions about the advisability of a second “light” 40,000-tonne aircraft carrier for the Indian Navy, instead of a “big” 60,000-tonne plus flattop.

It is instructive that the IN has, at least since 2018, been pushing for a big aircraft carrier. However, last year the Navy unexpectedly dropped its demand for a large carrier and announced that the next flattop would be a small one. What led to this reversal is still unclear, but it seems the IN is in a fiscal situation in which building a large aircraft carrier is no longer feasible.

The current focus of the Modi government is on achieving self-reliance for India, and the Navy is under pressure to prioritise the development of indigenous capabilities. With capital allocations down and the government having significantly reduced the acquisition of foreign systems, the Navy has neither the material resources needed nor an assurance of imports for the development and construction of a big carrier. Choosing a smaller flattop design potentially guarantees that Cochin Shipyard and its considerable expertise gained during the construction of the Vikrant are effectively utilised.

Naval planners seem to have taken another factor into their calculations. The Navy is also looking to induct indigenous twin-engine deck-based fighters by 2030. To operate these aircraft, which are intended to replace the MiG-29Ks, the IN will require at least two operational aircraft carriers. A light aircraft carrier makes better sense because a large flattop could take over two decades to enter service.

Nonetheless, the transition from a supercarrier to a modest flattop creates a predicament for the Navy. The problem with light carriers is that they are unsuitable for use in today’s dynamic and contested maritime environment.

In wartime conditions, a small carrier is constrained in its operations, particularly when faced with the adversary’s anti-access, anti-denial systems. In the absence of a catapult system to enable the launch of heavy, long-range multi-function aircraft, the ship is forced to operate within the engagement envelope of the adversary’s shore-based missiles and air defence systems.

Small carriers are also less capable than large deck carriers in other critical respects. Small flattops feature conventional propulsion (gas turbine or diesel), which provides less power than large carriers, which are typically nuclear-powered and have enough power to operate constantly in sensitive littorals. This results in reduced flexibility and agility in operations. A light carrier has a shorter operational range, a lower sortie generation rate, and less endurance than a large aircraft carrier, which can act as a floating base and deploy for lengthy periods. Small flattops also have less powerful onboard defence systems than larger carriers and are especially vulnerable to drone swarm attacks.

While small deck carriers are valuable in peacetime presence activities, their combat role is restricted unless their air wing consists of a strong aircraft with improved range, lethality, and survivability. Maritime planners today know the importance of having a fifth-generation carrier-based fighter that can deliver precision munitions over extended distances without endangering aircraft or aircrews. The IN does not have such an aircraft presently. Over the next decade, MiG-29Ks and Rafale marines would likely operate from Indian aircraft carriers. How successful these operations will be in deterring opponents in the far seas is hard to say.

There are, admittedly, two views on the subject of light aircraft carriers. Aircraft carrier sceptics believe that the flattop being expensive and vulnerable assets ought to be small and well-protected. With limited defensive capability against modern anti-ship cruise and ballistic missiles, the carrier must not venture too close to enemy territory. Aircraft carrier proponents disagree, and point to the ship’s decisive ability to tip the psychological balance at sea. A large flattop, they rightly claim, is the only platform capable of maintaining a continuous and visible presence in the far-littorals. That complicated the adversary’s cost-benefit calculus in a way that no other asset is capable of doing.

If the sceptics are right and symbolic presence at sea is all that matters, then a light carrier is indeed a worthy asset. But if a carrier is meant for use in combat, then it must be capable of supporting larger numbers of long-range combat and reconnaissance aircraft. Whatever the rhetoric surrounding IAC-II in the media, China — with large aircraft carriers, such as the 65,000-tonne Shandong and the 80,000-tonne still-to-be-commissioned Fujian — is unlikely to be deterred by the presence of two 40,000-tonne Indian flattops in the Indian Ocean.

It is not that India’s naval planners are unaware of this reality. Their decision to opt for a smaller carrier seems to be the result of diminishing options. Despite the ship’s shortcomings, particularly its limited warfighting capability, a second Vikrant is all they can hope for at the moment. Yet, policymakers ought to know that a small aircraft carrier won’t cut it in combat with a worthy adversary in the littorals.

Abhijit Singh is head of the Maritime Policy Initiative at Observer Research Foundation. The views expressed are personal

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