The Indian Navy has been energized by the commissioning of its new aircraft carrier, the INS Vikramaditya. Coming two months after another significant achievement – the nuclear reactor of the Arihant, India’s first indigenous nuclear powered submarine, going critical – the Vikramaditya is being seen as a game changer, with the potential to transform the Indian Navy’s profile in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) and beyond.
The ship’s proportions and capabilities are indeed significant. At 45,400 tons, the Vikamaditya is considerably larger than any ship the Indian Navy has ever had. Its primary aviation assets, the Kamov-31 helicopters and MiG 29K multirole fighter aircraft – the mainstay of its integral combat capability – are among the most advanced in the world. In addition, the naval version of the indigenous Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) may also be positioned onboard, making the Vikramaditya the first Indian aircraft carrier to operate two aircraft of the Short Take off but Assisted Recovery (STOBAR) variety.
Interestingly, Vikramaditya’s commissioning seems to have re-ignited an old debate among maritime analysts: of the relevance of aircraft carriers in a maritime contemporary context. Proponents of aircraft carriers argue it constitutes the core of maritime strategy and must play a central part in a blue-water navy’s operational plans. Opponents posit that the aircraft carrier’s high vulnerability (to new disruptive weapons and technologies), and inadequate logistical sustainability render it an irrelevant asset. Not only is it a financially expensive proposition, they point out, it is also incapable of projecting significant offensive power. The fact that it is virtually defenseless against underwater attacks, long-range strategic airpower and ballistic missiles makes it a near liability in war.
As compelling as the criticism appears, there is a more nuanced rationale for retaining the giant ships. Modern day maritime discourse requires such ships to be located in a new conceptual framework. Ocean-going navies today need three types of conventional assets. The first category comprises “hard-power” assets: fighting platforms like destroyers, frigates, missile boats and attack submarines meant for the real combat operations in a naval battle. These are used in both offensive and defensive operations, and are meant to influence the tempo and outcome of a maritime conflict. The second lot is of “soft-power” assets like hospital ships, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HADR) platforms, survey vessels, etc. These provide a valuable regional (and global) service and are crucial for a navy’s soft-power outreach. Finally, and most significantly, a navy needs assets for “power projection” – a critical component of a nation’s maritime strategy. Power projection assets are an embodiment of a nation’s strategic capability and political intent. Navies strive to accrete power and project it far beyond the home country as a metric of national influence and their own regional relevance. Aircraft carriers fall into this category.
This is not to suggest that aircraft carriers no longer have an important combat role to play. It is just that they do not necessarily have to be involved in high intensity combat operations against adversaries and must be seen as fungible assets, in terms of their utility in advancing national interests. There is certainly prestige involved in possessing an aircraft carrier. But prestige is increasingly coming to be recognized as equaling national influence. As aircraft carrier supporters point out, the arrival of an aircraft carrier at a regional port of call imparts a diplomatic impact that cannot be matched by a submarine or a destroyer. Therefore, even while acknowledging the flexible demands of future maritime missions on maritime forces that would necessitate a shift towards multi-purpose warships (such as amphibious assault vessels), the likelihood that aircraft carriers would continue to be relevant in their present form and configuration, remains high.
If this gives some perspective to the aircraft carrier debate, it still doesn’t settle the supposed contest between sea control and sea denial. Inducting an aircraft carrier, it has been suggested, signifies the triumph of the concept of sea control over the more practical and much less expensive notion of sea denial. The analysis tries to draw a false equivalence between two fundamental concepts intrinsic to national maritime strategy. While the former is a prerequisite in dictating the terms of a naval engagement, the latter (as a subset of the former) has limited application and is meant to deny a stronger adversary the use of maritime space. Both play a vital role in a nation’s larger maritime strategy, but none supplants the other.
There is one significant difference though. Since sea-denial is useful in defending a nation’s maritime territory against an aggressive adversary, it is primarily a war-time concept. Sea control, on the other hand, allows for both battle-space domination in war and the expansion of naval sphere of operations in peacetime (a critical component of grand national strategy). Its utility as a metaphorical enabler in naval strategy is, therefore, far greater.
For the Indian Navy, operating two full-fledged carrier battle groups (CBGs) – one each for the Eastern and Western seaboards – is not just a long-standing ambition, but also a key component of its operational strategy. With the INS Viraat nearing the end of its operational life, the Indian Navy has been under pressure to position a suitable replacement. The INS Vikramaditya brings it one step closer to achieving a desirable end-state. As things stand, by the end of 2018 the navy will induct the 40,000-tonne INS Vikrant being built at the Cochin Shipyard. The Vikramaditya, in the words of India’s Naval Chief, Admiral D K Joshi, is intended to “bridge the gap between the INS Viraat’s decommissioning, and the entry of the INS Vikrant.”
An aircraft carrier, however, doesn’t by-itself guarantee an expanded sphere of naval influence. With a limited integral defensive capability and even lesser maneuverability, a carrier needs an armada of armed escort ships and aircraft to protect it from external threats. In this, the Vikramaditya has an inherent disadvantage as it lacks an on-board close-in-weapon-system (CIWS) and long-range surface-to-air missiles (LR-SAMS). Its near total dependence on layered in-depth defense provided by its screening ships and aircraft is a challenge that the Indian Navy will need to address in due course.
The Indian Navy will also be mindful of the maritime ambitions of the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLA-N) and the role that its new aircraft carrier – the Liaoning – is likely to play in China’s Indian Ocean expansion. China’s new aircraft carrier might be used both for the PLA-N’s power projection, as well as an instrument for its soft-power diplomacy – a key component of the “far-seas” naval strategy. That apart, the PLA-N is also said to be considering using aircraft carrier in a hard-power role for the expansion of its island barrier defenses, also known as the inner and outer island chains. In fact, analysts agree that China is most likely to pursue the construction of additional aircraft carriers in the future – which only indicates the PLA-N’s belief in the worthiness of its aircraft carrier program.
Ultimately, possessing an aircraft carrier does not just indicate blue-water capability, but it is also representative of a navy’s essential vision. If a maritime force can conceive of an aircraft carrier’s role as a versatile and flexible asset – one that can switch easily between soft power diplomacy, power projection and combat operations – it can be a game changer, for both national foreign policy and naval strategy.
If used intelligently, the Vikamaditya could prove to be critical in shaping the Indian Ocean’s strategic environment.
Abhijit Singh is a research scholar at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses and looks at Maritime Security in the Indian Ocean. He is co-author of the book Indian Ocean Challenges – A Quest for Cooperative Solutions.
(This is an edited version of an IDSA commentary on Nov 23, 2013)