India’s Defense Chief Opposes Aircraft Carrier Plans

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India’s Defense Chief Opposes Aircraft Carrier Plans

CDS General Bipin Rawat reiterated doubts about acquiring a third carrier in a recent interview.

India’s Defense Chief Opposes Aircraft Carrier Plans
Credit: Indian Navy

Last week, India’s Chief of Defense Staff General Bipin Rawat said in an interview to an Indian newspaper that the Indian military is not an expeditionary force and should not be deploying forces around the globe. He said that Indian forces have “to guard and fight only along our borders, and, of course, dominate the Indian Ocean Region.” He went on to add that the military services should not seek large imports “by misrepresenting our operational requirements.” He targeted the Indian Navy’s carrier plans, saying that because carriers, as surface vessels, can be “knocked off by missiles,” the Navy should invest more in submarines. 

Rawat’s statements have several implications. Most importantly, it calls into question the Indian Navy’s and the Air Force’s acquisition plans. These are particularly important at a time when China has been both putting pressure on the Sino-Indian border and venturing into the Indian Ocean Region. Rawat’s comments could also bring back concern within the Navy and the Air Force about the Army’s dominance within the Indian military and potentially lead to intensified interservice rivalry among the three services. The creation of the chief of defense staff (CDS) post was meant at least partly to create greater synergy among the services and greater jointness, but that could be at risk if the two smaller services feel the CDS is being partial to the Army. 

Clearly, the economic impact and the financial implications of the COVID-19 pandemic is going to be significant. The Indian defense budget allocation over the last two years has been the lowest since the early 1960s, but the COVID-19 impact is likely to lead to further slashing the defense budget. This in turn will affect major defense procurements, particularly for the Navy and Air Force. Both are services that require capital-intensive investment in acquisitions that take longer term planning and a lot of lead time. They are not going to be happy about the CDS’s comments. 

This issue has clearly been on Rawat’s mind for some time, and possibly has been under debate within the government too; the CDS was repeating earlier comments. In February this year, Rawat said that the Indian Navy’s request for a third aircraft carrier may not be approved any time soon because the priority is to strengthen the submarine fleet. The CDS cited cost as the major factor for this pushback. Rawat of course has to prioritize the military’s acquisition, depending on the available funds, but cutting down on aircraft carriers is likely not going to be easy. The Indian Navy is already pushing back. 

Sources in the Indian Navy are reported to have said that the service is certain about its plans for a third aircraft carrier. They added that “the third aircraft carrier is an operational necessity. It is not that an aircraft carrier can be bought off the shelf. Even if all permissions are given today, it will take 15 years for the carrier to be inducted.” Admiral Karambir Singh, chief of the Indian Navy, previously stated that he was convinced that “the country needs three aircraft carriers, so that two are operational at all times. And it should be 65,000 tonnes with electromagnetic propulsion,” probably a misquoted reference to the Electromagnetic Aircraft Launch System (EMALS) with which the Navy plans to equip future aircraft carriers.  Navy sources have also argued that shore-based aircraft operations, as indicated by the CDS, will be limited in terms of range.

India currently has one operational aircraft carrier, the INS Vikramaditya, which can host around 30 aircraft. The second, INS Vikrant, is still being built at the Cochin shipyard in south India, and is expected to be operational only by 2022, though even that is likely an optimistic timeline. 

But Rawat’s emphasis on dominance in the Indian Ocean Region also cannot be addressed adequately if he plans to shrink the naval budget. Both Prime Minister Narendra Modi and External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar have emphasized an ambitious agenda for the Indian Ocean Region. To play an effective role in this vast maritime space, India would need a much higher number of ships. A falling naval budget would not permit this. India’s declining submarine fleet has been an additional matter of concern. With only 13 operational submarines, many of which are old, India cannot match the more capable navies in the Indo-Pacific, such as those of China and Japan. Unless India adds to its submarine fleet quickly, it may move down to the level of Pakistan, which has just eight operational submarines.  

But the budget woes are unlikely to ease. The CDS and the Army leadership are also likely come under pressure to seriously think about downsizing the Army. With a strength of around 1.4 million personnel, the Indian Army is the world’s largest land force, followed by North Korea and China. China, in its attempt at modernizing its military, reduced the size of its Army by half and is now increasing its emphasis on the People’s Liberation Army Navy and Air Force. Pensions and salaries are becoming the biggest burden on the military budget and crowding out capital investments and much of this is the result of India’s massive army.  The CDS is right in arguing for budget prioritization, but this might lead to calls for pruning the Army.