India’s commissioning of its first indigenously built aircraft carrier, INS Vikrant, marks a momentous step in its journey to build a formidable navy. The aircraft carrier serving as a mobile airbase enables a country to maintain air superiority in distant waters, away from the range of land-based aircraft. For the modern navies centered around the concept of sea control – like India – a carrier is the prime instrument for projecting power offshore.
However, carriers face constraints in their deployment and operations, especially during wartime. The Indo-Pak War of 1971 and the Falklands War – the only battles involving carriers since the end of World War II – enforce this claim empirically. Therefore, the Vikrant is likely to face constraints in its deployment and operations in an anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) edifice established by China.
The vulnerabilities Vikrant is likely to face are due to structural constraints on its air wing, and the threat from submarines and anti-ship missiles.
A carrier’s raison d’être is its air wing, which is paramount for the entirety of its functions. But the small size of Vikrant’s air wing imposes several limitations on its functioning. Further, the ski jump mechanism for take-off on the Vikrant restricts the aircraft’s range and payload capacity, thus hampering its performance.
Since a carrier is an extremely valuable platform, a portion of its air wing is always devoted to self-defense. But, the small size of Vikrant’s air wing (only 20 fixed-wing aircraft) means that after tying a portion of its air wing to self-defense, the carrier will be hardly left with a handful of aircraft for power projection, which is the essence of a carrier. Moreover, not 100 percent of aircraft will be always available for missions, especially during wartime. Of the 42 aircraft deployed on British carriers during the Falklands war, two-thirds of them were assigned fleet air defense as their primary role. Thus, barring self-defense and offensive missions, Vikrant’s air wing will be unlikely to perform other functions such as maintaining air superiority, suppression of enemy air defenses, electronic countermeasures, and surveillance and reconnaissance missions.
Consequently, structural constraints on Vikrant’s air wing impose severe impediments on its deployment and operations.
In addition, technological advancements in undersea platforms are making carriers more vulnerable to attack. The use of air-independent propulsion technology and lithium-ion batteries, and capabilities like acoustic jamming are enhancing the endurance and stealth of submarines, particularly conventional submarines. Conventional submarines, quieter than nuclear-powered submarines, often manage to sneak by carriers’ escorts undetected. History has been replete with such instances. In 2006, a Chinese Song-class submarine slipped undetected into the USS Kitty Hawk’s firing range. During the Indo-Pak war of 1971, the previous Vikrant was deployed in the Bay of Bengal because of fear of Pakistan’s submarines in the Arabian Sea. Notably, Pakistan’s submarine Ghazi was dispatched to target the Vikrant; however, the Ghazi itself sunk mysteriously.
Submarines remain a potent platform to threaten carriers. The Falklands war witnessed a nine-day cat-and-mouse chase between Argentine carrier ARA Veinticinco de Mayo and British submarine HMS Splendid, which almost sunk the carrier had it not entered Argentine waters.
China’s submarines are capable of slipping into Vikrant’s firing range, thus affecting its deployment.
However, none of China’s A2/AD capability can threaten Vikrant as much as its anti-ship missiles such as DF-21D and DF-26, also known as “carrier killer” missiles. Although developed to keep the U.S. farther away from its domain of operations, these missiles also have the ability and range to threaten India’s Vikrant in the Bay of Bengal and much of the Arabian Sea.
China’s long-range precision strike munitions, which can threaten the Vikrant, consist of anti-ship ballistic missiles and anti-ship cruise missiles, which can be delivered by submarines, bombers, and fighter aircraft. China’s H-6 long-range strategic bomber and J-20 stealth fighter aircraft have a combat range of around 1,000 nautical miles. It is also developing a long-range stealth bomber, H-20, which is reported to have a combat range of well over 2,000 nm. These weapon systems, when paired with anti-ship cruise missiles, provide China with the capability to strike throughout the Bay of Bengal and much of the Arabian Sea.
This striking range remains beyond the combat range of the Mig-29K and either Boeing F/A-18 Super Hornet or Rafale-M (with which India will be replacing the Mig-29K), which are not deep penetrating strike aircraft unless they are refueled. Moreover, even if India’s aircraft manage to penetrate China’s A2/AD zone unharmed, its sophisticated integrated air defense system will make the successful execution of strikes troublesome.
The Vikrant’s onboard air defense system consists of the Barak 8 surface-to-air missile (SAM) system. But its smaller range for successful interception and radar horizon-associated issues make it highly vulnerable to saturation strikes. Large and well-coordinated strikes crossing the saturation threshold can overwhelm the Barak 8 SAM, rendering the Vikrant vulnerable.
The proliferation of precision strike technology coupled with China’s remote sensing satellites makes anti-ship missiles highly lethal, constraining Vikrant’s deployment and operations.
The battlefield performance of China’s anti-ship missiles remains unproven. But the mere threat can deter the deployment and operations of the Vikrant, as the carrier’s symbolic and financial value makes it a highly sensitive platform to operate. Although carriers have been untested in the “missile age,” past battles highlight their vulnerability against missiles. During the Falklands war, because of fear of Argentine Exocet missiles, Britain deployed both of its carriers farther away from the area of operations.
Carriers were vulnerable during the Cold War, as can be inferred from their performance during the Indo-Pak war of 1971 and the Falklands war. The technological advancements in precision strike technology further exacerbate their vulnerability. True, military weapons are a “black box,” as Edward Luttwak claimed, until proven in combat – so the battlefield performance of China’s A2/AD capabilities remains unproven. However, the dialectical realm of warfare is always active, necessitating defense planners to reinvent the role of carriers to ensure their existence as the paramount maritime military platform.
The Vikrant can counter China’s A2/AD edifice by reinventing its role. It can overcome the lesser combat range of its aircraft by employing anti-ship missiles such as the BrahMos on aircraft, so that they can strike farther away from China’s A2/AD zone. The carrier’s functioning can also be reinvented by entering it in the war only when China’s A2/AD edifice is knocked down, and assigning the role of destroying China’s A2/AD edifice to other platforms such as destroyer- and submarine-delivered anti-ship missiles.