Indian Navy’s Chief, Admiral R. Hari Kumar, on 4 May last month, while addressing the International Maritime Security Conference in Singapore, asserted the “most challenging aspect to maritime cooperation and collaboration is unilateralism,” a clear signal to those nations states who are promoting predatory grey zone operations in the broader Indo-Pacific Region.
Two separate developments in two of the largest navies in the Indo-Pacific – Japan and India, followed this assertion by Admiral Kumar. First, news came from Japan in mid-May when the Japanese Maritime Self-Defence Force (JMSDF) announced plans to acquire 147 F-35A and F-35B models and modify its two Izumo class LHAs for F-35B operations. With this, Japan is all set to become the 10th member of the post-World War II ‘Carrier Club’ by 2025.
After that, on 24 May, in a further boost to its carrier programme, a Mig 29K fighter jet of the Indian Navy was “trapped” (arrested recovery!) by night aboard India’s indigenously built aircraft carrier, INS Vikrant, the second aircraft carrier in the Indian Navy’s inventory (the first one being the INS Vikramaditya). The Navy Chief, Admiral Kumar, heralded the landing and subsequent takeoff as another “momentous step towards realising our collective vision of Atmanirbhar Bharat, or self-reliance in defence production.”
Both events are acceptable from Tokyo’s and New Delhi’s standpoints. For Japan, the role of carrier airpower in the Balkan, Kuwait, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, and Syrian conflicts has probably driven the JMSDF to modify its helicopter carriers to aircraft carriers. For the Indian Navy, on the other hand, outright self-sufficiency in defence production would be the best way to confer full strategic autonomy to India in a future conflict with a prospective foe. In that sense, Navy Chief Kumar is correct – a new era has dawned in Indian maritime strategy now that Vikrant has joined the fleet — a liberating development all around; indeed, what the Indian Navy would cheer.
A Two-Carrier Force like Indian Navy is Scarcely a Strongman Force
Strategically, though, two flattops for the Indian Navy are far from revolutionary. Having two aircraft carriers in the fleet means the Indian Navy can probably have only one ready for duty in the Indian Ocean most of the time, considering the maintenance cycle, training, and at-sea deployments.
Only a third aircraft carrier will make a constant high-sea presence a virtual sure thing. The third flattop, Vishal, remains on the drawing board and confronts an uncertain future when the People’s Liberation Army Navy prepares to leap supercarriers with its third flattop.
Let us spare a few moments to think about what scaling back India’s carrier-aviation developments will mean strategically. The Indian sub-continent is a vast peninsula jutting into the Indian Ocean. It implies that for New Delhi, maritime defence in this region is a strategic problem encompassing both our eastern and western coastlines. With its present capability, the Indian Navy can only project power on one coast at a time. Indian Navy will find it hard to cope should China and Pakistan decide to make mischief in the Bay of Bengal and the Arabian Sea concurrently.
And then compare this to recent headlines in the Indian media; of the Indian Air Force claiming to cover both Indian seaboard with two ‘over the sea’ sorties. In the first, it was claimed that four Rafales flew a long-range mission for over six hours. A second tweet followed a week later, claiming that Su-30s are undertaking eight-hour missions. Both missions were in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR). One wonders if this was to stir up the ever-ominous “aircraft carriers versus fighter squadrons” debate. While the Air assets that may be required to keep both Indian seaboards secure whilst also catering for the troubled land borders is another argument, the ‘either/or’ comparison between Fighters in maritime roles and Aircraft Carriers is fundamentally flawed for three reasons.
First, an aircraft carrier’s mobility, flexibility, and range of operation offer the option to project power at a time and place of choosing. Second, the Time on Task (ToT) of land-based air assets significantly reduces as they operate further away from their base, affecting the station’s time and ability to ‘challenge maritime assets.’ Finally, air defence of the fleet is a ‘here and now‘ requirement. A delay of even less than 30-45 minutes can make the difference between a successful or failed enemy engagement. Hence, while shore-based fighters can supplement Naval operations at Sea, they cannot substitute it.
When splashed across the news, headlines such as these are outside the interests of our Security establishments with definite charters with adequate scope for joint operations. It is no secret that the Indian Navy today has the mandate to be ready to fight and win against an adversary at Sea, who is both numerically superior and has increasingly begun to project its naval power into the Indian Ocean incrementally. On the other hand, China and Turkey’s active support of Pakistan’s fleet modernisation make it a threat that needs to be addressed in conflict scenarios, either with China or Pakistan, and the two put together. Building a fleet takes time, so when a nation goes to war, its navy must fight with the ships it has. A lesson from history that must never be forgotten!
India would do well if its force modernisation is based on realistic threat perceptions and a closer look at how other global powers who will have a say in the 21st century are going about theirs. In terms of readiness for naval warfare, maintaining the construction of ships and submarines must be a continuing effort. Whether two aircraft carriers or the projected 200-plus ships’ Indian Naval fleet, the right numbers for the future could be debatable. Some may argue that maintaining the current fleet at the highest possible state of readiness, including mid-life upgrades and modernisation, provides more warfighting capability to the Indian Navy. Quite to the contrary, by neglecting the future force, India puts at risk its ability to sustain a war at sea. Are we ready to accept this risk? It is a moot question to start a debate.
A two-carrier force like the Indian Navy is inadequate for the huge coastline and island territories we have to guard. Added to it are the sea bourne commercial interests of our nation, which is already the fifth largest global economy. When New Delhi approves the aircraft carrier design and construction of Vishal, it will be a warning sign for China, which is accelerating its sea power proliferation. India must avoid making a mistake made by the Americans in the 1940s when they were slow to grasp that the Imperial Japanese Navy was a deadly foe in the making. It reminds one of Mark Twain when he said:
“History does not repeat itself; it often rhymes.”