Is the time right for India to get a third aircraft carrier?

There is a broad consensus in the strategic community on the Indian Navy having two aircraft carriers, one for each of the two seaboards.

India’s first aircraft carrier, the original INS Vikrant, was commissioned in 1961 followed by a second carrier, the INS Viraat in 1987. Both have since been decommissioned. At present, India has only one aircraft carrier, the INS Vikramaditya, which is a Russian-origin platform. The indigenously-built aircraft carrier (IAC) Vikrant, the first of its kind and a symbol of India’s atmanirbharta in defence, is expected to be commissioned later this year.

There is a broad consensus in the strategic community on the Indian Navy having two aircraft carriers, one for each of the two seaboards. There also exists a broad consensus on acquiring a third carrier to ensure the operational availability of two aircraft carriers at any given time, accounting for maintenance, repairs and refits. The debate, therefore, revolves around the timing of the acquisition of a third carrier, whether now or later.

The proponents consider an aircraft carrier an operational necessity for sustained naval presence in the vast oceanic space. They favour the early acquisition of a third aircraft carrier, citing the rapid expansion of the Chinese PLA Navy (PLAN) and its growing forays into the Indian Ocean. Indeed, the PLAN is the world’s fastest-growing navy with more than 350 ships and submarines. China has two aircraft carriers — the Liaoning (Type 001, originally the Soviet carrier Varyag) and the Shandong (Type 002), which was built indigenously. China is also building a third carrier, the Type 003, and may have a few more in the next decade. The under-construction Type 003 will be the first Chinese aircraft carrier to use Catapult-Assisted Take-Off But Arrested Recovery (CATOBAR) and Electromagnetic Aircraft Launch System (EMALS), which will permit bigger fighter aircraft with heavier payloads and longer ranges to operate from its deck. With the Indo-Pacific increasingly becoming a contested theatre, India must prepare for the future well in advance. Strategic observers aver that it is only a matter of time before China deploys a carrier-based task force in the Indian Ocean.

Aircraft carriers are mobile platforms that ensure sea control and power projection. They permit the use of tactical airpower over a vast region. They are equally capable of mounting offensive attacks on maritime as well as shore-based targets. Due to their mobility, aircraft carriers can evade hostile attacks. This aspect is increasingly of relevance against the backdrop of China’s development of Anti-Access and Areas Denial (A2AD) weaponry of growing lethality such as carrier-killer missiles (DF21D and DF26), as well as a large fleet of nuclear attack (SSNs) and Air Independent Propulsion (AIP) diesel-electric submarines. These have naturally questioned the continuing relevance of aircraft carriers that cost billions of dollars in future naval warfare.

Another argument favouring a third aircraft carrier is that the gestation period for any such indigenous acquisition is long. The Vikrant took 17 years to complete and is yet to be commissioned. Failure to take an early decision could result in India’s shipyards losing the expertise that has been nurtured in recent years. In the Indian context, effective reliance on shore-based aircraft for maritime dominance as against the use of an aircraft carrier would also involve developing effective jointness with the Indian Air Force. Shore-based aircraft such as the SU-30 MKI can support the Indian Navy with a combat range of about 1,500 km, with an additional strike range provided by the Brahmos missiles (400 km). At the same time, all shore-based aircraft have some limitations, in terms of loitering time for flying and distant support, regardless of the availability of air refuellers. While shore-based aircraft may be available for strikes at sea, their ability to provide air defence cover to our fleets would be limited.

The case against the immediate acquisition of a third aircraft carrier is also quite compelling. It hinges on the astronomical cost of an aircraft carrier versus cheaper alternative options that may be available today for achieving air dominance in the area of interest. Shore-based aircraft, for instance, are increasingly bigger, capable of carrying heavier fuel and weapons payloads and can be supported by airborne refuellers. There is also the case for greater strategic utilisation of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands and Lakshadweep Islands that abut vital sea lanes of communication. At the same time, shore-based aircraft and other assets are vulnerable to detection by satellites and potential missile attacks.

The question then boils down to whether India should acquire a third aircraft carrier at this time or in a few years until the Indian economic pie is bigger. The navy budget is the smallest of the three services. The cost of the indigenously produced Vikrant, without the aircraft and weapons systems, amounted to Rs 23,000 crore. The next aircraft carrier India builds is bound to cost much more. It is a moot question if the navy can absorb the cost of a third aircraft carrier within its existing budget. A related issue concerns the prioritisation of ongoing and planned major naval acquisitions, which include the Scorpene submarines (P-75 Programme), the Project 75 (India)-class submarines, the Visakhapatnam (P-15B) class destroyers, and the Nilgiri (P17A) class stealth frigates.

India occupies a pole position in the Indian Ocean. It wields a high degree of influence in the oceanic spaces which are crucial to its trade and energy requirements, as well as those of many others such as India’s partners in the Quad and Malabar Naval Exercise (the US, Japan and Australia). There is no doubt that a third aircraft carrier would add to the considerable punch of the Indian Navy. However, given the deleterious effect of the pandemic on economic growth, it appears that the idea of a third aircraft carrier may have to be put on the back burner.

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