The successful completion of the five-day sea trials (from 04 to 08 August 2021) of the long-delayed indigenous aircraft carrier, the new Vikrant, is a seminal event and one that has been justifiably met with elation and a palpable sense of maritime pride. “Maritime” is quite clearly the prevailing geopolitical flavour. On the very next day (09 August 2021) Prime Minister, Shri Narendra Modi, personally chaired a High Level Open Debate at the UN Security Council, on the theme “Enhancing Maritime Security: A case for International Cooperation”, emphatically bringing “Maritime India” to the front and centre of the global maritime discourse and dominating India’s eighth rotational membership of this apex intergovernmental organisation. The additional fact that this demonstration Indian naval capacity and capability has been made in the Swarnim Vijay Varsh commemorating the 50th anniversary of the victory of Indian arms against Pakistan in the 1971 conflict that resulted in the creation of Bangladesh, and, given that it has been almost in tandem with India’s record medal haul in the Tokyo Olympics (23 July to 08 August 2021), the voyage of the Vikrant has certainly added to the series of adrenaline spikes and generated a palpable surge of nationalistic pride. It is clear from the available evidence that India is rising — peacefully, responsibly, and with impressive rapidity, even in these pandemic-afflicted times. It is particularly germane to assert that this rise is occurring in an increasingly interconnected world — even if is not entirely a ‘globalised’ one — and that it is largely being shaped by the oceans. This is true whether by way of trade, technology and connectivity, or by way of food-security, or in terms of new and clean energy sources, or in dealing with the cumulative impacts of geophysical and anthropomorphic causes of climate change. Indeed, the current century and very possibly the next one, too, are very likely to be maritime-centric ones. India’s polity appears to be finally coming around to the fact that over the foreseeable future, India will be either be a “maritime” power, or it will not be a power at all. For India, therefore, the sustenance of its rise demands that the country enhance, in significant manner, its investment in all of the various dimensions of maritime power, including the ‘military’ components of India’s maritime power, which are manifested by the Indian Navy. Such investment involves infrastructure and ‘capacity’ as represented by surface, sub-surface, and airborne combat and combat-supporting platforms (whether these be manned, minimally manned, or unmanned, semi-autonomous or autonomous) and associated equipment. It also involves ‘capability’ as connoted by the quality of personnel, their training and the overall development of the human resource, both in and out of uniform.
Yet, it is also evident that not everyone is exulting in this resurgence of ‘Maritime India’. There are, unfortunately, a small number of vested constituencies, both within the country and beyond its shores, that have been highlighting the adverse economic impact of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and calling for a renewed examination of the desirability and the defensibility of aircraft carriers in the prevailing economic and security environments, as also those expected to prevail over foreseeable future. Sadly, the debate over how best to optimise — if not maximise — India’s air and aerospace power and apply it effectively in the pursuit of the nation’s interests, over the land and also over the vast oceanic expanse of the Indo-Pacific (or even just that of the Indian Ocean), seems somehow meaner, more small-minded and partisan, more bigoted and stultified, and, perhaps, even more dumbed-down than has thus far been the case.
That said, it can hardly be argued that given the economic challenges that the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has brought in its wake, the need to distinguish ‘cost’ from ‘cost-effectiveness’, and to not be fixated upon the obvious question of “can we afford to?” but to also examine the less obvious one of “can we afford not to?”, is pressing. In short, the need to prevent ‘hope’ from being stifled by ‘hype’ is more urgent than ever before.
India’s military air-power now encompasses all three Defence Forces, as also several of the country’s ‘central armed forces’. Within the latter grouping, the Indian Coast Guard is predominant in terms of the number and variety of its air-assets, as also its competence and experience in utilising them. However, the Air Wing of the Border Security Force (BSF), too is an increasingly significant deployer of air power. Each force adds to the India’s overall deployment of air-power, not only within the country but in some or all of its maritime zones as well.
Unfortunately, the relentless barrage of social media platforms continues to be characterised by inadequately informed opinions to which members of the lay public are repeatedly subjected. Thus, the debate over the relative efficacy of the Indian Navy’s carrier-borne airpower versus that of the Indian Air Force supported by replenishment-tanker aircraft rages on, quite like the forest fires that engulf nation-states from time to time. The flames generated by predominantly emotive arguments are temporarily doused by informed understanding, but, are periodically fanned into a blaze by factional loyalties coupled with a goodly dose of ignorance. Amidst all this conflagration, the only thing of lasting value that is being reduced to cinders is, of course, India and India’s geopolitical aspirations in times of peace, tension, and conflict. It must, of course, be borne in mind that emotive arguments tend to breed equally emotive ones, and the solution, if there is one to be found, lies in a rational examination of the facts as we know them and such reasonable deductions as can be made from these facts.
If media reports are to be given credence (their poor past-record notwithstanding), the incumbent Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) and the recently established Department of Military Affairs (DOMA) within the Ministry of Defence (MoD) seem to think that submarines and aircraft carriers can be simplistically placed in an ‘either-or’ conditionality, and primacy accorded to the former. The truth, of course, regardless of whether this is a view of the MoD or merely that of a section of the media, is that like most simplistic responses to complex questions, this entire approach, is foundationally flawed. Sadly, space will not permit a detailed analysis of both, submarines and aircraft carriers, so this article will merely attempt to provide some clarity in terms of aircraft carriers and a separate one will deal with the fallacies inherent in an ‘either-or’ argument. In short, while the criticality of the maritime domain — and that of the military maritime domain is a given, of immediate interest and urgency is the need for answers to the questions of whether aircraft carriers are indeed, quite as central as is being averred by the present Chief of the Naval Staff, and whether they do, indeed, provide the biggest bang for our collective buck.
There are two fundamental threads along which these questions tend to be addressed. The first argues for and against the undeniably high ‘cost’ of aircraft carriers when compared with what an air force can deliver by way of equivalent aerospace capability. The second proceeds down the path of ‘cost-effectiveness’ and seeks to examine the survivability (defensibility) of aircraft carriers in the prevailing and predicted battle-milieu.
It is certainly true that a contemporary (and future-ready) aircraft carrier costs a large amount of money, whether it is procured from abroad or constructed indigenously. Along with its complement of aircraft, it is also expensive to operate and to maintain, especially when costs are computed over the several decades of its operational life. Open-source inputs have pegged the final cost of the Vikramaditya at some ₹12,500 Crore, while the indigenous construction of the Vikrant, which will displace some 40,000-tonne aircraft carrier will, according to some reports, cost the exchequer some ₹ 23,000 Crore (this figure is understood to include the cost of shore-based shipyard equipment and infrastructure needed by the Cochin Shipyard, which is where the Vikrant is being built). Some argue that the roles that are envisaged for the aircraft carrier could well be performed by shore-based air power (of the Indian Air Force), with the clincher being the addendum, at a much lower cost. So, it becomes pertinent to examine how much an equivalent air force capacity and capability would cost. This cannot, of course, not be limited to the capital cost of a single airbase. The fact is that an aircraft carrier can move a thousand kilometres in a single day. In order to match this mobility, one would need multiple ‘coastal’, ‘inland’ and ‘forward’ IAF airbases. There would be equally forbidding costs to be borne in the construction and periodic maintenance of the ground and aerial assets in each of these air bases. For instance, just the replacement cost (not the capital cost, mind you!) of one single runway on an existing air force base can easily exceed ₹ 600 Crore. In the case of a Greenfield airbase, this ‘construction cost’ would have to take into account the costs of land-levelling and development, as also the cost of acquiring additional land necessary for safe take-off and departure flight-patterns and landing-approaches. At the USA’s Atlanta airport, for example, the 2013 cost of adding a fifth runway capable of routinely handling jet aircraft was $1.24 billion, which is about ₹8,700 Crore. In the case of a fighter base, one would need to additionally account for the cost of one or more parallel taxi-tracks, bombproof shelters and hangars, the Air Traffic Control (ATC) building and associated facilities, a variety of radars, robust structures to house navigational beacons and communication equipment. To this will need to be added the costs of installing self-defence wherewithal — not the missiles and/or guns themselves, but their emplacements, ammunition-storage structures, and so forth. When these requirements (all of which are already included in the cost of the aircraft carrier) are aggregated, one ends up with a cost-figure that significantly exceeds even the overall cost of construction of an indigenous aircraft carrier. Just the brick-and-mortar installation-cost of a single USAF base (not including the cost of each aircraft, or the cost of their deployment, or personnel costs) has been quantified in a comprehensive analytical study of 2013 by the RAND corporation, which is available in the open domain. Even if we were to discount any additional costs as a result of inflation from 2013 to the present day, the cost is US$ 13 billion (₹ 91,000 Crore). It is clear that the capital-cost of just the construction of a single air base exceeds that of the aircraft carrier. However, as has already been indicated, the mobility of an aircraft carrier means that it ‘virtualises’ a number of static airbases, each of which costs a great more than does the ship! Once the emotive content is removed from the comparative equation, the aircraft carrier, with its operational life of some 45-50 years, is readily seen to offer a far cheaper option.
Moreover, in times short of armed conflict — that is, in times of peace or tension — mobile maritime forces centred upon an aircraft carrier are unsurpassed in their ability to provide a range of flexible and favourable geostrategic-options to the nation and its government. The ability of a naval battle-group centred upon an aircraft-carrier to shape perceptions (commonly known as ‘shaping operations’) in a manner that is advantageous to the nation fielding such a force in the areas of its maritime interest, is unmatched. These ‘shaping operations’ incorporate a series of persuasive, dissuasive, deterrent, and coercive missions, which are collectively defined as the ‘diplomatic’ role of the Navy. As the Carrier Battle Group (CBG) establishes presence in proximate as well as distant parts of the oceanic areas of interest to India, it also an invaluable source of ‘Maritime Domain Awareness’ (MDA) through direct as well as cooperative surveillance, the gathering and collation of intelligence on a regional basis, not only of goings-on on the sea surface, but below and above it, extending from abyssal ocean-depths all the way to outer space. These are functions that shore-based assets of an air force simply cannot perform.
The argument of cost-effectiveness is, however, most telling when subjected to the litmus test of armed conflict, which is, after all is said and done, the quintessential purpose of raising defence forces in the first place. Everything else is a spin-off. In times of State-on-State conflict, there is an inescapable need to routinely and efficiently mount and sustain operations-of-war at distances of the order of several hundred — if not thousand — kilometres from the Indian coast. At these distances, in times of conflict, the qualities of endurance and resilience that are inherent in warships enable them to ‘poise-in-theatre’ for protracted periods of time. Throughout this time, which can easily stretch over several weeks if not months, air-power critical to guard them against existential threats. This is why a group of frigates and destroyers cannot be deployed in the theatre of combat without an assurance of defensive and air offensive power. This air-power must be available both ‘here’ and ‘now’. Thus, while there can be little argument over the fact that modern, technology-derived, shore-based airborne platforms such as airborne refueller-aircraft could overcome the ‘here’ component of this twin requirement for the sustenance of blue-water combat-operations, the ‘now’ component cannot be addressed merely by extending the range of shore-based aircraft — whether manned or unmanned. Aerospace power that is an ‘embedded’ or ‘integral’ component of fleet-capabilities at sea is a sine qua non for combat-effectiveness and, almost invariably, even for the most fundamental feat of plain survival.
Once combat is joined, the need for air power increases exponentially and it is no exaggeration to state that a force that is bereft of air-power but which faces an adversary that enjoys offensive and defensive air-cover is almost certain to be defeated and destroyed. This is why ‘integral’ air-power, as embodied by a CBG, remains such a central operational concept of major navies. There certainly are navies that do not have integral air power of their own. In all such cases, they are either part of an alliance in which some other alliance-partner will bring the requisite integral air-power to bear, or, they are restricted to the immediate proximity of their coast, or, they will be destroyed in combat by an adversary that can apply integral air power, once again both ‘here’ and ‘now’.
It is important to remember that an aircraft carrier cannot be considered to be the ship itself but is an integral part of an entire combat-system. This integrated combat system is what we refer-to as a Carrier Battle Group (CBG). Just as an army tank is a ‘combat-system’ comprising the chassis and the turret and the many connectivities between the two, and, just as it would be ridiculous to talk about the survivability of the tank’s chassis separately and that of the turret separately, so too is a CBG a synergistic and mutually-supporting complete system and it is this system (i.e., the ‘group’) and not the aircraft carrier alone that must always remain the central point of reference. Many armchair analysts from the media, never having experienced the synergy that a CBG develops, are quite unable to appreciate this fact. Yet, all too often, their vanity compels them to talk or write about the aircraft carrier as a standalone ship. All too often, they end-up propounding a whole range of erudite and impressive-sounding arguments, but nevertheless ones that are quite simply erroneous (and often siloed), centred upon the several perceived vulnerabilities of the aircraft carrier alone.
Notwithstanding the acknowledged resilience of warships resulting from their very design (which, inter alia, incorporates a series of damage-control and enhanced-survivability features), some analysts highlight the threats to an Indian CBG emanating from the acquisition by the PLA Navy and the Pakistan Navy, too, of satellite imagery from surveillance-satellites such as those of the Yaogan series, coupled with the BeiDou satellite-navigation system; anti-ship ballistic-missiles such as the Dong Feng 21D; supersonic and hypersonic long-range cruise missiles; nuclear-propelled attack-submarines (SSNs); very quiet diesel-electric submarines; and so on. These are, of course, grave threats and neither can nor should evoke either casual dismissal or responses that are driven more by machismo than by careful reflection. Surely, however, the mere fact that one’s combat platforms face existential threats from one’s adversary ought not cause one to give up on one’s own combat capability altogether. Is the very existence of shore-based aircraft of an air force not threatened by the opposing aircraft and missile-systems of Pakistan and China? Is the existence of armoured regiments and artillery emplacements not threatened in combat by the opposing aircraft, missiles and artillery of the adversary? Is that, then a good enough reason for us to say that we ought not to invest in aircraft or tanks or artillery pieces of our own? This is a puerile argument that merits only disdainful dismissal.
It is important to recognise that there are several ‘types’ of aircraft carriers, which vary widely from one another in terms of their displacement-tonnage, their physical dimensions, their purpose or roles, their means of propulsion, the number of aircraft they carry in peace time as opposed to the number that can be carried in combat, the manner in which these aircraft are launched and recovered, the extent and depth of on-board logistics and repair capacity and capability, and so on. The following schematic (Source: Author) might help maintain some much-needed terminological exactitude:
As a consequence of the foregoing typologies, the difference between a carrier Battle Group (CBG) and a Carrier Strike Group (CSG) would be evident. A CBG is designed to attack enemy ships while protecting one’s own fleet units. A CSG, on the other hand, is designed for land-attack — to attack heavily-defended targets on an enemy shore, while protecting its own fleet units.
In common with armed combat undertaken in other mediums, war at sea is undertaken via what is known as the ‘engagement-cycle’. This involves the following eight activities, which are conducted sequentially: (1) ‘Surveillance/Search’, (2) ‘Detection’, (3) Localisation, (4) ‘Classification’, (4) ‘Identification’, (6) ‘Tracking’, (7) ‘Combat Decision-making’ (whether to evade or to engage), and (8) ‘Damage-Assessment’. The vulnerability of an Indian CBG in times of conflict needs to be assessed against these steps of the engagement cycle. Obviously, one needs to avoid the error of simplistically considering naval warfare as a game of ‘Hide and Seek’, where the ‘Hiders’ and the ‘Seekers’ are mutually exclusive entities with pre-defined roles. In truth, the hunter is also simultaneously the hunted and vice versa. This, along with the attendant fact that the hunter and the hunted may be operating in completely different mediums, each oblivious of the other, imposes limitations upon both protagonists.
The first challenge to be overcome by an enemy that seeks the destruction of an aircraft carrier of the size and type under discussion is one of combat-surveillance and resultant detection. Since any contemporary Indian CBG can easily traverse a distance of some 900-1,000 km in a 24-hour period, ‘real-time’ detection is needed. The magnitude of this problem needs to be appreciated. While the area of the Indian Ocean as a whole is a staggering 73.6 million square kilometres (km2), the area to be kept under surveillance even within just the ‘Arabian Sea’ alone, is some 38,62,000 km².
The proliferation of commercial light-weight satellites, such as those launched by US-based satellite companies like Planet Labs and Spire Global, have made it possible to provide global surveillance at 3-metre to 5-metre resolution. A well-known example is that of the 88-satellite ‘flock’ (constellation) of ‘Dove’ nanosatellites (CubeSats) from Planet Labs, that were, on 15 February 2017, launched into a morning crossing time, sun-synchronous orbit (SSO) via the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO)’s Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV). The vast bulk of commercial nanosatellites are focused on the land and do not image vast tracts of the open ocean. That said, there is certainly substantial commercial satellite-based coverage of more restricted ocean-areas such as the South China Sea, the Mediterranean and the Persian Gulf. However, persistent satellite-based surveillance of a large oceanic expanse such as the Indian Ocean or the Pacific Ocean remains a significant challenge. Moreover, satellite-based detection — including that by commercial nanosatellites (which are only a contemporary manifestation of what is generically called the ‘space segment’ of a satellite system) — calls for ‘ground-stations’. “The ground system is responsible for collecting and distributing the most valuable asset of the mission: the data”. Using the proper ground system is key to mission success. It is the ‘footprint’ of these ground stations that would enable ‘real-time’ downloads of imagery (electro-optical, radar, infra-red, or whatever) of medium/large objects detected at sea. An adversary seeking to make the Indian Ocean ‘transparent’, must, therefore, possess an adequate number of adequately located and technologically-sophisticated ground-stations. Multiple Low Earth Orbit (LEO) satellites would need to be simultaneously tracked and multiple communication bands employed by these ground stations. Although technology for ground stations for the larger Geosynchronous Earth Orbit (GEO) satellite classes is fairly well-developed and stable, the same cannot be said for ground stations for LEO satellites, especially since the tracking and correcting of LEO satellites generates far more demanding requirements for pointing and tracking than is the case with GEO ones. Where nanosatellites are concerned, the sheer number of satellites in a constellation makes the problem even more challenging. LEO slots in space are getting increasingly crowded and collisions are increasingly likely, with the resultant space-debris causing cascading collisions. A key area of need for tactically relevant military nanosatellite systems is a robust, stationary, electronically-steered antenna that gives nanosatellite ground stations the ability to reliably transmit encrypted satellite commands as well as receive encrypted nanosatellite telemetry. It is obvious that ‘ground-stations’ — whether for GEO satellites or LEO ones — require ‘ground’. An adversary of India must, therefore, possess adequate and suitably located ‘territory’ upon which ‘ground-stations’ can be positioned. This is true even if these ‘ground-stations’ are modern, small, and/or portable ones, such as the US/NATO ‘RAPIDS’ (Resource and Program Information Development System). All this is beyond the current or near-term capabilities of either of India’s likely adversaries.
If, on the other hand, the adversary chooses to deploy airborne radar, this would typically be achieved through shore-based ‘Long Range Maritime Patrol’ (LRMP) aircraft such as Pakistan’s P3C Orion and its replacement, the Embraer Lineage 1000 jetliner from Brazil. It is understood that once inducted, these will be known as ‘Sea Sultans’. However, only one aircraft seems to have been inducted thus far and another two having been contracted for conversion, even though the total order is reportedly for ten aircraft. As things presently stand, Pakistan has some capability within the Arabian Sea, while China has some minimal/marginal capability at the eastern fringes of the Bay of Bengal. The effectiveness of these already-limited capabilities will inevitably be further constrained by the Indian Navy’s deployment pattern in respect of the CBG. Since one never plans to place one’s most valuable military-assets in a position of maximum disadvantage to oneself, it is realistic to expect that an Indian CBG would not be deployed where the enemy’s shore-based air power poses the greatest threat to one’s own forces. Thus, an Indian CBG would not be deployed within the unrefuelled combat radius of an intact enemy’s shore-based Fighter Ground Attack (FGA) aircraft. Indeed, the ‘deployment-pattern’ of the CBG is an overarching factor that is germane right across the ‘combat-engagement cycle’ under consideration. All carrier-operating navies recognise the unacceptable risks involved in operating aircraft carriers singly, or keeping them in harbour, or deploying them in the close proximity of land. Consequently, CBGs routinely put to sea well before any crisis deteriorates into conflict. They then ‘poise’ in theatre at distances ranging from multiple hundreds or thousands of kilometres from the shore, that is, within distant and deep ‘blue-waters’.
Even once detection has been achieved, the next challenge that must be overcome is ‘classification’. In terms of traffic-density, the Indian Ocean is the busiest of all the world’s oceans, with over 145,000 ships transiting the International Shipping Lanes (ISLs) of this ocean every year. On our western seaboard, the Strait of Bab-el-Mandeb (connecting the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea) accounts for some 22,000 ships annually, while the Strait of Malacca on the country’s eastern seaboard accounts for a staggering 90,000 ship-transits every year. Sailing on the ISLs are a number of large, fast ships — several of which are of a comparable size and speed to that of an aircraft carrier, but are not warships at all. Examples include a multitude of Very Large Crude Carriers (VLCCs), Maersk E-Class Container Carriers, a number of cruise-ferries and cruise-liners, several ‘car-and-truck’ carriers, and, a large variety of ‘Roll-on-Roll-off’ [Ro-Ro] ships. Moreover, heavy-lift warships as also those designed for amphibious operations (such as the French Navy’s Mistral Class) and a number of Classes of LPDs [Landing Platforms Dock]), can also be quite easily mistaken for aircraft carriers. Thus, the process of correct classification is by no means as simple as it might initially appear. Despite enjoying its reputation as a ‘hunter’, every LRMP aircraft is acutely aware that when facing a CBG, it is simultaneously the ‘hunted’ and is extremely vulnerable to attrition by the Combat Air Patrols (CAP) that are routinely mounted by modern, carrier-based fighter aircraft such as the MiG-29K that are already deployed on the INS Vikramaditya and would, additionally, be embarked on the future Vikrant. As such, every time the LRMP aircraft makes a detection of what it thinks might be an aircraft carrier — but might turn out to be a carrier-sized merchantman or a ‘non-carrier’ warship such as a fast LPD — it has no choice but to assume that every such contact is, indeed, the enemy aircraft-carrier. Consequently, it is forced to immediately adopt a series of gambit tactics designed to promote its own survival against interception by carrier-based aircraft. These departures from its mathematically-designed search-pattern seriously degrade the ‘probability-of-detection’. This, as any experienced LRMP crew knows, is a very serious limitation and plays havoc with the entire process of executing a planned ‘Search’.
The foregoing challenges notwithstanding, let us assume that a contact that has been detected is classified as an aircraft carrier. The next problem is that of ‘identification’: whose aircraft carrier is it? This question is germane because extra-regional aircraft carriers (especially those of US and French navies) are regularly deployed in both, the Arabian Sea and the Bay of Bengal. Were one of these to be engaged by a trigger-happy LRMP Pakistani or Chinese aircraft searching for the Indian Navy’s CBG, the consequences are likely to be catastrophic. Although it is possible for an LRMP aircraft to conduct a ‘search mission’ while using only passive means such as ESM (Electronic Support Measures), acoustic devices (sonobuoys, for example) and electro-optics, such a ‘search’ would yield a low ‘Probability-of-Detection’. As such, more often than not, a ‘search’ mission seeking to confirm the presence or absence of a CBG in the area being searched, would be undertaken at least partially by active transmissions on the airborne radar of the LRMP aircraft. The constituent ships of the CBG, being far more capacious than an LRMP aircraft, carry a far greater variety of Electronic Warfare suites of far greater sophistication than an aircraft can. As such, an LRMP aircraft transmitting on its radar is very vulnerable — first to detection by any or all of the excellently data-linked constituents of the CBG and thereafter to interception by carrier-based aircraft data-linked to highly-qualified aircraft-direction teams and equipped with state-of-the-art Beyond Visual Range (BVR) missiles well before it can reach its own ‘weapon-release-line’ (WRL).
Next assume that the CBG has indeed been detected, correctly classified and correctly identified. The attacker must now make a series of command decisions leading to the launch of weapons, and these weapons must now transit the space between their point of origin and the carrier. While all this is occurring, the carrier is moving. If the CBG is not ‘tracked’ continuously — or at least continually, — positional errors could easily become very significant. For instance, during a 30-minute period, the Carrier could have manoeuvred anywhere within a circle measuring 700 square miles. Over 90 minutes, this area grows to 6,000 square miles! Consequently, the requirement of continual/continuous tracking increases the probability of destruction of even a missile-equipped LRMP aircraft by carrier-based interception manifold. LRMP aircraft-holdings in the inventories of our potential adversaries are severely limited and every loss of an LRMP aircraft imposes a very severe penalty on the adversary’s overall capability in terms of maritime operations. This is because it is these very LRMP aircraft that are required to ‘trigger’ the launch of shore-based aircraft of the enemy air force that have been earmarked for ‘Maritime Air Operations’ (MAO). Without this trigger, the MAO Commander does not know when exactly he should launch his Fighters Ground Attack (FGA) to attack the carrier. This is a critical input to him because in attacking the CBG at large distances from the coast, his aircraft will need to operate with a number of limitations. They will consume a significant amount of fuel in the transit to and from their weapon-release line. As a result, their time-on-target will be limited. If a tanker-aircraft is deployed near the seaward limit of the autonomous radius-of-action of the FGA, the refueller itself will become a strategically important (and hence hugely attractive) target for the carrier-borne aircraft and, as a further consequence, additional resources will have to be committed by way of air-defence fighter-aircraft so as to ensure its safety. The enemy’s shore-based strike-aircraft would, perforce, be operating well outside the cover of their land-based radars and hence be bereft of direction by their Fighter Controllers. On the other hand, the Carrier’s own fighters, operating in the ‘interceptor’ role, would have relatively more fuel and hence greater combat-time (time-on-task). They would be operating within the radar cover of the CBG as a whole and, with their contemporary armament of BVR air-to-air missiles, would have the advantage of being directed by ship-borne fighter-controllers (known in the Indian Navy as ‘Direction Officers’). It is clear that the MAO Commander ashore cannot afford to fritter away the fuel-endurance of his aircraft by launching them too early and, yet, he certainly cannot afford to launch them too late. Consequently, the timeliness and accuracy of the ‘launch-trigger’ provided to him by his LRMP aircraft is a sine qua non for his operations.
Hence, as the CBG attains sequential or simultaneous destruction of the enemy’s LRMP aircraft, it incrementally cripples the ability of the adversary to sensibly deploy either shore-based FGA or submarines against it. This then allows the CBG to close the enemy coast, should that be its operational intent. This brings us to the critically important question of whether closing the enemy coast to attack targets ashore (military power-projection) is what we want our CBG to do. If so, what we need is not merely a ‘Fleet Aircraft Carrier’ with a displacement of some 45,000 tonnes or so, but a larger one, of at least 65,000 tonnes displacement. That we will need a CATOBAR carrier is very likely, as this will enable it not only to embark Carrier On-board Delivery (COD) aircraft but, far more significantly, also AWACS aircraft such as modernised variants of the American ‘E-2D Hawkeye’.
The next question that is frequently raised is that of the survivability of the Carrier (even here, the expression ‘CBG’ is generally missing) against sub-surface threats. This is, indeed, a more intricate and complicated operational challenge than that of the CBG’s ability to deal with aircraft or missile threats. In several areas of the Indian Ocean, particularly the north-western segment (that is, the Arabian Sea) the acoustic profile almost always depicts a ‘negative-gradient’. This makes it difficult for ships with hull-mounted sonars to achieve early detection of enemy submarines. The deployment of towed-array sonars could solve this problem, but brings another equally serious one in its wake. This is the penalty that has to be paid in terms of both, manoeuvrability and speed-of-advance. On the other hand, an adversary deploying conventionally-powered submarines must contend with challenges of his own. These are principally low speeds and very low endurance, the latter being an especially debilitating feature at high underwater speeds. Such submarines tend to be deployed in ‘choke-points’ — whether these are created ‘geographically’ or ‘operationally’. For ‘mid-ocean deployments of conventionally-propelled submarines to be even minimally effective, the adversary needs highly accurate and continually-updated tactical-intelligence with regard to the predicted direction (the ‘Mean Line of Advance’ [MLA]) of the CBG. Thus, a conventionally-propelled submarine can be effectively redeployed for a mid-ocean interception of the CBG only through one or another form of protracted tactical cooperation with a LRMP aircraft. The problems of maintaining instantaneous tactical communication with a deep-submerged submarine are not small by any stretch of imagination. They frequently involve the aircraft remotely ‘keying’ a distant ‘Very Low Frequency’ (VLF) or ‘Extremely Low Frequency’ (ELF) facility located a great distance and often deep in the hinterland of the country that is attempting such tactical cooperation between its conventionally-powered submarine and its LRMP aircraft. Since the LRMP aircraft is restricted in its own freedom of deployment, it becomes very vulnerable indeed to attrition or destruction from carrier-based fighter-interceptors. Thus, in dealing with a CBG, such cooperation between an LRMP aircraft and a submarine (often abbreviated to the expression, ‘MR-Sub cooperation’) is a non-starter. In any case, quite apart from its ‘blue-water’ positioning, the high speed-of-advance of the CBG is, in and of itself, an effective submarine-evasion measure, especially when it is overlaid by tactical manoeuvring involving violent and frequent course-variations.
However, once a nuclear-propelled attack submarine (what NATO refers to as an ‘SSN’) is introduced, the threat-equation changes sharply. On the one hand, SSNs are significantly noisier than contemporary diesel-electric submarines. On the other, their endurance limits are dictated by crew-fatigue and not by battery-life. As such, they have no ‘indiscrete’ periods dictated by the need to recharge batteries. Of course, this is also true (albeit to a limited extent) of diesel-electric submarines that are equipped with one or another form of ‘Air-Independent Propulsion’ (AIP). Where the SSN really scores over the AIP-equipped diesel-electric boat (submarines are traditionally referred to as ‘boats’) is in its high underwater speed. This, coupled with the fact that SSNs routinely carry a combination of torpedoes (both ‘anti-ship’ and ‘anti-submarine’) and anti-surface missiles, means that there are no ‘Limiting Lines of Approach’ (LLAs) for an SSN and the CBG faces an all-round threat, rather than solely one from the van as is the case with the threat posed by conventionally-propelled boats. Thus, on the one hand, the ability of the CBG to use high transit speeds as an effective submarine-evasion tactic is nullified. Unable to ‘evade’ the threat, the CBG is forced to address it through the adoption of anti-submarine attack methods. On the other hand, the threat has metamorphosed into an all-round one, involving both, torpedoes and subsurface-launched missiles. Of course, the submarine must still be able to obtain an accurate fire-control solution through Contact Motion Analysis (CMA) and reach its launch position without being detected and hence prosecuted. As in all forms of Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW), earliest detection is vital. Although there certainly are technical means available to the CBG to achieve long-range detection, tactical means would invariably have to be superimposed upon technical ones. Yet, for all that, there is no gainsaying the fact that howsoever efficient, ASW measures taken by surface-ships against an SSN-threat are seldom going to be adequate. Airborne ASW, on the other hand, is much more promising and this is where rotary-wing ASW aircraft (helicopters) become ever so critical. The need to maximise the number of medium-range and long-range ASW-capable helicopters once again points to the IAC-2 displacing at least 65,000 tonnes. Almost every Indian frontline surface combatant that might form part of a CBG is capable of embarking and deploying two specialised medium/heavy ASW helicopters and the maximum utilisation of this deck-capacity is crucial. The deployment of one’s own SSN — in an anti-submarine (hunter-killer) role against another SSN (or an SSBN) — as an intrinsic element within one’s CBG is an option that has been extensively validated by the US Navy and, amongst several other advantages, holds out much promise in dealing with the enemy-SSN threat.
Irrespective of the launch-platform, the threat of the anti-ship cruise missile has been greatly diminished by the very-effective anti-missile capability provided by the various variants of the Barak missile, which is, today, fitted aboard every major surface combatant of the CBG, including the aircraft carrier itself. It is fair to say that an Indian CBG has a well-proven ability to ‘take-on’ incoming anti-ship sea-skimming missile launched by the enemy and to thereafter ‘take-out’ the launch-platform (whether surface, sub-surface or airborne). This sense of self-assurance and the resultant rise in Fleet morale is no mean thing. It has resulted in a marked resurgence of creative and even audacious operational deployment-patterns.
However, there is an increasingly shrill debate over the issue of what has come to be known as the ‘anti-ship ballistic missile’. The Chinese-made ‘Dong Feng 21-D’ (DF-21D [CSS-5 Mod-4]) is widely touted by some as being a ‘Carrier-Killer’, but, as the well-respected analyst, Commander Otto Kreisher (Ret), USNR, has succinctly pointed out, “…For a ballistic missile to hit a target at 1,000 miles or more, it has to know where that target is located, with a high degree of accuracy. That’s complicated when the target — such as a carrier strike group — is moving at up to 34 miles per hour. For the weapon to be effective, such a geographic fix must be updated constantly. To locate a carrier initially, China could use its over-the-horizon radars, which can search out more than a thousand miles. But the geographic accuracy of OTH radars at long range can be off by scores of miles… in a time of conflict, a patrol airplane or submarine attempting to get close to a carrier — shielded by its E-2D early warning airplanes, F/A-18 interceptors, and an anti-submarine screen of subs and destroyers — might not succeed. If the Chinese could get an accurate fix on the carrier, the data would have to be processed, and the missile prepared, programmed, and launched — a complicated command and control procedure that has to be routinely tested and practiced to ensure it works. The missile, its homing sensors, and guidance system would also have to function properly to reach and hit the moving carrier.”
The fact that this sort of threat to a Vikramaditya-centric CBG is probably not an immediate one does not mean that it would not be so for a Vikrant-centric one. Any assessment of the lack of immediacy in materialisation of such a threat must not be taken as a signal for complacency but, rather, should be taken to mean that we have a little time in which to prepare ourselves for the inevitable enhancement of maritime military capabilities on the part of China and Pakistan. Consequently, shore-based as well as sea-based ballistic missile defence capability — whether the US Aegis system or some indigenous one — is a pressing requirement for India.
Finally, those who point to the military-strategic cooperation between China and Pakistan as translating into an existential threat to an Indian CBG would do well to note that India does not play the strategic game all alone, either. We, too, have competent, capable, and reliable partners, if not formal allies. The most recent edition of the MALABAR series of naval exercises provides compelling evidence of the development of intensive and operationally-relevant cooperation and interoperability between an Indian Naval CBG and a USN CSG, quite apart from the seamless incorporation of cooperating surface naval combatants of Australia and Japan. These are signals that are immediately received by China and Pakistan. Should they, then, fall upon deaf Indian ears?
About the Author:
Vice Admiral Pradeep Chauhan, AVSM & Bar, VSM, IN (Retd), is the Director-General of the National Maritime Foundation (NMF). He is a prolific writer and a globally renowned strategic analyst who specialises in a wide-range of maritime affairs and related issues. He may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
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