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Indian Navy's proposal to acquire a third aircraft carrier may not materialize

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INS Vikrant, India's indigenously built aircraft carrier, is expected to be operational by 2022

Even though the Indian Navy has once again reiterated its determination to acquire a third aircraft carrier, the possibility of materialising it, even in the distant future, appears nebulous due primarily to financial and operational reasons.

At his annual press conference in New Delhi on December 3, on the eve of Navy Day, Indian Navy chief of staff, Admiral Karambir Singh, declared – like many of his predecessors had before him – that the navy was bent upon acquiring a third carrier: one for each seaboard and one in reserve.

“As a navy, we are absolutely clear of the utility of a third carrier,” Admiral Singh categorically stated in his presser. Airpower at sea is required “here and now”, he declared. As a putative five-trillion-dollar economy, he added that India needed a navy with reach and sustenance to protect its expanding strategic interests.

The third proposed indigenous aircraft carrier-2 (IAC-2) would supplement INS Vikramaditya (ex-Admiral Gorshkov), the 46,000 tonne refurbished Russian Kiev-class vessel, and INS Vikrant, the 40,262 tonne IAC-1 that is scheduled to join service in 2022 after sea trials scheduled to begin next year, following nearly a six-year delay.

But sadly, the declaration of intent by the naval chief is simply not enough.

The burden of financing 

Over years, the debate over IAC-2 has been plagued not only by its astronomical cost but also its overall operational efficacy in an environment of burgeoning anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) capability via long-range ballistic and cruise missiles. Steadily declining domestic military budgets and vacillation by the ministry of defence (MoD) in approving the programme too had collectively thwarted the carrier project.

Even within the navy, senior officers question the monetary logic of building a new carrier at the cost of inducting additional submarines – whose numbers had depleted to 15, of which 13 were between 19 and 33 years old and are nearing retirement. These numbers are nine boats less than the 24 submarines that the navy has been projected to operate by 2030 in accordance with its Maritime Capability Perspective Plan (MCPP). Correspondingly, equally critical surface combatants, like corvettes, nine-sweepers, destroyers, and frigates, have been in short supply like naval utility helicopters and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and other assorted missiles and ordnance.

These officers’ reasoning centred on the unresolved debate in other navies around the world between operationally pursuing a ‘sea denial’ strategy, largely by deploying submarines, or alternately seeking a ‘sea control’ approach via costly and relatively more vulnerable carrier battle groups (CBGs) that entail an inordinately large number of surface and underwater escorts.

The Indian Navy’s doctrine, however, opts for CBGs on the grounds that these comprise the most ‘substantial’ instruments in securing this latter aim, as these assets possess ‘ordnance delivery capability of a high order’ to assist the navy in prevailing over the enemy’s ‘Centre of Gravity’ by degrading their decisive points.

Be that as it may, one former naval chief has conceded to The Wire that a major debate is needed on whether or not to build another aircraft carrier, as any such programme had ‘massive’ financial implications.

“India needs to decisively convince itself that operationally and doctrinally the navy needs a third carrier. But it is also imperative that it should not come at the expense of other military projects and weapon system requirements,” he adds, declining to be identified.

The financial ramifications of building a 65,000-70,000 tonne conventionally-powered ‘flat top’ carrier, tentatively capable of embarking 50-60 fixed and rotary wing platforms, attaining speeds of up to 30kts for an estimated Rs 80,000-90,000 crore, is critical in times of continuing economic recession, accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Besides, the Indian Navy is desperately short of funds, with a capital allocation in the fiscal year 2020-21 of Rs 26,688 crore for new equipment and platforms, or a shortfall of Rs 18,580 crore of the Rs 45,268 crore the service had demanded. Earlier in 2019-20, the Indian Navy’s capital budget of Rs 23,156 crores was less than the Rs 25,461 crore it owed assorted vendors for previously acquired equipment and services, resulting in deferred payments.

Consequently, in recent months the Indian Navy has been forced to tighten its belt by reducing its long-standing requirement for 12 Mine Counter Measure Vessels to eight, and that for 10 Russian Kamov Ka-31 Helix early warning and control helicopters, to just six platforms. Earlier in November 2019, the MoD had sanctioned the import of six additional Boeing P-8I Neptune long-range, maritime multi-mission aircraft for $1.8 billion, instead of the 10 that the navy had wanted.

Indian Navy officials also say that the reduction in such equipment purchases is part of its initiative to ‘rationalise’ its expenditure after the MoD had failed to meet its demand in late 2019 for an additional Rs 20,000 crore to fund long-delayed acquisitions.

According to Admiral Singh, the ongoing resource crunch had forced the navy to revise its goal of operating 200 warships by 2027 in keeping with its MCCP to just 175.

At his annual press conference in December 2019, the Indian Navy chief had stated that the navy’s share of the annual defence budget had dropped from 18% in the fiscal year 2012-13 to merely 13% in the fiscal year 2019-20 and that fielding even the reduced number of 175 platforms, was ‘optimistic’.

Therefore, to mitigate shortages Admiral Singh advocated upgrading technology and weaponry on existing and under-construction platforms and finding cheaper substitutes. The MCCP had also envisaged Indian Navy operating 458 fixed and rotary wing platforms by the end of this decade. But in view of the prevailing financial resource crunch, these numbers too had been revised downwards to around 320, naval sources said adding that even these quantities were ‘aspirational’.

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A priest performs rituals before the launch of India’s third Scorpene-class submarine INS Karanj in Mumbai, India January 31, 2018 

Growing support for submarines’ acquisition

Meanwhile, much to the Indian Navy’s chagrin, chief of defence staff, General Bipin Rawat, too is opposed to the navy acquiring a carrier. On at least two occasions over this year the CDS, responsible for acquisitions and India’s overall military force development, has stated that the navy needs ‘more submarines than carriers, which themselves require their own individual armadas for protection’.

The other principal opponent to financing a carrier for the IN remains the Indian Air Force (IAF) that too is competing for a greater share of depreciating annual defence budgets, as it grapples to make good its fighter, helicopter and transport aircraft shortages, amongst other essential equipment.

“We need to prioritise our military equipment procurements in keeping with regional threats and limited financial resources that are fast reducing,” says military analyst Air Marshal V.K. Bhatia (retired).

Under these precarious financial conditions, an aircraft carrier would not only be a costly indulgence but also entail fielding a platform that remains victim to layered missile defence systems employed under China’s evolved A2/AD strategy, he adds. Even the US Navy considers this a serious threat to its advanced nuclear-powered carriers.

Other IAF officers have declared that Anglo-French fighters like SEPECAT Jaguar IM/IS and multi-role Russian Sukhoi Su-30MKIs, fitted with enhanced maritime strike capability and extended strike ranges via in-flight refuelling, could project power more economically and securely than a carrier.

The IAF’s maritime Jaguar IM fleet, for instance, is armed with AGM-84L Block II Harpoon missiles of which India acquired 24 units in 2010 for $170 million, and will soon be fitted with Israel Aerospace Industries-Elta EL/M-2052/2060 multi-mode active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar for sea-borne operations.

And, in January 2020, the IAF had commissioned its first Su-30MKI squadron, coast-armed with the BrahMos-A(Air) supersonic cruise missile with a 292km strike range, at Thanjavur on India’s southeast coast to monitor the country’s eastern and western seaboards and the wider Indian Ocean Region (IOR).

Military planners say that deploying Su-30MKIs armed with the BrahMos-A to police the IOR is a strategically prudent move in response to China’s expanding naval footprint in the area. They say that the Su-30MKI with its 1,500km operational range – without the assistance of mid-air refueling, and much further with it – would enhance the IAF’s capability to engage potential targets with pinpoint accuracy.

Earlier, in May 2015, the MoD had sanctioned Rs 30 crore to the Directorate of Naval Design (DND) in New Delhi to begin conceptualising plans for IAC-2, but little or nothing had progressed thereafter. But, despite such obstacles, the IN has persevered incrementally with the IAC-2 project.

In December 2017, former chief Adm Sunil Lanba had declared that the navy had determined the ‘form and fit’ of the 65,000-tonne platform that would be equipped with a Catapult Assisted Take-Off But Arrested Recovery (CATOBAR) system to launch its fighters.

For this task, the navy is considering acquiring the costly General Atomics Electro Magnetic Aircraft Launch System (EMALS) from the US, which it has extensively discussed with the US Navy in the Joint Working Group on Aircraft Carrier Technology Co-operation (JWGACTC) established in January 2015. Thereafter, the Indian Navy had conducted at least three rounds of preliminary discussions on its planned carrier with the US Navy, but senior officers say it remains primarily a ‘talking shop’ till MoD approvals are secured to definitively progress IAC-2.

The Indian Navy’s Directorate of Naval Design (DND), however, believes the EMALS system would enable the Indian Navy to induct fighters heavier than the MiG-29K/KUBs that presently operate off Vikramaditya – and, eventually from Vikrant once it is commissioned – in addition to airborne early warning and control (AEW&C) platforms, and even unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAVs).

Accordingly, the Indian Navy issued a request for information (RfI) in early 2017 for 57 Multi-Role Carrier Borne Fighters (MRCBF) in fly-away condition for IAC-2 for an estimated $10-12 billion. The RfI for the day-and-night, all-weather capable MRCBF requires the platform to conduct air defence and air-to-surface operations, buddy refueling, reconnaissance and electronic warfare missions. Potential vendors would need to stipulate whether their single or twin-engine MRCBF are capable of STOBAR and CATOBAR operations using the EMALS.

Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) radar, infra-red search and track (IRST) systems, laser range finders and helmet-mounted or direct retinal displays too are mandated fitments, like four beyond visual range (BVR) and two all aspect air-to-air missiles. The RfI also requires the shortlisted platform to be able to accommodate assorted indigenously developed and commercial off-the-shelf equipment. Four vendors have responded, like Boeing (US), Rafale (France), Russian Aircraft Corporation and Saab (Sweden), but a formal tender awaits MoD sanction.

Adm Singh indicated in his press conference earlier this week that the MRCBF would, in all likelihood, be linked to the IAF’s pending procurement of some 110 fighters. But regrettably, like the carrier from which they will operate, the MRCBF too remain, for now, little more than a gleam in the Indian Navy’s eager eye.