Super Carriers Ahoy !
Strategic Partnership with America
In early August 2015, an Indian Navy delegation including senior Flag Officers visited the United States on a three-day mission that could significantly bind together the two Navies in the times to come. A newly- formed ‘ Joint Working Group ( JWG) on Aircraft Carrier Cooperation’ held its inaugural meeting in Washington DC following the Agreement between President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Narendra Modi for cooperation in this strategic arena during the former’s Republic Day visit to India in January 2015. The JWG has reportedly reviewed on how the US Navy — the world’s most experienced and technologically advanced aircraft carrier power — could assist India in building its own fleet of modern aircraft carriers. With India looking to build a ‘blue water navy’ that can project power across thousands of miles of the Indian Ocean and beyond, the first indigenous aircraft carrier (IAC I), INS Vikrant, is already at an advanced stage of construction (see earlier Vayu Issues).
Indian naval planners have for long argued on the need to have three aircraft carriers in service. This would allow two aircraft carrier battle groups (CBGs) — each a self- contained flotilla with air, surface and sub-surface capabilities — to cover the Arabian Sea and Bay of Bengal simultaneously, even whilst the third carrier undergoes routine maintenance or overhaul. Each CBG, which would include an aircraft carrier, escort vessels (multi-role destroyers and frigates), anti- submarine corvettes, missile boats, logistics support vessels and submarines, is charged to engage in intense combat even without support from shore-based fighters.
Still, the three- carrier endeavour remains elusive, even with two carriers, INS Viraat and INS Vikramaditya, in operational service today and a third, INS Vikrant, likely to be completed in Cochin Shipyard Ltd (CSL) by 2018. INS Viraat, launched in 1953, already has the dubious distinction of being the world’s oldest serving aircraft carrier and will retire when Vikrant enters service. India’s third aircraft carrier, therefore, would only be Vikrant’s successor, whenever that is built. Currently on the drawing board and referred to as INS Vishal (a name the Indian Navy has not confirmed) or IAC-2, this could well be the vessel that sees US-India high-tech naval cooperation bearing fruit.
So why does India need the US Navy’s help to build IAC-2, even after designing and building INS Vikrant at the Cochin Shipyard ? This is because India has only operated relatively smaller aircraft carriers which displace less than 45,000 tonnes. The size of a carrier determines how many aircraft it embarks, the ballpark calculation being one aircraft for every 1,000 tonnes. The 45,000-tonne Vikramaditya embarks a maximum of 36 aircraft : thirty MiG-29K fighters and six Kamov Ka- 31AEW helicopters. This is not enough. Ideally, a CBG should deploy at least 50-55 aircraft when operating well away from shorebased air support. That calls for at least a 65,000- tonne carrier, something that Indian shipyards have never built.
As important as numbers, is the type of aircraft that the carrier embarks. A crucial element of air battle is ‘airborne early warning’, delivered by AEW aircraft : radar-equipped, airborne command posts that scan airspace for enemy aircraft and direct friendly fighters towards developing threats. For this task, US Navy aircraft carriers embark the Northrop Grumman E- 2 Hawkeye, a relatively large, twinturboprop aircraft that could never
get airborne from small carriers like the Vikramaditya or Vikrant. For this purpose, the US Navy has long operated 100,000- tonne ‘ supercarriers,’ which launch aircraft with steam catapults : a steam-driven piston that hooks onto the belly of an aircraft and accelerates it to take- off speed in just 2- 3 seconds. The newest American supercarriers, starting with USS Gerald R Ford, which will join the fleet next year, feature the revolutionary Electro-Magnetic Aircraft Launch System (EMALS) that will replace steam catapults. EMALS is smaller, lighter, quicker and more powerful, and allows the take- off speed to be carefully calibrated for different types of aircraft, reducing stress and wear on their airframes. The electric power requirements of an EMALS system are too large for conventional generators to deliver; so nuclear propulsion is essential for a carrier fitted with EMALS.
This effectively is the Indian Navy’s dilemma for its third aircraft carrier. It must choose between what it already has, relatively small, conventionally powered vessels that embark 30-35 combat
aircraft that can be launched slowly or, alternatively, a large, nuclear- propelled vessel with EMALS that embarks 50-55 aircraft of varying types including force multipliers like long range AEW aircraft. The benefits of this are attractive, since this greatly enhances the power that a CBG can project. Even so, some strategists believe India would be unwise in investing so much money, capability and symbolism into a single vessel that could be vulnerable in war. Opponents of the ‘big carrier’ school of thought argue for greater numbers of smaller vessels like destroyers and frigates, covered by land-based aircraft (including those operating from archipelagic bases like the Andaman & Nicobar Islands) with their ranges extended by air-to-air refuelling.
It will be interesting to see in which direction the Indian Navy goes, whether it chooses a conservative, tactical approach, like the Army and the Air Force, or a bolder doctrine based on sea control and extended reach, of the kind that the US Navy imbibed from strategist Alfred Thayer Mahan. Henry L Stimson, US Secretary of War all through World War II, memorably described “the peculiar psychology of the [US] Navy Department, which frequently seemed to retire from the realm of logic into a dim religious world in which Neptune was God, Mahan his prophet and the United States Navy the only true church.”
Regardless of which doctrine evolves in the Indian Navy, their American counterparts already regard them as inevitable long- term allies. The Indian delegation that travelled to the USA in August 2015 was taken to the Virginia shipyard where USS Gerald R Ford is being completed, and introduced to EMALS. With the Defence Technology and Trade Initiative ( DTTI) touted as the vehicle for easing US restrictions on technology, Defence Secretary Ashton Carter sees US assistance in aircraft carrier building as the lynchpin and the two Navies as torchbearers, of a close defence relationship. Strategist Ashley Tellis has argued that Washington might well assist India with developing a nuclear reactor for powering INS Vishal and future Indian aircraft carriers. But for that, a top-level request would be essential (i.e. PM-to-President) along with firmer assurances of strategic alignment. In the US system, every grant of assistance must be sponsored by the military service it relates to and the US Navy will enthusiastically support the provision of cutting- edge technology to the Indian Navy if it believes that would bring it clear operational benefits.
Despite New Delhi’s ambivalence on strategic partnership with America, US vendors are delivering an increasing share of India’s arms imports, inexorably easing out Russia’s share. India has already spent close to $10 billion in outright US purchases; most of them government-to-government, while co-developing platforms like aircraft carriers have not gotten off the ground. Very significantly, during a recent speech at the Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi, the US Ambassador to India, Richard Verma, told the audience, “I see no reason why the United States and India cannot build fighter aircraft together, right here in India.” While that may be a distant dream, New Delhi could well work with the world’s unchallenged aircraft carrier power to retain crucial control over our regional waters.
USS Gerald R Ford (CVN-78) under construction at Newport News Shipyard, Virginia
(photo: USN/ Mass Communication Specialist Second Class Aidan P Campbell)
INS Viraat is to be retired next year, bringing the Indian Navy’s carrier force back down to a single carrier as it awaits
commissioning of INS Vikrant (photo: USN/ Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Stephen W Rowe)
An F/A-18E Super Hornet prepares to launch during a test of the Electromagnetic Aircraft Launch System (EMALS) at Naval Air Systems Command, Lakehurst, New Jersey (photo: USN)