Su­per Car­ri­ers Ahoy !

Strate­gic Part­ner­ship with Amer­ica

Vayu Aerospace and Defence - - Front Page - Ajai Shukla [Adapted from an ar­ti­cle in Busi­ness Stan­dard]

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)

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