Why a fleet of aircraft carriers is crucial for India’s geopolitical equation and maritime security


An aircraft carrier is a symbol of prestige and power for the navies across the world and is not a mere big vessel that engages in warfare. With territorial disputes growing worldwide, aircraft carriers have become high-value warfare assets globally. These floating airbases are equipped with a full-length flight deck capable of carrying, arming, deploying and recovering aircraft. They act as command and control of a naval fleet in times of war and peace.

What is an aircraft carrier?

Cambridge dictionary describes an aircraft carrier as “a large ship that carries military aircraft and has a long, flat surface where they take off and land.”

According to Britannica, carriers were first used in combat during the early stages of World War II. The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor by carrier-based planes on 7 December 1941 demonstrated the potential of the aircraft carrier. During the Second World War, the carrier played leading roles in the sea battles of the Pacific theatre such as Midway Island, Coral Sea, and Leyte Gulf.

If we look into the genesis of the aircraft carrier, the British navy experimented on the HMS Argus during World War I by developing the first true carrier with an unobstructed flight deck. However, the war ended before the British could put the new platform in action but the US and Japan seized the opportunity. USS Langley, a converted collier became the first US carrier to join the naval fleet in March 1922 while Japanese carrier Hosyo entered service in December 1922.

With the advent of jet fighters, the carrier dynamics changed as a new set of problems emerged and the British solved it with three key innovations: a steam-powered catapult, an angled, or canted, flight deck, and a mirror landing-signal system.

On 24 September 1960, the first nuclear-powered carrier, the USS Enterprise, was launched and it had no need for fuel bunkers, smokestacks, and ducts for the elimination of exhaust gases. Aircraft carriers are now lighter, equipped with large amounts of electronic gear for the detection of submarines and even host helicopters for conducting amphibious assaults. Now multipurpose carriers with combined capabilities are the top-notch in the category.

Why does India need aircraft carriers?

Beginning with INS Vikrant which served India from 1961 to 1997 and then followed by the Centaur-class carrier HMS Hermes, which was rechristened in India as INS Viraat and served in the Indian Navy from 1987 to 2016, India’s focus on aircraft carriers as a symbol of naval power has always been high.

The 45,000-ton INS Vikramaditya which joined service in 2014 and can operate around 26 MiG-29K fighters along with utility helicopters is currently the lone aircraft carrier of the country. However, the first Indigenous Aircraft Carrier also named INS Vikrant, a 40,000-ton ski-jump carrier being built in Cochin Shipyard Limited is currently undergoing sea trials and is likely to be commissioned in 2023. For now, India is happy with MiG-29K for its new carrier although aircraft makers like Boeing and Dassault are hoping to make the cut someday. The MiG-29K on INS Vikramaditya has a combat range of 850 kilometres.

“India’s carrier force has developed a three-pronged rationale for its purpose. The first prong is support of a conventional war against Pakistan, which would involve strikes against Pakistani naval assets and land bases. Unfortunately, Vikrant and Vikramaditya would struggle in strike operations because of limitations on aircraft weight, although they certainly would attract Pakistani attention,” Robert Farley wrote in his piece India’s Dreams of Becoming an Aircraft Carrier Superpower are Coming to Fruition.

China’s rising dominance in the Indian Ocean Region besides the natural advantage of being a peninsula has made India inclined towards augmenting its naval power perhaps developing carrier battle groups in the future. India has particularly pinned its hope on yet to build INS Vishaal, a 65,000-ton conventionally propelled, home manufactured CATOBAR (Catapult Assisted Take-Off But Arrested Recovery) carrier, to ensure maritime dominance in the IOR.

A 65,000-ton carrier with catapult-assisted takeoff will enable its fighters to carry full fuel and weapons load. If the navy acquires either the Rafale or the Super Hornet, its offensive capabilities will increase considerably. There is a possibility that India might access US technology, making INS Vishaal comprehensively advanced and efficient in all aspects from offensive to defensive to reconnaissance. For now, India aims to have three operational aircraft carriers as geopolitical changes in its immediate neighbourhood is fast becoming volatile.

Rejecting an earlier remark by Chief of Defence Staff General Bipin Rawat to prioritise between submarines and aircraft carriers Yusuf T Unjhawala in his piece Future of Indian defence and the role of aircraft carriers has compared the proposition with the air force being asked, “to prioritise air defence systems over fighter jets”. Yusuf said that submarines are best for sea denial, the aircraft carriers are for sea control and power projection and both important and necessary for a power like India.

An aircraft carrier is not an isolated ship but it is often escorted by destroyers, frigates and corvettes and submarines. In India’s case, the 290-kilometre range Brahmos supersonic anti-ship cruise missiles provide a clear edge in self-defence. The anti-submarine helicopters onboard, P-8 surveillance aircraft, anti-submarine and anti-surface warship aircraft also ensure the necessary security cover for the aircraft carrier.

Why aircraft carriers are a necessity for India to tackle the China threat?

The geopolitical challenge from China has only increased with Beijing going past India much faster in terms of manufacturing and commissioning of aircraft carriers. The country already has two operational aircraft carriers and the thrird one is underconstruction thanks to its highly advanced ship-building and naval aviation sector.

As recently as 15 June, the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in a piece called China’s Third Aircraft Carrier Takes Shape said, “Recent commercial satellite imagery reveals that China has made substantial progress in the construction of its third aircraft carrier, commonly known as the Type 003. The vessel is slated to become the largest surface combatant in the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) and significantly upgrade China’s naval capabilities.”

The article says that the work on Type 003 has been underway at Jiangnan Shipyard in Shanghai since at least late 2018. The carrier’s overall length is approximately 315 meters and its width at the widest point is 74 meters. Its predecessors — the Liaoning and Shandong — are each measure 304.5 meters in length.

In such circumstances, having a deterrent naval capability is not only essential but wise for India as its area of responsibility ranges from the east coast of Africa to the Western Pacific. With a high percentage of India’s trade passing through the South China Sea, the role of the country’s navy has only increased manifold to keep the international routes safe and operational for its merchant ships. On the western side, India has to secure its crude imports and other exports and imports of goods that the country may be involved in.

However, maintaining that naval deterrent is fast proving to be difficult with China reportedly developing a hypersonic missile system — CH-AS-X-13 — which is perhaps better than Russia’s Zircon hypersonic missile aboard warships and submarines and the US Navy’s common hypersonic glide body for its destroyers. China’s latest hypersonic weapon is air launched and is probably the largest air-launched missile in the world. There is an apprehension that these missiles may be used to target high-value warships particularly aircraft carriers.

Which countries operate aircraft carriers?

Aircraft carriers may be cumbersome but they are not obsolete. Currently, the US operates 11 of them and is building more. The UK has commissioned two. China plans to have at least six and Japan is converting two Izumo class of helicopter carriers into aircraft carriers. France operates Charles de Gaulle, the only nuclear powered carrier apart from the US.

Currently, most of the world powers are operating or building technologically advanced aircraft carriers to safeguard their maritime rights and interests. Thirteen navies across the world now operate aircraft carriers. Following are the name of a few:

1. Nimitz Class, USA

2. Gerald R Ford Class, US

3. Queen Elizabeth Class, UK

4. Admiral Kuznetsov, Russia

5. Liaoning, China

6. INS Vikramaditya, India

7. Charles De Gaulle, France

8. Cavour, Italy

9. Juan Carlos I, Spain

10. USS America, US

What is a carrier battle group?

A carrier battle group consists of an aircraft carrier and its escorts, together making the group. During World War II, the Imperial Japanese Navy was the first to assemble a large number of carriers into a single task force known as Kido Butai. This task force was used during the Pearl Harbor Attack. With the construction of the large supercarriers of the Cold War era, the practice of operating each carrier in a single formation was revived.

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