Even as India’s first Indigenous Aircraft Carrier (IAC) — an engineering marvel that reflects the technological prowess of a resurgent nation — completed its third set of sea trials in January this year, several navies around the globe are looking to either acquire these powerful platforms or upgrade their existing carrier aviation capabilities.
Take for example, China, which is set to launch its third aircraft carrier early next year. Commonly referred to as the Type 003 carrier, this ‘super carrier’ is believed to compare with the US Navy’s new Ford-class aircraft carrier. The much advanced Ford-class aircraft carriers will replace the ageing Nimitz-class carriers in the United States Navy over the next few decades.
Another example is the Royal Navy, which having withdrawn its carrier aviation capabilities after the Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) of 2010, has inducted two modern aircraft carriers along with state-of-the art aircraft in the last four years.
The first of the Royal Navy’s new carriers, HMS Queen Elizabeth, recently returned from a seven-month long deployment, having travelled half way across the globe to the Indo-Pacific showcasing a ‘Global Britain’.
The United States Navy, whose maritime power hinges on its carrier fleet, continues to deploy three to four powerful Carrier Strike Groups (CSGs) across the globe, even as there has been a call from some quarters to enhance their presence in the Pacific.
Meanwhile, both France and Italy — whose navies have also traditionally deployed aircraft carriers — continue to upgrade and update their carrier aviation capabilities.
There are many other aspirants to the exclusive club of navies which operate aircraft carriers. Japan, which abandoned its formidable aircraft carrier capability after the Second World War, is now planning to convert its Izumo class helicopter carrying ships into aircraft carriers.
In October last year, the first fixed-wing operation from JS Izumo was demonstrated using the F-35B Lightning fighter aircraft of the United States Marine Corps. By 2025, the Japanese Maritime Self Defence Force (JMSDF) might well be operating two such top-of-the-line aircraft carriers.
South Korea is likely to follow suit as the Republic of Korea (ROK) Navy has already announced its plans to procure an aircraft carrier. Notably, this month, the National Assembly of South Korea approved the new budget for the 2022 fiscal, including funding for the aircraft carrier programme.
Turkey also reportedly plans to convert an amphibious ship, presently under construction, into a platform that will operate long range combat drones — a capability similar to aircraft carriers.
In this backdrop of rapid developments in carrier aviation across the globe, it is unsurprising that the Standing Committee on Defence (Seventeenth Lok Sabha) in its Twenty Fourth report presented to the Parliament last month, has observed that a force level of three aircraft carriers for the Indian Navy is an “unavoidable requirement to meet any eventualities”.
Given the evidently uncertain and unpredictable nature of challenges to India’s maritime security, the parliamentary standing committee has only reaffirmed what the Navy’s top brass, professionals in the field and security experts have been pointing out – that aircraft carriers are inalienable from India’s maritime security.
There is good reason and sound rationale for the Committee’s observations. For one, the Committee has itself noted that India’s vast coastline, expansive maritime zones and distant island territories require at least one operational carrier on each seaboard.
The Committee has thus envisaged a “standard scenario” in which two aircraft carriers are deployed at all times “while one would undergo repairs and maintenance”. Secondly, aircraft carriers can project the nation’s military might far beyond its shores thus offering the first line of defence against any threat at or from the sea.
It is in this context that it is useful to look at the versatile and flexible role of aircraft carriers, not necessarily tied down to geographical domains, as alluded by many.
Therefore, although it makes sense to rationalise the required numbers of carriers for the Indian Navy in a particular manner, it must be remembered that these potent machines can be surged forward to any location to counter a threat to India’s security.
It is also obvious that there is no fixity in the number of aircraft carriers that a country needs for its maritime security – it would always depend on the type and degree of threat as well as the prevailing external and internal security scenarios.
In the case of aircraft carriers, specifically, the sophistication of the embarked air wing is the true determinant of capability instead of mere number of platforms. This, in turn, implies that the Indian Navy must not only look at future aircraft carriers but also the numbers and type of aircraft that these ships will likely field.
These should include a combination of specialised types of aircraft for air battle, surveillance, electronic warfare and mid-air refuelling, to name a few.
Consequently, there are bound to be extensive deliberations – even debate – on the size and type of the next aircraft carrier as well as its aviation component.
Regardless of what shape India’s future aircraft carrier takes, its need has been acknowledged at the highest level of public accountability. The Ministry of Defence must now implement measures to take forward the recommendations of the Standing Committee.
The experience of the first indigenous aircraft carrier shows that these ships take a long time to build. The fast-changing geopolitical environment in our extended neighbourhood, coupled with the tilting military balance in the Indian Ocean Region renders further delay unaffordable