A week ago, at his annual Navy Day press conference, Admiral Sunil Lanba said Navy Headquarters was working on a second Indigenous Aircraft Carrier or IAC-2, which would give India a fleet of three aircraft carriers. His statement was unexpected because the government has deferred the decision on the proposal for IAC-2, which it reckons will be unaffordable to build and operate.
The Navy Chief did not reveal the estimated cost of IAC-2, but it is expected to be around Rs 1.6 lakh crore. The Navy has reportedly budgeted for funds for IAC-2 in its financial plans from 2024 onwards.
India currently has only one aircraft carrier, INS Vikramaditya, the erstwhile Russian Admiral Gorshkov and inducted into service in 2013. The country’s first Indigenous Aircraft Carrier (IAC-1) — to be formally named INS Vikrant — is being built in Cochin Shipyard. The 40,000-tonne warship has been delayed — the Ministry of Defence approved it in 2003, construction began in 2005, and it was supposed to be ready this year, but it is now expected to be out for sea trials only by 2020.
Need for carriers
The ability of a country to project military force away from its shores is largely dependent on the components used for force projection, key among which are aircraft carriers. The Indian Navy has reached a minimum essential requirement of two operational aircraft carriers to carry out its mandated tasks in the country’s Areas of Interest, and to meet its overall maritime security requirements.
Given that one of the carriers is in refit or maintenance, the Maritime Capability Perspective Plan of the Navy envisages a force level of three aircraft carriers, to ensure development of a capability to operate two Carrier Battle Groups (CBGs) at any given time. CBGs are large task formations centred around a carrier, and provide unmatched flexibility, reach and sustainability. These are primary assets for the projection of power, and provide credible deterrence through visibility.
All the world’s advanced navies — those of the US, UK, Russia, Italy, France — operate aircraft carriers. Shore-based aircraft have limited reach in India’s vast maritime area of interest, and can provide limited air defence to the fleet only when operating close to the coast, a rarity in naval concepts of operations.
In the maritime strike role too, shore-based aircraft have limited range with inherent time delays, considering the distance to targets at sea. The surety of support from a shore-based fighter is intrinsically linked to the unpredictable factor of weather.
But the biggest concern for India is the aggressive effort by China to gain a foothold in the Indian Ocean Region. China currently operates two carriers, and is likely to have four by 2028 — with the eventual aim of 10 by 2050. This would be a quantum leap for the People’s Liberation Army Navy, which plans forays deep into the Indian Ocean Region by 2020.
Design for third carrier
The concept design of the third aircraft carrier is still on the drawing board, and its specifications are fluid. The Navy Chief said the project would start in the next three years, which is ambitious. This is especially because the Indian Naval concept of operations requires a Catapult Assisted Take-Off But Arrested Recovery (CATOBAR, a system of launching and recovering aircraft) carrier, which is capable of operating aircraft with higher payloads. Such a would typically displace about 65,000 tonnes, Admiral Lanba confirmed.
Until now, steam, generated preferably by a nuclear plant, has been considered the optimum propulsion for a ship this size. But with advancement in technology, the Navy thinks an all-electric propulsion will provide a more economical and efficient solution. For launch and recovery of aircraft, electromagnetic aircraft launch system and advanced arresting gear have replaced the older systems, and will be more suitable for a new project that is likely to remain in service for the next four decades.
Affordability vs requirement
It would appear that India simply cannot afford a third aircraft carrier even if it is desirable for power projection and in order to ensure maritime security in the Indian Ocean Region. However, an aircraft carrier is a dynamic capability that can be deployed over the entire area of maritime interest for as long as four decades, and is, therefore, one of the most optimum utilisations of resources spent on such an acquisition.
The decision to spend public money to build and operate a third aircraft carrier will be taken by the government, which will consider all aspects. But given the time it will take to construct IAC-2, and the speed and determination of the Chinese naval progress, this decision will have to be made soon.
INS Vikramaditya: 45,400 tonnes, modified Kiev-class carrier, formerly Admiral Gorshkov. In service since 2013
INS Vikrant: 19,500 tonnes, Majestic-class carrier, formerly the HMS Hercules. In service from 1961 to 1997. Used as a museum until 2012, and scrapped in 2014-15
INS Viraat: 28,700 tonnes, Centaur-class carrier, formerly HMS Hermes. In service from 1987 to 2016. Decommissioned on March 6, 2017
INS Vikrant (IAC-1): 44,000 tonnes, Vikrant-class carrier. Under construction at Cochin Shipyard, sea trials scheduled in 2020