India doesn't need an Aircraft Carrier now!

05 Jan, 1998    ·   50

Prof. Giri Deshingkar asks Why does India need aircraft carriers? Its sea-lanes to the Gulf will always be protected by the Western powers for their own reasons

Reports that the Government of India is planning to acquire an aircraft carrier to replace INS Vikrant have emerged again last week when talks were under way with a visiting Russian military delegation. Whoever is conducting these talks has indulged in lazy thinking: If one of the two carriers has become too old for operations, get a new one.



Fashions come and fashions go. This is true of aircraft carriers. They became prominent during World War II and have remained so thereafter for powers seeking a global reach like the United States , Soviet Union, Britain and France . India imitated their example, although the acquisition of INS Vikrant in the mid-1950s served little or no military purpose, of course, the Navy can always make out a case for aircraft carriers. But the decision-makers clearly failed to apply their minds before they decided to invest scarce resources in these expensive military assets acquired for vaguely specified naval missions like the need to defend India ’s long coast-lines, protect vital sea-lanes, dispersed islands territories and other such vague threat scenarios.



None of the global powers is building any new aircraft carriers. Even the US is retrofitting only two in its present inventory. In India ’s neighbourhood, no country is planning to acquire any. All the rumours about China acquiring one from Russia have turned out to be just that. The PLA Navy wants one for deployment in the South China see, and for possible operations against Taiwan , but China ’s military leaders have a realistic appraisal of the situation, and have wisely rejected their demand. Despite the extreme vulnerability of Japan ’s sea-lanes, the maritime Self-Defence Forces have not acquired a carrier. If one were to argue that Japan does not need one, because the US Navy is always there, this argument could be extended to abolition of the Japanese Navy itself.



So, why does India need aircraft carriers? Its sea-lanes to the Gulf will always be protected by the Western powers for their own reasons. Carriers are supposed to project power. Against which countries would India project its power? An aircraft carrier is a floating platform meant to be used for offensive operations against land targets. Which targets can our planners identify that can only be reached by carrier-based aircraft? Diego Garcia? Mauritius ? Seychelles ? Sumatra ?



Carrier-based aircraft necessarily have a short-range. So the carrier needs to travel long distances to take them within striking distance. In doing so, it is vulnerable to attacks, particularly from long-range missiles mounted on shore-based aircraft, surface vessels and submarines. A large naval force dedicated to protecting the carrier must be tasked for that purpose. It is not the cost of the carrier, but also the aircraft based on it, and the entire protection force that must be counted. Above all, for a country with one or two carriers, the whole nation’s prestige and morale is concentrated in them. The loss of even one carrier would be a tremendous blow to national morale. No one can say what can happen in a war. Should one stake the entire country’s prestige and the Navy’s morale on a single item in the country’s military inventory?



The decision to buy an aircraft carrier belongs to the same genre as the earlier one to acquire nuclear submarines. Fortunately only one was acquired, and that, too, on lease. Fortunately, again, wisdom dawned. The submarine was returned and there is no more talk of procuring on manufacturing a fleet of nuclear subs. Had India followed a similar procedure in the 1950’s, and reviewed its to decision to acquire an aircraft carrier, it would not have burdened itself with this prestigious white elephant.



Military thinking seldom takes a comprehensive view of even purely military power. Specific weapon systems become the units of thinking, but the synergy of different systems becomes a neglected dimension. Weapon systems should undergo the same scrutiny as in zero budgeting, where each item must be justified anew to meet changing objectives and tasks. Is a weapon required beyond its present lifetime? Is a system designed by others at a particular time still viable for our purposes today? Which combination of systems can accomplish the same tasks better and cheaper?



As professionals, Navy personnel will dismiss the view of landlubbers on what they think are expert technical matters. They must not forget that the overwhelming majority who fund their enterprise, the Indian tax payers, are landlubbers. Matters involving high investment, which are also symbols of prestige, must be debated widely before decisions are made in the national interest. Aircraft carriers are too serious a matter to be left to admirals.