New Delhi. The
employment of naval maritime reconnaissance and fighter aviation assets at sea
in the 21st century is expensive but most essential for oceanic operations, whether
it be for ‘sea denial’, ‘sea control’, mere ‘flag showing and power projection’,
or humanitarian relief in peace time.
The larger Blue Water
navies like the United States and French operate powerful F-18s and Rafale fighter
planes from large nuclear powered aircraft carriers like the USS Nimitz class
and Charles de Gaulle, named after their leaders. The Royal Navy has plans to
operate US-built vertical landing VSTOL Joint Strike Fighters from a 60,000 ton
futuristic carrier design, but all navies are finding the costs of building and
operating carriers as challenging.
The US, which has a defence budget of
over $550 billion, has cut its carrier force from 13 to 11, albeit essentially
to phase out its two oilpowered vessels. But it does plan to acquire two more
ultra-modern Ford Class carriers in the coming years. Carriers are known to eat
into the submarine and surface fleet needs, when it comes to funding. Thats
why there is always a debate on the role and need of aircraft carriers in futuristic
scenarios, especially with the emergence of high speed precision weapons and sea
skimming missiles which can take out large platforms at sea.
Royal and French navies have decided to share aircraft carriers design and
building costs. It would make sense, as their platforms will invariably operate
under NATO or US umbrellas in interoperable missions in the foreseeable future.
The bilateral carrier group interoperability initiative was proposed
by the pragmatic French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, at his summit meeting with
PM Gordon Brown in London.
The Indian Navy has no such choice of a neighbour
it can share costs with, and yet has a responsibility in the Indian Ocean to ensure
peace and stability. This makes Indian Navys task a Hobsons choice.
The escalating cost of fuel is a consideration for all navies and conventional
carriers are nick named Guzzlers, and yet aircraft carriers serve
a purpose for large navies, just as submarines do in no less a measure.
Indian Navy has always tried to give both platforms importance. The trend in surface
ships by navies is to give accent to littoral warfare and build littoral combat
ships, which can combat terrorism and operate closer to the shore known as the
littoral, but large platforms are essential for support of the fleet at sea to
carry boots on ground, provide disaster relief and evacuations. Navies also
have to acquire large landing platforms with helicopters in numbers for this.
US Navy is preparing to induct the Bell-Boeing V 22 Osprey vertical take off planes
in its fleet of large Landing Platforms Docks (LPDs) like the INS Jalshawa (ex-
USS Trenton) acquired by the Indian Navy. The Indian Navy is too looking for more
such ships, but with newer technologies.
In the East, the fast growing
Chinese Navy, guided by late Deng Xiaopings directions to it, has been cautious
to first concentrate and build nuclear and conventional submarine forces to thwart
the US Navy aircraft carriers coming to the aid of Taiwan, and surface fleet to
safeguard its claims over the Takashima, Kurile, Senkaku, Sprately and Parcel
islands before frittering away resources on aircraft carriers.
In the interim,
the Chinese have acquired the decommissioned HMAS Melbourne from Australia, and
later the Minsk and Variag from Russia to imbibe carrier building and design technology,
which is special as aircraft carriers have large bridge super structures on the
starboard side which poses centre of gravity challenges. Presently the Variag
is being made a sea training platform to fly Su-33s in preparation for the Chinese
navy (called People’s Liberation Army-Navy or PLA-N) own home-built aircraft carrier
To ensure air support at sea the PLA Navy has built up a shore
based naval aviation command with long range bombers and fighters, which include
two squadrons of Su-27 with KH-35 anti ship missiles, 18 Xian XAC JH07( Fencers)
with C-801 missiles, 18 J-8s besides a large fleet of Maritime Reconnaissance
aircraft, mid-air tankers and helicopters.
The Soviet Navy also built aircraft
carriers in its hey days, but by 1990s it could no longer afford aircraft carriers,
and the downturn in Soviet economy led to the collapse of what was called the
Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR).
Air power and air cover at sea
and maritime reconnaissance are essential ingredients in the lexicon of ‘war fighting
at sea’, and means must be devised to include aviation MR and fighter assets in
the naval ORBAT commensurate with the operational role a Navy is required to play.
The dictum ‘what you cannot patrol you cannot control,’ is still valid.
the past, only a handful of nations which had ‘out of area’ ambitions, acquired
and operated aircraft carriers. Countries like India and Australia have had no
choice, thanks to their large coastal responsibilities.
An aircraft carrier
operating in a threat scenario requires a large screen of ships and submarines
to ensure its own safety from hostile submarine, surface or aerial attack.
task forces can traverse 400 nautical miles a day. Their detection was not an
easy task in the last century, but today, but today, with Maritime Reconnaissance
and Attack aircraft like the Boeing 737 MMA, satellites and advances in detection
technology, aircraft carriers though moving at 25 knots, cannot be hidden.
Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, or drones, can now fly for long hours, detect and attack
ships on command from their operators.
In due course, UAVs will be ship
launched, and be difficult to detect by radar. Large platforms will become easy
targets at sea for long range missiles fired from planes, submarines, UAVs and
ships, not to mention stealthily launched torpedoes. Undoubtedly aircraft carriers
are very good as power projection platforms and therein lies the dilemma for naval
planners and their budgeters, of how many to build and how big.
perspective appears to be on the right lines and affordable as India’s economy
is slated to grow despite the world’s downturn. When Admiral John Nathman, former
Commander US Fleet Forces Command was asked if the USA could afford such large
carrier fleets in the future, his answer was that these were inescapable combatants,
but said it was a shame that USN could not afford more of them. The US Navy operates
carriers as a part of large task forces operating off Japan, Atlantic Ocean area,
Indian Ocean (Diego Garcia) and the Middle East.
US carrier task force forays
ahead only when 200 nautical miles in its van has been sanitized and neutralized.
But this is a luxury which only the $ 550 billion US defence budget can afford.
planners with a $ 24.5 billion of total Army, Navy and Air Force defence budget
will have to consider leaner and alternate options till the economy blossoms in
the coming decades.
Indian Navy’s Aviation Backdrop Historically some few
hundred Indian naval officers took active part in World War II in surface operations
in the Burma and Middle East campaigns in frigates and sloops, and only one lone
Naval officer, Lt Y N Singh served in the British Fleet Air Arm in No 804 FAA
Hellcat squadron on board British escort carriers during WW II.
the Independence it was Lord Louis Mountbatten who gave the Indian Navy impetus
to be aviation minded, and Capt H C Ranalds OBE RN was made Director of Naval
Air Arm in NHQ on loan.
India’s fledging Navy went on to build up aviation
assets ashore, and a handful of 13 officers were deputed for flying training with
the IAF with a plan to induct aircraft carriers from 1955. A three carrier Navy
Britain wanted to offset its war debt by transferring ships
and aircraft carriers to India.
The first lot of ten officers Lts HK Mukerji,
AS Bathena, K Cockburn, PC Rajkhowa, RS Sokhi , PN Prashar, T Chakraverti, MM
Bakshi, GCD D’Cruz and RD law were then chosen to proceed to RN Air Stations Donbristle
and Syerston in Scotland and they formed the bedrock on which the Navy’s aviation
IN’s Naval Air Arm formally took birth with the commissioning
of naval air station INS Garuda at Cochin on 11 May 1953, and the first Indian
Naval Aircraft, the amphibious Sealand IN101 joined the Fleet Requirement Unit
(FRU) at Garuda, later to become IN 550 squadron to provide target towing and
gunnery tracking practice at sea. From that day, India’s Cinderella service’s
aviation branch has flourished and has not looked back, but the role of the aircraft
carriers in the wars that the nation has fought, has not been analysed, only glorified.
On 3rd November, 1961 Pandit Jawahar Lal Nehru received the 20,000 ton Majestic
class aircraft carrier INS Vikrant (HMS Hercules) from Britain at Bombay’s Ballard
Pier. Nehru’s sister and High Commissioner in London, Mrs Vijaylaxmi Pandit, had
commissioned the ship in UK, that was supplied against the war debt owed to India.
The ship, named Vikrant, under Captain Pritam Singh Mahindroo, had successfully
and totally accident free, worked o f f M a l t a and embarked one squadron each
of Sea Hawk fighters and French Breguet Alize Anti Submarine Warfare (ASW) planes.
The Royal Navy was surprised at the quality of Indian naval pilots and Observers
(Air Navigators) who had been initially trained by the Indian Air Force. Even
today, they are held in high esteem and cannot be faulted for their flying prowess.
The aviators of the Navy are also the Indian Navy’s glamour boys.
However when the tri-service operation ‘Op Vijay’ was mounted later that year
from 14th Deember 1961 to take Goa from the Portugese, the INS Vikrant with its
complement of powerful Sea Hawks was ordered to keep clear of Goa when the presence
of a foreign submarine was reported.
In the Goa operations, IAF Liberators
from Pune provided MR support which responsibility was later transferred to the
Indian Navy with Super Constellations bought from Air India. In the 1965 war,
INS Vikrant was laid up for refit and it was not found prudent to get her ready.
In the 1971 war the Vikrant had suffered boiler damage and her speed was reduced
so the ship was assigned to the East in the Bay of Bengal theatre.
Vikrant was able to operate with impunity as the only Pakistan Navy submarine
PNS Ghazi (USN Diablo) in the East had been sunk off Vishakapatnam on 3rd December
1971 while attempting to lay mines.
INS Vikrant’s Sea Hawk and Alize aircraft
executed excellent ground attack sorties off Chittagong and Khulna sectors and
as the IAF had already neutralized the Pakistani Air Force’s F-86 Sabres jets,
not a single Indian Navy aircraft encountered any enemy plane in the air. Indian
Navy’s Alize aircraft, with their superior ARRAR EW equipment, provided excellent
frequency intelligence of enemy radars along the India Pakistan border.
power projection, flag showing diplomacy and national prestige, the INS Vikrant
served the Navy well till 1987, and today it is a floating museum and merchantmen
training ship in Mumbai, which will soon be grouted off Colaba.
INS Viraat (HMS Hermes) joined with VSTOL Sea Harriers from UK, after having served
in the Falklands war, but the ship has not been tested in war in Indian waters.
In submarine exercises, she has been detected and attacked, and during
Op Parakaram in 2002-03, the Navy hastily armed her with Barak Anti Missile defence
system to ward off the Pakistani threat from Harpoon missiles which could be fired
from P-3C Orion MR aircraft and submarines. Due to political indecision for several
years, Indian naval ships did not have protection against missile threats.
naval aviation traditions have been set and an excellent legacy left behind for
today’s Indian Naval aviation which flies over 130 platforms which include the
modified three IL- 38Ds with Sea Dragon systems, 8 aging TU-142s, 12 Sea Harriers,
24 Kirans and 18 Dorniers-228s.
The Navy is working towards a fleet of
100 modern aircraft from Mig 29Ks, jet trainers, Long Range Maritime Aircraft
like Boeing 737 MMA, and others.
Ten US and IAF trained top guns of the
Navy are in Russia flying the first four of the 16 MiG-29Ks, which are meant for
INS Vikramaditya (Admiral Gorshkov) to be commissioned by 2013. Till then, eight
MiG 29Ks will arrive in batches of four in knockdown kits from the end of this
year, and will operate from INS Hansa in Goa.
INS Viraat, presently under
refit at Cochin and later at Mumbai, is expected to bat on with Sea Harriers which
are being upgraded at Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd with Elta E/LM 2022 series of
radars and Derby air to air missiles.
The Navy’s helicopter inventory includes
the Kamov family of Ka-28/29/31AEW, Sea King Mk 42B ASW/C and Alouttes. The Sea
Kings execute the ASW role with dunking sonars and were fitted to fire UK supplied
Sea Eagles but that missile project ran in to choppy waters, as these missiles
did not prove well in trials. Twelve new ASW helicopters are in the pipeline.
The Indian Navy has two aircraft carriers on order, the 44,000 ton INS
Vikramaditya (Admiral Gorshkov) being refitted at the SEVMASH yard in Severondnisk
in Russia and a 37,500 ton aircraft carrier – given the misnomer of an Air Defence
Ship (ADS) – being built at Kochi. The misnomer ADS was adopted by the navy to
ward off objections to the Navy going in for an aircraft carrier, especially by
the IAF when the SU-30s were being acquired.
A similar misnomer was adopted
by the Royal Navy which called its carriers, through deck cruisers to get Whitehall
It is best that debate whether aircraft carriers are needed
or not is consigned to the dust bin. The cost of Admiral Gorshkov has escalated
to $ 2 billion, but the Indian naval planners are still looking up to it with
as it would be a very capable platform with its modern sensors and Mig 29K fighters.
The Boeing 737 MMA aircraft, integrated with the Indian naval and possibly air
force assets, would boost this capability, particularly when Indian Navy’s second
aircraft carrier also becomes operational.
India’s strategic planners in
the central government, sitting thousands of miles from the shores, need to think
and rethink on Indian Navy’s responsibilities in the coming years, and make sure
that its requirements are planned well in advance and adequate funds made available
for the best of naval technologies.