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Indian Navy’s Aircraft Carriers

By Cmde Ranjit Rai (Retd)Published :January 2009

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. That’s 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.

The British 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 Navy’s task a Hobson’s 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.

The 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.

The 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 Xiaoping’s 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 project.

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.

In 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.

Carrier 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.

Even 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.

The Indian 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.

Indian 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.

After 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 was proposed.

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 wing blossomed.

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.

INS 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.

For 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.

In 1984, 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.

Sound 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 approvals.

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.

  © India Strategic 
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