New Delhi’s regional partners in containing a belligerent China – primarily the United States, Japan,
Australia and Singapore – would like the Indian Navy to lock down the Indian Ocean region,
while other partners can focus on deterring the PLA (Navy) in the South China Sea
BY AJAI SHUKLA
Last fortnight when the Indian Navy vessel Vikrant was commissioned into the Navy fleet, we joined a group of just five countries who each
operate more than one aircraft carrier.
In addition to the 44,000 ton INS Vikramaditya, purchased from Russia, we will have the brand new 45,000 ton INS Vikrant.
China, Italy and the UK also have two carriers each.
The US Navy – the 900-pound gorilla of carrier operations – has 11 carriers, each displacing about 100,000 tons,
projecting American power around the world.
While our two carriers might seem like a respectable power projection capability, they would rarely translate to more than
a single combat-ready aircraft carrier.
The US Navy’s Marine Tracker website, which tracks the deployment of major US warships, reveals that as of August 29, only
three U.S. Navy Carrier Strike Groups (CSGs) were operationally deployed – less than a quarter of U.S. carriers.
The US Navy also has seven Wasp-class helicopter landing docks (LHDs) – amphibious assault ships that carry the F-22 Osprey tiltrotor
aircraft, Sea Harriers or F-35 Lightning II vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) fighters; and a maritime expeditionary unit made up of over
more than 2,000 combat-ready marines.
Of the seven US LHDs, only four are operationally deployed.
Similarly, the Indian Navy’s two aircraft carriers would mostly represent only one operationally deployed aircraft carrier.
To have two aircraft carriers operationally available, the naval fleet must have three aircraft carriers since, most of the time, one of these three
would be in the shipyard for maintenance.
The navy projects its requirements for two aircraft carriers deployed in simple terms: one for the east coast (the Bay of Bengal and the Strait of Malacca)
and a second for the west coast (the Arabian Sea, the Pakistani coast and western Asia).
But lately the navy brass have begun to advocate for a third carrier deployed to perform power projection at longer ranges across the
Indian Ocean region.
But the operational deployment of three aircraft carriers would require a fleet of four aircraft carriers.
Thus, the Navy not only needs a second native aircraft carrier (IAC-2), but also a third (IAC-3), as well as its own
aviation group and the destroyers, frigates, corvettes, supply ships and submarines required for three carrier battle groups
Meanwhile, as in most navies, an internal debate rages between supporters of the “control of the sea” of a decisive naval battle, in which the planes
carriers play a key role; and proponents of “sea denial,” in which scattered battleships and submarines take center stage.
What is certain is that India would need huge financial resources to create such forces.
Former US senator Everett Dirksen, known for his acerbic wit, has warned of skyrocketing government spending
control: “A billion here, a billion there, and soon you will be talking about real money”.
However, aircraft carriers and large warships, like no other weapon platform, are as useful in times of peace as in times of war,
serving as a diplomatic tool to show the flag to allies, partners and adversaries.
Furthermore, the naval forces have an unprecedented capability to distribute humanitarian aid and disaster relief, as the Indian Navy did after
the 2004 Asian tsunami, gaining an enviable reputation as a force that could reach the entire Indian Ocean coastline in peacetime as
Just as a large fleet of strategic airlifters gave the Indian Air Force a useful capability in both peacetime and wartime, a
fleet of large warships capable of crossing an ocean in both peacetime and wartime.
The US Congress has explicitly recognized this. The latest US National Defense Authorization Act – the US federal law that
clarifies the annual defense budget and expenditures under various headings — for the first time provided the Navy with legal and budget information
powers to fulfill a clear peacetime, as well as its combat role.
New US wording says, “The Navy shall be organized, trained, and equipped for the promotion of national security in peacetime
the interests and prosperity of the United States and rapid and sustained combat in the event of operations at sea.
Inserted in bold/italics is new wording which emphasizes peacetime and economic missions. All marines are on manifest display of
presence. New US law continues to recognize the combat role of the US Navy, while allowing it to remain in the four
corners of the law in exercising a peacetime role as well.
Given India’s putative role as an internet security provider in the Indian Ocean region and a defender of global commons such as the sea
lines of communication (SLOC) that carry 70% of the world’s commerce through these waters, the Navy faces the stark question:
challenges does it have to overcome to fulfill this role?
New Delhi’s regional partners in containing a belligerent China – primarily the United States, Japan, Australia and Singapore – would like the
Indian Navy to lock down the Indian Ocean region, while other partners can focus on People’s Liberation Army (Navy) deterrence,
or PLA(N) near the first and second island chains in the South China Sea.
That wouldn’t be easy, given the mind-boggling expansion of the PLA(N), with Chinese naval shipyards in Dalian building four-
simultaneously five large sophisticated destroyers.
Moreover, the commissioning of a second aircraft carrier, as satisfactory as it may be, does little to calm New Delhi’s apprehensions as to its
3,488 kilometer Line of Actual Control (LAC) as the land border between India and China is called.
As a result of the PLA’s multiple encroachments on the LAC in the summer of 2020, some of which remain to be eliminated,
Beijing has ensured that New Delhi’s strategic attention is fixed on the LAC rather than the Indian Ocean.
The volatile land border with China, where it won a war in 1962 and continues to enjoy a military advantage, remains the
primary safety concern.
Meanwhile, the vast ocean expanses of the Indian Ocean, which India can more easily dominate, remain on the fringes of its attention.
India being the only quadrangle member country that shares a land border with China, its concern for LAC is
not well understood by its partner countries.
The United States and Australia noted that India’s stakes in the Indian Ocean region are higher than in the high Himalayas.
New Delhi needs to show resolve, they say, because India’s own economic prosperity depends on keeping its SLOCs open in India.
On a day when the Indian Navy commissioned its second aircraft carrier, there remains a worrying lack of clarity in New Delhi as to where it should
focus its attention and scarce financial resources.