To counter China, India needs more aircraft carriers

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In 1961, India became the first country in the so-called third world to acquire and operate an aircraft carrier, a Majestic-class ship purchased from the British and commissioned as INS vikrant. The ship played a role in the 1971 Bangladesh Liberation War, being used in a blockade on all shipping between East and West Pakistan. The Indian Navy has since strived to continuously maintain carrier-based operational forces – comprising destroyers, frigates, submarines and other support vessels, but led by an aircraft carrier. However, these task forces have always relied on aircraft carriers and foreign aircraft.

India’s first locally built aircraft carrier – a new INS vikrant, which means “valiant”, therefore marks a significant break with the past. With this milestone, India joins an elite group of countries – China, France, US, UK – that have built their own aircraft carriers. On September 2, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi commissioned the warship, which was designed by the Indian Navy’s Warship Design Bureau and built at the Cochin Shipyard at a cost of about 2.5 billions of dollars.

When fully operational, within 12 to 18 months, the new ship will be able to carry an additional 30 aircraft plus other armaments. With this, the INS vikrant will become the costliest military hardware in the Indian Navy’s inventory. The new aircraft carrier gives a significant boost to Modi’s campaign for self-reliance in defense manufacturing, and it gives the Indian Navy extraordinary reach at a significant distance from its own coastline. India has taken over as an internet security provider in the Indian Ocean region and, for the first time in its history, faces a significant hostile power at sea: the Chinese navy. Although the new aircraft carrier will require significant protection given its prestige, its benefits outweigh the risks.

In 1961, India became the first country in the so-called third world to acquire and operate an aircraft carrier, a Majestic-class ship purchased from the British and commissioned as INS vikrant. The ship played a role in the 1971 Bangladesh Liberation War, being used in a blockade on all shipping between East and West Pakistan. The Indian Navy has since strived to continuously maintain carrier-based operational forces – comprising destroyers, frigates, submarines and other support vessels, but led by an aircraft carrier. However, these task forces have always relied on aircraft carriers and foreign aircraft.

India’s first locally built aircraft carrier – a new INS vikrant, which means “valiant”, therefore marks a significant break with the past. With this milestone, India joins an elite group of countries – China, France, US, UK – that have built their own aircraft carriers. On September 2, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi commissioned the warship, which was designed by the Indian Navy’s Warship Design Bureau and built at the Cochin Shipyard at a cost of about 2.5 billions of dollars.

When fully operational, within 12 to 18 months, the new ship will be able to carry an additional 30 aircraft plus other armaments. With this, the INS vikrant will become the costliest military hardware in the Indian Navy’s inventory. The new aircraft carrier gives a significant boost to Modi’s campaign for self-reliance in defense manufacturing, and it gives the Indian Navy extraordinary reach at a significant distance from its own coastline. India has taken over as an internet security provider in the Indian Ocean region and, for the first time in its history, faces a significant hostile power at sea: the Chinese navy. Although the new aircraft carrier will require significant protection given its prestige, its benefits outweigh the risks.

INS vikrant can be a significant addition to the capabilities of the Indian Navy to protect India’s maritime territory from China’s expanding naval power. The Indian Navy believes it needs more aircraft carriers to dominate the Indian Ocean and deter the Chinese Navy from challenging it in its maritime backyard. The legacy of carrier operations has prompted the Indian Navy to procure this material to prove its naval power. But there are downsides: Modern surveillance and reconnaissance technology coupled with ranged weapons such as anti-ship missiles have created significant challenges for aircraft carriers.

Moreover, a new aircraft carrier cannot close the capability gap between the Indian Navy and its Chinese counterpart. The People’s Liberation Army Navy is the largest fleet in the Indo-Pacific region, with a combat strength of around 350 ships and submarines, which surpasses even the United States. China has commissioned its first aircraft carrier, the liaoning, in 2012 and has since greatly expanded its capabilities. Its third aircraft carrier, the 80,000 ton Fujian, is currently undergoing sea trials. Even more threatening is Beijing’s growing fleet of conventional and nuclear submarines. Its anti-ship missile force could destroy targets such as aircraft carriers from a distance, and New Delhi’s would be the most prized target for any confrontation on the high seas.

Even so, the Indian Navy has good reason to deploy aircraft carriers in the Indian Ocean. First, confronting the Chinese navy on the high seas requires highly mobile power projection and firepower-intensive means. When properly defended with anti-missile and anti-aircraft cover, a naval air task force could pose challenges to Chinese naval operations in the Indian Ocean and help interdict Chinese trade in the region, if necessary. For the past decade, India’s naval thinking has emphasized banning shipping lines of communication – preventing movement along major sea routes – as leverage against China. Carrier task forces would support this strategy of punishment by targeting China’s maritime lines of communication in the Indian Ocean region.

Second, the Indian Navy’s carrier task forces could help reset the psychological advantage China has gained over the past decade by projecting its presence in the Indian Ocean. The Chinese navy will still take a long time to establish a fleet in the region, far from territorial waters. The restrictive geography of the South China Sea makes the movement of the current Chinese fleet highly predictable. The Indian Navy has a grace period to develop its capabilities to effectively confront Chinese carrier task forces, as Indian carriers could project their power deep into the Indian Ocean region. By using sea interdiction platforms such as nuclear-powered submarines and positioning remote weapons such as anti-ship missiles in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, India could make the Chinese Navy vulnerable. Such projection will also impress India’s ability to protect its interests on island states and northern Indian Ocean countries.

Finally, any incremental increase in the strength of the Indian Navy against China adds significantly to its importance in the eyes of its partners in the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, or Quad, particularly the United States. American grand strategy requires a formidable buildup of the Indian Navy, and if the Quad eventually becomes a military alliance, its members will look to New Delhi to play an important military role in the Indian Ocean. This gives India significant leverage, which it should use to negotiate additional aid to develop its third aircraft carrier. The United States and India could continue their collaboration on nuclear propulsion, catapult-assisted take-off and joint production of fighter jets, thus making progress towards their two strategic interests.

Despite its native construction, the INS vikrantCritical subsystems will all be made overseas, from its engines and propellers to the aircraft it carries. The Indian Navy has shown significant interest in either French Rafale jets or US F-18 jets to meet its need for multirole fighters operating from the deck of the carrier. Currently, India’s only other operational carrier is deploying with aging MiG-29K jets, purchased from Russia, but their performance is questionable. Until India closes these critical supply and manufacturing gaps, its indigenous shipbuilding capability will remain a pipe dream.

The last time India expanded its navy significantly was in the 1980s when it first operated two aircraft carriers. Second, India’s relationship with the Soviet Union and the lack of clear naval objectives raised concerns among regional players and the United States. The time has come for the Indian Navy to once again develop its capabilities. It is now recognized as an important stabilizing force in the Indian Ocean region, and the rise of the Chinese navy – as well as its aggressive behavior – has provided it with adequate justification to develop significant deterrent capabilities.

To do this, it needs more support from the United States and its Quad partners. The development of India’s indigenous defense capabilities will significantly reduce the Indian Navy’s dependence on Russian equipment. Washington would serve its interests well by supporting the continued indigenization of India’s defense. It can start by cooperating on the third Indian aircraft carrier.

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