Chief of Defence Staff General Bipin Rawat on Monday reignited an age-old debate over the domination of aircraft carriers over submarines and vice versa by indicating that the Indian Navy's long-standing demand for a third supercarrier will be on the backburner for a while. Rawat seemingly favoured spending on cruise missile submarines than a naval air carrier which requires a battle fleet of five to 15 other ships for its protection in the event of a war.
"When we know that there would be two aircraft carriers there, and if the submarine force is dwindling, then our priority should be for submarines," Rawat was quoted as saying by ANI. The navy, however, has traditionally disagreed with such reasoning.
The Indian Navy currently has one serving aircraft carrier, INS Vikramaditya, and another indigenously built, INS Vikrant, is due to be commissioned by 2022. Both ships have a displacement of about 45,000 tonnes. However, the navy has been demanding a third carrier since over a decade now. Navy chief Admiral Karambir Singh has said that the need for a new 65,000-tonne aircraft carrier remains non-negotiable so that two of its carriers can remain operational at all times, and one can be deployed each of India's three coasts in wartime.
However, the argument on the balance of power between aircraft carriers and submarines is more complicated than that. There's a reason the debate remains unsettled till date.
Why aircraft carriers remain the thrust of India's naval assault capabilities
Experts have been predicting that aircraft carriers will outlive their utility since as early as 1945, just nine years after carriers made battleships redundant. However, the country's navy is reposing its faith in the giant while claiming that its utility outruns the costs involved.
The INS Vikramaditya which is currently under service can carry over 30 aircraft including state-of-the-art MiG 29K or Sea Harriers, Kamov 31, Kamov 28, Sea King, ALH-Dhruv and Chetak helicopters. With 22 decks and a capacity of 1,600 personnel, the ship can sustain itself in the sea for 45 days up to a range of over 13,000 kilometres. The INS Vikrant, at a length of 262 meters and a width of 60 meters, will operate up to 40 aircraft and will sport a close-in weapon system (CIWS) for self-defence and India’s first domestically assembled long-range surface-to-air missile system (LRSAM).
Furthermore, as former Indian Navy chief Sunil Lanba pointed out, that notwithstanding the vulnerability of the naval fleet against airstrikes, the only alternative to carriers are shore-based air operations (or airfields), which are still limited by range and that is why it is too early to write off aircraft carriers as they continue to bear huge influence at sea.
The serving navy chief has also highlighted the need for a third carrier, citing utility of the platforms plenty of times. He has highlighted that while China plans to have 10 aircraft carriers by 2049, India is unwilling to push for a third aircraft carrier, notwithstanding the threat from the growing threat from Chinese expansion in Indian Ocean region. "As the navy chief, I am convinced that the country needs three aircraft carriers so that two are operational at all times. And it should be 65,000 tonnes with electromagnetic propulsion," Singh told The Week.
A retired US naval officer Rear Adm. Roy “Trigger” Kelley also swears by the utility of these giants stating that in a time of war. In an article for Defence News, he states that while the concerns about new and improved missile warfare making this cost heavy behemoth vulnerable are valid, carriers and their supporting fleet too have improved over the years. Carriers are mobile, defendable and durable. He states, "aircraft carriers will be the most survivable airfields — perhaps the only survivable airfields — in the maritime area of operations."
Why aircraft carrier's practical utility is often challenged
The utility of defence equipment is not only gauged on the basis of the damage it can cause in event of a war, but also on the accompanying costs of maintenance and operation. And it is here that the might of aircraft carriers are challenged. Carriers are accompanied by a battle fleet of five to 15 other ships designed to protect the carrier and do other tasks the carrier is not designed to do.
Furthermore, carriers are really expensive, not just to acquire, but also to operate. A single US carrier group costs $7 million a day and the carrier alone costs $100 million per year to operate. While the cost Indian Navy incurs in keeping the 20-storeyed steel megastructure afloat is not available, the restoration of the Russian decommissioned wreck Admiral Gorshkov into current day INS Vikramaditya cost the country $2.35 billion.
Given these figures, the government's reluctance to back the navy's demands doesn't come as a surprise. India Today reported that the government of India already spends 28 percent of its total acquisition budget on fulfilling the requirements of the three services. Bankrolling a new aircraft carrier along with the accompanying paraphernalia and fleet will force the government to change its acquisition plans for the coming years, compelling it to waitlist a number of other urgently required weapon systems of the army and the air force.
Alternatives to aircraft careers
The market is already abuzz with several alternatives to these giant machines even as the defence experts remain largely divided on whether or not the naval behemoth can be dismissed as dispensable.
According to an article in Defence News, US too is reconsidering its investments in an air carrier and the allied air wing and ship fleet required. The article reported that Under Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering Mike Griffin is questioning the operability and utility of carriers in a mainstream war against China, its largest adversary with formidable naval power.
Griffin has opined that aircraft carriers remain a determinative asset, with adversaries like China and Russia capable of measuring and understanding the limits of US naval warfare. Griffin instead favours ground-based hypersonic missiles — which incorporate the speed of a ballistic missile with the manoeuvring capabilities of a cruise missile — over the giant carriers, even as several defence experts remain sceptical.
Other US experts favour long-range, armed drones instead of the traditional naval air fleet, which do not need a giant ecosystem to take off such as an aircraft carrier. They are able to launch from smaller flattop ships such as America. Drones also grant greater agility to the naval-air attacks as they do not run the risk of human pilot casualty, enabling greater standoff range for carriers and longer dwell time on attack missions over enemy territory. India could also utilise its existing naval fleet as carriers if it manoeuvres its fleet expansion in this direction.
In 2017, the late Senator John McCain published an alternative plan for the US military that posited that costs of developing and operating aircraft carriers could be halved if the country invested in unmanned combat aircraft vehicles (UCAVs) for which much smaller carriers will also suffice. McCain argued that smaller carrier will more efficiently address daily power sea control, close air support and counterterrorism missions at a much lower cost.
Missile-hauling submarines are another popular alternative, which is what Rawat also seems to back. These subs are arguably cheaper to carriers, as even though the manufacturing and procurement costs run parallel, the operative costs of the former are much lesser than the latter. Subs with an advanced stealth mechanism are capable of destroying carriers from a greater distance with cruise missiles, and can increasingly utilise targeting data provided by offboard sensors to find their prey. A submarine's stealth enables it to covertly position precision land-attack missiles within range without causing a diplomatic incident, which is sometimes all that is needed to tip the scales in a conflict.
Submarines have also proved their utility historically. Royal Navy's Courageous, became the first aircraft carrier to be sunk by a submarine. In World War II also, the subs were able to cause lasting damage when pitted against aircraft carriers, who were deemed simply too expensive to risk their sinking.
Postwar records compiled by the Joint Army-Navy Assessment Committee indicate Japan lost 686 warships of 500 gross tons (GRT) or larger, 2,346 merchantmen, and a total of 10.5 million GRT to submarines during 1,600 war patrols. Only 1.6 percent of the total US naval manpower was responsible for America's success on its Pacific high seas; more than half of the tonnage sunk was credited to US submarines.
However, naysayers could challenge the diversion of funds towards submarines (at the cost of an aircraft carrier) citing the scientific challenges of bringing seamless connectivity undersea. The aircraft carrier not only faces no such challenge but can also launch a large amount of warfare within seconds. Carriers can also launch aircraft capable of detecting and attacking submarines at a range.
Another article in Forbes points out that the longevity of aircraft carriers trump the 'cost' argument of naysayers. Carriers remain relevant and potent year after year and decade after decade because they are adaptable platforms on which only the aircraft and payload need to be modernised from time to time. India's INS Viraat a Centaur-class aircraft carrier was originally commissioned in 1959 as the Royal Navy's HMS Hermes and decommissioned in 1984. It was refurbished and commissioned in Indian Navy on 12 May 1987 and served for almost 30 years before finally being retired on 23 July 2016. The current INS Vikramaditya was commissioned in 2013 and its official expected life span is 40 years; it is unlikely to need any major technical overhaul for at least a decade.
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Updated Date: Feb 18, 2020 18:33:38 IST