By Prashant Dikshit
The cry for the third aircraft carrier for India is warming up especially now that the launch of India’s own indigenous INS Vikrant is imminent. The melodies are mixed: from the sonorous to the cacophonous. There are two schools of thought. Whilst one group very seriously promotes commencing work on the Indigenous Aircraft Carrier (IAC) II since the work on INS Vikrant is fructified.
Built in Cochin Shipyard Limited it is likely to be operational in 2023. Although the aircraft for this carrier are yet to be selected and the news of other onboard weapon systems is yet to waft through, there is a strong belief that a concurrent activity on IAC II will have adequately available energized cycles.
It may also help in obviating the unhappy and painful experiences of acquiring INS Vikramaditya, erstwhile “Admiral Gorshkov” from Russia, “ due to humongous cost escalations, negotiation complexities, delayed delivery and commissioning, and now, recurring refits”.
Moreover, one of the cardinal arguments put forth is that this valuable experience gained by Cochin Shipyard for its deeply satisfying work in raising INS Vikrant should just not be allowed to fritter away. It is after all “strategic knowledge of handling strategic materials with strategic technologies” which is of crucial importance with China having embarked on the production of their third aircraft carrier. If reports are to be believed the Cochin Shipyard can take on vessels up to 70000 tons.
It all grows out of India’s paramount concern for control and supremacy in its maritime domain. Independent India took more than half a century to enunciate that the arc of the Indian Ocean between the Straits of Hormuz and Malacca is a zone of its strategic concerns. This feature, however, was treated as crucial for the colonial British economy and the strategic integrity of the Raj.
The end of the cold war and the adoption of market forces economy by India may have hastened our policy but the notions of the ocean as a conflict free zone and the freedom of the seas through sea lanes of communication were always serious security issues.
And this situation is vastly aggravated by the Chinese regime having secured effective control of ports in the Bay of Bengal, built a military base in the Horn of Africa, continued with their forays in the Indian Ocean and above all perpetrated a highly adversarial conduct in the South China sea. The Indian Ocean had to be kept free from power rivalries and acts of piracy on the seas.
The contrary view basically comes on grounds of expenditure and resources. A futuristic IAC II would mean 10 billion dollars spread over seven odd years whilst Navy’s own capital acquisition outlay is pegged at about half a billion dollars for 2021-22. Out of which 6 billion dollars is committed towards indigenous submarine project in the years to come.
Nearly 4 billion dollars is estimated for procuring combat jets for the IAC-1. The moot question therefore being asked is “where will the money come from”? Even with pooling of all resources of Defence and Security Funds, India will run short for its capital acquisitions.At this juncture we run into the “desirability or the undesirability” syndrome with respect to the acquisition of the IAC II but I believe in a staggered induction process an IAC II would be highly feasible.
The point to note that “with territorial disputes growing worldwide, aircraft carriers have become high-value warfare assets globally”. The US navy is known to have launched their combat aircraft from aircraft carriers during the operation “Enduring Freedom”.
At a threat level, an aircraft career per se, is considered highly vulnerable in submarine infested waters likes of which are frequently being reported as the Chinese submarines freely operate. Although these fears are real with several examples dating back to World War II but over the years submarine detection arts have been honed up with development of matching technologies.
These equipment are not only part and parcel of “counter submarine packages” on board the carrier but are also placed on ships sailing along with the carriers. We will also do well to note that anti-submarine aircraft the P8 – I are an inseparable adjunct of India’s maritime force and since their induction several interoperability exercises have been undertaken not only with its own ships of the Indian Navy but also with several friendly navies.
The most astounding criticism on Indian aircraft carriers is on grounds that they did not provide commensurate returns in India’s war history. This are an untruth. INS Vikrant after most urgent repairs sailed on the midnight of December 3 when hostilities were declared, with Pakistan having attacked some Indian airfields in the north-west.
It was positioned in the Bay of Bengal off the coast of East Pakistan. The Sea Hawks provided the strike force by day, whilst the Alize could be used for reconnaissance duties day and night. Despite a Submarine threat operations had continued when the threat was neutralized.
Six Sea Hawks successfully bombed Chittagong harbor, the airfield and several targets. In all, about 300 strike sorties were flown by aircraft from INS Vikrant in 10 days. Eight Sea Hawks and a similar number of Alize were hit by ground fire. In retrospect, despite the many constraints, INS Vikrant and its aircraft played a crucial role in the liberation of Bangladesh.
The author is a strategic affairs commentator.
Disclaimer: Views expressed are personal and do not reflect the official position or policy of Financial Express Online. Reproducing this content without permission is prohibited.