Laying the keel of India’s third nuclear-powered aircraft carrier

While the Sea Trials of IAC were successfully completed, the debate for the third aircraft carrier began to rise. Debate centers around the fact that India must develop its requisite maritime power due to its defining feature and strategic lines around the Indian Ocean Region. An era of maritime makes a compelling case for laying the keel of the third IAC for creating technology, skills and industry for economic activities. So, that is where the India’s maritime strategy calls for maritime infrastructure and capacity for a maritime security framework across the vast expanse of oceans to deter, project or combat transnational and other security challenges. It is beyond the realm of security. Now, it is no longer a question of why but when can we get three more carriers built. What does it take then to lay the keel of India’s 3rd aircraft carrier?

aircraft carrier IAC vikrant
Indian Aircraft carrier Vikrant

The fourth phase of Sea Trials for IAC has been successfully completed on 10 Jul 22, during which integrated trials of majority of equipment and systems onboard including some of the Aviation Facilities Complex equipment were undertaken. The ship’s delivery is being targeted in end Jul 22, followed by commissioning of the ship in Aug 22.  While the Maiden Sea Trials of IAC were successfully completed in Aug 21, the debate for the 3rd aircraft carrier began to rise. Debate centres around the fact that India must develop its requisite maritime power due its defining feature and strategic lines around the Indian Ocean Region.

Now, it is no longer a question of why but when can we get three more carriers built. What does it take then to lay the keel of India’s 3rd aircraft carrier?

Currently, India has operationalised only one conventional aircraft carrier, INS Vikramaditya, a modified Kiev-class carrier, on its western seaboard. INS Vikrant, India’s second aircraft carrier is undergoing sea trials since August 2021 and is set to be commissioned this year. This is to be deployed on India’s eastern seaboard after one year of infrastructural completion alongside INS Vikramaditya on the western coast.

While INS Vikramaditya was purchased from Russia for a price of US$ 2.35 billion in 2004, INS Vikrant is indigenously developed (IAC-1), the cost of the project has been estimated to be US$ 3.1-3.5 Billion. But in total, INS Vikramaditya cost India US$ 10-11 Billion. The quest for the 3rd aircraft carrier is based on nuclear powered propulsion system; A nuclear-powered carrier that can meet the space and size demands of IAC-2.

The Indigenous design and construction of Aircraft Carrier by Indian Navy and Cochin Shipyard Ltd is a shining example in the Nation’s quest for building warships of such size and scale with more than 76% indigenous content. This has led to growth in indigenous design and construction capabilities, besides development of large number of ancillary industries, with employment opportunities for over 2000 CSL personnel and about 12000 employees in ancillary industries.

The Specification of 3rd Aircraft Carrier

But if one looks at the industry requirements laid out by the Indian Navy in the letter of request it sent out to global shipbuilders in 2015, the displacement for IAC-2 was suggested as 300 metres (38 metres longer than IAC-1’s 262-metre displacement), its weight was suggested to be 65,000 tonnes (as opposed to IAC-1’s 45,000-tonne weight), and its intended speed was more than 30 knots or 56 km/h (against IAC-1’s 28 knot or 52 km/h top speed). In this context, the technological sophistication and investment required in the development of IAC-2 will naturally have to be multiple steps ahead of the current level of indigenous capabilities.

While INS Vikrant is 260 meters long and 60 meters wide vessel displacing 37,500 tonnes. The maximum speed of the ship is announced at 28 knots, with a range of 7,500 nautical miles at a speed of 18 knots. INS Vikrant is set to receive a large crew complement composed of 160 officers and 1,400 sailors. The STOBAR aircraft carrier will be able to accommodate up to 30 fighters and helicopters, including Mig-29K fighters’ jets and Ka-31 helicopters.

Why India needed a third Next-Generation Aircraft Carrier

In the words of the former Indian Chief of Naval Staff Admiral Karambir Singh, for India, “Air power at sea is required here and now”. The Indian Maritime Doctrine and Ensuring Secure Seas: Indian Maritime Security Strategy are two key official documents that deal with the subject of maritime security in India. While it is evolving the idea of strategic outreach is firmly entrenched.

A third aircraft carrier is if you want one aircraft carrier to be ready all time then there must be three aircraft carriers. In the chain, one strike group remains for the maintenance, refit or major overhaul.

The common debate on the carrier is like this: Modern warfare does not require such gigantic warships which is equally about the massive cost in tune of USD 4-5 billion. Instead, IN can build many destroyers and frigates– can strengthen the number of warships. 

It is of utmost importance that debate on such critical issue of national consequence is laid out with clarity, assessing the broad argument. Where is the argument leading when it comes to the massive size of the warship in the era of unconventional warfare?

Admiral Arun Prakash served as Naval Chief and Chairman Chiefs of Staff. An aviator by specialisation, during his 40-year career, he commanded a carrier-borne fighter-squadron, a naval air station and four warships; including the aircraft-carrier INS Viraat. Speaking with the author, Admiral Arun refers to the foundational shift in the projection and the way we have laid out our conduct on national security and sovereignty. He says: “Diplomats will testify that it is not the Indian army’s 4000 tanks or IAF’s 29 squadrons of combat aircraft that make India an attractive partner for the USA or the Quad nations. It is the Indian Navy’s ability to project influence and power in distant reaches of the Indo-Pacific – largely via maritime air power.”

So, it is the era of maritime and India’s geography itself makes a compelling case for the maritime expansion and ties. The shift that we are talking about in the present context is too apparent that maritime leads the discourse in the geopolitics. The entire construct of foreign policies is now based on the strength of economic power.

Admiral Arun Prakash finds much credence in this context as he refers to the global maritime powers, says: “The US Navy slogan, advertising its carriers as, “4.5 acres of sovereign territory,” is an indicator of the value that a carrier brings to situations that require, ‘presence,’ ‘show of force,’ or humanitarian assistance and disaster relief,’ (HADR).”

Closer home where it matters, he observes: “Countries, like China, that have elected to pursue ambitious aircraft-carrier building programmes have, obviously, taken account of their economic cost and weighed their wartime risks against peacetime benefits, and concluded that the benefits far outweigh the risks or penalties.”

In this context, there is no denying that regardless of the cost differential, no combination of destroyers, frigates or attack-submarines can quite substitute the combat power and maritime influence represented by an aircraft-carrier.

The case of maritime industry 4.0

India’s maritime has 7,517 km- long coast line with nine major costal states that handle more than 2000 million tonnes of cargo every year.  The realization that maritime is such an opportunity for the nations’ economic growth has taken the center stage. India’s maritime outlook is all about the discourse centered around trade, commerce, infrastructure, ecology and security. It is of course given greater attention in the context of Indo-Pacific strategy and India’s core maritime initiatives called—SAGAR (Security and Growth for All in The Region). Maritime is equally about creating technology, skills, industry which make the compelling case for economic activities.

So that is where the India’s maritime strategy calls for maritime infrastructure and capacity for a maritime security framework across the vast expanse of oceans to deter, project or combat transnational and other security challenges. How do we look at such an argument beyond the realm of security?

Former Navy Chief looks at the need for the aircraft carrier from the scale of industrial activities in addition to the often-quoted debate based on the security perspective.

“India’s warship and submarine building industries, have already made a vital contribution to its lagging industialization. Undertaking the serial construction of complex ships like aircraft-carriers has the potential to provide a huge impetus to our heavy & medium industries, and will spawn a complex of ancillaries in the MSME sector,” Admiral Arun explains.

In fact, he commanded the aircraft-carrier INS Viraat, a flagship of the Indian Navy before INS Vikramaditya was commissioned in 2013.  The Royal Navy’s HMS Hermes in her new avatar—INS Viraat was sold to India in 1987 which served for almost 30 years. He talks about the such maritime industrial opportunities for the projected 3rd aircraft carrier.

“It will also go a long way in skilling our youth and creating job-opportunities by the thousands. Concurrently, it would, also, strengthen the supporting industrial base for the Indian Navy,” he says.

Take the case of IAC-1 when we analyse the sheer scale of industrial production and ancillary activities in the process. According to the Officials from the Ministry of Defence (MoD), over 76 per cent of the material and equipment on board IAC-1 is indigenous, including “21,500 tonnes of special grade steel developed indigenously and used in Indian Naval Ships for the first time”.

According to report which actually talks about the scale of economic gains in taking such exercise for emerging maritime power like India, Indian Navy has elaborated that over 50 Indian manufacturers were directly involved in the project, which is a result of the labours of more than 40,000 people who were employed directly or indirectly in its construction.

“More than three-fourths of the total project cost about INR 23,000 crore (85 percent of the carrier’s project cost) has been reinjected into the Indian economy,” reports add.  The carrier also directly employs on average 2,000 people every day.

Besides, it is about the technology and skills which only five or six countries have the capability of designing and executing the construction of an aircraft carrier. The 3rd aircraft carrier will put India firmly as the blue water marine power with inherent advanced capability in the area of shipbuilding.  

N- Powered Indian Aircraft Carrier

Why do we not look at nuclear-powered aircraft carrier as a third option? What is the best fit if we look at the future of warfare especially in IOR and beyond?

Aircraft carriers powered by nuclear energy and assisted by logistical escort vessels to sustain the needs of crew on deck, can truly transform the narrative of establishing a blue water navy by functionalising a renewable, long-lasting, and self-sustainable source of energy to keep the carrier moving for over 10-20 years, with a 50-year lifespan in total.

A nuclear-powered (N-powered) aircraft carrier may still appear on shore only to restock its fridges, but not to undergo the lengthy Refuelling and Complex Overhaul (RCOH) processes that aviation-fuel powered aircraft carriers would require. N-powered carriers need RCOH only once in their mid-life stage (at up to 25 years after being commissioned).

Admiral Prakash makes a compelling case for it. He says: “A nuclear-powered aircraft carrier would be an ideal solution for the navy’s sea control and power projection tasks in the Indo-Pacific.

Indeed, it is about building the advanced capabilities, leveraging on the existing know-how that we have gained over the years. For example, the critical propulsion system which we learnt by working on the submarines must be put to test in building next generation system for aircraft carrier. The quest for developing indigenous capabilities in advanced areas is actually about realizing such constant endeavours. Else, our technological strength would be limited to the tested areas especially in defence. In fact, many of the existing technologies will be utterly useless in the new dimensions of the modern warfare.  The 3rd aircraft will provide a great opportunity to develop next generation propulsion machinery, electrical & electronic suites, deck machinery, lifesaving appliances, ship’s Navigation and Communication systems among other critical system and sub-systems.

As Admiral Prakash put it rightly: “While our scientist has constructed (with Soviet/Russian help) nuclear propulsion plants for submarines, one is not sure whether the in-house capability exists for design & construction of nuclear reactor(s) that could propel a carrier of 70,000-80,000 tons displacement. The best way to find out would be to design and build a smaller nuclear-powered vessel – a tanker or auxiliary vessel – before taking on a nuclear-powered carrier.”

China as a factor

Should we take China as a factor in our assessment for the 3rd IAC? Whilst we are aware of the economic disparity with China? India’s $ 3.1 trillion is pitted against China’s $17.7 trillion but it does warrant a objective assessment.

China puts its Indigenously produced aircraft carriers as important component of military modernization drive. More so, it puts aircraft top of its national security and military strategies. China has already embarked on a strong naval presence—established naval ports in the Indian Ocean as an integral component of its maritime strategy.

China has already launched its third aircraft carrier, named Fujian (18) this year. And this is the right approach for the capability build-up on the existing technologies. The 80,000-ton carrier improves upon as China builds its first flat deck carrier and uses Electromagnetic Aircraft Launch System (EMALS)-powered catapults to launch its aircraft, in contrast to the ski jump of its other two carriers. The EMALS system can launch heavier aircraft and in much shorter timeframe.

Commodore Sujeet Samaddar, Founder SAMDeS and former adviser to Niti Aayog put it straight: “By 2030 the PLAN can deploy two 80000 DWT carriers with 100 fighters, 40 multi role helicopters, dozens of UCAVs, supported by 60-70 Frigates, Destroyers and assault ships 6 nuclear submarines and 30 conventional submarines for sea control in the IOR after having reserved twice this number for sea denial of their own sea areas. This is enough to completely disrupt the SLOCs and the national economy competing for ever scarce resources and commodities.

As per the capability roadmap, Indian Navy planned a fleet of 200 ships by 2027, which would include three aircraft carriers. Its current strength is 137 vessels, with only one aircraft carrier in service.  China has already built up a 355-vessel fleet and its is already larger than the US navy.

Admiral Prakash gives the realistic overview says, we do not have the economic or technological capability to engage in a naval/armament race with China. And yet, our force-planning must take into account; (a) our vital national interests and (b) the threats that we face. In this calculus, China will certainly count as a factor.

“Can we accept a situation where China positions a carrier task-force in the Indian Ocean?” – former naval chief raises pertinent question. “With two carriers, the navy will only have one available at any given time. A third carrier is certainly required if we wish to deter the PLA Navy in the IOR,” he retorts.

As Samaddar sums up: “The Indian Navy may only be able to field 1 aircraft carrier, few Destroyers and Frigates and maybe 4-5 submarines. It’s no longer a question of why but when can we get 3 more carriers built.

S. Samaddar says– “the solution is to simply order 3 more Vikrant class on CSL with workshare to private shipyards to ensure all are delivered by 2030 in mission mode at a budgeted cost of 150,000 crores. Simultaneously the air element must be aggregated to create the scale to support atma nirbhar raksha utpadan of fighter UAVs and MRH.”

Aptly, when is often quoted toady – “whosever rules the waves, rules the world.” India’s maritime policy must act upon.

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