Much of the focus of Aero India 2017 was on the navy’s fighter requirement following the abject failure of the MiG-29K and the abandonment of Tejas. However, given that India’s capital acquisition budget will remain plateaued for the foreseeable future, the whole rationale of aircraft carriers for middle-power navies like India needs to be re-examined in the interests of fiscal prudence and the creation of a navy that realistically serves India’s interests, rather than ending up subsidizing dangerous delusions of grandeur.
Naval build-ups, because of their capital-intensive nature, are frequently more fatal to the originator than they are to the opposition. Admiral Tirpitz’s build-up of the Imperial German Navy, for example, contributed to the German defeat in World War I, with no significant returns on the massive investment. Similarly, Admiral Gorshkov’s expansion of the Soviet navy directly contributed to the fall of the USSR.
Both Tirpitz and Gorshkov were tactical geniuses who were unmitigated strategic disasters because they were economic ignoramuses, ignoring the military dictum of economy of effort where every action must extract a disproportionate cost from the opponent. Ominously, the INS Vikramaditya once bore the ill-fated name: Admiral Gorshkov.
The navy forwards three reasons for its carrier craze. First, the Chinese naval build-up and forays into the Indian Ocean; second, to dominate the littoral and project power; third, to protect the sea lanes of communication (SLOC) and, as a corollary, deny China energy supplies in the event of war. Not one of these reasons holds up to scrutiny.
The vast difference in the economies of China and India means that the former can counter our naval aviation assets many times over. Operationally, China’s naval fighter, the Su-33, outclasses India’s failed MiG-29K. While Western naval fighters like the Rafale or F-18 are undeniably superior electronically, a cost difference of almost 10:1 in the Sukhoi’s favour presents an insurmountable quantitative challenge. To quote Stalin, “Quantity has a quality all of its own.” This, in fact, is similar both to World War II, where Russian bulk overcame the Luftwaffe’s vast qualitative superiority, and the Falklands war where Harriers bested superior Argentine Mirages because Argentina failed to mobilize sufficient numbers or absorb high losses against the Harrier. Clearly, the quality-quantity matrix favours Chinese quantity over Indian quality.
Dominating the littoral with carriers is also a problematic proposition. A cursory glance at the Indian Ocean reveals two kinds of states here—very powerful ones and very weak ones. Sending all three carriers against powerful countries like Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Iran, Pakistan, Singapore and Australia would be suicidal, with each of these countries possessing the ability to tackle India’s naval fighters effectively. On the other hand, even one aircraft carrier is a farcical overkill against countries like Sri Lanka, Maldives, Bangladesh, Somalia, Mauritius, Mozambique et al. This means the Indian carrier build-up answers a question nobody asked.
Protecting SLOCs, and in wartime destroying China’s energy access, is best achieved by other assets. During peacetime, the best way to police the Indian Ocean is a fleet of cheap offshore patrol vessels. During wartime, the lack of littoral aircraft carriers means frigates with an excellent anti-submarine (ASW) component and air defence missiles are more than qualified to do the job. Yet, curiously, the critical ASW helicopter shortage is something the Indian Navy has dangerously subjugated to its quixotic quest for inutile carriers.
Denying the Indian Ocean to the Chinese navy in the event of war will mean countering two main threats—their nuclear submarines and aircraft carriers. Chinese nuclear submarines will, in such a situation, challenge the Indian surface fleet and are best countered by a strong anti-submarine helicopter force for the fleet. Chinese aircraft carriers, on the other hand, are best countered by Indian submarines.
Submarines and anti-submarine components are also an area where India enjoys an advantage. Chinese submarines are noisy and relatively crude, whereas the Western submarines and helicopters that India has access to have superb stealth and electronic capabilities. In war games, conventional Western submarines have routinely sunk US aircraft carriers while avoiding detection. The latest generation of French sonars on British submarines is able to acoustically detect every single ship leaving New York harbour thousands of kilometres away.
While submarines are not cheap, they are much cheaper than aircraft carriers, play to India’s strength and meet our requirement set in a much more affordable, versatile and sustainable way.
In the final analysis, if India wants to change the current situation where it punches far below its weight, a shift to air-centrism is the only answer. However, an ill-planned, operationally inadequate and economically catastrophic air-centrism of the Indian Navy variety will do far more damage to Indian interests, with gains being illusory at best.
Being a serious player requires the ruthless culling of deadweight. And the bellwether for Indian seriousness will be decisions that the country’s strategic managers take on the future of aircraft carriers in lieu of realistic and affordable goals (read frigates, submarines and helicopters) that yield true “bang for the buck” in the short to medium term.
Abhijit Iyer-Mitra is senior fellow at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies.
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