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NEW DELHI: Vice Admiral Girish Luthra (Retd), former commander-in-chief of the Western Naval Command and currently distinguished fellow, Observer Research Foundation, weighed in on discussions spurred by the commissioning of INS Vikrant in a wide-ranging interview with Mint.

Luthra spoke of the increasingly complex environment in the Indo-Pacific, the challenges posed by the meteoric rise of the Chinese PLA Navy and how India must accelerate its naval capability development, including the acquisition of a third aircraft carrier.

India has just commissioned INS Vikrant, its first indigenous aircraft carrier. Can you paint something of a strategic picture for India and how Vikrant fits in its plans?

India’s interests and challenges have grown significantly in recent times, especially in the maritime domain. India has a key role to play to strengthen stability, security and safety in the Indo-Pacific, and its balanced approach for a free, open and inclusive Indo-Pacific, has been appreciated by many countries. India is opposed to any coercive approaches and behaviour. It seeks to promote development-linked cooperative security in the region, without being part of any military alliance.

As trade and economy expand, India’s share of global trade is set to rise, with most of it being seaborne. When you look at Indian initiatives and investments in the Indo-Pacific and beyond, it’s clear that the overall engagement has gone up manifold. India’s increasing regional and global role is also being supported by many countries. In consonance with this, the Indian Navy’s areas of interest and operations have also expanded. Quite apart from this, the security challenges posed by the widening footprint of the PLA Navy, the potential of China-Pakistan collusion, and growing traditional and non-traditional threats at sea are pointers towards a further increase in the Indian Navy’s roles and responsibilities.

In playing this larger role, the Indian Navy is currently stretched due to limited assets. A few years back, we operated from the east coast of Africa to the Malacca Strait. But now, we regularly deploy in distant regions, and frequently operate in the Western Pacific, the Mediterranean and the Atlantic. Towards this, the induction of INS Vikrant is significant, to sustain such deployments. It will also increase the combat capability of the Navy, once the carrier air wing is integrated onboard over the next few months.

You mentioned China’s rapid expansion of its naval forces. What is a 400 ship PLA Navy, which is a target the Chinese hope to reach, going to mean for India?

In its quest for regional and global power, China made a decisive turn to the sea around 20 years back, and the balance between maritime and continental orientation began to shift towards the former. This was stepped up since 2013, under President Xi Jinping. In the last 15 years or so, the PLA Navy has added over 100 major ships and submarines to its fleet. It is the most rapid growth by any Navy for a long time in recent history. There has also been a concurrent growth in other key areas like space, cyber, ocean surveillance, Coast Guard, maritime militia, and several new and emerging technologies and capabilities. PLA Navy deployments have also grown rapidly, and new bases and access arrangements in the Indo-Pacific have been operationalised.

These increases imply hardening of the Chinese posture and continuation of aggressive approaches, unless efforts by many other countries towards a “push back" yield some results. It will also mean increased deployments and presence of the PLA Navy in other areas, including the Indian Ocean. The challenge can manifest in a variety of ways, on trade routes, shipping, coercive approaches in India’s neighbourhood, and other conventional military threats. The rapid growth of the PLA Navy is also meant to create maritime power asymmetries, which would need suitable responses.

How does INS Vikrant help us do that?

Our approach to the Indo–Pacific cannot be only diplomatic and based solely on common public goods. These need to be complemented with appropriate levels of maritime and naval capabilities. INS Vikrant will help contribute to India’s long-range deployments. As I mentioned before, it will enhance deterrence and combat capabilities once its integral air is operational. As the second aircraft carrier, it enhances the Navy’s flexibility, reach and sustainability in maritime operations. It will also enable availability of integral air at sea, when one of the two carriers is undergoing refit or routine maintenance.

Improved naval capabilities also allow stepping up partnerships, exercises and deployments with other friendly countries, which in turn contribute to regional stability. Within the Quad, Japan and Australia largely operate in the Pacific. The acquisition of Vikrant will strengthen the Indian Ocean segment of India’s partnerships. Further, it needs to be noted that India cannot be a net security provider without adequate and suitable naval capabilities.

In 2019, the India Navy was honest about the budget crunch that was hampering naval modernization. What are some of the factors in this regard?

Force structure planning considers several factors, and budgetary support is one of the important factors. In our case, the Indian Navy has a long-term perspective plan for its needs, which is updated at regular intervals. Budgetary support anticipated is factored in these plans. This anticipated budgetary support should have more predictability, and a system for muti-year funding needs to be evolved. While the force structure plans are sound, the speed of implementation is not in line with these plans, and certainly not commensurate with the geopolitical necessities. An effective and decisive acquisition process, expeditious placement of contracts, and timeliness in deliveries are critical to achieve better realisation of the plans.

The government had also tasked the 15th Finance Commission to examine the aspect of budgetary support for defence modernisation. Though the recommendations of the Commission were accepted last year, they are yet to be implemented.

Much of the debate about the future of the Navy revolves around the necessity of a third aircraft carrier. Some think it essential while others believe a stronger submarine capability is needed. Your view on this debate?

I think the right question would be: What is the optimal force mix for the Indian Navy over the next few years, and not whether you need aircraft carriers or submarines. It is also not about whether our concept of operations need to be centred around sea control or sea denial. For the Indian Navy’s roles and responsibilities, both are needed. I agree that sometimes there may be a need to prioritise capabilities desired. But in the final analysis, the Navy must be a balanced force, with the right mix of assets and capabilities that can address the threats and challenges.

I think the next indigenous aircraft carrier is very much needed and fits well with the role that India should play in the region, as well as for our security requirements. For a Navy like ours, integral air power has many strategic, operational and tactical advantages that cannot be replicated by shore-based air power. These include strengthening strategic stability in our areas of interest, conveying resolve and intent when and where required, deterrence, sea-control, trade and SLOC security, full integration of the air wing with the situation at sea, control and direction of aircraft for air combat and time critical targets, response time, persistence, and inherent flexibility. Having said that, I should add that the Navy recognizes that there are a few situations when shore-based air power can be of use at sea, and naval plans suitably incorporate such support.

Vulnerabilities of larger platforms to modern weapons and attack methods are adequately addressed through sound tactical planning, self and collective defence capabilities, and countermeasures. The ability and confidence in such measures have led to many countries stepping up their plans in recent times for aircraft carriers of varied sizes and configurations, as per their respective requirements.

Let me also add that the subject of next indigenous aircraft carrier has been under discussion for well over a decade now. The broad contours of the ship, including size, tonnage, configuration, propulsion, and the air wing have been debated for long. While a healthy debate is welcome, it is time to take a decision. The next step should be early Acceptance of Necessity (AON), followed by tendering and contract. And India should aim to build the next aircraft carrier in much shorter timeframe, around 6 years, from contract to delivery.

INS Vikrant was also hailed as a major step forward for indigenisation of India’s defence industry. How has this goal progressed in your view?

The Indian Navy has spearheaded indigenisation for many years, and Vikrant is a result of years of effort in that journey. The government has also taken several positive steps in the last couple of years to boost indigenisation. These include earmarking part of the budget for indigenous procurements, promulgation of positive indigenisation lists of platforms/systems/items that are to be procured from domestic sources only, implementation of the Innovation in Defence Excellence (iDEX) scheme, setting up of defence corridors, and increasing the private sector participation. These are welcome steps. However, as I mentioned earlier, an effective and decisive acquisition process is critical, not just for capability development but also for boosting indigenisation and further improving the defence industrial ecosystem.

Indigenisation in our context implies reducing overall dependence, especially for critical systems. It also means moving up the value chain from indigenous design and manufacture of small items to large systems. In the case of the Navy, the indigenous content in the ‘Move’ and ‘Fight’ categories, which essentially includes propulsion, sensors and weapons is a priority. Stepping up indigenisation in naval aviation is also critical. In the case of Vikrant, the overall indigenous content for the ship is around 75 percent. While the percentage share should be increased, we must also look at qualitative assessments of indigenisation. A combination of qualitative and quantitative measures of effectiveness will be more appropriate in the future.

Let me also mention that indigenisation doesn’t mean decoupling from global value chains, total exclusion of items from abroad, and not taking advantage of globalisation where desirable. At the same time, the overall dependence levels must come down, with knowledge and expertise related to the ‘know-how’ and ‘know-why’ of critical systems residing within the country.

The efforts and hard work of many in realising the first indigenous aircraft carrier must be appreciated. But we should also learn our lessons from this project, including those related to indigenisation, and move forward accordingly.

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