INS Vikrant – A Naval Liability
Indian warship building has finally come a full circle. It was in the 1780s, that impressed by the man-o’-wars in the 100 ton-1,000 ton range made from hardy Malabar Teak by a team of shipwrights under the Parsi master builder Luwji Nusserwanji Wadia at the East India Company’s shipyard in Bombay, the Royal Navy ordered a number of frigates from the Wadias for its frontline service. Some 250 years later, the Kochi shipyard has turned out what will doubtless be the flagship of the Indian Navy — a 40,000-ton aircraft carrier, the new INS Vikrant, presently undergoing sea trials.
Still, the country is not all there yet. Just as the 1852 HMS Cornwallis type of ships of Bombay pedigree were, in the heyday of Pax Britannica, equipped by 3-ton guns wrought in Britain, most of the high value weapons and other hardware on board Vikrant are of foreign origin as are the aircraft designated to fly off its deck.
So, we are still stuck with that inconvenient reality since the follow-on to the Leander-class frigate, the Godavari-class, were built at Mazgaon in the late 1970s, that while 80-85% of the carrier is indigenous, it is more by weight than by value. The 15-20% of the weight made up by the shipborne guns, missiles, sensors, and data/information fusion, navigation and other paraphernalia enhancing situational awareness constituting the high value end of technology and the bulk of the cost of the aircraft carrier, are all imported.
That said, the capability to construct aircraft carriers is no mean achievement. It is just as consequential as India’s capacity to design and build its own nuclear-powered missile-firing submarines (SSBNs). Except the Indian aircraft carrier-making capability is coming to fruition just when the age of the large ships is coming to a close. The Wadia shipbuilders never transitioned from sail to steam-powered ships and hence slipped into a backwater. There’s every danger that unless the Indian Navy and shipyards adjust fast to the naval requirements of the future, they too could soon become relics.
Which brings this discussion to the operational value of aircraft carriers in the era of supersonic and hypersonic cruise missiles and remotely piloted autonomous weapons platforms. Here I can do no better than reprise the arguments I made against the aircraft carrier in my last two books — on pages 350-351 in ‘Why India is Not a Great Power (Yet)’ published in 2015 and on pages 373-376 in ‘Staggering Forward: Narendra Modi and India’s Global Ambition’ released in 2018.
There are three main negatives of the aircraft carrier, other than their extreme vulnerability, as mentioned to supersonic and, soon, hypersonic anti-ship cruise missiles that will be in the employ of all potential adversary navies.
Serious doubts have begun to be voiced in the US naval quarters and security enclaves generally about the survivability and hence the continued utility about the large 100,000-ton Gerald Ford-class nuclear powered aircraft carriers for many of the same reasons adduced above.
But let’s assume the Indian Navy is, in fact, able to protect its carriers as it claims, the question to ask is whether it serves the national security interests better for two aircraft carrier groups to be able to hold sway over two mobile, circular areas, each of 250 miles in radius centered on the carriers in the vast expanse of the Indian Ocean, what to speak of the immeasurably vaster Indo-Pacific, than a whole bunch of smaller (2-3 ship) flotillas of frigates, missile destroyers and submarines singly or in packs, creating hell for adversary navies? Obviously, the latter is the more cost-efficient and operationally versatile option.
Surely, an objective analysis will show what I long ago concluded that INS Vikramaditya, the new INS Vikrant and the third carrier, INS Vishal (whenever its construction is approved) are high cost sitting ducks ready to be shot up at will by the enemy, and a real all-round liability for the Indian Navy and the country.
Bharat Karnad is an emeritus professor in National Security Studies at the Centre for Policy Research, Delhi and a national security expert. He is the author of ‘India’s Nuclear Policy’ (Praeger, 2008), ‘Nuclear Weapons and Indian Security: The Realist Foundations of Strategy’ (Macmillan India, 2002, 2005) and author-editor of ‘Future Imperiled: India’s Security in the 1990s and Beyond’ (Viking-Penguin India, 1994). His latest books include ‘Why India is not a Great Power (Yet)’ published by Oxford University Press in 2015 and ‘Staggering Forward: Narendra Modi and India’s Global Ambition’ published by Penguin India in 2018.
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