Maritime Security and the Aircraft Carrier

-Cmde. C. Uday Bhaskar, Deputy Director, IDSA


This paper reviews the Indian experience with aircraft carriers over the last 50 years and attempts to make a conceptual appraisal of the relevance of such platforms that accord a trans-border, strategic military capability to states with medium navies. It briefly examines the concept of security in the post-Cold War world contextualised against the evolving typology of the state structure in the 21st century and extrapolates the more specific maritime/naval relevance. Allusion is also made to the strategic culture that shapes states and their ruling elites in the developing world in a general sense, though empirically, the paper only takes into account the individual specificity that characterizes the Indian case study.

Historical Overview

The genesis of the Indian carrier experience goes back almost to the birth of the independent nation-state of India in August 1947. The first Naval Plans Paper (Number One) was produced a mere ten days after independence from British rule, though the influence of senior Royal Naval officers who were still steering the Royal Indian Navy was all too evident. Independent India, it was averred, warranted a naval capability that was to be centered around a pair of light fleet carriers and this was endorsed by senior political leaders of the time.1 However the Indian Navy had to wait for another 14 years till it was able to fly its ensign on a flat-top and pride of place goes to INS Vikrant, commissioned in 1961 and decommissioned only recently.

The Vikrant Saga

The Vikrant which was decommissioned on January 31, 1997 gave India its first trans-border strategic capability in the Indian Ocean and in a way, the Vikrant epitomizes the larger paradigm of strategic military (naval) capabilities in the latter half of the 20th century and the manner in which a state such as India represented by a medium navy in the maritime domain grappled with this issue. From this narrative it may also be possible to make certain inferences regarding the more complex relationship between a nation and its Navy.

Vikrant, the cynosure of the Indian Navy (IN) for 25 years came into being only because of a quirk of history. Built during World War II by the Royal Navy as one of six Majestic class light fleet carriers, the series was stopped when the war ended with Hiroshima. Hercules, the fifth ship would have been consigned to the scrapyard but for the fact that Lord Mountbatten prevailed upon Pandit Nehru, and India bought the half-finished vessel in 1957. Refurbished in Belfast, the ship was commissioned into the IN on March 4, 1961, as the INS Vikrant and with the tricolor flying from a "flat-top," India joined a select band of nations that had mastered the arduous task of carrier operations.

However, the tentativeness with which the apex leadership harnessed this strategic capability was all too evident in the Goa operations that soon followed. Vikrant remained in wraps and the 1962 Sino-Indian debacle ensured that India's strategic vision was now fixed on the Himalayan border with paranoic determination. A humiliated leadership and a disoriented nation had little time or ken for matters maritime and predictably, the Navy became the Cinderella service being dwarfed by the other two services, both in terms of combatants and fiscal outlay.

The induction of the submarine into the Indian Ocean in 1964-65 (by Indonesia and Pakistan repectively) and the inability of the IN to get a second fleet carrier as envisaged in the 1948 Naval Plan ensured that Vikrant was employed diffidently. In any case, the strategic priority of the subcontinent was a steadfast land fixation and the Indo-Pak war of 1965 had little appreciation of the maritime dimension.

The 1971 Bangladesh operations epitomized the resurrection of Vikrant's soul and its aircraft played a modest but vital role in the liberation struggle. It seemed that India suddenly discovered its maritime potential and a Cinderella Navy, for the operation on the west coast had an equally impressive debut by the diminutive missile boats. However, this was a short-lived affair as Delhi's strategic attention soon became preoccupied with its north-western arc. The turbulence in Punjab first and then in Kashmir abetted by an intractable neighbour challenged the integrity and unity of the state and this prioritisation was inevitable.

Carrier Debate

The IN no doubt added to its inventory--a second carrier, the INS Viraat was inducted in 1986—a good 38 years after the 1948 plan, and a lively debate ensued about the utility of carriers, the lack thereof and the whole relevance of carrier air support in the late 1990s when technology had rendered long range missiles even more precise and lethal. Were these two platforms the vulnerable white elephants that their more acerbic critics made them out to be? An objective analysis of naval tactics, the geography of the subcontinent and larger national strategy irrefutably demonstrates the validity of having tactical air support from a carrier—and from all accounts, this is only likely to increase in the post-Cold War years for India.

The last word about the utility of aircraft carriers during hostilities in the late 20th century is yet to be written though the debate between critics and advocates of the flat-top has been intense. The altered techno-strategic context with the advent of the lethal missile and its first use in 1967 in West Asia by an Egyptian fast attack craft in a naval context to sink the Israeli destroyer, the Eilath, has raised the constant specter of all surface units being rendered vulnerable to such attack. Many studies and analyses have been carried out on how best to address this challenge and by and large, the validity of bringing air power to bear on such a threat has been acknowledged. Simultaneously, the submarine has become more potent due to technological advances and this, in turn, has increased the vulnerability of the surface fleet. The net result has been to create a perception that carriers have become liabilities to a navy and that let alone their operational utility, their protection becomes the major priority of not just the navy but all national resources.

A more recent assessment within the Indian context presents both sides of the debate with intense conviction. A former Vice Chief of the Indian Navy notes:

"Aircraft carriers dominated the oceans during the Second World War. Developments in naval technology since then—submarines, precision guided munitions and shore-based high performance aircraft—have tilted the crucial offence-defence balance decisively against aircraft carriers. They retain their value in non-belligerent naval missions such as port visits, disaster relief and peacekeeping, but their role and performance in war-like operations against credible new threats have not received objective evaluation."2

However the counter-view by a former Air Force fighter-pilot and air power exponent is more persuasive and the assessment makes four pertinent points:

(a) The only effective approach to defend against the threat of an anti-ship cruise missile is to intercept the launch platform (whether an aircraft, surface ship, or a submarine) before the missile can be launched.

(b) Essentially, the solution for adequate defence of warships and merchant fleet lies in area air defence capabilities and area anti-submarine warfare capabilities to meet traditional challenges and the new parameters imposed by the induction and proliferation of anti-ship cruise missiles..... In short, what India needs is air defence as well as anti-submarine capability in the Arabian Sea and the Bay of Bengal if it is to protect even the minimal key interests.

(c) Given the shape of peninsular India and Indian territories in the Andaman and Car Nicobar group (over 1,200 km from the mainland) and the Lakshadweep group in the Arabian Sea, a land-based airpower solution would require an extensive chain of radars, fighter interceptor bases, and a large contingent of fighter-interceptor force and anti-submarine aircraft. The carrier option is far more cost-effective. Even if India were to go in for a land-based airpower solution, the fighter-interceptors will be severely limited in the cover they can provide. This is why an integral air-defence and anti-submarine warfare capability is an operational necessity.

(d) Can India afford not to have aircraft carriers for air-defence and anti-submarine roles? The survival of the surface fleet in the modern world is highly suspect without carriers for their defence. Technology has altered the equation and the carrier is (now) needed to protect the surface fleet.3

Changed Geo-Political Context

The complex post-Cold War era with an overwhelming economic orientation is chraracterised by an ambience of uncertainty and steady turbulence. While there is no doubt about the end of the Cold War and the bipolar strategic structure that characterised it, there is no certitude about what semantic has replaced bipolarity. The state itself is undergoing a transformation in the light of the emergence of more potent and efficacious multinational and suprastate entities, and while the US led western alliance remains the most visible and assertive grouping in the late 20th century, the perceived unipolar moment may well be transient.

However multipolarity appears to be an oxymoron even as a physical science analogy let alone a geo-political construct and it is more likely that the world will evolve into a polycentric order with various centres of contrasting political-economic-military relevance. In such a framework, the likely configuration of major actors/states could be a hexagon comprising the USA as the most complete power today, the People's Republic of China (PRC) as the emerging power arousing anxieties about its revisionist potential or intent, and Russia as the inheritor of the former Soviet mantle—-nuclear arsenal intact—being the major arms of the proposed hexagon.

The other three constituents include the European Union as it aspires towards a greater degree of military-strategic cohesion given the disparate characteristics and tendencies of its individual constituents, the techno-economic giant in Japan, albeit with pacifist leanings, and finally, a diffident India that is yet to decide where it would belong in the global comity. While these six constituents are representative of the major players on the global stage by virtue of their actual stature, potential profile or revisionist-resistant capability in impacting global matters, the choice of members could undergo a change in form and content and this cannot be ruled out.

What is germane here is the manner in which the strategic identity and aspirations of these six arms can be further abbreviated. In the post-Cold War world it may not be invalid to suggest that the strategic configuration of relevance is that of a triangle represented by the USA, Russia and the PRC with all other states either aligning themselves tacitly with the US led western grouping or being of little consequence in the pursuit of strategic autonomy, with some exceptions. It is significant that the European Union and Japan are yoked with the US led strategic alliance as junior partners or subalterns and enjoy the protection of the US nuclear umbrella, as also share the trans-border military strategic capabilities of the alliance. Thus the quest for a certain degree of strategic autonomy outside of the US led alliance rests with Russia and China in terms of actual capabilities, while India is symbolic of a nation which has the pedigree and potential to acquire such a profile but is constrained by its unique blend of a different strategic culture that refuses to grapple with macro-military power and an intense commitment to pacifism and disarmament.

In terms of the post-Cold War impact on state itself as a political construct, a new typology appears to be unspooling. It is now opined that there are three categories of states: (a) the post-colonial state that is weak and unconsolidated, often in an ongoing condition of flux in trying to cohere its determinants of statehood; (b) the modern Westphalian state—a consolidated nation-state with its own structural dynamic, identity and relative autonomy; and (c) the post-modern-state (the po-mo state?)—a complex, transnationally interpenetrated entity immersed in globalisation and multi-level governance.4Thus it would follow axiomatically that the nature of the pursuit of "security" would be conditioned by contextualising the state as a referrant in the above matrix and this pursuit could vary from issues of survivability and territoriality to more complex issues of asserting nationhood and the realisation of politico-diplomatic goals through suasive military methodologies.5

Transmutation of Security

The term "security " has undergone an interesting transmutation in the transition from the Cold War to the post-Cold War period. Whereas security in the Cold War was perceived as being exclusive and military—specific with an emphasis on the nuclear weapon and related strategic balance with the state as the primary and sole determinant in the zero sum competitive security calculus, the post- Cold War is more complex.The current interpretation accorded to security is more inclusive and holistic. The dominant view of comprehensive security for a nation-state and it subjects can find its origins in a hoary past going back to Kautilya or Sun-Tzu of the B.C. era or in a recent context to Buzan's 1977 formulation of the five strands of security as including political, economic, military, societal and environmental determinants.

The altered technological nature of the world and its impact on state and subject have already been noted and thus we have a post Cold War interpretation of the security semantic that is inclusive; exudes a predominant economic focus; state primacy is being steadily diluted or voluntarily surrendered in a complex global matrix where trans-national and/or multi-national forces abetted by technology have come to the fore and where the state has to cope with a whole range of forces and under-currents unleashed by these systemic changes.

Within this altered framework of security, one would suggest that the military strand could be further categorised as a broad bandwidth moving from macro to traditional to micro security issues with specific post-Cold War characteristics. Conceptually the macro security issue would constitute trans-border military capability—both fire power and surveillance—such as missiles, long range aircraft, ships and submarines, satellites and such like. This macro security debate concerns the core members of the hexagon primarily, and the current global debate on WMD or weapons of mass destruction leading to regimes such as the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT) Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), the Missile Technology Contral Regime is symptomatic of what I would venture to describe ever so tentatively as Foucauldian panopticism at play in post-Cold War international relations6 —though this is an issue that one cannot digress into at this stage.

The operative aspect of the macrosecurity debate is the manner in which such capabilities are almost always referred within the prevailing politico-military-strategic context and here certain maritime correspondences come to mind such as the 1922 Washington Naval Conference that placed ceilings on 'strategic" naval capabilities, including battleships and aircraft carriers. In a more limited sense for purpose of this paper, the Indian case for a carrier in 1947 and the reaction of the Admirality in London regarding the implications of according such a capability to India is instructive. In the immediate aftermath of World War II, it was evident that Britain wanted an Indian Navy which would assist in serving the wide Allied cause, and not for independent power projection. 7 Thus the Royal Navy (RN) was willing in that decade to support the Canadian, Australian and New Zealand navies and "was prepared to 'carry' developments in these services to a greater extent because of their integration into the overall British and Allied concepts of naval defence.........India, by pursuing a policy of non-alignment with the Western alliance was not committed to these arrangements."8

If macro security concerns only the active members of the post- Cold War hexagon, traditional security is more applicable to almost all states of the world. This classification in my formulation9 dwells largely on the three or four armed forces that represent the military infrastructure for each nation-state and the relevance of such capability for the aspirations/aims of the state, from which linkage flows the military or defence or security strategy that states adopt.9 Again one notes a specific maritime/naval relevance or strand as far as such traditional capabilities go in the post-Cold War and the debate about "why-navy" and "what-navy" and "how much navy" has to be again contextualised in the ambit of the RMA—the revolution in military affairs and the ability of state policy makers to define adequacy and affordability as part of larger national aims/objectives and grand strategy.

The last aspect of security pertains to micro-security issues which encompass a clutch of activities/developments that have a symbiotic linkage with political-economic -societal and environmental factors and have the ability to adversely affect the security/stability of state and/or society. These include what I have qualified as the FUNTERNARSA-DD factor—fundamentalism of any hue, terrorism inspired by such ideology, narcotic networks that undermine state organs and individuals and small arms whose proliferation has become a hydra-headed monstrosity and finally, demographic drift impelled by individual economic aspirations and free zealotry. Many of these activities can be brought within a grid but may be outside the scope of this paper.

Maritime Relevance and Indian Ocean

The rationale for any navy and what kind of capability it imports to the parent-state needs little elucidation to this audience and I am personally inclined to borrow and build on Cable's inimitable turn of phrase here—a set of tools in the national inventory whose visibility can be calibrated to suit the occasion—a pair of tongs that can be brought to bear to retrieve the awkward 'diplomatic' chestnut from a hotspot—suasive trans-border military capability that can be harnessed in an era of "violent peace."

Maritime strategy and its specific naval interpretation must therefore recognise all the factors we have outlined earlier. These include the changed post-Cold War geo-political context with the emergence of what may be termed geo-economic primacy, the transmutation of security in the post-Cold War and the typology of states in the late 20th century, and the grand national strategy that should, in a normative sense harmonise all these factors even while attempting to outline broader policy initiatives. To that extent maritime strategy is but a means to a larger end and the relevance of individual platforms such as the carrier acquires credibility only when so contextualised. Hence a swift overview of the maritime trends in the post-Cold War world may be noted.

Currently the maritime focus of the world has shifted from the Atlantic-Pacific combine to the Pacific-Indian Ocean in tandem with the shift from the geo-politics of competitive military security in the Cold War to the frenzied free-trade and global economic inter-dependence-activities which are predicated on matters maritime, namely the nurturing of a low threat, stable environment at sea which would facilitate steady supply of energy/oil and the movement of foreign trade by sea. Thus the north-western Indian Ocean encompassing the oil-rich Persian Gulf has become of crucial significance to the major economies of the world. The US and EU apart, in Asia itself, Japan, Indonesia and India will have to recognise the maritime strands of their energy security and seek the most effective politico-military framework to nurture this national interest. In a period when the growing inter-dependence of the world and the end of bipolarity negates the possibility of the big fleet battles a la Mahan, nations will have to establish their maritime "presence" in areas of strategic interest and the Gulf looms large in the global perspective. This is no less relevant for India.

State, Security, Strategy: Symbiotic Linkage

Whether precious hydrocarbon or the scattered Indian diaspora in West Asia, there are many elements that constitute national interest and many of them can be extrapolated to the maritime domain and are best served by a carrier capability. This tenet has been acknowledged by most maritime nations and contrary to popular perception that the carrier is a relic of the Cold War, current trends are instructive. In the big league, the USA and France are investing in large nuclear -powered carriers ranging from 40,000 to 100,000 tonnes. Medium powers such as the UK continue to retain light carriers (10,000 to 20,000 tonnes) also referred to as sea control or air defence ships. Joining the list are Spain and Thailand. The latter commissioned its first helicopter carrier in mid-1997, thereby setting a precedent for the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN). Waiting in the wings are Germany, Japan and China and all of them have an air defence ship in their strategic plans.

While the specific relevances of security at the three tiers outlined earlier can be extrapolated to the maritime dimension and each nation will have to draw up its blueprint of adequacy and affordability, the carrier cannot be seen in isolation for any state. At the macro level, the significance of the nuclear deterrent and its increasing shift to the maritime domain by way of the emphasis on submarine launched ballistic missile as envisaged under the STRAT treaties being negotiated between the usa and Russia cannot be ignored but is beyond the scope of this paper. What states will have to identify is the quality—both political and technological—and quantity of strategic military (trans-border) capability they need to acquire and sustain within the state typology and strategic matrix they symbolise. Naval capability, including the carrier, must be a harmonious part of this overall national capability and to a great extent, the emphasis on the post-Cold War RMA is on moving towards a joint operations doctrine of all the armed forces and related assets of state inventory.

Back to India

For India, the carrier experience as epitomized by the Vikrant saga and the extrapolation to the 21st century is symptomatic of this challenge of harmonising individual naval capabilities with the larger national grid. The need to replace the Vikrant has been examined by policy makers for some years and the persuasiveness of the argument is not in doubt. India will have to evolve a long-term strategic defence doctrine that weaves all the factors and strands noted earlier in defining the kind of strategic military capability it deems appropriate and affordable within the context of prevailing global trends. The core question is not the desirability of a carrier in the Indian inventory in the next century which is not in doubt, but affordability. The Indian Navy is a Cinderella service and the contrast within the Indian armed forces is one of the most striking by global norms. In terms of personnel strength the Navy: Air Force: Army ratio is 1:2:22, while in budgetary allocation it is about 2:3:11. These force levels and budgetary allocations reflect the strategic orientation of the Indian security establishment as it grapples with various challenges and certain ground realities have to be acknowledged.

However the staff work for the replacement to the Vikrant has been going on for some years and the case for an indigenously designed and built ADS—air defence ship—is currently receiving the active consideration of the government. The proposed ship will be built at the state owned ship building yard in Cochin in the southern state of Kerala which has the necessary infrastructure. The naval staff is optimistic that necessary approval from the government will be accorded soon and that the vessel can be met from existing naval budgetary allocations. The successful commissioning of the indigenously designed and built missile destroyer, the INS Delhi in November 1997 is hopeful augury and the first decade of the next century may yet see an Indian designed and built medium carrier steaming in the Indian Ocean as part of a collective global co-operative effort—the Holy Grail the world hopes to steer towards.


1. For a more detailed treatment see James Goldrick, No Easy Answers: The Development of the Navies of India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka 1945-1996; (New Delhi: Lancer, 1997) pp. 15-44 and C. Uday Bhaskar, "Indian Navair," US Naval Institute Proceedings, vol. 113, no. 3, March 1987 et. al.

2. Vice Admiral Subimal Mookerjee (retd), "Aircraft Carriers for the Indian Navy: The Case For and Against", Vayu, vol. VI, 1995, pp. 19-28.

3. Air Commodore Jasjit Singh, (retd). Ibid.

4. See George Sorensen, "An Analysis of Contemporary Statehood: Consequences for Conflict and Cooperation," Review of International Studies, vol. 23, no. 3, July 1997, p. 253-270.

5. See C. Uday Bhaskar "Consolidation of Nationhood: From Beethoven to Ballistic Missiles," op-ed Times of India, New Delhi, August 5, 1997.

6. See Michel Foucault, "Panopticism," Discipline and Punishment, trans. Alan Sheridan, (New York: Vintage, 1979).

7. Goldrick., n. 1, p. 16.

8. Ibid.

9. A more detailed analysis in C. Uday Bhaskar "Post-Cold War Security," Strategic Analysis, November 1997, pp. 1136-48. This formulation has been used extensively here.