Aircraft Carriers: An Indian Introspection

Dean Mathew, Research Fellow, IDSA



Aircraft Carriers made their debut towards the end of World War I and evolved over a period of time as a priceless tool of power projection symbolised by the magnificent Super Carrier Battle Groups of the United States Navy. These products of impressive technological achievement are often viewed as the ultimate measure of a nation's will and credibility and the 'status symbol' of the superpower, the United States of America.

Part of the legend and aura around the aircraft carriers stem from their history. Carriers were at the centre of some epic battles fought in World War II. Then, carriers were entirely oriented towards offensive air power and until a few decades ago, the aircraft complement that could be launched from the deck of a large carrier could outmatch the complete air forces of most countries.

The end of World War II saw the United States as the only major power left with a carrier fleet to be reckoned with. Others like the UK opted to downsize their holding, primarily due to economic and political compulsions. In the Soviet Union, the initial attempts in building aircraft carriers came to light with the launching of Moskva in the year 1965 though it did not carry any fixed wing aircraft. The logical culmination of this Soviet dream was the laying of the 75,000 ton nuclear-powered aircraft carrier in 1988. The construction was never completed owing to the political turbulence of the early 90's and a paucity of funds. The unfinished ship was scrapped after 4 years.

Since World War II, the US has remained the only country to have built and operated heavy, nuclear-powered aircraft carriers with a complement of nearly 90-100 aircraft on board. Over a period of time, from the cold war days to post-cold war days, these super carriers have been the American leaders' preferred military means of carrying out political objectives across the globe.

The post World War II decades also saw the emergence of a few regional navies, mostly schooled in the western traditions. Many of them considered a sea-based air arm essential for their perceived roles and proceeded to acquire medium-sized aircraft carriers either by building their own or mostly by buying post-war surplus disposed of by the Royal Navy. The Indian Navy, too, acquired its first aircraft carrier in 1961 and continues to possess a carrier-based air arm.


This paper aims to explode myths and explore facts surrounding sea-borne aviation in a historical framework and attempts a fresh look against the backdrop of the likely Indian security compulsions in the early 21st century.


It may not be entirely incidental that today the image of an aircraft carrier is synonymous with that of a nuclear-powered, nuclear capable Nimitz class super carrier with an impressive fleet around it. These carriers had a legitimate role in the execution of the US global strategy during the cold war days. The rationale for a 15-carrier navy during the Reagan era was the perceived offensive operations against the Soviet Union on a global scale envisioned in the US strategy. The open ocean warfighting principle of the US Navy's maritime strategy was primarily focused on a powerful and threatening Soviet Union with a world-wide naval capability. At the same time, the role and utility of these carriers in a direct confrontation with the Soviet Union, which maintained more than 2000 frontline fighters in their air defence forces alone or Power Projection missions in the Third World countries, could never escape intense public and institutional debate even in the US.1 With the demise of the Soviet Union and the end of the cold war, the scenarios will never be the same again. The post-cold war US Naval strategy will have its focus shifted from a perceived global threat to likely regional challenges, interests and opportunities. In all probability, the most likely subjects will be the littoral* regions of the world and the Carrier Battle Groups(CBGs) will continue to represent US commitment to project power into these regions.

Most of the post-World War II medium aircraft carriers of the second-rung navies retired without seeing much action with the exception of the Indo-Pak war(1971) and the Falklands(1982). Notably, there are cases like those of France, Italy, Spain and Thailand which have decided to acquire new aircraft carriers during the last two decades. Also, there is speculation about China, Germany and Japan going in for aircraft carriers in the near future.

It is more than five decades since a carrier faced another carrier or a fleet out at sea. The same goes about having faced a respectable airforce. For that matter, only once during the entire post-world war period, the carrier-borne aircraft were tasked to provide air defence cover to own fleet (Falklands, 1982). Barring this exception, most of the operations undertaken by the aircraft carriers including the super, medium and the small ones were generally one-sided or against mild, or lightly defended targets or against territories offering light/negligible resistance to such actions. The role played by India's INS Vikrant during the Indo-Pak war (1971) in the Eastern Theatre (Bay of Bengal) has been no exception.

The Concept of Sea-borne Air power

The primary role of sea-borne air power is to provide a sea-based tactical air power. It involves transportation of a specific number of aircraft and operating them in combat missions whenever required. An aircraft carrier, here, functions as a 'floating' airfield which can be positioned at a theatre away from land and operate combat aircraft in exactly the same manner as their land-based counterparts. A 'floating' airfield that can be positioned close to a crisis area offers certain distinct advantages over a distant airfield on land.

l The close proximity to the theatre enables an instant response to the rapidly unfolding developments.

l Precludes an avoidable penalty on the combat efficiency of the aircraft and crew due to the lengthy and exhausting transit between the theatre of action and the distant airfield on land.

l A definite time consumed in transit from the land base may cause the nature of the task to be drastically different from the assessment at the time of mission launch.

l The local command can autonomously respond to the requirement of using air power at its disposal rather than depend on another agency located far away.

l The total number of aircraft required to be on alert, transit and Combat Air Patrol will be enormous in comparison to the number of aircraft that will be actually available on the task in the distant theatre at any given time.

During World War II, arguably the last occasion when aircraft carriers waged intense battles, the entire aircraft complement on board used to be configured as offensive air power. Today, the complexities of warfare at sea do not permit more than 30-40 per cent of the total aircraft onboard to be available for purely offensive or attack missions. The remaining get set aside for own protection as well as that of the accompanying fleet.2

Maritime Strategy and Sea-Based Air power

An organic air arm adds an extra dimension of air power to a navy's scheme of things. This extra dimension of air power doctrine within the maritime doctrine, in many ways, influences the overall military doctrine of a nation which is also a maritime power. Traditionally, a navy's maritime doctrine has three major facets; Power Projection, Sea Control and Constabulary/ Benign tasks.

Power Projection, in the absolute sense, is the use of military power at a distance from own land to achieve a political aim. In a broader sense, it includes even the threat to use military power for such purposes. For obvious reasons, a distinction has to be made between Power Projection at sea and that on (littoral) land.

Sea Control has the distinction of being the most debated maritime doctrinal concept of recent decades. These debates have even produced conceptual off-shoots like "Sea Denial" into contemporary doctrinal thinking.

Sea Control, in a pure sense, is the (total) control of a sea area for one's own purposes. It automatically implies the (total) denial of access to the enemy. The concept of Sea Control owes its lineage to American strategist Alfred Mahan's(1840-1914) concept of "Command of the Seas" and has come a long way hence. Today a more mundane concept called 'Realistic Sea Control' is becoming increasingly acceptable among the strategic community. The argument is that in the contemporary world it is unrealistic to think that a nation, however powerful it may be, can wield total control over an area at sea and totally deny it to the enemy. A functional control over a limited area for a limited purpose over a limited period of time is considered more achievable and is often referred to as "Realistic Sea Control".

The appearance of Sea Denial as a doctrinal concept in maritime strategy ascribes to the Western description of the 'humble' aspirations of the Soviet Navy in 1950s, a period when its primary objective was to deny the US Navy access to waters north of Europe. The objective of Sea Denial is not to use the sea for oneself but to prevent the enemy from doing so. Primarily, it is a defensive strategy; reactive and less dynamic.

Differing interpretations involving the nuances of Sea Control and Sea Denial have given rise to a wide spectrum of hypotheses within the strategic community. Prominent among them is that "doctrines of Sea Denial and Sea Control are just two sides of the same coin". Strictly speaking, it may not qualify to be described as fallacy but it definitely is misleading.*

There have also been unconventional approaches to discussing a nation's maritime doctrine in terms of "Challenges" at different levels of intensity in its security environment and "Responses" to these challenges.3

The carrier-based air power fits the best in the Power Projection component of the Maritime Strategy. The tactical air power available contributes to support Sea Denial, Sea Control and facilitates long-range offensive operations. Missions in such a scenario will include long- range surveillance, early warning, air defence interdiction, Anti- submarine Warfare(ASW), information and electronic warfare, operations against surface vessels, offensive operation on the land (in addition to Naval Gun Fire), offensive as well as defensive air support to amphibious missions, air/sea lifting of special forces during such missions etc.

Ideally, a Sea Control mission will necessitate all the above tasks except those components related primarily to Power Projection viz. operations against land, offensive as well as defensive air support during amphibious operations and airlifting. Without an organic air arm, achieving these tasks will need a substantially higher number of other platforms like land-based aircraft, surface ships, submarines and helicopters.

A Sea Denial mission is often visualised as a defensive operation, in a littoral context, where the land-based aircraft can be pressed in for support if need be. An organic air arm can become necessary in case such a requirement arises in a far-flung area.

By convention, the Constabulary/Benign tasks do not involve actions of an overt military nature and the presence of an aircraft carrier may mean overdoing things in such contexts. Another view is that the very presence of an aircraft carrier will dramatically influence the effectiveness of such missions.

Sea-based Strategic Deterrence facilitates the most effective deterrence today. It is the ability to use the sea as an area from where one can launch a sure punitive retaliation to a probable aggressor. Ultimately, it is the role assigned to the nuclear-powered, nuclear-capable submarines(SSBNs), today.

Maritime Manoeuvre is a contemporary concept which dwells on the role of maritime forces in a joint warfare in a littoral context. The concept visualises aircraft carrier as a "floating airfield" that can move parallel to the land battle, providing appropriate fire support and air cover where and when required.

"Paper Tigers", "White Elephants", "Sitting Ducks"……..All, None or Some?

"Relics of World War II, smacking of nostalgia"… this is how antagonists describe aircraft carriers.

"Paper Tigers"? "Yes…the argument goes as follows. The assessment in which the deployment of aircraft carriers has been visualised is unrealistic. Even in the case of a mighty USN super carrier, the maximum number of aircraft that can be mustered for an attack mission is not more than 50 and that may be no match for the fighter strength they have to face in the likely combat zones in future. Moreover, since World War II, aircraft carriers have never faced a professional airforce in a war of attrition where the other side is ready to put up a challenge and prepared to accept some damage. The only exception so far has been "Operation Corporate" (Falklands, 1982) and the outcome could have been probably different if the geographical location of the islands was 100 miles closer to the Argentinean mainland or if Argentina had the capability to extend the range of its combat aircraft by mid-air refuelling or if Argentina had more Exocet missiles in stock or even if more competence was displayed by its ordnance personnel while preparing the iron bombs carried by its aircraft on attack missions.*

Over the years, it has been argued that the potential of a CBG to intimidate the "other side" is visibly waning as the proliferation of missile and WMD technologies across the littoral regions of the world offers a considerable risk to carrier operations in those regions.

"Aircraft carriers like "White Elephants" symbolise wastage of enormous resources which, otherwise, could have been better utilised"… is the most difficult argument even for a staunch supporter of aircraft carriers to counter in these days of financial management and austerity. The initial capital investment is enormous. The construction cost of the ship alone runs into mind-boggling proportions. The aircraft complement costs an equal or bigger amount. Then comes the cost of the vessels deployed for escorting the carrier. Added to these are the running expenditure on manpower and the regular maintenance and upgradation costs over their lifespan. The final sum will make annual defence budgets of most countries look paltry. For a nation, however affluent it may be, there will always be a score of equally appealing areas in need of funding when the amount involved is so huge and the rationale behind the investment is contestable.

"Aircraft carriers are very vulnerable to attacks and they need protection, sometimes more than what they offer"……again an argument which is not totally unfounded. As huge vessels, they just cannot hide themselves or operate discreetly. Their sheer size and associated signatures make them easy targets for attacks, especially from air, missile and under water. Even while under attack, a large vessel like an aircraft carrier will have severe limitations in manoeuvring itself out of harm's way in time. An aircraft carrier will need a layered, in-depth protection against all conceivable threats at sea. An outer-most layer of aircraft on airborne early warning, surveillance and air defence tasks, the next layer of anti-submarine patrols by ships as well as specialised aircraft / helicopters, another layer of destroyers and frigates specifically for anti-air, anti-missile, and anti-submarine tasks and the inner-most close-in-defence by the systems on the carrier itself are needed. Ideally, a few submarines should also be on hunter-killer missions, on guard against attacking submarines trying to sneak in through the protective screen. In addition, the ships on escort duties will have to take care of their own protection. In all, a good number of vessels will get tied down to the task of protecting the carrier and almost 60 per cent of the available air complement will be busy protecting the CBG, on the other hand.

The US Experience

No country other than the US could have planned to own and maintain 15 Carrier Battle Groups(CBG) and a 600-ship navy! Each carrier is escorted by a fleet consisting of several cruisers and destroyers and a couple of nuclear-powered attack submarines (SSN). There have been attempts to work out the cost involved in operating a CBG and the figures vary widely depending on the approach adopted. In 1984, a former Pentagon analyst estimated the figure for the total cost of keeping an operational Nimitz class CBG as close to US $135 billion.4 This phenomenal financial burden associated with carrier operations often brings about passionate debates within the US establishment as well as the strategic community. Interestingly, the debate is not on whether or not to continue with the aircraft carriers but, on the optimum number required to support US global interests. Undisputedly, these carriers and their Battle Groups have been the most visible mascots of the US national will and interests across the globe.* And, a major shift in the policy is very unlikely in the near future** and CBGs will continue to be the principal tools supporting the US national objectives around the world.

The Soviet Experiment

"Unfortunate timing for a long-held dream" this is how a western scholar described the ill-fated Soviet Aircraft Carrier Programme5. When the half-finished hull of the 75,000 ton, nuclear-powered aircraft carrier Ul'yanovsk was cut and sold for scrap in 1992, the curtain fell on what was one of the most fascinating and imaginative navy-building stories of modern times.

The perusal of the evolution of aircraft carriers in the erstwhile Soviet Navy is a treat to anyone who wishes to study how a navy which started off concentrating on Sea Denial capabilities against a much superior navy, evolved into an ocean-going navy capable of challenging the mighty US Navy. All in a span of 40 years, logical and systematic. The most remarkable characteristic of this evolution was the astounding abundance of original, conceptual thinking within the Soviet Naval Strategic community and Design/Research Bureaus. They had a vision and worked towards it through indigenous solutions (some of these solutions were so radical that the West was not sure whether to ridicule or to take them seriously!).

Historians mention that Joseph Stalin was keen on building at least two aircraft carriers for the Soviet Navy in the 1930s. The war started soon and this plan had to be shelved to make way for other pressing demands. The impressive victories of the US Navy in the Pacific theatre, where aircraft carriers stole the show, prompted the Soviet Union to consider a carrier-building programme again in the late 1940s. With Stalin's death in 1959 and the subsequent ascension of Krushchev, there were massive cuts in the Soviet conventional forces and the aircraft carrier programme became an immediate casualty. Though there was a trend-reversal and a build-up, which began in 1960, Krushchev remained adamantly against building aircraft carriers.

The true history of Soviet carrier development began in the early 1960s. The military build-up, begun under Leonid Brezhnev, provided the right climate and the deployment of Polaris submarines(SSBNs) by the US acted as the right catalyst. It did not take much time for the Soviet Navy to realise that they did not have an effective answer to those submarines or the threat they posed at the continental USSR from the seas around Europe. The only way out was to make the discreet existence of those submarines difficult by hunting them down relentlessly. And, that was much beyond the scope of the anti-submarine warfare capability of the Soviet surface fleet, then. Moreover, the ships themselves were in considerable danger while hunting for a hostile nuclear submarine. The solution came in the form of a heavily armed 14,600 ton cruiser (Project 1123, launched in 1962) that could carry 14 Kamov 25 helicopters, specially designed for anti-submarine warfare. The ship was configured in such a way that it could take care of its own defence to a large extent.* This approach characterised the most striking deviation from the traditional western school of thought and continued to heavily influence the subsequent designs in the Soviet aircraft carrier programme.

The design of Project 1123 ships(Moskva and her sister ship Leningrad) was revolutionary in concept. They were the first ships ever designed exclusively to hunt deep-diving, fast-moving nuclear submarines. They carried an air arm which was not meant for providing an organic air defence to the fleet but to extend and optimise the primary role of the ship as a submarine hunter. And, they could take care of their own defence to a large extent. The West did not know, for quite some time, what to call them.

New designs followed soon. After experimenting with a design wholly dedicated to submarine hunting, the Soviet Navy wanted to try out the organic fighter element, next. The Project 1143 was launched in 1967.** The first ship(Kiev) of this design was launched in July,1970, and the last, the seventh (Ul'ynovsk) in November 1988. It has been a fascinating story of a basic ship design philosophy evolving phenomenally over 6 models ( first two ships were almost identical in design), from a 40,000 ton, 32 aircraft ship to a 75,000 ton, 70 aircraft, nuclear-powered ship, over a span of 20 years !These designs were to witness the coming of age of the Soviet Naval Aviation, Naval Weapon Technology, and the Soviet Navy in general. It almost looked like the Soviet Navy had finally evolved into a global navy with Power Projection capabilities, centered around a genre of aircraft carriers which gelled naturally with the scheme of things at different levels.

The dream did not last long. The collapse of Soviet Union and the subsequent turbulence of the early 1990s put an abrupt lid on the programme. The heir to the mantle, the Russian Federation, just did not have the means to maintain what it had inherited.* While determined to maintain the lone carrier flying its flag, the Russian Navy is struggling to preserve the invaluable skills it acquired in naval aviation over the last three decades. The Russian Navy, though, remains committed to the concept of aircraft carriers as the basis of an ocean-going navy.6

The English Lesson

The British were among the pioneers and subsequent leaders in naval aviation at one point of time. The end of World War II and the transformation of the world into a bipolar system saw the once mighty British Naval Fleet shrink in size as well as role. For various reasons, the Royal Navy's carrier fleet was cut down in size and the last of its aircraft carriers operating conventional aircraft, HMS Ark Royal, retired in 1980. Since then, the Royal Navy has been operating "light fleet carriers" with tonnage around 20,000 tons, fitted with "ski-jump". Currently, there are three such carriers (Invincible class) in service. All of them are conventionally-powered and operate an air wing comprising of 6-8 Sea Harrier Vertical/Short Take Off and Landing(VSTOL) aircraft and up to 10-13 Sea King helicopters.

The principal task of the post-World War II Royal Navy was to provide the Anti- Submarine Warfare (ASW) cover to the US Navy CBGs operating in the vicinity of the Greenland, Iceland, UK(GIUK) gaps as part of NATO's Forward Maritime Strategy. This scheme was aimed at containing the Soviet Attack Submarines(SSNs) to the seas north of the GIUK gaps to allow an unhindered access to US shipping across the Atlantic, supporting a land–war in Europe. Hence, the Invincible class was conceived as a platform for providing the ASW element and to function as the afloat headquarters of the ASW Strike Force. In the post-cold war world, the UK stands committed to its role as a NATO member. In addition, it has a wider security agenda as UK is heavily dependent on free global trade, has many of its nationals living abroad, and has distant territories to maintain. In 1997, the Labour government initiated a Strategic Defence Review (SDR) which included a thorough assessment of whether or not the Royal Navy could continue to operate aircraft carriers in the future and if so, what should be their principal capabilities. The SDR document, made public in 1998, clearly indicates the shift of focus from the ASW role (of the Cold War days) to 'Joint Expeditionary Ventures' and the acquiring of new aircraft carriers of 30-40,000 tons capable of deploying up to 50 aircraft, though the scope of the document was restricted to "only an expression of intent".

Meanwhile, the only post-World War II military operation where the Royal Navy carriers played a crucial role was the "Operation Corporate" (Falklands, 1982). The scene of action was almost 8,000 nautical miles away from UK. The course of events and the factors that led to the final outcome of the conflict may be debatable but it is undeniable that it would have been well nigh impossible for UK to militarily challenge the invasion of Falklands Islands by Argentina and attempt a recapture of the islands without the involvement of its two light fleet carriers and their air wings.

The Indian Indulgence

India decided to go "the carrier way" within ten days of its independence from British rule.7 It is all too evident now that Britain's post-World War II strategic needs and economic compulsions dictated the architecture of the post-independence Indian Navy. "In May, 1947, Earl Mountbatten, assisted by P.M.S Blackett, Nobel Laureate and later adviser to the Government of India, was able to convince Jawaharlal Nehru of the uniqueness of aircraft carriers as "floating airfields" and of the concept of a carrier battle group which would make India a naval power to reckon with in the Indian Ocean"8.The plan was to structure the Indian Navy around aircraft carrier battle groups composed of two light fleet carriers, two cruisers and eight destroyers/frigates. "The sale of a Second World War vintage aircraft carrier, cruisers and destroyers—in surplus to Britain's post-war requirements—to India, eased Britain's problem of clearing outstanding pound sterling balances and ensured India's dependence on the British Navy for maintenance, especially of bigger ships".9

India acquired its first aircraft carrier, also the first one in South Asia, in 1961. This was one of the six Majestic class vessels planned for the British Navy during World War II. But, with the end of the war, the construction had been called off. The half-finished fifth ship, Hercules, which was otherwise consigned to the scrapyard got a new lease of life when India showed interest in it in 1957. Four years later the refurbished ship joined the Indian fleet as INS Vikrant. The second carrier INS Viraat (Ex HMS Hermes* of Falklands fame) was commissioned in 1987 as the first Indian carrier equipped with a 'ski-jump'( Vikrant too was modified later to sport a 'ski-jump'). INS Vikrant retired from service in 1997 after being through many refits and extensions of life. INS Viraat is still in service and is expected to remain so till the end of the current decade.

The only occasion on which the Indian aircraft carriers made their presence felt was during the 1971 Indo-Pak war. India's lone aircraft carrier then, INS Vikrant, was deployed in the eastern theatre (Bay of Bengal) in support of the operations against then East Pakistan. Its Sea Hawk aircraft played a modest role in hastening the surrender of the Pakistani Army and paving the way for the creation of Bangladesh. Faced with little or no opposition, they pounded lightly defended civil airfields on the coast of East Pakistan, damaged and sank some small gunboats as well as a few merchant ships. It must be mentioned here that war historians are still not in full agreement over INS Vikrant's precise role during the war.

Indications are that India is buying Admiral Gorshkov as a replacement for INS Vikrant. Indigenous construction of an "Air Defence Ship", slated to replace INS Viraat by 2010-2012, is on the cards .The Indian Navy is committed to an eventual ocean-going, blue-water status and considers the presence of aircraft carriers essential for achieving it.10

Chinese Intentions

By now, the picture is clearer about Chinese plans for aircraft carriers. China has decided to build its own aircraft carriers. The first carrier is expected to be launched in the year 2003 and to officially enter PLA Navy service by 2005. Then on, it is estimated that China will be able to build a new aircraft carrier every three years.11

Going by the initial descriptions, the vessel seems to have abided by the Russian philosophy, by and large. Displacing 48,000 tons, conventionally powered (steam turbines based on Russian TB12 design), it can house up to 24 aircraft. The naval version of Su-30 aircraft from Russia is the likely candidate. The flight deck is designed with a "ski-jump" and, hence, the aircraft are expected to operate in the STOL or STOBAR mode. The ship is to sport vertically launched surface-to-air missiles and cruise missiles in defensive/offensive roles. There are no details available on the ASW capabilities.

It was no secret that China has been preparing for an ambitious aircraft carrier building programme. There has been speculation that China might buy one of the Russian carriers up for sale or even that Varyag was purchased by a Macau firm covertly for the PLA Navy. There were confirmed reports that China purchased the retired aircraft carrier HMAS Melbourne from Australia and has been using its flight deck to train its future carrier-borne pilots. There were also reports about a simulated flight deck built at one of its airports in northern China for the same purpose. Reportedly, the two-year "special" and "advanced" training programme has churned out more than a hundred "outstanding" pilots who can take off from an aircraft carrier.

The feasibility study and the draft design of China's first aircraft carrier is believed to have started in the year 1992 and the final plan endorsed in 1999 as "9985 plan". The first carrier will be constructed by a Shanghai shipyard at an estimated cost of 4.8 billion yuan.

Chinese military analysts believe that there is an urgent need for the PLA Navy to own and operate aircraft carriers as they will come in 'handy' in dealing with Nansha (Spratly Islands) and Taiwan disputes.12

Back to India

India has fought two wars (1965 and 1971) and a limited war(1999) since it acquired its first aircraft carrier. There is no concrete evidence available in the public domain to suggest that the presence of an aircraft carrier on the Indian side was a determining factor in the outcome of any of those wars. There also have been a few other operations, including Operation Cactus(1988, Maldives), where the Indian Navy was involved during the period under consideration.

INS Vikrant joined the Indian fleet in November 1961. It was expected to play an important role during the operation to liberate Goa (held by Portugal as a colony)in December 1961. At no stage did Vikrant participate in the operation though it was made to hang around in an area 90-180 km off Goa. One version is that there was a perceived threat from British submarines( Britain being Portugal's oldest ally then) and because of that imagined threat, the decision was taken by the Indian side, not to risk the aircraft carrier.

INS Vikrant did not participate in the 1965 Indo-Pak war either. One explanation was that the Indian government was not keen on widening the scope of the war into active hostility at sea. At the same time, Pakistan took full advantage of the situation and hogged international headlines by a token raid at Dwaraka in the Indian state of Gujarat. The Pakistan submarine PNS Ghazi (on loan from the US) was projected to have kept the entire Indian fleet at bay. It is a matter of contention whether the deployment of Ghazi in the Arabian sea was responsible for the decision to not deploy INS Vikrant during the war.

During the 1971 Indo-Pak war, INS Vikrant was deployed in the Eastern Theatre (the Bay of Bengal). Though it did play a modest role towards the eventual sealing of the fate of more than 90,000 Pakistani troops in the erstwhile East Pakistan, other factors like time, distance and the near virtual lack of sea-lift capability, on the Pakistan side, were more crucial in forcing them to surrender. On the other hand, there has been another argument that the deployment of Vikrant in the Bay of Bengal actually deprived the Indian Western fleet the much needed Anti-Submarine Warfare and surveillance capabilities for which the squadron of Alize aircraft onboard Vikrant was meant. This factor made the operation of the Pakistani submarines in the Arabian sea much easier and one of them claimed the Indian ship INS Khukri. Nor was Vikrant ever tasked to provide air-defence cover to the Indian fleet during the war. Arguably, the perceived threat from the Pakistani submarines was one of the prime reasons for keeping Vikrant away from their reach and deploy it in the relatively safer Bay of Bengal.

Once INS Vikrant retired in 1997, the carrier INS Viraat became the lone flat-top to fly the Indian naval ensign. During the Kargil conflict with Pakistan, the ship was undergoing long refit in dry-dock and the remaining Indian fleet assembled in the north Arabian sea without her. In case the war was to break out in full scale at sea, in all likelihood it would have been a war of attrition with both sides claiming casualties. And, the effectiveness of the Pakistani submarines and shore-based strike aircraft would have been crucial in deciding the level of attrition.

Arguably, it was the perceived or the real element of threat posed by the adversary's submarines which was largely instrumental in restricting the deployment of India's carriers on various occasions. Incidentally, it has not been the case with the Indian Navy alone. In 1982, in Falklands, the only other post-World War II occasion where aircraft carriers almost came face to face, Argentina decided to hold back its aircraft carrier at the safety of the harbour once the British submarines made their presence known by sinking the Argentine cruiser General Belgrano.

The genesis of the trend can be traced to the philosophy or the lack of it that went into the architecture of the post-colonial era navies which proceeded to fashion themselves around light fleet carriers. These carriers were cheaply available and there was the post-colonial urge to be recognised by the "big league". None of those navies seem to have assessed the dimensions of the likely challenges in the future as a logical base for the architecture. Many of them did not make any mentionable efforts to redefine the prevailing philosophy either in tune with the changing security scenario or the impact of rapidly advancing technology on the nature of warfare at sea. The fact was that many of these navies could not even afford the fleet required to protect those carriers in an all-out battle situation. Nevertheless, these navies just continued to retain the carriers and some even planned replacements for the retired ones.

The debates in India on the relevance of the aircraft carriers have been no less compared to those taking place elsewhere in the world. One such mentionable one-to-one debate has been the one between a former Vice Admiral of the Indian Navy and a former Indian Airforce fighter-pilot, a known proponent of air power.13 The continuing debate, encompassing extreme view-points, has made its appearance even in the public media.14

Indian Security Compulsions

It is often said that India's security perceptions suffer from a 'steadfast land fixation'. The fact that India has waged four major wars and a limited war across its land borders in a span of five decades supports its political and psychological preoccupation with land borders. There is a view, of late, that India has been living in a state of 'continuous war' since its independence and the 'full-scale wars' have just been incidents of "escalation".

Any system, when it is forced to live on higher levels of adrenaline for long periods, is bound to get short-sighted and too occupied with immediate concerns, and loses sight of long-term issues and perceptions. It is equally true with a country and, arguably, is the case with India now.

A country's overall military strategy follows its overall military objectives. And, overall military objectives follow the nation's security perceptions . These, in turn, are shaped by constant reviews of current and future security environment. In India's case, such an exercise was not attempted in recent decades till the present Vajpayee government entrusted the National Security Advisory Board to undertake a Strategic Defence Review(SDR) in the year 1999.

Maritime Dimensions—the Question of Sustenance

India, in its fixation with threats from across its land borders, tends to overlook a serious pointer towards the future. In the days to come, it is very unlikely that Indian territory will be over-run and occupied by an adversary in a major way. But, a determined adversary can choke India into a nightmarish corner via the sea.

An assessment of India's dependence on sea–borne trade for its very sustenance will reveal how crucial are the seas to India in the decades to come. A staggering proportion of India's foreign trade is sea-borne and accounts for as much as 97 per cent in terms of volume and 75 per cent by value. By the year 2002, 70 per cent of India's energy requirements will be met by imports via the sea and the figure is expected to grow exponentially over the next few decades unless fresh oil is struck in a major way in the Indian territory in the near future.* Considering India's prolonged and troubled relations with its land neighbours, it is unlikely that its dependency over sea lanes for crucial requirements will recede in the decades to come.

As is the case all over the world, the majority of India's important cities as well as industrial, commercial and scientific hubs are located within 200-500 km from the coastline making them vulnerable to 'littoral operations' by an adversary.

The Pakistan Factor

If India and Pakistan ever engage in a full-scale war the latter will find it sensible to injure India from the sea while a bloody battle rages on on land. Though both countries are critically dependent on their imports via sea, more so in the case of Pakistan, Pakistan can take some solace from the fact that its western as well as northern neighbours are not hostile towards it.

Most of India's oil imports are from the Persian Gulf region. Currently, almost half of it is handled by facilities in the Gulf of Kutch area and this figure is estimated to grow to as much as 70 per cent by the year 2006. Pakistan lies strategically astride these sea routes and can access them over a stretch of more than 1000 km. A cursory analysis of the thrust and direction of the Pakistan Navy's growth in the last four decades and its plans for the future reveals that Pakistan has been very conscious about this strategically crucial factor. The entire rationale behind its maritime strategy seems to have been woven singularly around this lone aspect.

From the early 1960s, the Pakistan Navy concentrated on developing a Sea Denial capability against a superior Indian counterpart in the Arabian sea. This clear strategy aimed at keeping a stronger and bigger Indian Navy on tenterhooks and threatening the vital Indian life-line from the Persian Gulf has been an overbearing factor deciding every major acquisition by the Pakistan Navy in recent times. The acquisition of its first submarine in the year 1965 (the first submarine in the subcontinent), its later acquisition of Daphne submarines from France, acquisition of long-range maritime surveillance aircraft like the Atlantique and P-3C Orion ( both armed with state-of-the-art anti-ship missiles), the recent purchase of the latest Agosta 90B submarines (with Air Independent Propulsion-AIP-technology which will significantly enhance the submarines' endurance at sea) armed with submarine-launched Exocet missiles, establishing of indigenous submarine-building capability with help from France and the current warship-building programme established at Karachi with the help of China15 are all sufficient indicators of this vision.

In a larger context, the Pakistan Navy may visualise drawing the superior Indian fleet into a battle over the task of protecting the Sea Lines of Communication (SLOCs) in the northern Arabian sea and engage it in a protracted, indirect war of attrition, rather in guerrilla style, using its Sea Denial assets including shore-based strike aircraft.

In a pre-emptive move, the Indian Navy may attempt blockading Karachi, the only major port and naval facility Pakistan has today. But, the proposed development of a major deep-sea port at Gwadar, reportedly with Chinese help, with attached naval and air bases will dramatically alter the prevailing strategic equations in the northern Arabian sea.*

The China Factor

Putting the 'hue and cry' about 'the Chinese threat' aside, it will be foolhardy of India to ignore the current developments within the PLA Navy. Among the three wings of PLA, it is the Navy which is being modernised at a faster pace. An objective analysis of this Asian giant's intentions and compulsions will certainly provide reliable hints about future power games that are to unfold in the region.

The recent Chinese move to rejuvenate its navy by lateral induction of modern technologies on a massive scale, mainly from Russia, is extremely significant.* The first of the two Sovremenny class destroyers, with the latest armament package, has already been delivered to the PLA Navy and is currently set to sail for China after extensive trials in the Baltic with a mixed Chinese and Russian crew onboard. The second ship is due for delivery later this year. These ships, once fully integrated into the Chinese Navy, will be their biggest and most powerful warships.

China already operates four earlier model "Kilo" class submarines(two Type 877 and two Type 636 versions).The acquisition of two or three more upgraded "Kilo" class submarines are being discussed together with two or three more Sovremenny class destroyers.16 And, indications are that China will be a strong candidate for Russia's latest generation Amur class submarines with Air Independent Propulsion(AIP) technology together with a Transfer of Technology arrangement for subsequent indigenous construction. Diplomatic sources in Beijing are being quoted regarding a Chinese move to buy a second batch of 40 Sukhoi Su-30 MKK fighters to supplement its initial order of 40 aircraft finalised in August 199917. This new order should be analysed in conjunction with the reports that the navalised version of Sukhoi Su-30 are the likely candidates for the planned Chinese carrier borne air wing.18

All these proposed purchases are likely to be funded from the increased allocations that the PLA will reportedly receive over the next five years and the relevant contracts could be finalised within the current year considering that China will launch its next five year defence plan in the year 2001.

These developments along with the ambitious schedule for the Chinese aircraft carrier building programme, point towards determined efforts by China to build sufficient capabilities for reaching out at sea and sustaining naval operations at locations far from the mainland. The tensions in East and South China seas (Taiwan and Spratlys) are being cited as the immediate compulsions prompting this build-up of massive dimensions.

Arguably, there are some more, rather untold, dimensions fuelling China's naval build-up. They, primarily, are the assumed status of a future superpower and its energy security concerns.

China's "future superpower status" is essentially based on its ability to sustain the recent dramatic growth rate of its economy. The associated growing demands for energy have already turned China from a net exporter of oil to a net importer of oil way back in 1993-94. According to the International Energy Outlook 1998(IEO 98) projections, China will be the largest consumer of oil and petroleum products by the year 2020. And, most of these demands will have to be met by imports from the Persian gulf via the Arabian sea-Indian Ocean route as the Persian Gulf region is still privy to 64 per cent of the world's total known petroleum reserves.

Under these projected circumstances, with its 'life-line' connected to the Persian Gulf via the Indian Ocean and the Arabian sea, China is expected, in the normal course of events, to be concerned about the safety and security of its SLOCs through the region. The evident imperative is a Chinese compulsion to maintain a sizeable presence in the region. Considering the distances involved from the Chinese mainland, the plausible options to China narrow down to maintaining a sizeable naval presence in the Indian Ocean . And, to have a base facility to support and sustain such a naval force in the Indian Ocean region, will be one of the greatest temptations for China in the early decades of the 21st century.

For China-watchers, the outcome of the "Taiwan issue" is already decided and it is only a matter of time.19 And, China has demonstrated immense patience in such matters. The fate of Spratly islands may hang fire for some more time. Once China is free from these two issues, the prime focus of the 'hungry giant' of the 21st century will legitimately be the Indian Ocean region.

The Indian Navy and its Immediate Future

It is certain, from the above notes, that by the period 2010-2015, the Indian Navy will be facing at least two formidable tasks ; one in the Arabian sea and the other in the Indian Ocean in general. The first one will be to thwart any attempt by Pakistan to disrupt India's crucial SLOCs to and from the Persian Gulf, the single aim around which the Pakistan Navy is being shaped up. The second would be to effectively contain China's determined efforts to establish a say in the Indian Ocean region. The defence of India's far-flung island territories, some of them positioned strategically in the Indian Ocean, as far as 1,600 km from the mainland, may become a matter of concern in such contexts.

These tasks will demand nothing short of a capacity to undertake decisive military operations at sea at distances beyond hundreds of kilometers and the means to sustain them through a definite period. The only comparable military operation of recent times has been the one undertaken by Britain at the Falklands in 1982, which lasted from April 2 to June 14, 1982. A total of 62 ships including 2 light fleet carriers and 6 submarines participated in the operation.20 Such operations will leave no option other than an organic air power at sea to perform crucial roles on which the very survival of the fleet may depend in the days to come.21

In another decade, the Indian Navy may face such challenges where it may be required to depend on tactical air power at sea, at least in two possible scenarios. And, such sustainable air power can only be provided by a carrier-borne air wing considering the possible distances involved.

How Aircraft Carriers Come In…?

Before embarking on the architecture of the aircraft carriers that will optimally serve the Indian Navy's requirements in the future, a distinction must be made between the roles played by a super carrier and a light carrier.*

If there is a possible reason for the less than impressive track record of the Indian aircraft carriers, it is the fact that India went ahead to own them without much consideration for the associated requirements of such 'western' aircraft carriers while participating in a war. A light fleet carrier styled in the western philosophy, with little or no self-defence capability, will require a sizeable and balanced fleet to protect it. This was a luxury the Indian Navy could not afford lest its entire able fleet get effectively tied down to defending its carriers.

The Russian Model

The similarities between the requirements of the Soviet Navy in the mid-1960's, which led to the philosophy behind the design of Project 1143 (the Kiev class) ships and those of the Indian Navy in the early 21st century are worth exploring. The Soviet designers did not want an aircraft carrier which would need an entire fleet to protect it in return for a token air defence cover. Instead, they proceeded to rewrite the rule-books to design a "super heavy cruiser" that carried a medium-sized air wing. The ship would have considerable inherent capability to defend itself against all possible threats at sea as well as a limited offensive power. Hence, the air wing and the other ships in the fleet would be relatively free to concentrate on other specific tasks.

The Indian Options

It is rather evident that the emerging geo-politico-strategic developments in the Indian Ocean region will leave India with no option but to rely on tactical air power at least at two theatres in the Indian Ocean. This will imply the requirement of three aircraft carriers (two operational and one as reserve) by the second decade of the century. Reports indicate that Admiral Gorshkov is being refitted for India and will be available in another three years. The indigenously built 'Air Defence Ship' is expected in the next decade.

Grow on Gorshkov's Strengths

Indications are that in the process of refitting Admiral Gorshkov for the Indian Navy, the ship is being stripped of all armament(except the close-in-rapid-fire 30mm guns) and under water sensor fittings which, at one point of time, made it an "awesome cruiser" capable of self-defence. The stripping, presumably, is to widen the flight deck to accommodate the maximum number of aircraft possible as well as to introduce a 'ski-jump' at the forward end. It may be a rather difficult task to put the significance of the size of the air wing and the carrier's ability to defend itself on to the two sides of a balance and show which side is heavier. This was the very same debate which gave birth to the radical design philosophy of the Kiev class and Admiral Gorshkov in particular. By ignoring the lessons from that milestone debate, the Indian Navy may well be repeating the mistakes of the past.

Detailed analyses undertaken in the US, the most serious practitioners of (western style) aircraft carriers, regarding the division of a carrier's air wing among various tasks in different operational scenarios, has brought out that a near majority of the air wing gets tied down with the compulsions of self-protection.22 The same logic extended to the case of a medium carrier (20,000 to 40,000 tons and 20 to 35 aircraft) in the technology intensive warfare at sea tomorrow, will point towards a worse situation. Importantly, the requirements involved in defending a medium or small carrier are not significantly different from that of a heavy or a super carrier. Hence, once that minimum force required for the various tasks of self-defence is subtracted, there will not be anything substantial left over in the air wing for "true carrier missions". It must also be mentioned that these predictions assume a near 100 per cent availability of the air wing and optimal management of the launch/ retrieve windows, which is very unlikely in a war.

Though it may be too late by now, it will be worthwhile for the Indian Navy to consider whether it is all that wise to strip Admiral Gorshkov of its defences for the sake of ten odd extra aircraft to the air wing.

If indeed the Indian solution for Admiral Gorshkov was based on the constraints like introduction of a new multi-role aircraft as the principal aircraft and finding space for a "ski-jump", the Indian Navy will benefit immensely if it considers the "Project 1143" philosophy for its indigenous carrier-building programme.


Aircraft carriers have enormous potential as military tools if a nation's security perceptions beckon them. It will be a costly indulgence for a nation to own them just for the sake of belonging to an "exclusive club".

The emerging geo-politico-strategic imperatives over the next couple of decades will leave India with no option but to maintain a sustained presence in different parts of the Indian Ocean to safeguard critical interests. It will be impossible to conceive and execute such tasks at great distances from the land without the help of tactical air power at sea. In India's case, aircraft carriers are the best bet for the job.

It is equally important that each nation's strategic requirements are unique and any significant military investments should be fashioned to suit those requirements, keeping the lead time and enormity of such investments in mind. Aircraft carriers are no exception. It takes more than a decade to build one and more to acquire the operational skills. In India's case, it will be worth considering the 'Gorshkov philosophy' as a guideline for building its carrier force.

Despite the aircraft carrier building programme competing with other national priorities for funds, the ultimate challenge for the Indian leadership will be to aim for an affordable but effective military capability relevant to the nation in the 21st century.



1. See 'The Maritime Strategy' , Supplement to Proceedings of US Naval Institute , US Naval Institute, Annapolis ; January 1986.

2. "(US) Navy Proposes Standard Mix of Aircraft on Carriers" . Defense News, March 6, 1989, p.4.

3. Jasjit Singh, "The Indian Ocean-Future Challenges", Indian Defence Review, vol.II-1, Jan 1987, p.17.

4. Earl C Ravenal, "Defining Defense:The 1985 Military Budget", Cato Institute, Washington, 1984, p.12-13.

5. Norman Cigar, "Soviet Aircraft Carriers: Unfortunate Timing for a Long-Held Dream", Naval War College Review, Spring 1994.

6. Andrei Vasilyev, Valery Marinin, " Aircraft Carrying Ships of Russian Navy", Military Parade,, June 29, 1998

7. C. Uday Bhaskar, " Maritime Security and the Aircraft Carrier ", Strategic Analysis, vol. XXI, no.12, April 1998, p.1781-1791.

8. Subimal Mookerjee, "Aircraft Carriers for the Indian Navy: The Case For and Against", Vayu, Vol. VI, 1995, p.19-28

9. Ibid, at 8

10. "Plan for Blue water Navy by 2010", The Times of India, December 4, 1999 (quoting Admiral Sushil Kumar, The Chief of Indian Naval Staff)

11. "China Reportedly to Build Aircraft Carrier", Document Number FBIS-CHI-2000-0112 , Insert Date:01/13/2000, Sourceline: Hong Kong daily Ming Pao in Chinese, January 12, 2000, p. A15

12. Ibid, at 11.

13. Subimal Mookerjee, Jasjit Singh, "Aircraft Carriers for the Indian Navy: The Case For and Against", Vayu, vol.VI, 1995, p. 19-28

14. Gaurav Sawant, Saurabh Shukla, "Russia's ailing aircraft carrier Gorshkov is Navy's bright shining hope"…. "Experts argue that the $600 million needed for retrofitting the ship plus cost of aircraft isn't worth it . Navy says we have no choice", The Indian Express, November 12, 1999.

15. ….." I would like to extend my special thanks to our friends from China for their material support in the successful completion of the project"…..from the speech delivered by President Mohammed Rafiq Tarar of Pakistan on the occasion of commissioning the indigenously designed and built missile craft PNS Sujaat at Karachi Shipyard and Engineering Works(KSEW), on September 30, 1999.

16. "China moves to buy more Russian aircraft, warships and submarines", Jane's Defense Weekly, vol.32, Issue 25, December 22, 1999.

17. Ibid at 16

18. Ibid at 11

19. "Capitalism's Finest Hour" TJS George, The Indian Express, January 17&18, 2000.

20. "Royal Navy and Royal Marines operations 1964 to 1996", Edited by Capt. Peter Hore RN, Paper No:1, Maritime Strategic Studies Institute, White Hall, London, July 1999.

21. Jasjit Singh, ibid at 3 & 13 above.

22. Ibid at 2.