The arguments for and against a third aircraft carrier

The launch of INS Vikrant, India’s second aircraft carrier, is truly a proud moment for the nation. It took thirteen years to build and cost over Rs 20,000 crore. The necessary planes and helicopters have not yet been purchased. Its construction provided 15,000 people with direct and indirect jobs. It also led to collaboration between 550 companies, of which 100 were micro, small and medium-sized enterprises.

It has 76% indigenous content, which is commendable. With its launch, India joins the elite group of nations that are building their own carriers. An aircraft carrier has a lifespan of forty to fifty years, during which time it undergoes multiple upgrades and renovations. The launch of Vikrant has opened the door to discussions on whether India needs a third carrier. The navy has insisted that India should have a three-carrier navy as its security concerns have grown over the years.

As Prime Minister Modi said at the launch, “previously, security concerns in the Indo-Pacific region and the Indian Ocean have been ignored.” Currently, this region is a major defense priority. Therefore, we are working in all directions, from increasing the Navy’s budget to increasing its capabilities. As India’s economy grows, so will its trade, most of which would be sea-related; its securing is the responsibility of the navy.

Added to this are the security challenges posed by the Chinese Navy and its efforts to build Pakistan’s naval capabilities. As China’s navy grows, its footprint in the Indian Ocean would increase. However, the force levels operating in the Indian Ocean would remain limited. Its earlier submarine and military research vessel docking recently at Hambantota in Sri Lanka, the acquisition of a naval base at Djibouti and possibly another at Gwadar would require India to have adequate naval power.

The Indian Navy needs blue water capability, but whether it only comes through aircraft carriers is the question. The Navy also argues that if India had three aircraft carriers, at any time two would be available.

INS Vikramaditya, the other Indian aircraft carrier, has been unavailable for two years, undergoing renovation. At the same time, there is a contrary opinion that the age of aircraft carriers is over. Its cost of construction, maintenance, and alternatives, including the use of island territories as airbases and submarines for sea denial, are cheaper and more viable. The guns-for-butter argument will never end.

Added to this is their vulnerability to long-range missiles such as the Chinese DF 21D and DF 26. The loss of an aircraft carrier in operations is degrading for the nation. Also, as India does not possess expeditionary designs, aircraft carriers are considered useless by some experts. Even among naval strategists, there is debate over whether India should invest in a third aircraft carrier or build additional submarines, the strength of which has been reduced to 16 from the desired 24.

Most submarines currently in service are also nearing retirement. India’s defense budget will always be limited, to which the three services will seek their share. Opposing carriers claim that submarines can effectively provide a “sea denial strategy” as opposed to a “sea control strategy” created by Carrier Battle Groups (CBGs). In their opinion, refusing the sea is a better option for a country like India, which lacks financial resources. On the contrary, the official naval doctrine advocates CBG and control of the sea because it would degrade the naval power of the enemy.

As Navy Chief Admiral Hari Kumar said, “It’s not about aircraft carriers or submarines, but about the right balance between ships, submarines and planes.” The third carrier, which the navy desires, should be 65,000-70,000 tons against INS Vikrant of 45,000 tons. It is estimated at around Rs 80,000 to 90,000 crore including the provision of planes and helicopters.

Such expenditure could impact other modernization plans, as additional budget allocations are unlikely to be made, despite the recommendations of the 15th Finance Committee. The lack of funds has already had an impact on the navy. It reduced its projections for a navy of 200 warships by 2027 to 175. It also reduced its requests for helicopters and P 81 Maritime multi-mission aircraft. Before incurring additional expenditure for a third aircraft carrier, it must reassess its ability to manage its budget and continue modernizing the rest of its fleet.

The Army and Air Force, while officially silent on the Navy’s request for a third aircraft carrier, are also concerned about budget depletion and the impact on their share in case where the navy’s bid for a third aircraft carrier would be accepted. The Air Force is more concerned as its squadron is quickly depleting.

General Bipin Rawat as CDS was strongly opposed to a third carrier, pushing for a sea ban employing submarines and developing India’s island territories into airbases. Air power strategists say the use of air-to-air tankers would improve the range of fighter aircraft to support naval operations from land-based airfields.

The Su 30MKI is said to have a range of 1,500 km which could be extended with air-to-air tankers. The IAF fighter fleet is equipped with Harpoon and Brahmos cruise missiles to support naval operations. There is no doubt that aircraft carriers are a projection of a nation’s peacetime capabilities. However, in the operational context, Indian carriers are unlikely to be employed beyond the Indian Ocean region, for which a fleet of two carriers is sufficient.

To ensure availability, reducing downtime in the event of renovation is therefore more important than creating a reserve. The Navy also needs to consider whether it has the flotilla to operate three CBGs, in addition to its routine movements.

If the intent to purchase a third is the availability of two in the event of a carrier refit, then this could well be a very expensive war reserve. It is also necessary to assess whether the construction of operational airfields in Andaman and Nicobar would be a cheaper and more balanced option compared to the construction of a third aircraft carrier.

A thorough evaluation should be done before the decision is made. Based on lessons learned, the third aircraft carrier can be built in less than 10 years, so decision-making cannot be delayed.

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