Navy’s Flattop Dreams Should Trigger Wider Debate

The Indian Navy will have to scale back its ambitious fleet expansion plans for the moment. The ministry of defence is not happy with the navy’s five-year plan to expand its fleet with new warships, submarines, and an aircraft carrier, according to reporting from Manu Pubby of ThePrint and Ajai Shukla of Business Standard.

The chief item on the navy’s wish list is a locally built aircraft carrier. According to Shukla, the Ministry of Defence has indicated ‘that a hurried decision would be unwise,’ since such a big-ticket item would consume funds that could procure other items.

Similarly, Pubby reports that the acquisition plan ‘is unlikely to be cleared in the current form, as it would put a great burden on the exchequer, and would leave little money for the Army and the Air Force, which too have major acquisition projects coming up.’

Carrier Conundrum

INS Vikramaditya
INS Vikramaditya. Image Credit: Indian Navy

The only aircraft carrier currently serving with the Indian Navy is the INS Vikramaditya, a heavily modified Kiev-class ship that previously served in the Russian Navy under the illustrious name Admiral Gorshkov. A second, locally built carrier, INS Vikrant is likely to join active service only in 2023.

However, it’s the navy’s plan for a third carrier that has caused the defence ministry’s displeasure. The proposed INS Vishal would be a 65,000-tonne nuclear-powered behemoth housing 55 combat aircraft. Vishal’s aircraft would be launched and recovered using an electromagnetic catapult instead of the ‘short takeoff but arrested recovery’ currently in use (such STOBAR systems only work with some aircraft and limit the payload carried).

Not everyone is convinced India really needs the Vishal. Detractors, including some in the navy, advocate India focus on building its submarine fleet and anti-submarine warfare capabilities. They argue that potential adversaries like China can outspend India in developing carriers, and that these massive platforms are in any case increasingly vulnerable to enemy action. At the very least, detractors say, other systems should get priority.

The navy’s plans for flattops also face another crucial challenge: Its carrier-borne jet, the Mig-29K, is ‘riddled with problems’ according to a report from the Comptroller Auditor General last year. More than half the 45 Mig-29Ks serving in the navy have engine defects, meaning that if you picked any one aircraft, it would be ‘fit for operations less than 50 per cent of the time it is required to be deployed.’

Advocates of carriers like the Vishal point out that India’s navy needs to reflect the country’s broader political objectives. They argue that posture of sea denial through submarines and missile boats does not suffice for India, which (as the navy’s 2015 doctrine asserts) must actively seek to project power in the Indo-Pacific.

Carrier advocates have their work cut out. To change the minds of sceptics who think the navy’s quest for carriers is driven by status-seeking rather than efficiency, they will need to develop two arguments and make them convincingly.

One, they must explain to policymakers and the public at large why carriers are an essential part of India’s maritime and diplomatic toolkit in the region during both peacetime and war.

Two, they will have to tell detractors how they plan to deal with threats to aircraft carriers. These include both current threats like submarines and supersonic cruise missiles as well as over-the-horizon threats like China’s DF-21D anti-ship ballistic missile. As one observer notes, carriers ‘must anticipate a future threat environment that will be characterized by massive barrages, whether of cruise and ballistic missiles, swarms of micro-drones, subsurface drones, speedboat borne IEDs, or some combination’. With so many perils at hand, carrier advocates must explain how flattops will remain assets and not burdens.

Gauging priorities

The debate over aircraft carriers will sharpen in the coming years. India’s sluggish economy is unlikely to see a sharp uptick anytime soon. That means its defence budget for capital acquisitions- currently INR86,529 crore- will probably not grow significantly in the next few years. Expect fierce competition between the services and within them for shares of this pie.

If India’s carrier fleet is to expand in such an unpromising environment, the navy’s budget will need to increase at the expense of the other two services. For this to happen, we will need a broader conversation- honest, piercing and painful- about what we really expect from each of the three services and what share of the defence budget each ought to get.

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