Sea control, or sea denial? Defining India's strategic intent in the Indian Ocean - Broadsword by Ajai Shukla

Should the Indian Navy build more aircraft carriers? Or should it rely more on a fleet of submarines?

By Vikas Gupta

Unsigned Editorial in Defence News of India

September 5, 2022

The commissioning of the carrier INS Vikrant, while undoubtedly a triumph for indigenous design and construction, raises three important questions. First, even after taking 17 years to build, from steel cutting in 2005 to commissioning in 2022, the Vikrant is not yet operational. Flight tests will only be carried out after the navy has launched this floating airfield. These tests involve verifying the integration between aircraft on-board facilities, aircraft launch and recovery systems and the complex of Russian-designed aircraft facilities, which integrates all flight operations. The Ministry of Defense estimates that these trials would take another 12 to 18 months. The navy says these timelines match the time other advanced navies, such as those of the United Kingdom and France, have taken to design and build aircraft carriers. The Royal Navy, with its rich history and experience in building aircraft carriers, took almost two decades to build its flagship, the 65,000 ton Queen Elizabeth. INS Vikrant is significantly smaller, at 45,000 tons, and should have taken less time. Even so, it is true that carrier flight operations can only be tested after the air wing is on board and the navy has assumed operational command and control.

The second question concerns the indigenization of the Vikrants. The Ministry of Defense claims the carrier is 76% Indian, but does not confirm this with details of what was indigenized and what was purchased overseas. Construction of the aircraft carrier’s hull, superstructure, flight deck and its compartments primarily involves the rudimentary work of cutting and welding steel, which the MoD says was indigenized to 95%. This seems believable, given that the production of warship-grade steel has indigenized and Indian steel mills have supplied 26,000 tons of this specially hardened steel for the Vikrant. However, the challenge of indigenizing the construction of warships lies less in the “float” dimension (hull and superstructure) than in the “movement” category (engines, gearboxes, propellers and shafts); and the “combat” category (radar and sonar sensors, guns, missiles, torpedoes and integration software, command and control software). In these last two categories, indigenization is estimated to remain below 50%.

The third, strategic question is whether India needs more aircraft carriers and, if so, how many. One naval school of thought would like the Indian Navy to execute a “sea denial” strategy, preventing adversaries from accessing the Indian Ocean with a fleet of submarines. Others would rely on a “sea control” strategy, in which aircraft carrier battle groups (CBGs) control large swathes of ocean with aircraft and missiles. For this, India would need at least three operational CBGs; two for the Indian coasts of the Arabian Sea and the Bay of Bengal and a third, larger one, for the projection of electricity at long distances wherever the need arises. A fourth carrier would be required as a reserve when any of the three operational carriers required refit or repair. This forces the navy to make do for this decade with two aircraft carriers, INS Vikramadity and INS Vikrant, while the Cochin shipyard is building a second indigenous carrier (IAC-2) and another shipyard, possibly Larsen & Toubro’s Kathupalli shipyard is building a third. India, for its part, will have to clearly define its strategic intention.