A third aircraft carrier for India: Budget vs necessity

The Indian military is undergoing what could also be its most vital reorganisation since India’s independence, with considerable implications for its future strategic posture. One important issue that has been delivered to the fore is that the role of the Indian Navy as a regional power projection force built around three aircraft carriers. The government’s decision on this issue will have significant implications for the region. 

The Indian Navy currently operates one carrier, the 45,000 tonne INS Vikramaditya, with a second, the 37,500 tonne INS Vikrant, having just entered sea trials. Both are “ski-jump” carriers. But the Indian Navy regards a 3rd “flat-topped” carrier , the planned 65,000 tonne INS Vishal, with superior power projection capabilities, as an absolute necessity. 

The navy’s plans for a three-carrier based force structure, first proposed in early 2000s, has been accepted in theory . It would allow the navy to work two carrier task groups in the least times, with a complete fighter strength of quite 150 aircraft. 

However, India’s new Chief of Defence Staff, General Bipin Rawat, who took office in January, has stated that budgetary constraints will force the navy to defer plans for the third carrier. Some within the government see the third carrier as frightfully expensive white elephant. They argue that India can ill-afford such expenditure on one single platform when there are many other requirements crying for immediate attention. 

This view is reinforced by India’s bitter experience in acquiring the Vikramaditya from Russia, when the first price rose from US$974 million to $2.35 billion. Together with 45 MiG-29K aircraft and extra modifications, the general price now sits somewhere between $6 billion and $7 billion. 

This experience was compounded by the delays and escalating costs of the primary Indian-built carrier , the Vikrant, which is already quite five years not on time . With cost overruns and 36 aircraft, the total price is likely to be $10–11 billion. The third proposed carrier, Vishal, still in conceptual stages, is predicted to cost $6–8 billion and take 10–14 years to create . Including an aerial component of F-18E or Rafale aircraft at current prices, the entire cost is probably going to be within the order of $16–17 billion. 

General Rawat has hinted at his priorities in sight of likely budgetary constraints over subsequent few years. His focus is on strengthening the land defences against China and Pakistan, and hence his priority is for the military , followed by the air force. The army has urgent requirements in long-pending infantry weapons, artillery and strike corps modernisation requirements. The Indian Air Force’s squadron strength is right down to 32, well below its minimum operational strength of 42 squadrons. In his view, the navy should specialise in submarines and smaller surface ships, principally during a defensive role. In his capacity because the military adviser to the govt and because the secretary of the newly created Department of Military Affairs, additionally to his primary role as the permanent chairman of the Chiefs of Staff Committee, General Rawat’s views could well carry the day. 

India’s rising stature, its geopolitical interests and its role as a net security provider within the Indian Ocean region necessitate a robust navy with significant reach and power projection capabilities. Carrier-based airpower may be a critical component in responding to contingencies rapidly at extended ranges and would complement land-based aviation . With China accelerating its carrier developments, it'll be ready to field a carrier task group within the Indian Ocean sooner instead of later. The third carrier, therefore, assumes great importance for India’s maritime strategy. 

The navy has been operating ski-jump carriers for nearly four decades. They provide significant cost savings but accompany major operational constraints. Currently, Vikramaditya operates a maximum of 24 MiG-29K fighters, along side six helicopters for anti-submarine warfare and other duties. At least 70% of Vikramaditya’s resources goes into its own air defence, leaving little or no for long-range strike. Vikrant’s position will be similar. More importantly, ski-jump carriers are handicapped by their inability to launch heavier platforms, like airborne early warning aircraft. 

The proposed INS Vishal would be a flat-top carrier with catapult assisted begin (CATOBAR) capability, which could include an electromagnetic launch system, also knowns as EMALS. It would have a sizeable air component of 70–80 aircraft, including helicopters and early warning aircraft, giving it a big strike capability and reach. Concerns of the govt around costs should be seen in perspective. The costs of the project would be cover 10–14 years, which might make it more manageable. There also are important implications for maintaining necessary skill sets. 

Time is of the essence if the third carrier is to maneuver forward. New disruptive concepts and technologies are likely to emerge to challenge the economic and operational viability of aircraft carriers. New technological developments have enabled the likelihood of more agile and faster ships, submarines, a spectrum of unmanned vehicle technologies – be they aerial, surface, underwater or autonomous – dominate maritime operational strategies with new dimensions of cost effectiveness for better reach, flexibility and application of force. Artifical intelligence–influenced operational concepts like swarming could make the utilization of drones the foremost important element in naval warfare within the future. 

The third carrier is considered an important necessity for the Indian Navy, given the present tensions with China. But with the Indian government delaying its decision, the probabilities of a choice favourable to the navy could also be receding.


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