The Indian Navy is once again pushing its case for INS Vishal, even though recently CDS has said that India should move forward with more submarines than a huge capital-intensive ship like a supercarrier. Yet the navy is determined that it wants a third carrier so that it can operate two carriers simultaneously on both eastern and western seaboards even if a carrier is undergoing refit or repairs. It all comes down to this debate- whether India wants to pursue the strategy of Sea Denial or of Sea Control?
Let’s understand both strategies –
Sea Denial – The strategy involves procurement of platforms like submarines and missile boats, so as to deter enemy warship from entering your area of interest. The strategy follows a kind of harassment tactics to make the cost of venturing into your seas by enemy warships high. However, these tactics don’t provide you complete authority over the waters but it just focuses on keeping your enemy away from you but that doesn’t guarantee that enemy won’t try to venture into your waters.
Sea Control – This strategy involves a group of capital warships centered around an Aircraft carrier or a Landing Helicopter Dock (LHD). The aim of this strategy is to establish absolute control over large parts of the sea so as to be in dictating terms on what goes through that area. This helps in creating a naval blockade that chokes your enemy of essential supplies. Sea denial is also part of the sea control strategy. Sea control also ensures that your trade routes are secured while you deny your enemy of the same.
Which strategy is best for India?
Indian Navy has always considered the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) as its own backyard, a playground which India navy will always want to dominate considering the fact that for all three countries i.e. India, China, and Pakistan, the Indian ocean is the main supply route of most of the essential commodities, most important of it being oil. In such a case, the strategy you would want to follow is not Sea Denial but Sea Control. As you would not only want to restrict the movement of enemy navy but create a total blockade to stop any movement of naval or other vessels like oil containers etc. of your enemy and would also want safe passage for your shipping as it is important for your warfighting effort. Now question is- can submarine and missile boats provide you with such capabilities?
Well, the answer is NO! Submarines at best can be used to harass your enemy but they are quite prone to enemy air activity. When China brings in its supercarrier along with an LHD, your submarine will find it very difficult to get close to the carrier group due to multiple ASW helicopter available on those ships.
But the movement of those helos restricts when you have your own fighter jets patrolling the area. As enemy first has to achieve air superiority prior to launching unrestricted ASW patrol. In fact, even for your own ASW platforms like P8 and MH60 Romeo, you will need an immediate air cover, which only an aircraft carrier can provide.
Why INS Vishal when we already have 2 Carriers?
Since it is clear that the Indian Navy would prefer sea domination over sneak attacks, the question which people ask is why another carrier when we already have two. Well to answer this question, we will have to take into consideration many factors, of which most important is what your enemy can muster against you. Now it is well known to the world that China plans to have 5 to 6 carriers by next decade i.e.2030.
While it is most likely that they will keep at least 3 carriers around the South China Sea, the East China Sea and Pacific ocean to challenge the US and Japanese Navy. They can very well permanently deploy at least a carrier in Indian Ocean Region operating from their naval base in Djibouti or potential naval base which can come up either on their owned island Maldives or Coco island. It is also possible that after 2030 when China builds more carriers, it can transfer its refurbished carrier a.k.a. Liaoning to Pakistan Navy just to make India uncomfortable. They anyways don’t plan to keep it in service with themselves for long, as they are not happy with its performance.
This means, in the future, there can be at least two hostile aircraft carriers permanently operating in the Indian Ocean Region(IOR). While more can join too, so to dominate them you too need to have carriers available at all times. And that’s what Indian Navy strategy is to have at least 1 carrier group operational on its every flank if the third one is in refit or maintenance. Another factor always pulled in is the high cost to build a carrier.
The building of Vishal can easily cost the Indian navy around $4-5 billion along with its air group of the fighter jet, AWACS and Multirole helicopters which may cost another $7-8 billion. i.e a total cost of $11-13 billion. But this cost will be divided over a period of around 7-8 years or so. Current year capital allocation for Navy is $3.56 billion and if we take a moderate growth rate of 10% per annum, the Indian Navy will have some $55-60 billion to spend in just the next 10 years. So it is quite possible to start construction in the late 2020s.
Sufficient submarine fleet by the time INS Vishal Construction starts?
India currently has 8 Sindhughosh class, 4 Shishumar class and 2 Kalvari class submarines i.e. a total of 14 submarines. With 4 more Kalvari class and up-gradation of both Sindhughosh class and Shishumar class, the total strength will stand at 18 submarines. With the P75I project, 6 more submarines will be added by 2030 taking a total to 24, which is the sanctioned requirement by the Indian Navy.
All this if the Indian Navy doesn’t even exercise additional clauses in Kalvari class deal and Russian proposal of 3 additional refurbished improved Kilo-class submarines along with the upgrade of 3 Sindhughosh class. However, beyond this point, Sindhughosh and Shishumar class will start retiring but these can be replaced with what Indians unofficially call as P76 indigenous submarines.
The construction of INS Vishal may also start around 2027-28 with design work starting around 2023-24. It is also possible we may see indigenous SSN or nuclear attack submarine based on INS Arihant coming in too by the time construction of Vishal starts as work on these submarines is already going on. So when the construction of INS Vishal starts, we already expect India to achieve decent underwater strength.
What will be needed is just the timely replacement of older submarines, which as a matter of fact won’t cost as much as increasing number costs. Also with India’s successful growth story, the defense budget is supposed to grow exponentially over the next decade to cater to such capital-intensive projects. As the impact of Covid 19 will start easing in a couple of years and the economy is expected to start thriving like before.
INS Vishal Capabilities enhancement over Current Carrier classes
INS Vishal is supposed to be a 65000-tonne beast as compared to 40000 tonne INS Vikrant and 44000 tonne INS Vikramaditya. Vishal will feature the Catapult launch system, probably Electromagnetic Aircraft Launch System(EMALS) instead of the ski jump in its predecessors. Catapult launch provides a considerable advantage over ski Jump like quicker launch time, allowing it to launch heavier fixed-wing platform and also no weight penalty for fighter jets.
Vishal is supposed to have an air group of 50 to 55 aircraft including 36-40 fighter jets(most likely TEDBF), 2-4 AEW&CS, and 10-12 helicopters, while current ski-jump carriers have the capability to carry 24 fighter jets and 10 Helicopters.
The most significant improvement with a catapult launch is the capability to launch fixed-wing AEW&CS like E-2 Hawkeye which has a range in excess of 500km as compared to rotary-wing AEW platforms like Kamov KA-31 which provide a range of merely 150km.
The addition of INS Vishal into the Indian Navy will provide it unmatched superiority in the Indian Ocean region. And with India expected to achieve its desired submarine strength by 2030, should start planning to invest in this Super Carrier. Indian naval planners are quite visionary in their approach to think of this carrier and its usefulness.
A million dollar missile or torpedo V/S a billion dollar carrier
And for all those who come up with the argument that 1 million dollar missile and billions of dollar drowned. Well, that’s just a vague assumption or let me say a laughable assumption. The reason being- first of all, a carrier always operates from a safe distance, and only it’s air wing takes the offensive roles. And for long-range anti-ship cruise or ballistic missiles, you must understand detection and tracking methodology.
First of all, it is next to impossible to detect a carrier group at such distances unless you have a network of very advanced satellites, radars, and other sensors. Even after detecting, for a missile to do continuous tacking and get a lock on is almost next to impossible. A little change is a carrier course or missile approach that will throw the missile miles off the carrier. Even if somehow the missile is able to get a lock on, it will have to go through the network of Air Defense created by the battle group moving with it. Also with AEW&CS in the air, you are likely to spot cruise missile at considerable distances as they won’t be limited by earth curvature.
For Anti-ship ballistic missiles, BARAK-8ER and XR SAM will provide the cover, and also the capability of such a ballistic missile to hit a moving target is yet to be proven to keep aside all those big claims for psychological warfare. Also, you must understand that carriers are made in a way that it is highly unlikely one missile sink it unless it’s a very high angle of the attack say 80-110 degree that too towards the middle of the deck.
You have to be highly unfortunate to be in such a situation to lose a carrier. But then, that’s the risk you always carry in an active warzone, be it anything. For argument towards a submarine closing in and taking a shot, that too is very difficult because of the presence of multiple ASW platforms like ASW corvettes, multipurpose frigates and destroyers, ASW helicopters and submarines covering the carrier battle group.
Post World War-2 to date, there has not been a single carrier which has been sunk but there are tens of success stories revolving around a carrier battle group be it US, UK or India.
Let me end it with this – A submarine may be considered as stealth assassin, you give it a target and it will destroy but a carrier battle group is like a king who decides law of the land, in this case- of the sea.Tweet