Indian Navy is determined to have a 3rd aircraft carrier while CDS Bipin Rawat keeps trying to duck it with various arguments. The point is, what strategy IN want to pursue, which component fit at what place of its strategy, the threat perception of forces, and how they prefer to deal with it. There are many arguments given for not pursuing 3rd larger aircraft carrier, we will try to cover them in this article. Also here we need to clarify 1 very important thing, that when we try to explain the advantage of 1 system, that doesn’t mean we want them at the expense of others. This point is specifically for those guys who think we prefer aircraft carriers over submarines. For us, every system has its own importance and one simply can’t say we should get more submarines at expense of the carrier or vice versa.
In our last article, we tried to explain the Indian Navy Strategy for the IOR region, the Importance of CATOBAR carrier and long-range missile as well as a submarine threat to a CBG. In this part, we will discuss budget, submarine strength, and the topic of unsinkable carriers i.e. Islands. A navy is made of multiple components, which involves surface elements, sub-surface elements, and air elements. Let’s 1st look at IN current requirements and if it can be met.
Everytime a proposal is put forward for a carrier, the 1st argument that pops up is, do we have budget?
So let’s understand Indian defence budget trend. Over last 12 years, Indian defence budget has increased at an average rate of 9% p.a. from Rs. 1,80,018cr in 2009-10 to Rs. 4,71,378cr in 2020-21, while capital allocation has increased at slower rate of 8% p.a. from Rs. 51,112cr in 2009-10 to Rs. 1,13,734cr in 2020-2021, mainly because of implementation of 7th pay commission as well as OROP, which took some share out of the capital budget. Of total capital allocation of Rs. 1,13,734cr around Rs 26,668cr was allocated to Indian Navy in 2020-21. We expect next year i.e. 2021-22 to be a no growth year for defence budget owning to Wuhan Virus disruption, in simple terms, the next year budget will be same as current year budget, beyond that economy is suppose to bounce back and we expect Capital allocation to keep growing at Average rate of 8%p.a.
Navy estimated capital allocation growth chart over next 20 year (in Rs. Crore):
This means Navy will have roughly Rs. 12,20,380cr to spend over next 20 years.
List of known current and future projects of Indian Navy and their estimated cost: (in Rs Crore)
If all the above items are ordered, it will put total naval spending at around Rs. 9,58,900cr, of this IN as of now has projects worth Rs. Rs. 2,96,900 under various stages of construction or initiation. Of these many project are at advanced level of completion and has majority of payment been made, for e.g. INS Vikrant on which expenditure of around 19,500cr has already been incurred and only around 3,000cr remain. Similarly majority of payment with respect to Vishakhapatnam class, Kalvari class etc has been made. Also few projects are alternative for each other, for example, If India goes for 3 additional Kilo class submarine it may not need 3 additional Scorpene. Similarly P28A corvettes, which are proposed guided missile corvettes based on Kamorta design, will be pursued or not is uncertain. What is not considered in above table is Mid Life Refits of older vessels, but cost of such upgrade won’t be extremely high, for example, mid life refit of Talwar class and Delhi class will cost around Rs. 3500cr combined. Also there is sufficient margin for inflation too, this means in long run Indian Navy will likely have sufficient fund to meet its requirements in next 20 years. Moreover rollover of defence budget concept is also under consideration, which will allow accumulation of unused defence fund of a particular year for future use.
Reduction in requirements
The question that many ask is, If Indian Navy will have sufficient funds, why they keep reducing requirements?
It has to do with fund management. A smaller order of particular equipment means less committed liability towards that equipment during a specific period of time, which inturn allows you to initiate more variety of projects in that time frame, though in a smaller number. This way you are able to get different platforms for different requirements to meet current operational needs, while numbers can be consolidated over a larger time period. Let me explain it with a simple example: Suppose you need 10 destroyers and 10 submarines. You have immediate requirements for both, but a budget sufficient to fund either of the two. So what’s done here is 5 destroyers and 5 submarines are ordered, which means your committed liability during that period remain more or less the same but you get both kinds of platform to meet the operational need. But it would not mean that you won’t be ordering 5 more submarines and 5 more destroyers in the future. So it is necessary to understand what was done here, we committed a smaller number of each platform, to allow us to improve capability in 2 different arenas instead of 1, while keeping consolidation of assets for future where budget won’t be a constraint.
Insufficient submarine strength
An important argument put forward is, when India lack submarine strength, why go for carrier.
We hope from the above explanation it is clear that budget won’t be a constraint in a long run, and INS Vishal is a long-term project. The ideal timeline to start INS Vishal would be around 2025-27, with induction slated at 2035-37 timeframe, but altogether discrediting an Aircraft carrier as obsolete or useless is wrong! We will come to it later, but 1st let us explain why we suggested the above timeline. Indian Navy have currently multiple vessels under construction most of which will get completed by 2025-27 time frame, these include major platforms like Vishakhapatnam class, Nilgiri class, advanced Talwar class, NGMV etc. This will free up the committed allocation of the Indian Navy, also significant payment towards P75I, P75A would have been made and initial vessels would be nearing induction in 2027, and will be replacing older Sindhughosh and Shishumar class. Also, India may go on with 3+3 kilo class deal provided by Russia with delivery by 2025-27. Therefore submarine fleet by 2025-27 will be of 22 submarines i.e. 11 Sindhughosh class, 4 shishumar class, 6 kalvari class, and INS Chakra III. Beyond which P75I will replace 4 older Sindhughosh and 2 Shishumar Class starting 2027. During the same time, the Indian Navy can start initial funding towards the carrier by gradually increasing it over time as P75I and P75A get delivered, also the Navy would likely be spending not more than Rs 5000cr annually on the carrier, as the development will spread over 10 years period. This will leave the majority of the annual capital allocation of budget for other projects like MCMV, NMRH, NUH etc. Other than that, the news of possible leasing of 18 F18 Super Hornets is also no less than a sweetener for INS Vishal ambitions of the Indian Navy. We will likely see the induction of TEDBF in 2032, so till 2035-36 they will produce TEDBF to arm INS Vikrant and end the lease of F18, beyond that for INS Vishal, which will be commissioned by around 2037. Also by 2040, India will likely have 24 SSK, 6 SSN, and 6 SSBN, If the tender of 12 P76 gets split up between 2 shipyards with construction starting around 2032-33.
Lack of assets for Carrier Battle Group
Another argument which generally pop up is do we have sufficient platforms to support 3 carrier battle groups?
This question to be honest is absurd, but since it pops up occasionally, we will answer it. A CBG is generally composed of 10-11 ships, which include 2-3 destroyers, similar number of frigates and 1-2 corvettes along with 1 fleet support tanker and 1 SSN or nuclear attack submarine.
Indian Navy will have 3 upgraded Delhi class, 3 Kolkata class and 4 Vishakhapatnam class destroyers with 6 P18 Destroyers likely to be joining Navy by the time INS Vishal come. It will also have 10 Talwar class, 7 Nilgiri class, 3 Shivalik class and 3 upgraded Brahmaputra class frigates. 4 Kamorta class, 8 P28A class corvettes and 6 NGMV will form corvette element of the CBG, while 16 ASW crafts and 4 Kora class corvette will also be there . This makes up 16 destroyers, 23 frigates and 38 corvettes for surface role (Submarine fleet has been discussed above). For fleet support role, we as of now have 2 Deepak class, 1 each of Aditya class and Jyoti class tanker. Also Indian Navy is in process of building 5 more fleet support ship in collaboration with Turkey. The underwater element is where India lacks, with only 1 Akula class i.e. INS chakra which will be replaced by another akula class in year 2022, but by 2030 we may expect induction of Indigenous SSNs and by the time INS Vishal comes we will have a good fleet of 6 SSNs. So this should clear the misconception that Indian Navy lacks platform to support 3 CBG.
Another argument put forward is why not convert Indian Islands of Andaman & Nicobar and Lakshadweep as unsinkable carrier?
Though idea is good but they cannot act as replacement to actual carriers, other than having some very serious limitations. The islands cannot sink but can be attacked more regularly and more frequently than a carrier. Since its a piece of land, it cannot move and the location of air bases are well known in today’s world of Satellite imagery, and GPS guidance make it very easy to keep on hitting them on regular basis with cruise and ballistic missiles before they can be repaired, effectively keeping them out of action. Talking about air defence units, those can be overwhelmed with initial saturation attack and will eventually be destroyed, beyond that you will need just few missiles or even standoff munitions off the aircraft periodically to keep them out of action. Another limitation which come with Island is range limitation. Any aircraft flying off an island will be limited by its combat radius, while in case of actual carrier, the carrier move around virtually providing unlimited range. In Indian scenario we say A&N islands are at choke point of Malacca strait, but many people forget, there are more entry points further south like Sunda strait which remain out of reach from A&N islands, however you can place a carrier group at a safe distance from those strait to welcome PLAN fleet. Not just that, lack of carrier will also limit the range of your P8I to the point where fighter aircraft can escort them , owing to enemy CBG presence in the area, which will also be providing air cover to their submarines which will be lurking in Indian ocean. Not just that, fighters from enemy CBG will keep on harassing Indian commercial shipping along with effectively keeping away Indian non carrier fleet from providing them security. We can consider sending our submarine to take down the enemy carrier, but that too has to go through layer of defences which will involve, security parameter set up by its battle group as well as ASW helicopters. To fire a torpedo, submarine will have to come within 50 knots of carrier, and it will be kind of suicide mission for the submarine, because once the torpedo is fired, either detection or hit will reveal its position, beyond which it will be pretty much defenseless against the battle group. Not just these, there are many other points which we can put forward to argue against this idea, like aircrafts flying off islands will generally have a predictable approach toward enemy combat group etc, but we are sure we have made a point here. we are still in favor of developing both the Islands as airbases but not as an alternative to an actual carrier.
World major navies moving towards submarines instead of Carriers?
In the end, we will like to bring the focus on something which is contrary to popular belief that all major Navies around the world are moving towards more submarines. Well the fact is they are merely improving their submarine fleet but actually moving towards Super Carriers or converting helicopter carriers into VTOL aircraft carriers. So actually the trend is moving back towards Carriers centered Navy.
List of Navies, other than Indian Navy, working on a carrier program and their fixed wing platform are as follows :
1 – China – 65k tons Liaoning and Shadong in active service operating J15, while building larger 85k tons Type 003 and 110k tons Type 004 super carriers, likely to operate J15 and naval version of J20.
2- France – Charles de Gaulle in active service operating Rafale M, while plan for larger 75k tons super carrier by 2040 operating sixth generation FCAS.
3 – Italy – 30k tons Cavour and 14k tons Gluseppe Garibaldi(to be replaced) in active service operating AV-8B harriers (to be replaced by F-35B), while constructing 32k tons Trieste which will have F-35B onboard.
4 – Japan – Japan is in process of converting its two 27k tons Izumo class Helicopter carrier into VTOL carriers capable of carrying F-35B.
5 – Russia – 58k tons Kuznetsov carrying Su 33 and Mig 29K. While plans to build 100k tons Project 23000E Shtorm super carrier with Su 57k as its air wing, if their economy permits.
6 – Spain – 26k tons Juan Carlos I capable of carrying AV-8B Harriers or F-35B.
7- Australia – 2 27.5k tons Canberra class Helicopter carriers based on Juan Carlos I class, being considered to be converted to VTOL Carriers capable of flying USN F-35Bs.
8- Turkey – 27k tons Anadolu, likely to fly Turkish UCAVs like Anka and Bayraktar in light of US sanctions.
9- UK – 2 65k tons Queen Elizabeth Class Carriers with F-35B as its air wing.
10 – USA – 10 100k tons Nimitz class carrier, operating F-18 Super Hornets and F-35C and larger 110k tons Gerald R. Ford class carriers of which 1 in active service and 2 under construction and 4th on order.
11- South Korea – South Korea is considering to operate F-35B off its 19.5k tons Dokdo Class Helicopter Carriers, of which 1 is in active service and 2 on order.
The major navies around the world now understand the importance of carriers and therefore finding ways to build them or convert their existing resources into a light carrier. Indian navy which has a vast Indian ocean to cover should have a larger CATOBAR carrier to assert its dominance in the region. Indian Navy is the most dominant navy in the Indian Ocean Region and that should not change. And for those who comment China will have 70-80 submarines so we should have such numbers too, well China will have 6 carriers too so why not that. The point being, Navy simulates each scenario and after extensive simulations put forward their requirements. Also, it is clear Indian Navy can pursue both 3 Aircraft Carriers as well as a decent submarine fleet in long run.