India’s manifest desire to be a leading maritime power in the Indo Pacific requires the Indian Navy to have three carriers - two afloat and one for refit in the docks.
With IAC 1 Vikrant likely to be operational by 2023-24, proposal for launching IAC 2 Vishal needs active consideration rather than shelving the same. The Indian Navy’s doctrine is of, “Sea Control,” for which an aircraft carrier is a primary component.
Unstated in the doctrine is that of power projection – ability to carry out operations beyond support of land based aircraft platforms.
The Indian Navy Perspective Plan (1985-2000) thus envisaged a requirement of three aircraft carriers, with two to be operational (East and West coast) and one in refit at any time.
This requirement was also reiterated in the Maritime Capability Perspective Plan (2012-27) as per the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) Report No 17 of 2016 (Navy and Coast Guard).
The Indian Navy thus envisions ready combat availability of two aircraft carriers at any given time, with INS Vikramaditya, IAC 1 Vikrant and the IAC 2 Vishal.
As the INS Viraat was decommissioned in 2016-17, INS Vikramaditya is the only aircraft carrier with the Indian Navy. There have been a number of issues of operational availability of the carrier.
Never the less with IAC 1 Vikrant likely to be fully operational by 2023-24, the Indian Navy will have number plated two aircraft carriers as the INS Vikramaditya may go in for a scheduled refit around the same time.
In effect for at least one decade plus the Indian Navy will continue to have only one aircraft carrier.
What is more the third carrier IAC 2 Vishal has been shelved even after approval in the MCPP 2012-27 and investments in design.
There were projections that Vishal could be nuclear powered and have EMALS launch system rather than the Stobar in the present carriers.
Considerable discussion on Vishal has been undertaken with the United States Department of Defence showing interest in the form of a joint aircraft carrier working group as part of the Defence Technology and Trade Initiative (DTTI). A series of meetings have been held with a view to promote a joint design.
There is however a move to stall approvals for the Vishal with priority being given to acquisition of submarines.
Submarines have an essential role of sea denial and have inherent advantage of surprise and sneak attacks on an unsuspecting enemy reaching close to the shore line.
Essentially a submarine could be seen as a defensive weapon with surge attack capability unlike an aircraft carrier which provides control of the sea.
Submarines are held by small and big powers alike, with large powers fielding nuclear power submarines.
Aircraft carriers on the other hand are, “toys,” if you may like for the big powers.
India has expressed a manifest desire to be a leading power in the maritime security domain with the Prime Minister Mr Narendra Modi presiding over the UN Security Council session on the said subject. This initiative was well received by members of the UNSC with Russian President Vladimir Putin also attending the session.
Aircraft carrier capability is implicit in such an ambition.
Today nations in the Indo Pacific as Japan and Republic of Korea (South Korea) are going in for what are being called – “mini aircraft carrier(s),” with vertical launch F 35 B fifth generation fighters, indicating that these class of warships are value for strategic power.
A delay in launching IAC 2 Vishal would imply that at a certain point of time in the future on decommissioning of the Vikramaditya, the Indian Navy will be once again hobbled with a single aircraft carrier.
Construction of a carrier as per experience of the Vikrant envisages a two decade lead time
For instance project approval for construction of the Indigenous Aircraft Carrier had been accorded by the Cabinet Committee on Security in May 1999, while the carrier will be operational by 2023-24.
For Vishal experience of construction of Vikrant can facilitate cutting back on time with improved project management skills.
Never the less the time to decide is now as this would mean earliest delivery of Vishal can be by 2035, ironically the time China will seek to be a regional, “hegemon,” implying implicitly control of the seas.
If India is forced upon to go for another aircraft carrier at that point of time, it may be a start from the scratch as the expertise in construction of Vikrant may well be lost.
There are ways and means of offsetting budgetary constraints and also building submarine capability in tandem which require creativity rather than resignation to the fate of being at par with littoral powers.