The possession of an aircraft carrier is of significant value for any navy. The idea behind the development of an aircraft carrier is to project power at a long distance in peacetime and achieve air dominance at sea during a war. It restricts the adversary warships outside of a designated area, acts as a coercive tool, protects interests at sea, and exercises influence over an area. All major powers having interests outside of their territories have developed them, especially after World War II when the potential of carriers to strike targets accurately at a long-distance using aircraft was effectively demonstrated. India operates one aircraft carrier; another is under sea trials, and the third one is planned. The possession of these carriers lifts India as a major power in the Indian Ocean Region. However, the possession of carriers may have more utility during peacetime than a full-fledged war due to the growing effectiveness and success of anti-ship capabilities.
Indian Maritime Doctrine and Aircraft Carriers
Indian Maritime Doctrine outlines a large area as an area of interest for the Indian Navy to strengthen its position as a blue water force capable of operating and projecting power beyond its home waters. The doctrine enlists primary, secondary, and “other areas” as areas of interest based on the location of the Indian Diaspora and overseas investments vital for the Indian Navy. It also enlists various enabling concepts to protect interests in these areas like “sea control” and “sea denial.”
The carrier, during peacetime, performs the power projection role when there is no threat to them. However, their deployment during the war becomes a tricky decision.
The backbone of a blue water navy is the aircraft carrier and the Indian Navy plans to possess three aircraft carriers in total, giving it the flexibility to have two operational carriers all the times. INS Vikramaditya aircraft carrier with a displacement of 45,000 tons is the current operational carrier of India. The under-trial carrier is domestically built INS Vikrant and is slated to be commissioned early next year. The construction of follow-on to Vikrant is being debated in India due to the questions on the utility of aircraft carriers in comparison to submarines. It has not been approved by the Indian Government yet. Indian Navy operates two squadrons of MiG 29K carrier-borne multi-role aircraft inducted in 2010. Various operational problems have been observed in the aircraft like engine, airframe, and fly-by-wire system.
Limitations of Indian Aircraft Carriers
While the anti-ship capabilities are becoming common, more advanced, and precise, Indian carriers are not among the most advanced in the world. There are also certain limitations of the Indian carriers to operate and effectively project power against Pakistan. Firstly, Indian carriers have limited displacement and can carry up to 36 mixes of aircraft. The limited displacement also means reduced fuel load and an operational range of aircraft, forcing it to operate near the adversary. Displacement capacity also impacts the weapons load on the aircraft. Secondly, the aircraft on the carriers are allocated defensive and offensive roles. Increasing numbers for one role can have catastrophic implications for the other. Thirdly, take-off and landing on the carrier are totally different from ground-based landing and take-off. Indian carriers use Short Take-off But Assisted Recovery (STOBAR) take-off and landing system, which has a slower take-off rate than the more advanced Catapult Assisted Take-off But Arrested Recovery (CATOBAR) system.
Carriers are Strategic Assets
The aircraft are costly affairs. Development and operational costs make a carrier a valuable asset for any navy. India acquired Vikramaditya along with 45 MiG-29K aircraft and additional modifications with the overall price ranging between $6 billion and $7 billion. The total price of the second carrier Vikrant with 36 aircraft, is likely to be $10–11 billion. At the same time, the cost of a third carrier will likely be $16–17 billion. The price factor alone makes them a strategic weapon that determines the deployment of the carrier during a war. The carrier, during peacetime, performs the power projection role when there is no threat to them. However, their deployment during the war becomes a tricky decision. It is unlikely that India will deploy them at the initial stages of a war with Pakistan. Although they are protected with a layer of defensive systems, their sinking at this stage will be a huge blow to the morale of the Indian Navy. They are likely to be deployed at the height of fighting when their entry becomes necessary to hold the opposite power.
Pakistan’s Counter Options against Aircraft Carriers
Pakistan is beefing up its muscles against the increasing number of Indian warships and capabilities. Part of its efforts is focused on developing anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) capabilities. It is developing various anti-ship capabilities to effectively neutralize the Indian advantage of large numbers of warships and aircraft carriers. There are three layers of defence against Indian aircraft if deployed against Pakistan.
Firstly, Pakistan deploys anti-ship cruise missiles (ASCM) on its submarines. Pakistan currently operates two Agosta-70 submarines that can fire Harpoon anti-ship missiles, three Agosta 90B submarines that can carry Exocet anti-ship missiles. Eight submarines are on order from China which will also have anti-ship capabilities. Secondly, it has also developed or acquired several ASCMs such as Harba ASCM launched from the ship and the air-launched CM-400AKG anti-ship missile with supersonic speed. The coastal/land-based Zarb ASCM provides the third line of defence in the coastal waters of Pakistan against the intruding carrier. The Navy is also reportedly developing a supersonic cruise missile and an anti-ship ballistic missile. The development of anti-ship ballistic missiles will create a long buffer zone against the Indian carrier depending on the missile’s range.
Indian Navy will seriously consider the growing effectiveness of Pakistan’s anti-ship capabilities for the deployment of its carriers. These capabilities will force Indian carriers to operate from a safer distance making it less useful against the country. Even if trying to carry out a blockade of Pakistan or achieve air dominance against Pakistan in the Arabian sea, it risks its survival against Pakistan’s potent anti-ship capabilities.