OPINION | Aircraft Carriers in Indian Ocean Region by Rear Admiral Dr. S Kulshrestha (Retd.), Indian Navy
IndraStra Global

OPINION | Aircraft Carriers in Indian Ocean Region by Rear Admiral Dr. S Kulshrestha (Retd.), Indian Navy

By Rear Admiral Dr. S Kulshrestha (Retd.), Indian Navy

Recently the Government of India cleared the funds for the construction of India’s second indigenous aircraft carrier the 65,000 tonne INS Vishal. In 2014 July, the Modi government had released funds to complete the construction of the first indigenous aircraft carrier INS Vikrant being built at Cochin Shipyard. In 2013 December, it was revealed through Duowei News that the Chinese planned to commission two Liaoning class indigenous aircraft carriers Type 001A by 2020 and the contract for the same had been awarded to the China Shipbuilding Industry Corporation.

A typical U.S. Navy Carrier Strike Group

So why does an aircraft carrier mean so much to navies with blue water aspirations? Firstly, a Carrier strike group (CSG) does not need permissions from any sovereign power for landing/overflying its aircraft, when it is operating in international waters. Secondly, a CSG is a sovereign territory of the country to which it belongs and can position itself in international waters in close vicinity of expected conflict zones. This provides it with tremendous flexibility of operations and makes it a powerful diplomatic negotiating tool. It can declare presence, project power ashore or actively associate in stabilising a conflict environment. An aircraft carrier is akin to a mobile naval air station along with 70 to 80 fighters, bombers and support aircraft, which can sail to any place on the earth within a span of about two weeks travelling 650 to 700 nm per day. An aircraft carrier is however vulnerable to attacks from air, sea and underwater and therefore it normally travels with a protective consort comprising of two Guided missile destroyers capable of firing missiles like the Tomahawk, two destroyers, a frigate, two submarines and a supply ship. This group of ships along with the aircraft carrier is called a CSG. The composition of a CSG is mission centric and can vary depending upon the situation and foreseeable threats that may be encountered.  Thus the CSG has at its disposal, about 9/10 ships, 70/80 aircraft and about 7500/8000 trained naval complement to accomplish its designated task. The air element of the carrier comprises of strike fighter jets (e.g. F/A-18 Hornet), fighter jets for gaining air superiority (eg.F-14 Tomcat), an electronic warfare aircraft (eg. EA- 6B Prowler), A tactical warning and control system aircraft (e.g. E -2C Hawkeye), A subsonic anti submarine jet aircraft (eg. S -3B Viking), and an ASW /SAR helicopter (e.g. SH-60 Sea Hawk).

A CSG is a formidable, awe inspiring, force centre representing its country. It is one of the reasons, why China had shelved its plans to convert Varyag ex Ukraine in to a floating casino and refurbished it for naval use as Liaoning. A researcher at the Chinese Naval Research Institute, Senior Captain Li Jie has said “Aircraft carriers are incomparable and cannot be replaced by other weapons;" If a big power wants to become a strong power, it has to develop aircraft carriers." Needless to state that when Liaoning is fully operationalized and deployed in South China fleet it will considerably shift the balance of power in the territorially disputed region.

The rapid rise of China despite global recession, the accelerated rate of its military modernisation and its assertion of island territorial claims has increased the perception that it is likely to impinge upon the freedom of movement at sea of the US and its allies. China already has air assets, land and space based systems to project Anti Access/ Area-denial regime in areas of its choosing, this coupled with rapid modernisation of its Navy by acquiring Carrier operation capability, land based ASBMs (Dong Feng 21 D, the carrier killer 2000 km range missile) and a credible submarine fleet would make it a force likely to impinge upon US interests in the Asia Pacific region. This in turn would lead to reduction in dominance of the US to project power; weaken faith of allies in US influence & security capabilities, leading to increased possibilities of conflict and destabilisation.

Status of Aircraft Carriers in the Asia Pacific Region

A look at the status of aircraft carriers in the region only underpins the fact that it may be in the best interests of the countries in the region to ensure that balance of power does not tilt in favour of China later. Of the countries in the Asia Pacific region, there are only two regional powers capable of operating aircraft carriers, namely India and Thailand. The Chinese Aircraft carrier Liaoning is understood to be currently operating under training mode.

India: currently operates two carriers (INS Viraat & INS Vikramaditya) which are reasonably potent and can project sufficient power to cover India’s areas of interest. However, with a third carrier (indigenous) joining in a couple of years, India will become a potent regional force in the coming decade.

Thailand: currently operates HTMS Chakri Naruebet, however since the Sea Harriers were retired in 2006, it operates only helicopters.

HTMS Chakri Naruebet of Royal Thai Navy

China: It is anticipated that it may be a couple of years before PLAN is able to operationalize Liaoning for power projection role. There are reports of indigenous Chinese aircraft carriers under design/ construction, which would take some time to be inducted.

Japan: Japanese Izumo-class helicopter destroyer 22DDH 183 is the first of the two new type of helicopter carrier ships being constructed for the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force (JMSDF). The ship can carry up to 14 aircraft however, but only seven ASW helicopters and two search and rescue (SAR) helicopters have been initially planned. This has given rise to the speculation that in future it may be able to support STOVL (short take-off, vertical landing) aircraft. Japan already has the F-35 A (Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightening II) and it would be logical for it to go in for the STOVL version F-35 B if the need arose.

Russia: does not have an aircraft carrier positioned in the region.

USA: currently has three carriers in the region with one based in Japan. The Asia – Pacific shift would entail pivoting of 60% of its naval forces to the Asia – Pacific region, implying thereby that 5/6 aircraft carriers can be mobilised for power projection at very short notice. This amounts to about 45 squadrons of fighters (~ 350 a/c). The region will become a beehive of activity with US regional maritime exercises, port calls, disaster relief operations etc.

"Elements of China's military modernization appear designed to challenge our freedom of action in the region." - Admiral R Willard, U.S. Navy.

The economics of the region and Anti Access/ Area-denial perception brings to fore the need for the United States of America to keep projecting its power from the sea if wants to maintain its supremacy in the area. Needless to assert that the US will have no option but to keep its navy active in the Asia – Pacific region for a long time to come.

Publication Details:

Kulshrestha, Sanatan. "Aircraft Carriers in Indian Ocean Regionby Rear Admiral Dr. S. Kulshrestha (Retd.), INDIAN NAVY " IndraStra Global 01, no. 05 (2015): MAY-30. http://www.indrastra.com/2015/05/OPINION-Aircraft-Carriers-in-Indian-Ocean-Region-by-Rear-Admiral-S-Kulshrestha-INDIAN-NAVY-Retd.html.