Indian Maritime Airpower Pt. 1

This article originally featured on South Asia Defence and Strategic Review and is republished with permission.

By Vice Admiral Pradeep Chauhan, AVSM & Bar, VSM, IN (Retd) 

The once fierce IN-IAF debate about the relative efficacy of carrier-borne airpower versus shore-based airpower supported by airborne replenishment tankers has largely been muted by the availability of budgetary support for both. In fact, serious practitioners of India’s military airpower now include all three Indian Armed Forces. In terms of their holdings, operational reach, and logistical complexity, they rank in the following order: the Indian Air Force, the Indian Navy, and the Indian Army. However, the country’s paramilitary forces, too, — most especially the Indian Coast Guard and, to a lesser extent, the Air Wing of the Border Security Force (BSF) — have a significant role in the deployment of military airpower within the country and its maritime zones.  Driving this more ‘egalitarian’ approach is the growing realization that India’s rise demands an urgent and substantive investment in all dimensions of national security. These include internal (societal) as well as external dimensions. They also include intangible facets (building trust-capital, education and human resource skilling, sustainable resource-management, etc.,) as well as tangible ones (infrastructure, technology, manpower, equipment, etc.) Importantly, the investment of large sums of money is common to all of these. 

Narrowing our focus to the tangible facets of our external security, and further, to an examination of available options for the application of air power for maritime security, we find India once again in a rather unenviable position for a self-avowed major maritime power. In the coming month or two, the Indian Navy will (very unwisely and very prematurely, in the opinion of this writer) decommission the Viraat — mainly for lack of her integral Sea Harrier aircraft, which have already been phased out. This decision is typically that of a new toy relegating an older one to the basement and is probably due to the ‘Air Force-conditioning’ of the Navy’s senior naval aviators who were at the apex levels of the Navy when this decision was made. The fact that a duly constituted Board of Officers (BoO) took this decision is merely a fig leaf of a cover, for the BoO’s decision would have been governed and bound by Terms of Reference given to it. The Viraat, in her earlier avatar as the Hermes, has served admirably as a commando carrier and is internally equipped to embark and sustain 900 fully armed troops. Thus, even as the induction of four new Landing Platforms Dock (LPD) remains mired in the Kafkaesque labyrinth of the South and North Blocks where the Ministries of Defence and Finance play their own version of the Pentagon Wars, the Navy has squandered the opportunity of sustaining the Viraat as an immediately available ‘Landing Platform: Helicopter’ (LPH). The ship ought to have been delinked from frontline Fleet operations, made to embark 16 ALH (the time-intensiveness of their blade-folding would not be an issue as they would be required solely for deliberate deployment and not for reactionary ones), and been used to gain invaluable procedural and operational-logistical experience for amphibious operations. But that, as the aphorism goes, is another story that will be dilated upon elsewhere. 

Where frontline Fleet operations are concerned, the new Vikrant is still a couple of years away from induction, and in the interim, the Vikramaditya and her integral air group (comprising MiG-29K variants and a woefully inadequate number of rotary-wing aircraft such as the Kamov-31, and the venerable Sea King Mk 42B and Chetak) will be all that can be fielded for the critical here-and-now element of naval airpower.On the other hand, we have the media-driven hype and hoopla over the several aerospace exhibitions and related mega-events that are being organized with increasing frequency under the ‘Make-in-India’ banner — and often by one or another ‘chamber of commerce.’ These certainly cause adrenaline rushes and surges of nationalistic fervor, but good advertising cannot for long compensate for the lack of a good product. On perhaps a more useful level, however, all this serves to generate a renewed examination of the available options in respect of this desired air power. As a consequence, debates are reignited on the ‘desirability’ versus ‘affordability,’ and the ‘desirability’ versus the ‘survivability’ of aircraft carriers versus land-based air power, contextualized not only to the prevailing security environment, but also to that expected to prevail in the immediately foreseeable future. Thus, while the criticality of the maritime domain — and that of the military maritime domain — is beyond any reasonable doubt, the question is whether aircraft carriers do, indeed, provide the biggest ‘bang’ for our collective ‘buck.’ 

As mentioned above, there are two fundamental threads along which this debate tends to proceed. The first argues for and against the ‘cost’ — or, more appropriately (even if less frequently), the ‘cost-effectiveness’ — of aircraft carriers, both within the paradigm of conflict as well as outside of it. The second examines the survivability (defensibility) of aircraft carriers in the contemporary and foreseeable battle milieu.  

Since the option of not having any airborne surveillance or combat capability at all is one that all schools of thought reject, it is relevant to compare the ‘costs’ involved and the ‘cost-effectiveness’ accruing from sea-based (integral) airpower versus land-based airpower. Inevitably, the steep cost of an aircraft carrier makes it the subject of intense scrutiny by experts and the lay public alike. And indeed, an informed debate is entirely right and proper for it is public taxes that allow one or the other option to be exercised.  Of course, the operative word there is ‘informed.’ 

Cost Comparison between Airbases at Sea and on Land 

It is true that a modern aircraft carrier costs an enormous amount of money to procure, even more to construct indigenously, and even more for it to be operated and periodically maintained (refitted), along with its complement of aircraft, over the several decades of its operational life. Available open-source inputs indicate that the final cost of the Vikramaditya has been of the order of ₹ 12,500 Crore (USD ~$1.8 billion), while the ongoing construction of the 40,000-tonne indigenous aircraft carrier (the Vikrant) will reportedly cost the exchequer some ₹ 24,000 Crore (USD ~$3.6 billion) although this latter figure also includes the cost of infrastructure enhancement of the Cochin Shipyard, where the Vikrant is being built. These are very considerable sums of money. What about the costs of the shore-based air-power option? There are equally forbidding costs to be airborne here as well — in the construction and periodic maintenance of ‘coastal’, ‘inland’ and ‘forward’ IAF airbases. For instance, just the replacement cost of a single runway on an existing air force base can easily cross ₹ 600 Crore.  In the case of a ‘virgin’ airbase, the construction cost would have to include land-leveling and associated land-development costs as well. At the USA’s Atlanta airport, for example, the cost of adding a fifth runway capable of routinely handling wide-bodied jet aircraft was $1.24 billion which is about ₹ 7,500 Crore. Add to this the cost of the parallel taxi track, the sheltered, bombproof hangars, the ATC, the various radars, navigational and communication equipment, and the self-defense wherewithal—and one ends up with a cost far in excess of the overall cost of construction of an indigenous aircraft carrier.

The largest and the first indigenously-built, 40,000 tonne aircraft carrier (IAC) named INS Vikrant was undocked on 10 Jun 2015 at a simple ceremony held at the Cochin Shipyard Limited (CSL). (Indian Navy photo)  

Some analysts, in attempting to counter the inclusion of all this airbase infrastructure have tried to inflate the cost of the aircraft carrier by adding the life-cycle cost of the escort forces which, together with the carrier itself, make up a Carrier Battle Group. However, the difference is that even without the aircraft carrier each of these warships that comprise the CBG are potent and eminently deployable platforms, while without the aircraft that it supports, shore-based infrastructure is meaningless. However, the lack of mobility of an airbase ashore is where the aircraft carrier really scores over the former. Each aircraft carrier provides for an extensively mobile’airbase, thereby virtualizing a number of static ones. Once the emotive content is removed from the comparative equation, the aircraft carrier, with its operational life of some 45-50 years, is readily seen to offer the most cost-effective option for dealing with mobile maritime threats. That said, it is equally obvious that shore-based threats that emanate deep inland (and which must be countered there) cannot be met by carrier-borne airpower.  There is, thus, little option but to simultaneously incur the expenditure required to build up the nation’s shore-based airpower, most especially that of the Indian Air Force.  

Carrier Survivability 

This brings us to the question of the survivability (defensibility) of the aircraft carrier in the contemporary and foreseeable battle milieu.           

Several Indian analysts worriedly point to the acquisition by potential adversaries of reconnaissance satellites, anti-ship ballistic missiles, supersonic (and now ‘hypersonic’) long-range cruise missiles, nuclear-propelled attack submarines (SSNs), very quiet diesel-electric submarines, and so on. These are serious apprehensions and neither can nor should evoke glib responses that are driven by empty bravado. There are real lives involved and that too, in large numbers. A modern aircraft carrier is run by a highly trained crew of well over 1,500 men. This roughly corresponds to one-and-a-half Infantry Battalions of the Indian Army! Other than in a nuclear war, it is impossible for the Indian Army to lose one-and-a-half battalions to enemy combat-power in just a few minutes. However, the fact this magnitude of human loss may occur in so compressed a timeframe is exactly what could happen were one of the Indian Navy’s contemporary aircraft carriers to be sunk as a result of enemy action. The effect upon residual fighting capability, as also upon resultant morale at the Naval, Armed Forces, and national levels would be no less catastrophic. Hence issues involving a careful vulnerability-assessment and equally careful vulnerability-mitigation are serious matters that merit serious and informed discussion and debate. 

Operational Employment 

As mentioned in the cover story of the Nov-Dec 2016 edition of this magazine (See “The Indian Navy, Rising to New Challenges”, pp. 19-23), in order to maximize her options for strategic or operational maneuver (at the regional-theater level) in responding to military aggression by potentially adversarial nation-states such as China and Pakistan, India is inevitably driven to acquire, possess and master ‘blue water’ naval capability. This capability is centered upon the Carrier Battle Group (CBG), which is a synergistic and mutually-supporting conglomerate of warships centered upon an aircraft carrier, such that the combat-capability of the group as a whole is greater than the sum of its parts. It is very important to bear in mind that it is the group and not the aircraft carrier alone that must remain the central point of reference and it is a basic analytical error to try and fractionalize the CBG. Of course, not all analysts are able to resist the temptation of analyzing the aircraft carrier as a standalone ship (largely because a carrier is so hugely symbolic and tends to attract so much attention). The net result is the development of a set of apparently sophisticated but nevertheless fallacious arguments relating to the real and perceived vulnerabilities of this single platform alone. 

A typical combat-engagement cycle involves sequential Surveillance, Detection, Classification, Identification, Localization, Tracking, Attack-Criteria (i.e. Evasion / Engagement), and Damage Assessment. It is against this cycle that the vulnerability of an Indian CBG in times of conflict needs to be assessed. The first problem for an enemy that seeks the destruction of an aircraft carrier of the size and type under discussion is one of combat surveillance and resultant detection.  

CBGs routinely put to sea well before any crisis deteriorates into conflict and would invariably have been judiciously positioned firmly within ‘blue-waters.’ The fact that all carrier-operating navies realize the folly of keeping aircraft carriers in harbor and put them out to sea well in time is borne out by history. In the six years of the Second World War, only one aircraft carrier (the Imperial Japanese Ship Amagi) was ever sunk while in port. Thus, as Dr. Loren Thompson of the USA’s Lexington Institute reminds us, “…the most basic protection the carrier has against being detected… is distance. The areas in which carriers typically operate are so vast that adversaries would be hard-pressed to find them even in the absence of active countermeasures by the battle group.” 

The magnitude of this problem needs to be appreciated. The Indian Ocean has an area of some 73.6 million square kilometers. Even if one were to consider just the 3.86 million square kilometers of the Arabian Sea alone, it would be obvious that continuous surveillance of such a large water body is well outside current capabilities of any form of shore-based radar, including the much touted Over-the-Horizon ones. Persistent surveillance by sea-based radars (aboard ships and submarines) is a complex affair. The average range of detection by a shipborne radar of a large surface ship is only about 30 nm (56 km), thereby yielding detection within an area (πr2) of 9852 km², which is just 0.2 percent of the Arabian Sea! For the entire Arabian Sea to be kept under surveillance against a CBG, one would need some 471 ships, each with continuously-operating surface-detection radar, manned on a ‘24 x 7’ basis by a set of highly trained and constantly awake and alert radar operators. Persistent surveillance by submarines is a non-starter as detection-ranges are significantly lower due to the low height of the radar antenna — apart from not being an operationally viable option.

Consequently, the options of choice are satellite-based oceanic surveillance and oceanic surveillance by airborne radars. However, since any contemporary Indian CBG would be quite comfortably able to cover a distance of some 900-1,000 km in a 24-hour period, real-time detection is needed. Insofar as satellite-based detection is concerned, this calls for ground stations whose footprint would enable real time downloads of imagery (electro-optical, radar, infrared, or whatever) of medium/large objects detected at sea. An adversary seeking to make the Indian Ocean transparent must therefore possess an adequate number of adequately located ground stations. As the name implies, ground stations require ground. Such an adversary must, therefore, possess adequate territory upon which ground stations can be positioned — even if such ground stations are contemporary, small, and/or portable ones, such as the U.S./NATO ‘RAPIDS’ (Resource and Program Information Development System). All this is well beyond the current or near-term capabilities of either of India’s likely adversaries.

Turning finally to airborne detection, this is typically achieved through shore-based Long Range Maritime Patrol’ (LRMP) aircraft such as the P3C Orion, the Boeing P8I, etc. Pakistan has some capability within the Arabian Sea and China has some marginal capability at the eastern fringes of the Bay of Bengal. These capabilities are further degraded by the Indian Navy’s deployment pattern in respect of the CBG. In accordance of the principles of maneuver warfare (as opposed to those of attrition warfare), the CBG would not normally be deployed where the enemy’s tri-service strength is the greatest — in this case, within the unrefuelled combat radius of an intact enemy’s shore-based Fighter Ground Attack (FGA) aircraft. Indeed, the deployment pattern of the CBG is an overarching factor that is germane right across the combat-engagement cycle under consideration.  

But what if detection is, indeed, achieved? How survivable is the aircraft carrier thereafter? This is what the second part of this article will explore…stay tuned. 

Vice Admiral Pradeep Chauhan retired as Commandant of the Indian Naval Academy at Ezhimala. He is an alumnus of the prestigious National Defence College.

Featured image: Admiral Gorshkov under refit to become INS Vikramaditya. Note ski deck. (Photo via Defense.pk)

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