Carriers of the Indo-Pacific Maritime Great Game

By Felix Seidler, Institute for Security Policy, University of Kiel, Germany / German blogger.

Less Liaoning

Setting the stage for the Indo-Pacific Maritime Great Game
Setting the stage for the Indo-Pacific Maritime Great Game

Nothing has been as over-hyped since August 2011 as China’s aircraft carrier program.  After the former Soviet carrier Varyag, fully refurbished by the Chinese and renamed Liaoning, took its first “test drive”, thousands of blog posts, press pieces, and scholarly articles argued about possible regional and global implications.  Is this single ship a regional or even global threat?  What about the balance in the East and South China Seas?

Stay calm, people.  After a few tests, China’s Navy – the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) – has shown it is in fact still years away from having an operational aircraft carrier, let alone integrated carrier strike group.

Moreover, if a navy wants to have a single operationally available aircraft carrier at any one time, it needs at least two, and better still three carriers in rotation: the one in operational status, one in the shipyard, and one in training and work-ups.  According to these numbers, it is unlikely that the PLAN will be able to sustain a “blue water” carrier presence before 2020 based on projected shipbuilding schedules.

Even the first flights of a J-15 Shark from Liaoning’s deck were more PR event than step towards a credible carrier force.  It’s one thing to launch a single fighter under controlled and planned conditions.  Conducting dozens of flight movements per hour in wartime requires a significant increase in capabilities and training.  To reach this, China must still walk a long road.

Eye on India

How important is Shark Week?
How important is Shark Week?

However, while most observers were busy with Liaoning, Asia’s only operational aircraft carrier, India’s INS Viraat, has largely been left out of the discussion (sorry, Thailand, but your never-operating carrier is not a serious asset).  The first reason why India’s carrier must be taken more seriously than China: operational experience.  India has been operating its current carrier since 1987 (the now-decommissioned INS Vikrant began service in 1961), and already has in place the necessary supply chains and logistics that the PLAN lacks.  China’s maritime “Long March” could take longer than Mao’s to gain all the experience India already has.  And while both China and India could turn to Russia for potential assistance, only the latter would likely receive carrier support – whether logistics or training – from the U.S., France, or the U.K.


Unlike their Chinese counterparts, Indian commanders already conduct serious exercises with their helicopter and fighter pilots integrated with their carrier crews.  China, due to the lack of capacity (i.e. a carrier at sea) has not yet started the most crucial parts of its carrier training.  Russian experts warn it may take the Chinese another decade to learn how to “efficiently” run carrier operations.  Meanwhile, India’s next carrier INS Vikramaditya (former Soviet Admiral Gorshkov), due the benefits of Russian support, is already training in Arctic waters and is expected despite delays to enter service in late 2013 or 2014.  The indigenously built INS Vikrant is slated to be commissioned in 2015.  In consequence, whenever the PLAN’s first carrier is operational, India will have at least two well-trained counterparts (Viraat is set to decommission in 2020).  Furthermore, India will generally be able to maintain one operational carrier off-shore while China, at least initially, will not.

New Delhi and The Three Carrier Big Boys

Beside Russian support – generous, but not free – India participates in joint exercises with the navies of the other two “Carrier Big Boys,” the U.S. and France.  The PLAN is far from such trials and, beyond search and rescue (SAR), these navies by policy will not conduct full-scale combat training with a Chinese carrier, their possible future foe.

For instance, in April 2012, the U.S. and India conducted the 15th joint naval Exercise Malabar; which also included warships from Australia, Japan, and Singapore.  Training with the U.S. means that India has the opportunity to look at and, thereby, learn from the skills of the world’s best carrier-operating navy.  However, Indians pilots have not yet been reported taking off from U.S. carriers.  Also unprecedented but not improbable, India’s carrier officers, pilots, and crews could hone their skills training side-by-side with the world’s best counterparts.  This is something Chinese sailors are probably never going to experience.  China’s fighter pilots had to travel to Brazil for portions of their carrier flight training.

Moreover, the U.S. is joined by France in using their carriers as political means of improving strategic ties with India.  In 2011 the French Navy sent its carrier Charles de Gaulle, accompanied by surface vessels and a nuclear sub, to India for a joint exercise.  Of course, this was also an advertisement for the French carrier-capable Rafale fighter, which India has since purchased.  Operating combat-proven (Libya), NATO-interoperable fighters from carriers is surely a positive.  Meanwhile, the competition is mostly working with slight improvements on copied Soviet and Russian designs.  While China is developing a flat-top capable stealth fighter (the J-31), it will take years before it reaches full operational capabilities and production.  In response to the threat of a Chinese carrier with J-31s, India could opt for the F-35C or a carrier-capable version of the Russian T-50 PAK FA.  The U.S. and Russia would probably sell everything to New Delhi to keep a resurgent India in their camp.

Given all these advantages there can be no doubt that India’s already operating carriers deserve much higher esteem than China’s refurbished test-object in Dalian shipyard. However, it’s time to put the carriers into the geo-strategic context.

India’s Lasting Geo-strategic Advantage

Andmanen und NikobarenFor all its current carrier edge over China, India will not become a U.S.-like carrier superpower; but nor does it need to.  Look at the Indian Ocean on the map and you’ll see the world’s most important sea-lanes running in front of the Indian military’s ports and air bases.  Some of the most critical geostrategic hotspots and maritime chokepoints, including the Strait of Hormuz, the Malacca Strait, and the Gulf of Aden are nearby.  For example, from its Andaman and Nikobar bases, India could easily block the northern entry of the Malacca Strait in the event of conflict.

By comparison, the PLAN has natural access only to the Malacca Strait, and to reach it must traverse the South China Sea, which can easily be filled with the subs and vessels of neighboring nations’ and the U.S. Navy.  Thus, due to geography, the PLAN would have a far more difficult time exerting control on, or re-opening, access to the chokepoint than the Indian Navy.  The Indian Navy would have a good deal easier job of accessing the South China Sea than the PLAN the Indian Ocean.  Additionally, India has no “island chains” from which opposing forces can launch strikes, and therefore does not need to concentrate on Anti-Access/Area-Denial (A2/AD) and instead can focus on freedom of action.

The Indo-Pacific Maritime Great Game

South_China_Sea_claimsFinally, in the Indo-Pacific Maritime Great Game – how I like to describe what is going to happen in the map at top over the next 50 years – the better cards are in India’s hand.

As mentioned, India has the geographic edge.  New Delhi’s maritime lifelines cannot easily be blocked.  And, if someone tried, India’s carriers, surface vessels, subs, and air bases are within striking distance of the chokepoints.  Furthermore, India has the better demography, with a younger (average) population base than China’s, which is “getting older before it gets rich.”  This is important, because the Achilles Heel of the PLAN’s carrier program is the development of the Chinese population.  Changes in society and government could reverse Beijing’s decisions in the carrier case.  In 2060, India is expected to be the third or second largest economy in the world.  Hence, it will have the money and the technology to sustain its number of carriers at an even higher rate than present.

With this in mind, whoever worries in the U.S. or Europe about these Chinese carriers, which could patrol the Indian Ocean’s SLOCs, should remember that India will be there too.  So will other countries, like Australia.  It’s time to recognize that of the two Indo-Pacific neighbors only one can as yet legitimately claim to be a global maritime power.

Besides, it won’t all come down to naval power in the Indo-Pacific Maritime Great Game.  Of course, as the U.S. military recognizes, it must incorporate Air-Sea, but Space and Cyber must play integral roles too.  Remember, all ships and fighters are worth nothing without satellite communications and a working cyber infrastructure.  Therefore, wordy though it is, an Air-Sea-Space-Cyber-Battle is the way ahead (or perhaps Air-Sea+?); perhaps not only for the U.S., but for those developing their influence in the Indo-Pacific too.

Maritime Janus



January is named for the Roman God Janus, the two-faced deity of the doorway or the threshold.  With one face looking toward the future, and the other contemplating the past, Janus inspires the annual reviews of naval affairs  as well as the predictions for the future that we see in the naval blogosphere.  New Years 2013 in the maritime world is no different than in years past.

Over at Information Dissemination our favorite China shipyard-watcher Feng has a great post summarizing where the People’s Liberation Army Navy has been in the past year.  Two things caught our eye in reading through Feng’s summary.  First, seeing it all laid out in one place really emphasizes the capacity that is being developed by Chinese shipyards.  For all the discussion of a dwindling industrial base in the United States, it is interesting to watch the pace of work in the Chinese shipbuilding industry.  Second, we shouldn’t miss the massive construction underway for the maritime policing and Coast Guard equivalents in the People’s Republic.  USCG cutters routinely deploy globally, sailing with USN ships in the Arabian Gulf and Pacific as well as the regular patrol of our backyard in the Caribbean.  As China continues to build cutters and grows the size of their maritime security forces, we should expect them to develop interoperability with the PLAN in the same way the USCG and USN have developed their concept of The National Fleet.  This melding of law enforcement patrol with military operations (based on a model provided by the Americans) in the South and East China Seas will continue to complicate the issues there.

Also at ID, CDR Bryan McGrath gives us a quick look at some highlights for I&W to watch for in 2013.  We were glad to see him place the Blue/Green Team as his top item to keep an eye on.  The Marines need to get over their fears of another Guadalcanal and return to their historic roots as an integrated part of naval forces.  The Navy needs to overcome their self-consciousness about their comparative lack of recent combat experience and learn to look to the Marines for ideas and help in developing new concepts.  It is time that both forces genuinely came together as an integrated, hybrid force rather than a pair of brothers constantly arm wrestling over who side is “supported” and who is “supporting.”  We also note that discussions about the future of the Air Wing are on CDR McGrath’s list.  That’s easy for a former SWO to say, but he’s right.  The Naval Aviators amongst us are going to have to realize that there need to be some serious changes.  Hard thinking, innovative ideas, and practical experimentation and testing will be required…humming “Highway to the Danger Zone” and quoting Goose and Slider will only give our adversaries more time to realize our weaknesses and take advantage of them.  Maverick told us that you don’t have time to think up there…unfortunately today’s challenges require us to have people who are practiced and capable thinkers.

Elsewhere online the sometimes genial, sometimes grumpy, CDR Salamander takes a broader view toward the future at his blog.  Strategy is the matching of ends, ways, and means.  Sal points out that the United States must figure out the last part, with an honest and genuine assessment of the national financial status.  Without it, developing “the ends” of national policy, and “the ways” of a sound Naval policy and shipbuilding plan, is impossible.  That honest assessment…it isn’t going to be pretty.  It has some very serious ramifications for the Department of the Navy, but also for every single part of American society.

We encourage you to follow the links and read the posts.  There is some serious thinking here, some deep analysis, and some quick ideas that can help us frame the coming year – all worth your time.  Janus is the namesake of the first month of the year and serves as a symbol of our New Year’s passion for self-assessment.  He also serves as a fantastic symbol for naval analysts in general as we attempt to clarify the lessons of the past to illuminate our way into the future.  If you’re still feeling a need for speed though, check this out to get your 2013 off to the right start.

The Firm of Maynard, Cushing, & Ellis does not represent the opinions of anyone that matters.  Formed by Lieutenant Robert Maynard RN, Lieutenant William Cushing USN, and Captain Pete Ellis USMC, the firm doesn’t speak for the US Government, the Department of Defense, The Foreign Office, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, or the Department of Silly Walks.

Most Popular CIMSEC Stories of 2012

Constitution goes out to sea in Boston Harbor, August, 2012

2012 was a great year for us here at CIMSEC. As a new organization it was technically both our best and worst year. But not all posts and articles are created equally. So here are our top pieces of 2012 as determined by you, our readers, based on the number of times the articles were accessed:


10. Who Defeated the Somali Pirates?

– LCDR Mark Munson, Sep 2

As the title suggests, the article explores the various factors that led to the precipitous fall in piracy off the Horn of Africa.  Humorously, the article was pirated and reprinted without attribution by an online Somali newspaper, The Somaliland Sun.


9. “Was it Over When the Drones Bombed Pearl Harbor?”

– LT Scott Cheney-Peters, July 12

This piece envisions a hypothetical future-war scenario, based on current tech trends and capabilities, using naval drones and cyber attack to achieve tactical surprise against the dastardly nation of Orangelandia. We got a re-tweet from Pete W. Singer, author of Wired for War, which I am now making my way through.


8. Modernizing the Polish Navy

– “Viribus Unitis,” Sep 1

Written by our esteemed colleague and contributor in Poland, Przemek Krajewski, this post covered the historic role and future of Poland’s Navy, and received a good deal of attention from industry analysts and those curious about the state and pace of Polish naval modernization.


7. SECNAV Reintroduces Grog to the Navy

– “Maynard, Cushing, & Ellis,” Oct 5

One of the many top-10 articles from our popular International Maritime Satire Week (4 come from that week). When the choice is between hard-hitting analysis and satire, the people have clearly spoken. Good thing we don’t rely on ad revenues!


6. Conning the Constitution

– LT Chris Peters, Sep 3

LT Chris Peters had the honor of taking the conn when the USS Constitution went underway under sail in Boston Harbor this summer for only the second time in 131 years. Here he describes an experience aboard Old Ironsides he’ll never forget.


5. Pentagon Announces Sequestration Scenario for the Navy

– LT Scott Cheney-Peters, Oct 10

There will be no Sequestration, at least for another two months, but if it does come to cuts, here’s how the Navy will pay the bills…in the world of satire.


4. Breaking the Bottleneck: Maritime Terrorism and “Economic Chokepoints” (Part 1)

– Andrew Walker, June 30

From our partners at the Atlantic Council of Canada comes an examination of the vulnerability of economic chokepoints to maritime terrorism. Sadly not part of International Maritime Satire Week.


3. CNO Introduces Equal Opportunity Red Teams

– LTJG Matt Hipple, Oct 5

This article ponders a world in which Sailors are not only told what not to do, but in which ‘speed traps’ are laid to catch the unwary. Pure satire, right?


2. An Influence Squadron in the Making?

– LT Kurt Albaugh, May 22

Kurt’s post explores alternate configurations of platforms for naval squadrons – using amphibs and small craft to their best effect.


1. 9th Season of “Deadliest Catch” to Film in South China Sea

– Bret Perry, Oct 3

Far and away the most popular article of the past year was the fictional preview of the upcoming season of “Deadliest Catch.”  Bonus: Check out the comments section to see what one of the producers of the show, Todd Stanley, thought of the piece.

The Mark II Eyeball

I'm sure I don't need my peripheral vision...
I’m sure I don’t need my peripheral vision…

If you ask Sailors in the U.S. Navy to list the most important sensors for accomplishing their mission, a likely response is the high-tech name for that fundamental, but decidedly low-tech device – the Mark I Eyeball.  In light of recent developments the Mark II may well be only a short way off. 

Earlier this year we reported on the conceptual developments coming out of Google’s Project Glass – Augmented Reality (AR) goggles – and began to address their potential applications for the Navy, specifically for damage control teams and bridge and CIC watchstanders.  The benefits of such devices are two-fold.  First, they are a way to reduce physical requirements, such as carrying or activating a handheld radio with one’s hand, or walking to a console (and perhaps using hands again) to call up information.  Second, as the walk to a console highlights AR goggles can facilitate quicker data retrieval when time is of the essence, and deliver it more accurately than when shouted by a shipmate.

Yet there are limitations to AR goggles – both practical and technological. 

First, for the time being, AR devices require the same (or more) data exchange capabilities as the handsets they might someday replace.  For now this means WiFi, Bluetooth, interior cellular, or radio.  Unfortunately, as anyone who has enjoyed communicating during fire-fighting or force protection drills can tell you, large, metal, watertight doors are excellent obstructors of transmissions.  While strides have been made over the past decade, range and transmission quality will remain a challenge, especially for roving or expansive interior shipboard watchteams.  While it might make sense to install transmitters in areas such as the bridge or CIC for fixed-use watchstanders, setting up transmitters and relays throughout the ship for coverage for larger watchteams is likely to be a more costly endeavor.

Second, voice recognition is integral to much of the system, yet is an imprecise interface for highlighting or selecting physical objects encountered in actual reality (“Siri, what is the distance to that sailboat?  No, the other one, with the blue hull.  Siri, that’s a buoy”).  Some of this can be mitigated by auto-designation systems of the type already in use by most radars (“Siri, kill track 223”).  However an auto-designation approach would involve cumbersome doctrine/rule-setting, run the risk of inundating the user with too much data, and still allow a large number of objects to remain outside the system – likely rendering it unmanageable for roving watchstanders.

One solution is letting a Sailors’ eyes do the selecting.  This can be achieved by incorporating eye tracking into the AR headsets.  Eye tracking is a type of interface that, as the name suggests, allows computers to determine exactly where, and therefore at what, someone’s eyes are looking though the use of miniature cameras and infrared light (for more on the science, read this).

As The Economist reports, the cost of using headset-mounted eye-tracking technology has halved over the past decade, to about $15,000.  That’s still a bit pricey.  And when the requirements for making headsets ruggedized for military use and integrating them with AR headsets are taken into account the price tag is likely to increase to the point of being unaffordable at present.  But the fundamental technology is there and operational.

In the Eye of the SailorA third AR limitation is that cramming all of the equipment into a headset can make the device pretty unwieldy.  Luckily, miniaturization of components is expected to continue apace, and one DARPA project could yield another approach (at the potential loss of an eye-tracking ability).  The Soldier Centric Imaging via Computational Cameras (SCENICC) program is funding research to develop contact lenses for both AR and VR displays.  As the site describes it, “Instead of oversized virtual reality helmets, digital images are projected onto tiny full-color displays that are very near the eye.  These novel contact lenses allow users to focus simultaneously on objects that are close up and far away.”  Such contact lenses could be ideal for providing watchstanders a limited heads-up display of the most important data (a ship’s course and speed, for example), but would need an integrated data-receiver.

Beyond AR

Both eye tracking and the DARPA contact lenses point to other potential naval uses.  The Economist describes truckers’ use of eye-tracking to monitor their state of alertness and warn them if they start falling asleep.  If the price of integrated headsets drops enough, watchteam leaders may no longer need to flash a light in the eyes of their team to determine who needs a cup of Joe.  Already, Eye-Com Corporation has designed an “eye-tracking scuba mask for Navy SEALs that detects fatigue, levels of blood oxygen and nitrogen narcosis, a form of inebriation often experienced on deep dives.”

Naval aviation could also get a boost.  A Vermont firm is using eye tracking to help train pilots by monitoring their adherence to checklist procedures.  Pilots flying an aircraft from the cockpit or remotely piloting an unmanned system (aerial or otherwise) from the ground could use eye tracking to control movement or weapons targeting.     

Eye tracking models soon available for jealous girflriends everywhere.
Eye tracking headsets soon available for jealous girflriends everywhere.

Likewise the DARPA lenses point to potential drone use.  While the lenses are not designed to provide input to a drone – that would have to be done using a different interface such as a traditional joy stick or game controller, until (and if) integrated with eye tracking – VR lenses could provide a more user-friendly, portable way to manually take in the ISR data gathered by the drone (i.e. to see what its camera is seeing).  The use for eyeball targeting/selection in naval aviation/naval drones might, however, be surpassed before it is fully developed, by dichotomous forces.  One one hand,  brain-control interfaces (BCIs) (as demonstrated earlier this year in China) provide more direct control, allowing users essentially to think the aircraft or drone into action.  On the other hand, drones will likely become more autonomous, obviating the need for as much direct control (Pete Singer did a good job of breaking down the different drone interface options and levels of autonomy a few years ago in Wired for War).

Yet not everyone is likely to be comfortable plugging equipment into their body.  So while BCI technology could similarly work for AR goggles, unless BCI use becomes a military mandate, AR headsets with integrated voice recognition/communication and eye-tracking are likely to be the pinnacle goal for shipboard use.  There will undoubtedly be delays.  For example, widespread adoption of near-term improvements such as voice-activated radios (or other inputs that don’t require hand-use) would temporarily upset the cost-benefit calculation of continued AR headset development.  However, if industry can bring down the cost enough (and the initial reception to Project Glass indicates there could by widespread consumer demand for the technology), the future will contain integrated headsets of some sort, making the good ‘ol eyeball all the more important.

LT Scott Cheney-Peters is a surface warfare officer in the U.S. Navy Reserve and the former editor of Surface Warfare magazine. He is the founding director of the Center for International Maritime Security and holds a master’s degree in National Security and Strategic Studies from the U.S. Naval War College.
The opinions and views expressed in this post are his alone and are presented in his personal capacity. They do not necessarily represent the views of U.S. Department of Defense or the U.S. Navy. 

Fostering the Discussion on Securing the Seas.