By Commodore Lalit Kapur (Retd.)
1. Among the slew of agreements signed during the lead up to President Obama’s visit to Delhi in January 2015 was one that called for formation of a working group to explore aircraft carrier technology sharing and design, as well as exploring possible cooperation on development of jet engine technology. Using this as a foundation, Ashley Tellis (Senior Associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace) has written a much discussed article titled “Making Waves: Aiding India’s Next Generation Aircraft Carrier” for his think tank. In essence, the article argues for a leap in cooperation between India and USA to jointly design and equip India’s next generation aircraft carrier, making it a truly potent weapon instead of a makeshift one.
2. The article recognises and uses as a take-off point the following:-
- China will not for much longer be willing to accept a situation where USA underwrites security for its energy flows from the Middle East, as well as for its enormous export trade and resource imports passing through the Indian Ocean.
- China will thus inevitably increase its presence in the Indian Ocean. It can reasonably be expected that within a decade or so, a Chinese Carrier Battle Group will be deployed in the Indian Ocean.
- This deployment poses a challenge that India can ignore only at its peril. The choice of capability to respond to this potential threat (between land based aircraft, submarines, more capable aircraft carriers or the pious hope that China will not threaten or otherwise harm India ) is India’s prerogative.
- This prerogative has been exercised and India has already decided that its next generation aircraft carrier, to follow INS Vikrant (IAC I) which was launched in August 2013 and is currently fitting out prior commissioning around 2018, will be a larger one displacing around 65,000 tons. To be named INS Vishal as per media reports, this carrier will be far more capable than its STOBAR predecessors: it will be a Catapult assisted take-off but arrested recovery (CATOBAR) carrier using catapults to launch heavier and much more capable aircraft.
3. With the above as a given, the article posits that it is in the interests of both USA and India to cooperate in designing this carrier and equipping it with the most capable propulsion, weapons, sensors and aircraft. Among the indispensable areas of cooperation proposed by Tellis are the following:-
- Aircraft carrier design, including hull structure, hydrodynamics, stability and general arrangements, where the author assesses cooperation as desirable to critical. Although Vikrant has been indigenously designed, this design remains to be proven. Making a successful carrier involves integration of an enormous variety of systems and sub-systems of incredible complexity and India’s experience in this regard is limited to one as yet unproven design for a STOBAR carrier. A CATOBAR design can no doubt be prepared indigenously; but to hope that the first attempt will be completely successful would be more than over-optimistic. Prudence would lie in taking the help of an acknowledged world leader in aircraft carrier construction such as USA, provided it is available.
- The fighting capability, including optimising the flight deck design to maximise aircraft utilisation rates, launch capability, capability of the aircraft(s) itself, other weapons and sensors. Catapult technology is available only from USA. Whether India picks the dated steam catapult or the electromagnetic one under development (EMALS) would have significant implications on the capability of the carrier as a whole. Similarly with aircraft: eventually, any aircraft could perhaps be adapted to enable CATOBAR operations, but the fact is that there are only five fighter/strike aircraft in the world with this capability today — the French Super Etendard (which is obsolete) and Rafale and the American Skyhawk (obsolete), F/A 18 Hornet/Super Hornet and F-35C Lightning. Adapting another aircraft for CATOBAR operations would involve significant redesign and could lead to unacceptable delays. Similarly, other specialised capability, such as AEW aircraft are available only from USA. The Ka-31 AEW helicopter currently used by the IN is a poor substitute.
- The power plant, where the author makes a pitch for nuclear propulsion. USA is unlikely to give India a proven reactor and in any case, purchase of such a reactor may not be in the country’s interest, but cooperation in design may be possible. Nuclear propulsion would provide significant operational advantages.
4. It needs to be kept in mind that the utility of the carrier in the emerging geostrategic environment or its size are purely Indian decisions that have already been made. While the decisions may be challenged and debated in the years to come, such challenges do not concern the author whose take-off point is that these decisions have already been made by India.
5. The naysayers would wonder what the reaction of China or Russia would be towards such cooperation. As the author has rightly observed elsewhere, China is hardly likely to change its strategic aspirations if India remains pliable or ambivalent: it will pursue its chosen path (of increasing Indian Ocean presence), irrespective of what India does. It is for India to develop the requisite capability to deal with the Chinese challenge, while at the same time keeping its options open.
6. The article is eminently readable for its irrefutable logic, compelling argument and exhaustive research. It remains for India to evaluate it and if interested, to pursue cooperation with USA at the appropriate level. No doubt, the costs of the higher capability proposed will be much higher, it is for India to find imaginative financial solutions.
7. We elicit your comments on this article by Ashley Tellis, which may be accessed from http://carnegieendowment.org/files/making_waves.pdf