India’s dilemma over China’s aircraft carrier

by Mohammad Abdur Razzak | Published at 12:00am on January 27, 2021

IN 2002, I wrote in an article, ‘Sea Power and Political Equation: As I View It’, published in the The Naval Review, UK, in October 2002, that China was likely to form its carrier fleet by 2025. By the turn of 2020, the Chinese navy (PLAN) has had two aircraft carrier. The first carrier Type 001 Liaoning was commissioned in 2013 on an aircraft carrier hull acquired from Ukraine in 2002. Five years later, domestically designed and built aircraft carrier Shandong, Type 001A, was launched in 2017. The third and fourth carriers known as Type 002 are under construction on new design.

They are expected to be larger than the Shandong and reported to feature electromagnetic catapults which are stronger and more efficient than steam-driven catapults used in most aircraft carriers. By 2030, China is predicted to have six aircraft carriers and reportedly 10 by 2050. But plans for the fifth carrier on a new design, nuclear-powered Type 003, were being reportedly put on hold because of a tight budget. A stable economic growth and industry capacity are key to the success of PLAN’s future carrier programmes.

India is the first Asian country to enter the elite club of aircraft carrier on March 4, 1961 with the commissioning of INS Vikrant when PLAN was nowhere in the vicinity of Indian navy in the Indian Ocean. INS Viraat was commissioned on May 12, 1987. INS Vikrant was paid off on January 31, 1997 and Viraat on March 6, 2017. INS Vikramaditya (Russian Ex Admiral Gorshkov) was commissioned on November 16, 2013. Perhaps, the Indian navy was comfortable with one carrier until PLAN started making a headway through the waters in the Indian Ocean. PLAN’s growing expansion might have contributed to the development of India’s ‘three carrier’ concept in the 1990s.

The Indian navy could not materialise its ambition of ‘three carrier’ concept but incidentally managed to have two for very brief periods from 1987 to 1997 (Vikrant and Virat) and from 2013 to 2017 (Virat and Vikramaditya). Now, the Indian navy has the lone aircraft carrier (Vikramaditya). Its first Indigenous Aircraft Carrier (IAC-1) (to be named Vikrant) has been under construction in Cochin Shipyard since the keel was laid in 2009. The carrier is expected to be in service in late 2021 or early 2022 if all goes well. India’s warship building programme has been resilient but generally lengthier than international standards. The delay is fundamentally attributed to technology and fund shortage.

Why can India which began carrier operation in the 1960s not materialise its ‘three carrier fleet’ concept and does not seem it can so do any time soon? Does the ‘three carrier’ concept hold good? India’s chief of defence staff hinted in February 2020 that the ‘Indian Navy may not get approval for a third aircraft carrier any time soon.’ The reason, he said, was the cost associated with building aircraft carrier. The priority, instead, should be to bolster the navy’s submarine fleet. That reminds me Sun Tzu’s famous saying, ‘Before going to war, count on cost’.

‘Cost’ does not imply only the expenditure associated with actual fighting but also includes the cost involved in preparation for it through the peace time. For example, Thailand’s carrier, the Chakri Naruebet, commissioned on March 27, 1997, is now minimally operational. ‘Budget cuts have resulted in the carrier operating outside of its naval base at Sattahip for only one day a month. Without its Harriers, the ship is more apt to carry the king and his entourage for royal cruises than to embark on military exercises, which has led to it being dubbed The World’s Largest Royal Yacht.’

The Indian navy’s strategy for a carrier task force seemingly was to control the two sea boards on its flanks — east and west. PLAN was not seriously on the Indian navy’s radar as competitor in the Indian Ocean even in the 1980s. China’s naval power projection programmes in the 1990s and 2000s started to change the scenario. China’s growing interests in the use of the sea and naval presence in the distant waters exposed India’s concern to sustain its sphere of influence. However, it seems from the statement of the India’s chief of defence staff that there is a shift in the strategy from sea control to sea denial.

On the other hand, Indian chief of naval staff has iterated India’s ambition as non-negotiable requirements to have three aircraft carriers for deployment to the eastern and western sea board and the third in reserve/repair and maintenance. There are also scholarly arguments and counter-arguments in favour and against aircraft carrier and submarine for the Indian navy. In a balancing endeavour, the quantity-quality matrix in the context of enduring the influence across the sea board will be important as the Indian navy’s programmes now appear to be PLAN-specific. Militarily, India is a very big country compared with its small neighbours, but it may not be that big when it comes to China.

Aircraft carrier is more of an ‘air base’ than a ship. It is a power house in the desolate oceanic expanse. It is a platform to dominate and control the ocean space and project power far inland. It is a very expensive tool. Carrier aviation since World War II has proved its worth in wars and conflicts but at high cost. Only a handful of countries could afford at full-scale operation.

As China’s economy continues to grow, its sphere of interests widens. To protect the sphere of interests, China will need to influence events over the maritime domain. Although China’s potential threats to its maritime interests are said to be on the south, east and north east, but Ren Guoqiang, spokesperson for the national defence ministry was quoted as saying that the carrier deployment will be determined by security threats and national defence needs which keep the carrier deployment open to far flung, including the Indian Ocean, much to the discomfort of the Indian navy.


Mohammad Abdur Razzak is a retired commodore.