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High ambitions
India's nuclear powered aircraft carrier

Though India’s first Indigenous Aircraft Carrier is still suffering the birth pangs, almost five years before delivery, Indian naval planners and warship designers have started dreaming of a nuclear powered aircraft carrier.

When specifically asked about the possibility of India undertaking the ambitious program to have a nuclear powered carrier, the Indian Navy  Vice Chief Vice Admiral  R K  Dhowan did not specifically deny the existence of such a program and went on to comment that “all options are open.” The Vice Chief informed that a “detailed study was underway on the size, type of aircraft and their launch and recovery systems, propulsion and the like for the IAC-2 project . He said, yes we are also considering nuclear propulsion. All options are open.”

Though India is expecting its first indigenous nuclear powered submarine INS Arihant to start sea trials after the announcement of its nuclear reactor going critical in August, this two decade old ambitious venture was not entirely indigenous.

Lacking expertise


Russia came to India’s rescue after Indian designers failed to design a submarine compatible nuclear reactor. Not only its construction but also its integration into the platform was the biggest challenge and only Russia could have helped India to develop a nuclear powered submarine at its own shipyard.

Even for the IAC-1 India had to seek the design assistance of the Italian Fincantieri for installation of the gas propulsion system. Since the installation of the nuclear propulsion system would be much more complex and challenging, it is difficult to understand how Indian Directorate General of Naval Design (DGND) engineers will acquire such expertise.

A top official of the DGND under whom the IAC design team worked accepted frankly that they do not have the capability to design the integration of a nuclear propulsion system inside an Aircraft Carrier. Asked if Fincantieri will assist India in this venture, he said that this was not explored.

Obviously nuclear reactor for an aircraft carrier is an entirely new ball game and collaboration in such sensitive defence project would attract international opprobrium. Hence, India can get Russian assistance in nuclear propulsion, but the Russians will definitely extract a very high price for that if India requests them for the nuclear propulsion in the aircraft carrier.

But the Russians are not the great operator of the nuclear powered aircraft carrier. Hence if India wants to venture into the nuclear carrier it will entirely be an Indian effort and one can imagine how many years or decades India will take to achieve this ambition.

Though the Americans are the largest operators of the nuclear powered carrier and China has also started dreaming of a nuclear carrier, intense debates among naval experts have begun on the rationale and maintainability of such a gigantic carrier to be powered by nuclear reactors.

Even the Royal navy is now reverting back to the diesel electric carrier and the Americans are not opting for nuclear carriers in future. The nuclear carriers are required by those navies who have expeditionary agenda, beyond their immediate Oceans.

China’s expansion plan

The Chinese may be thinking in those terms, because of its perceived status as the emerging Superpower. They lagged behind in diesel carriers as they have acquired one the 65,000 ton Liaoning Aircraft Carrier only recently and are planning to acquire another indigenously made very soon.

The Chinese are actively planning the acquisition of a nuclear carrier. Given their will power to complete the projects within scheduled period, it may not be surprising, if the Chinese come out with a nuclear powered carrier before the end of this decade.

When they acquired the Varyag class Carrier from the Ukraine, they never disclosed the real intentions behind the acquisition, though the entire world was aware of the designs of the Chinese Navy.

The Chinese may have logic in moving towards nuclear carrier, as they have interests beyond South and East China Sea and the Pacific Ocean. The Chinese Navy would like to position one carrier permanently in the Indian Ocean, where they have been making forays recently. They have also acquired economic interests with the acquisition of mining rights in the central Indian Ocean, where they plan to make investments worth billions of dollars.

On the other hand India has acquired economic interests in the South China Sea where oil exploration assets needs to be protected. But India does not need power projection in that maritime area to safeguards its interests. India cannot compete with China in its maritime courtyard and cannot afford to challenge the Chinese Navy, who are now armed with aircraft carrier killer missiles. The entire flotilla accompanying the carrier would not be able to provide protection to the mother ship.

Undoubtedly, the nuclear carrier has a much better advantage in terms of indefinite endurance versus 45 days endurance for the traditional carrier, the costs and risks of acquiring such facility are enormous. The nuclear carrier may not require weekly or monthly refueling but its initial deployment costs are huge and the reactor requires maintenance which is also an onerous responsibility for the operators.

Indian planners must think of fulfilling immediate requirement of a three carrier navy, which can be fulfilled only when the IAC-2 construction starts on the similar design, though the tonnage may be increased up to 60,000 ton.  The design experience gained in IAC-1 will enable the Indian Shipyard to confidently go ahead with the IAC-2 which can be achieved by the end of this decade.

On the other hand if Indian Navy  planners decide to run the IAC-2 on nuclear power, the project will face inordinate delays and the navy will not be able to give effect to its plan to have three carrier navy.

Indian Navy will be receiving the Russian Gorshkov Aircraft Carrier by the end of this year and the IAC-1 is expected to join Indian Navy by 2018. Only, after the commissioning of the IAC-1 in the Indian Navy the authorities can think of retiring the INS Viraat, which was acquired in 1988 from UK but is now over five decades old.

Indian Navy must give priority to the acquisition of third aircraft carrier by the end of this decade and depending upon the strategic scenario prevailing then, the government should then order the feasibility study of the costs and necessity of acquiring such strategic naval assets, which is often called as white elephant.

India requires two carriers to be permanently deployed on both sides of its sea, the Arabian Sea and the Bay of Bengal. Since one aircraft carrier will be required to be sent for maintenance, which takes a few months, the Navy can rest assured that two carriers are always available on both sides of its coasts.

One carrier on both sides can take care of India’s maritime policing requirements in the entire Indian Ocean.  In fact one carrier deployed on both sides can easily deter the other navies from playing any mischief even through their nuclear submarines and carriers.

The IAC-1 has already started bothering the Chinese strategic community. The commentary on IAC-1 by the Global Times; the official English daily mouthpiece of the Chinese Communist Party has described the IAC-1 as a threat and a warning to China. The Western strategic community will definitely welcome the new acquisitions by Indian Navy, as it will help advance the cause of the US Rebalancing Asia strategy.

Power projection

The very shape of the Indian peninsula and the expanse of the Indian Ocean below it demands that the Indian Navy have four aircraft carriers to be able to protect Indian maritime interests in trade and commerce and diplomacy in a region that is fast emerging as a hotbed of contending territorial claims.  

Of these one would be posted in the north Arabian Sea at the Red Sea chokepoint (and within easy reach of the Persian Gulf); the second would patrol the eastern ingress route at Malacca Strait and the South Java Sea. The third would show the flag at every hotspot all along the Indian Ocean littoral. The fourth would be in dry dock for repairs, upgradation and maintenance.

Of course, it could be argued that four would be excessive and, possibly redundant, given the possibility that China will disperse its long-range shore-to-sea “carrier killer” missile to client-states along the littoral.

True enough, but an Indian carrier-borne task force must be able to identify, trace, track and attack in a multilayered air defence network similar to ones based on land to create an “equalizer” that will give a chance of survival of the task force.

Not having such a large fleet of carriers can only be the result of an inability to raise the funds required for the project because given China’s many “pearls” on a string in the Indian Ocean region and new corridors and land routes there will be plenty of work for three carrier groups at various points in the littoral with possible need for a sea based air offensive at one or more points in the future.

Will aircraft carriers make India a true ocean power? This can only be answered when at least the first two-Viraat and Vikramaditya (the Gorshkov’s Indian name)-begin operating in unison and how long each can stay on station without major maintenance problems and replenishments.

One significant pointer to an enhanced power projection capability anywhere along the Indian Ocean littoral will be an end to the pinpricks pirates inflict by their depredations that have been as deep as the Lakshadweep group of Indian islands in the Arabian Sea. More and more Africa has become a playground for Islamic fundamentalist jihadis who show signs of being inspired and helped by Pakistani state actors. There are signs that pirates are pandering to a larger geopolitical gameplan that is discernible in the hinterland from the Persian Gulf to the area south of the horn of Africa.

Aircraft carriers are means of long-range power projection in support of national interests. Evacuating Indian citizens from war torn Syria for instance would require a platform large enough to deal with threats at that distance.

The reference to pirates is illustrative because they are the most visible of actors in the international sea lanes of communications. There are smugglers and gun-runners with safe havens in countries of the Indian Ocean rim where, at some point of time it may become necessary to conduct hot pursuit not just in the open seas outside territorial waters but also into land areas where the safe havens are located.

For this onboard aircraft and helicopters will have to be used for reconnaissance and vertical envelopment. Then again  to provide humanitarian platforms in times of disasters, since a carrier can provide a self-generating supply of fresh water, medical assistance or engineering expertise to populations in need for assistance.

Closer home, India’s search for a secure link from the sea to Afghanistan through Iran will need to be adequately protected from disruption by Pakistan-based terrorist groups or even the Pakistan/China navies from interdicting Indian vessels from Gwadar port on the Pakistani Baluchistan coast.

If the need arises India should be able to be in a position to enforce deterrence within its conventional connotations. For this it will need to have assets that are autonomous in protecting themselves and able to project power wherever required to ensure that its Afghanistan corridor remains open.  This applies to any emerging threat anywhere in the Indian Ocean littoral especially in the Asia-Pacific region.

Large fleet

The launch of the first indigenous aircraft carrier by the Cochin Shipyard Ltd in August has been lauded world-wide (including China) as an achievement of no small significance. It puts India among the very small group of nations that have done so. It is the crowning glory of a steady increment in warship shipbuilding capabilities of Indian yards in both the public sector as well as the private sector.

The as yet incomplete carrier (upgraded from the first mentions of it as an ‘air defence ship’) is to have its bridge and takeoff and landing equipment and other deck paraphernalia installed while afloat alongside the wharf before heading out for sea trials of the complete package. It has been named Vikrant after the first Indian carrier obtained from Britain. The second, the Viraat is a British product and the third is the Gorshkov (Russian), which is due to arrive in India before the end of the year (god willing?).

There will be two carriers of the new Vikrant class, the second being of larger tonnage indicating incremental growth and confidence of the manufacturers in their craft. By the time this happens the Viraat should be close to retirement so the next generation of aircraft carriers should already be in the planning stage. The second of the Vikrant class will be larger to be able to carry heavier aircrafts like a fixed wing airborne early warning aircraft and a aerial refueller to impart to off-carrier air operations greater flexibility and autonomy.

As a showcase of Indian warship building the Vikrant is a magnificent example but there have been smaller examples in the shape of the Shivalik class stealth vessels, the Godavari class of stretched Leanders that were first obtained from Britain in the late 60s and indigenously improved. A great deal of the credit for this goes to the manner in which the Indian Naval Design Bureau has taken on the job of technology assimilation and adaptation for Indian requirements.

In recent times Indian private shipbuilders have been competing for contracts to manufacture vessels for the Indian Navy. The first step has been the creation of a category known as “mini Ratnas” indicating the excellence of their imbedded technological skills.

The Ministry of Defence has since had to change the system of nominating shipyards for particular work and resort to open tenders thereby indicating the widespread nature of India’s shipbuilding capabilities. These are signs of a nation on a growth curve in maritime defence and security which is the foundation of blue water oceanic power.