Originally Published 2015-05-29 00:00:00 Published on May 29, 2015
Security expert Ashley Tellis recommends upgrading India's aircraft carrier with US systems to counter the Chinese in the Indian Ocean. But does India face a credible enough Chinese threat and does it really need new systems?
India needs long term solution in procuring defence systems

US Defence Secretary Ashton Carter's visit to India in June for talks on the Defence Trade and Technology Initiative has been preceded by a series of recommendations by Mr Ashley J Tellis, published by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. The paper, titled, Making Waves: Aiding India's Next Generation Aircraft Carrier, recommends that India-US bilateral cooperation will enable India's second indigenous aircraft carrier INS Vishal and its air wing to counter an emerging Chinese naval threat in the Indian Ocean. Does India face a credible enough Chinese threat, warranting a build-up of aircraft carrier capabilities? Do we need to be more imaginative in our procurement to enable our Armed Forces?

Mr Tellis makes a compelling case for the Indian Navy to adopt a catapult-assisted take-off but arrested recovery system in the form of the electromagnetic aircraft launch system or EMALS, to increase its capacity to launch high performance aircraft and do so more frequently. This will enhance INS Vishal's operational capabilities from the Indian Navy's current short take-off but arrested recovery, also known as STOBAR, carrier capability, where aircraft have to take off on their own power. Naval aircraft taking off on their own power from limited flight decks use more fuel, thus limiting their range and ability to carry less ordnance as compensation. Is it a performance limitation? Yes. This limitation, however, has to be contextualised against the Chinese threat and capabilities of India's competitors and not simply against operational benchmarks set by US Navy aircraft carriers.

Threats faced in the Indian Ocean: China currently fields one ex-Soviet Kuznetsov class aircraft carrier, christened Liaoning, capable of STOBAR operations. The carrier has seen little by way of operations, apart from testing Chinese carrier borne fighter aircraft in the form of the Shenyang J-15 which is a spin-off of the Russian Sukhoi-27 Flanker. The aircraft's capabilities are limited in range and armament due to the limits of STOBAR operations. Future Chinese aircraft carriers are expected to field a similar configuration and aircraft. While one can play into the paranoia of Chinese aircraft carrier groups operating in the Indian Ocean, it is important to note that China is several years away from an operational carrier.

While Chinese carrier groups operating in the Indian Ocean may be a distant possibility, Chinese warships and submarines are a reality that the Indian Navy has to contend with. Chinese nuclear submarines are beginning to make forays into the region, and if media reports are to be believed, China is looking to set up access points and replenishment bases in the region over the next 10 years. The Indian Navy's anti-submarine warfare or ASW capability is woefully under-prepared to deal with underwater threats posed by the Chinese. Its warships are short of ASW helicopters and have, of late, taken to sailing without their requisite air complements.

Some ships are also sailing without critical sensors used to detect submarines — which the Government has only recently agreed to purchase from abroad — resulting in warships sailing blind to submarines. The threats faced by the Indian Navy are further compounded by the Pakistani acquisition of three French Agosta 90B submarines and the future induction of a further eight Chinese built S-20 submarines.

Using a bit of imagination to enhance the Indian Navy's combat capabilities: Mr Tellis recommends India acquire the EMALS and associated Lockheed Martin F-35 strike fighters and Northrop Grumman E-2C airborne early warning aircraft. But acquiring a completely different air wing and aircraft carrier type will increase the cost, in the form of maintenance, acquisition of spares, but also that of training two different sets of pilots and maintenance crews.

The carrier-optimised Mig-29K the Indian Navy is using aboard the INS Vikramaditya is a capable aircraft and cheap to boot, with 45 units costing a little over two billion dollars. The key will be acquiring systems and technologies to enhance its capabilities and operational availability.

Instead of acquiring new aircraft and its launching systems to overcome limitations placed of range and armament the Mig-29K is plagued with, the Navy could simply acquire a carrier borne aerial refuelling platform. Not only will it help extend the range of the Mig-29K but also increase its operational availability as some of them will not have to be used as aerial refuelling platforms.

The same aircraft can be used in US parlance in the carrier onboard delivery transport and specials operations role. The Bell Boeing V-22 Osprey fits into both these roles seamlessly as has been proven by the US Navy and Marine Corps. The fact that the aircraft can land like a helicopter, negates the necessity of a catapult launch system required for aircraft of similar size. The Bell Boeing V-22 Osprey could also potentially be developed into an airborne early warning system again precluding the need to acquire catapult launch systems.

There exists potential for co-operation between India and the US in naval aviation, it does not necessarily have to be in aircraft carrier technology and naval fighter aircraft. The US could help India with its chronic shortage of multi-role naval helicopters; cater to its expanding requirement for maritime patrol aircraft and provide India with a carrier borne tanker/transport aircraft expanding its operational capabilities.

India needs to be imaginative in acquiring systems which enhance its capabilities while fitting into its long term procurement plans. Acquiring new aircraft and ships to fulfil each technical or performance need in isolation is not a long term or affordable solution. Procurements need to cater to inter-operable and integrated war fighting capabilities, which not only increases its war fighting ability but also improve affordability by reducing acquisition, operating, integration and training costs.

(The writer is a Research Assistant at Observer Research Foundation)

Courtesy: (The Pioneer) 29 May, 2015

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Pushan Das

Pushan Das

Pushan was Head of Forums at ORF. He was also the coordinator of Raisina Dialogue. His research interests are Indian foreign and security policies.

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