Indians ought not to be sanguine about the state of security in the Indian Ocean littoral when it has two (Viraat and Vikramaditya) or three (the indigenously designed Vikrant) aircraft carrier among the Indian Navy’s fighting platforms. Capabilities now available with India’s neighbors point to a dedicated area denial facility in the much talked about “carrier killer” missile Dong Feng-21D which China has created and it should be accepted that just like the transfer of nuclear weapons technology and the missile means of delivering them on India, this missile too will find its way into the Pakistani arsenal.
This will serve a China-Pak interest in the Indian Ocean littoral, by denying India the use of its own carrier assets out of fear of losing them.
The “carrier killer” descriptive has been directed at the US Navy’s penchant of placing aircraft carrier close enough to enemy shores to allow on-board aircraft to bombard the vital areas and vital points with aircraft and missiles from the aircraft carrier.
China has been working on this missile, the Dong Feng-21D, for many years to ensure that it would be able to beard the American lion in its old stamping ground in the South China Sea where Chinese expansionism has caused friction between it and its ASEAN neighbors (even with India for participating in the exploration of petroleum products off the coast of Vietnam.)
Cause for concern
The cause for concern for America’s main means of conducting wars far from its own shores is the widely publicized range of the new missile. It is reported to be able to accurately deliver its warhead-a fuel- air explosive (FAE) that has a concussive impact almost as powerful as that of a nuclear warhead with a 200 kt blast effect but without the radioactive fallout of the latter-to a distance given variously as being between 1450km (900 miles) and 2770 km.
The apparent intention is to keep the US 7th Fleet aircraft carriers at arm’s length at these distances and prevent them from coming to the assistance of either Taiwan (which China would want to reintegrate with the mainland) and Japan.
In the Indian context if the DF-21D is installed at any point along the Makran coast of Pakistan between Pasni and Karachi it will be able to hit any of the Indian Navy aircraft carriers if they tried to carry out any of the operations for which aircraft carriers are designed-support of land battles using the aircraft and helicopters on board to strike enemy targets on land as was done during the 1971 war against the former East Pakistan.
China intends to ensure that the American carrier led task forces cannot come to the rescue of either Taiwan which is a breakaway piece of Chinese territory which western nations recognize as a separate Chinese entity within their “two China” policy. When China is ready it will assimilate by military means that “island-nation” after ensuring that the DF-21D and its nuclear submarine fleet based in underwater pens on Hainan island will be able to keep the US at bay.
It needs to be recalled that on one occasion the security of a US aircraft carrier task force was breached by a Chinese submarine when it rose out of the depths in close proximity of the US carrier. To be able to do this without detection is a great demonstration of Chinese seamanship.
In the current scenario, since the operationalization of the DF-21D batteries along Chinese Pacific coastline, the US has brought in ships capable of the ballistic missile defence role and Aegis class ships capable of picking up the trajectories of incoming missiles.
It is setting in place what it calls the disruption capability to counter China’s “kill chain” capability. This includes acquisition of a moving target at sea among the electronic clutter caused by its escorts. It is being said by US sources that Chinese beyond the horizon radar has not reached the sophistication required to pinpoint the target and unleash the DF-21D into an air environment that would be replete with theatre high altitude air defence (THAAD) missiles and close in weapons based on the escort ships that are capable of dealing with an incoming hypersonic missile (the DF-21D is capable of speed of Mach 10 or ten times the speed of sound.)
The point at issue is that the DF-21D poses similar problems for both the US and India given Chinese proclivity to share weapons systems with Pakistan. Given that kind of a scenario it needs to be assessed how effective the Indian Navy’s “air-sea” operations are intended to be if carried out in the shadow of the Chinese area denial weapon. It needs to be recalled at the moment that the arrival of submarines into the Pakistan Navy’s roster forced India not to field the INS Vikrant in the 1965 war.
If China hands over the DF-21D to Pakistan, the weapon is most likely to be positioned close to the Pasni naval base that lies midway between the Chinese controlled Gwadar port in the west and the Karachi port in the east. From that vantage point the missiles will dominate the whole of the Arabian Sea including the littorals of India on one flank and that of Africa on the other.
An Indian aircraft carrier with MiG-29K and Tejas on board will not be able to blockade Pakistan if the carrier has to stay out of range of the missile. The MiG-29K in its new role as a multirole air superiority fighter as well as a ground attack platform has a range of 850 km with the addition of internal fuel tanks. It is said that with three additional drop tanks it will be able to achieve a range of 1300 kilometers which is still within the range of the missile.
Among the strategic requirements of having an aircraft carrier in the fleet is to ensure a capability of supporting a land battle from the sea as was done during the creation of Bangladesh in 1971. It was an aircraft from the Vikrant carrier positioned outside East Pakistan maritime boundary that sent that fateful rocket through the ventilator of the Governor’s palace in Dacca just when a high-level meeting was underway. That was the persuader that forced the Pakistani military government to accede to General (later Field Marshal) Manekshaw’s demand for an unconditional surrender.
To be able to retain the upper hand in any future conflict India will have to utilize a land based fighter with impeccable credentials, the Sukhoi-30 MKI, to take out the DF-21D. Until this happens India’s three-carrier dream would be both flawed and rendered impotent by China’s baleful presence in the Indian Ocean littoral. It would not be able to ensure the security of its sea lanes of communications across the Arabian Sea or the Bay of Bengal that bring all the strategic commodities to the Indian shores.
Its influence in the Indian Ocean Region would be severely curtailed both by the Chinese presence highlighted by its ‘string of pearls’ policy as well as the presence of the missile on Pakistani soil.
If America’s strategic reach is rendered innocuous by the DF-21D in the Pacific Rim, India would suffer the same fate. It is fortunate that the Americans appear confident of being able to deal with the carrier killer by disrupting its kill chain by either physical means or through electromagnetic means. India too must work in that directions if its aircraft carriers are not be become ‘paper tigers’.