Aircraft carriers

India has planned for three-aircraft carrier task forces based on the logic of sea control of either seaboard with one held in reserve. Obsolescence has overtaken the first Vikrant which has since been scrapped. Its replacement the Viraat (ex-British Hermes) is still in service though not expected to last up to 2020 and has recently been joined by the ex-Russian Gorshkov as the INS Vikramaditya. Meanwhile the second Vikrant is under construction in the Cochin Shipyard and a larger follow-on named Vishal is on the drawing board.

With two functional aircraft carriers (the INS Vikramaditya still has some armament to be installed) India is happily placed in capabilities to defend its maritime interests over large swaths of the Indian Ocean and the adjacent Pacific Ocean and Atlantic Ocean on either side.

But there are foreseeable improvements that need to be made and these are being taken care of in the new generation of Indigenous Aircraft Carriers that are being envisaged. That is why while the first IAC is just below 40,000 tonnes displacement; the second of the class is expected to be around 60,000 tonnes to be able to accommodate more strike aircraft and helicopters on board.

Currently, India happens to be at the cusp of a changeover in propulsion systems for maritime assets from the conventional diesel-electric to nuclear. The first of this class of naval vessels, the nuclear powered and nuclear armed INS Arihant, is undergoing sea trials preparatory to induction into the fleet and it is being contemplated that the second indigenous aircraft carrier too should have nuclear propulsion for its intended role of long-range interdiction where Indian national interests are involved.

Nuclear propulsion

Having taken baby steps in this direction in the creation of a nuclear reactor for naval propulsion it would be extremely irresponsible if this technology is not developed for inclusion in more submarine and surface assets. Nuclear propulsion in more types of vessels becomes all the more imperative if one talks in terms of carrier battle groups. This concept implies that all ships in the group must have the same ability to ply their respective trades conjointly over long distances and long periods away from home ports.

In the terrestrial use of the atom for peaceful purposes India has moved very laudably from pressurized boiling water reactors to fast breeder reactors which, as the name suggests, breeds more fissile material as it operates. It is indigenous technology and India must take the appropriate steps to utilize nuclear energy to create a naval battle group capable of operating in any of the oceans of the world where Indians and Indian national interest lie.

In the current state of geopolitics it can be envisaged that it could become necessary for the Indian Navy to show its presence as far as the west coast of Africa where piracy, slowly chased out of the Horn of Africa in the east, has begun to loom off the West African coast. Worse still, the emergence of the ISIS in the Levant may demand an Indian presence in the Mediterranean Sea.

The situation in the Pacific Ocean is, as yet, not as unstable but it has the potential of rapidly becoming a hotspot where Indian interests could be confronted. Such long-range operations need to be supported by propulsions systems that do not depend wholly on fossil fuels that appear destined to fall into extremist hands. Currently, petroleum prices are low but there is no guarantee that they will stay that way. An extremist dispensation could find it more politically appealing to raise prices that will deconstruct existing economies world over in one stroke.

The other considered decision that will have to be taken soon enough to be incorporated in the next indigenous aircraft carrier is the number of aircraft that will be carried on board. That will determine the actual size of the below deck hangar and the management of the above deck space for launch and recovery of fighter aircraft, helicopters and possibly unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAVs) in keeping with emerging trends in naval strike profiles.

With a complement of about 30 aircraft and helicopters on board each vessel, the radius of operation of about 1000 km of the Sea Harriers vertical takeoff and landing fighters is indicative of how much sea area can be sanitized by the presence of the Viraat aircraft carrier. The Vikramaditya which carries the navalised versions of the MiG-29K and the Tejas light combat aircraft adds to its radius of operations with the use of beyond visual range air-to-surface missiles that are lethal at distances between 200 and 280 km.

However, obsolescence and attrition has reduced the number of Sea Harriers available for combat from the initial 30 to about a dozen. Attempts by India to refurbish its fleet with the addition of the same kind of radars and fire control systems as that obtaining in the British Harriers at the time of their retirement were aborted by refusal of both Britain and the US to part with the technology of some of the their components in the aircraft. Whatever remains of the fleet will be retired within the next five years.

Long range detection

On both the Viraat and the Vikramaditya the role of airborne early warning is executed by helicopters. They are also deployed in the anti-submarine role as well as for transport of commandos and for search and rescue. With demands for longer range target acquisition for protection from incoming aircraft and missiles with long standoff ranges the requirement is for heavier AEW fixed-wing aircraft to be able to detect incoming objects at longer ranges. The ability to launch and recover such aircraft will have to be incorporated in the next generation Indigenous Aircraft Carriers or IAC-2 which is still in the drawing board stage.

There is also the possibility that if the land based Rafale is bought from the French, the navalised version could be mounted on the Indian aircraft carriers to replace the MiG-29K. The possibility of using UAVs and UCAVs would require launch facilities in the shape of a catapult. Whether the future Indian aircraft carriers should have steam catapults (which have a limited thrust and would require a major weight reduction in the aircraft) depends upon the commitment for the acquisition of the electro-magnetic aircraft launch system (EMALS) developed by the US for its latest carrier.

As opposed to the need for a buildup of steam to operate the catapult the EMALS uses a linear induction electro-magnetic engine to develop its thrust. Published literature indicates that the acceleration provided by it is graduated in a manner that obviates the jerk inflicted on the airframe by a steam catapult. Collaterally, it also does away with the need to desalinate sea water to generate steam which is costly both in terms of space required for the desalination plant and provision of electricity to run it.

The Americans appear agreeable to part with the technology and if there are no hidden clauses about end use and the imposition of intrusive inspections under GISMAO laws it could impart greater substance to the concept of “interoperability” that governs Indo-US maritime cooperation.