The debate over the centrality of the aircraft carrier in fleet structure continues unabated over 70 years. The discourse has now picked up steam; the catalyst being the postulate that Anti-Access/Area-Denial (A2/AD) weaponry like submarines and missiles or even drone swarms in the future, will dethrone the “Queen of the Waves” from her exalted position. Much of the debate focuses on how dangerous these threats are to the carrier. While there is some basis to these arguments founded on historical examples, the main limitation is that these threats have not been truly proven in real-world combat. Leaving aside the likely real-world effectiveness of these ‘carrier-killers’, what is perhaps most ominous about them is that they could indirectly reduce the flat-top’s combat effectiveness via their deterrent effect. While the effectiveness of carrier-killers may be operationally unproven, they could create a sense of uncertainty in the other party.
This uncertainty, coupled with the symbolism and high cost of the carrier, could profoundly influence decisions by national leaders and military commanders on how best to deploy this platform. To illustrate, USS George H.W. Bush, has a princely $6 billion price tag, while India’s two flat-tops and Japan’s so-called “helicopter destroyers” are in the region of $2 billion without the air arm inventory! In addition, the large size of the carrier makes its symbolism for its owner almost phallic. The George H.W. Bush has a displacement of about 100,000-tonne while “small-deck” carriers like those of India are in the 40,000-tonne range. Though carriers have not been in a high-end fight since 1944, there is evidence of them being deployed more cautiously in combat during the Cold War. In the 1971 India-Pakistan War and the 1982 Falklands campaign, the Indian and Royal Navies kept their carriers further away from the area of operations than usual for fear of reprisals from the adversary’s airpower. It also merits mention that these two episodes occurred before the coming of age of precision-guided munitions and what the Russians termed as the ‘reconnaissance-strike complex’.
Moreover, in this current age where the “battle of the narratives” predominates, the enemy need not sink the carrier to secure a major political victory. This could be attained by merely hitting it without causing ‘insignificant damage or even by just hitting one of the escorting destroyers. The adversary’s IW machinery could then amplify on social and other mediums and the invincibility of the much-vaulted carrier task group could then be downplayed or even shattered. Hence, the big question is: In a future conflict involving carriers, would the risk of losing a capital asset play on the minds of the military and political leadership to the extent that they rather accept an existential threat to the homeland and prefer to send the carriers to a non-permissive environment? If the Queen of the Waves could thus be rendered as a “non-kinetic mission kill” of sorts in this manner, this raises questions over the centrality of the platform in a Navy’s force structure.
The ability of the aircraft carrier to transport an air wing’s strike capability across the oceans – nearly three-quarters of the Earth’s surface and deliver air power without the need for diplomatic arrangements of land-based alternatives, provides the military and political leaders with valuable options for responding to both regional as well as out-of-area crises. However, considering the growing threat from long-range anti-access weapons and the high cost of building and maintaining modern aircraft carriers, there is a raging debate on whether the flat tops can still be considered as the ‘capital ship’ in the post – Cold War era and should naval planners be looking for alternatives. To answer the question of the future role of aircraft carriers, this article would attempt to examine the following questions:
- What is the current objective of our maritime strategy?
- What are the implications of A2/AD capabilities on the Indian maritime strategy?
- Can the aircraft carrier’s role in current and alternative maritime strategies be fulfilled by another platform or combination of platforms?
- Can the aircraft carrier adapt to overcome the restrictions of an A2/AD environment?
Aircraft Carriers in the Indian Context
To contextualise the discussions, it may be prudent to articulate upfront the frame-work, in terms of realistic time frames and resources. It is also prudent that we, as strategic planners, focus on providing future commanders with capabilities to tackle likely and unforeseen scenarios rather than falling into the trap of predicting the battle space.
Maritime Strategy and Desired End Result
While it is beyond the purview of this discourse to dwell in depth on our maritime strategy, suffice it to say that the central functions of any nation’s maritime strategy remain sea control/sea denial, power projection and ensuring access to the maritime commons, for both commercial and military use. While the objective of sea denial would pan across the entire area of our maritime interest, sea control objectives are likely to remain restricted to small and local theaters of interest, over a limited time period. Power projection too would remain in support and to influence the battle ashore. Large scale out of theater deployment is more likely to be as part of a ‘task/theater-specific regional coalition or a maritime-community/UN mandated deployment. The purpose or end result of these functions is “to establish ‘local maritime superiority while denying an adversary the same ability’ in order to destroy enemy naval forces, suppress enemy sea commerce, protect vital sea lanes and affect operations on land.”
Force Structure – The Four Segments and their Dynamics
To implement these functions, the Naval force would centre around four principal segments: a missile-centric “access generation” force, a carrier-centric “power projection” force, a constabulary “maritime security” force and a group of Maritime Operations Centres (MOCs) focused on information operations. This model would allow the Navy to tailor its force structure from time to time, based on which segment or segments it needs more to meet national strategic objectives. Thus, while the present geo-strategic environment for example, may call for a Navy with increased “access generation” and “maritime security” forces while maintaining the “projection forces” at the present level, as future strategic planners one cannot discount the value of the aircraft carrier in future scenarios.
The regional as well as global geo-strategic calculus is far too dynamic and unpredictable to take such a decision. The Royal Navy aircraft carrier force was scuttled completely by none other than the Royal Air Force post the demise of the Soviet Union by justifying diminished threat from long range maritime patrol aircraft. The fleet air defence and strike from seawards role of the Royal Navy was outsourced to the NATO, despite their carriers having proven their worth in the Falklands. Now, they want to rebuild their ‘carrier centric’ force projection force, with the 65,000-tonne Queen Elizabeth class carriers.
The Indian Context
The Indian Navy is around 70 years behind the US, both in terms of technology and ship-building capability. The under-construction carrier, Vikrant is in the 40,000-tonne bracket while the under-design/discussion INS Vishal is likely to be 65,000 tonne, similar to the Royal Navy’s QE class. Thus a larger hull, akin to the US super carriers, is beyond our current and foreseeable indigenous technological and ship-building capability. The induction/operationalisation of Vikrant and Vishal is unlikely to be before 2022 and 2035 respectively. By the year 2035, the Vikramaditya will be 57 years old (the hull of Adm Gorshkov was laid in 1978)! Therefore, if we are really serious about a three CBG Navy, the proposed Vishal class should be a two or three ship project. Though a tall order, it certainly is doable, provided, the current political dispensation displays strategic vision, sheds the decision making lethargy/aversion it inherited and provides long term ‘assured’ fiscal support. Thus, the aircraft carrier debate in the Indian context is – “Should India commit its resources for up to three large aircraft carriers of the Vishal Class or are there any other alternative platforms available which would provide the necessary capability to meet our maritime objectives?”
The advantages of adding a flight deck to a capital ship was recognised as early as 1911, when Eugene B Ely landed his Curtiss Pusher biplane on the USS Pennsylvania, an armored cruiser, anchored in San Francisco Bay albeit as only a proof of concept. During the First World War, the British modified the battle cruiser HMS Furious and accommodated a flying deck forward. Later, she was also converted into a full deck length carrier. In 1923, the Royal Navy’s HMS U2 was an ‘aircraft carting submarine’. The Japanese Hosho was the first purpose-designed aircraft carrier commissioned in December 1922, closely followed by HMS Hermes in February 1924.
While the inter-war period saw several navies abandoning the aviation cruisers, necessity revived the concept of full deck aircraft carriers during the Second World War. The Royal Navy‘s HMS U2 was designed as an aircraft carrier. The Japanese even had a full-fledged hangar for three aircraft and launch/recovery system onboard the Type 1400 Class. The operations and influence of the aircraft carriers on the final outcome of the war, is well documented and needs no further mention. The advantages of having airframes at sea is so compelling that as recently as 1974, despite the various aircraft carriers available with the USN, there was a proposal to transform the four Iowa class battleships into battle carriers – a ‘one ship power projection force with a landing deck for STOVL aircraft operations’. This Interdiction Assault Ship (IAS) could operate within the ten fathom line and be immune to submarines. The large aircraft carriers were to operate up to 200nm seawards and provide air cover. While the proposal was shelved by 1984, it reaffirms the concept, advantages and flexibility of having additional aircraft at sea.
Threat to the Carriers
The greatest threat to the carriers has been from A2/AD weapons and systems. The Department of Defence’s Joint Operational Access Concept (JOAC) describes Anti-Access (AA) actions and capabilities as “usually long-range, designed to prevent an opposing force from entering an operational area.” Conversely, the JOAC deems Area Denial (AD) as “usually of shorter range, designed not to keep an opposing force out, but to limit its freedom of action within the operational area”. In simple terms, while A2 is the action/capability to build the ‘wall’, AD is the intervention required once the wall of A2 is breached. Therefore, the scope and range of the former is strategic and the later, tactical/operational.
Imperial Japan’s and the Soviet Union’s pursuit of asymmetric means to inflict high loss against aircraft carriers was in direct line with the general principle of Anti-Access and Area Denial strategies. Imperial Japan’s approach to Anti-Access/Area Denial in the final years of the war reflected not only the asymmetric impact such capabilities can have against a larger force, but also the asymmetric financial costs. Building a fleet of kamikaze pilots and aircraft designed for a one-way mission, delivered destructive capabilities at much lower cost than training fighter pilots or aircraft capable designed for establishing air superiority. Similarly, the Soviet strategy centered on a battery of Anti-Ship Cruise Missiles (ASCMs) to affect Anti-Access or Area Denial at sea, is considerably less expensive than building naval ships necessary to perform sea control beyond a state’s territorial waters.
Additionally, the use of land-based aircraft by both Japan and the Soviet Union, to attack the US and allied sea power, serves as a useful parallel to the current A2/AD environment. The range advantage of Japanese and Soviet bombers over American sea-based air power, forced US carriers to choose between operating further from their targets with decreased efficiency or accepting higher levels of risk by operating closer to shore and within range of enemy aircraft. An interesting parallel exists between the current precision guided missile systems and the Kamikaze attacks. The individual pilots conducting the kamikaze attacks identified and selected their targets and flew their ‘manned cruise missiles’ into their targets. Finally, the Soviet space-based reconnaissance systems and electronic signal detection were critical in locating US ships and directing its sea denial forces. Some called it the Soviet Maritime Reconnaissance-Strike complex.
Japan’s strategy and actions during World War II and those of the Soviet Union during the Cold War, have parallels in today’s environment, both in their design and methodology. All points considered, contemporary A2/AD capabilities have introduced significant strategic challenges that complicate any/all potential maritime action or response, including deployment of aircraft carriers.
Emerging Chinese A2/AD Capabilities
China has been an ardent purveyor of A2/AD capabilities. Since the 1990s and specifically after the 1996 Taiwan Strait Crisis, China embarked on a naval modernisation programme to develop or improve its A2/AD capabilities. One significant advancement has been China’s Anti-Ship Ballistic Missiles (ASBMs) such as the DF-21D, which has the capability of attacking surface ships at a range of 1,500km and includes a manoeuverable warhead increasing its ability to strike a moving ship. Combined with a precision guidance network consisting of satellite tracking or over-the-horizon radar, China’s ASBMs potentially pose a significant anti-access threat to aircraft carriers and other surface vessels, challenging their ability to establish sea control or project power ashore.
China has also developed several area denial capabilities that threaten the ability to manoeuver within a theatre of operations. The submarine-launched Anti- Ship Cruise Missile (ASCM) SS-N-27B Sizzler, for example, is claimed to have been specifically designed to defeat the US Aegis anti-air warfare system, penetrate a task force’s defenses and strike high-value surface warships including aircraft carriers. Additionally, China has deployed a layered Integrated Air Defense System (IADS) comprising radars, surface-to-air missiles, and land-based aircraft along its Eastern border challenging air superiority from either sea-based or land-based aircraft. In short, China’s military advancements threaten the ability of an adversary, including the US, to operate its aircraft carriers in the manner it has done for the past two decades.
As a corollary, due to the strategic China-Pak alliance, these capabilities, albeit in a degraded configuration, are either already available or would be provided to Pakistan in any future conflict. In fact, due to its cost effectiveness and deterrent impact, A2/AD capabilities have proliferated wide and deep and are now available with rogue states and non-state players too. A2/AD capabilities are a threat in being for all maritime operations and activities. Of late, they are even challenging free nations’ claims to freedom of commercial maritime passage.
Aircraft Carriers – Alternatives Available
Aircraft carriers provide significant advantages to commanders. These advantages include the ability to transport approximately 55 aircraft (including more than 35 strike fighters as planned for INS Vishal) across the globe in a matter of days or weeks and the ability to conduct approximately 150 sorties per day. Additionally, aircraft carriers have provided commanders with scalable and precise firepower that can be used in various levels of conflict and across the range of military operations and the option to deliver these capabilities from international waters without the need for negotiating basing rights from other countries. They provide the much-needed air cover and are the eyes and ears of the CBG.
However, in light of the potential operational risks aircraft carriers face in a contemporary A2/AD environment, several military strategy and force structure experts have questioned the efficacy of their continued development and deployment. These recommendations range from divesting from the aircraft carrier as a whole and pursuing alternative surface and subsurface ship types, including smaller aircraft carriers, to addressing the aircraft carrier’s primary weapon system: its air wing. Some of the proposed alternatives are discussed below, highlighting their merits and shortfalls.
Surface and Sub-surface Missile Carriers
One of the primary mission areas for a carrier air wing is strike warfare, or “attack to damage or destroy an objective or a capability at sea and ashore”. Nearly every naval vessel maintains a capability of performing some degree of strike warfare, with the difference being in the volume, precision and destructive capacity of their weaponry. Advanced radar systems have improved ships’ targeting abilities and improvements in rocket and warhead technology have increased the range and destructive capability of surface-launched missiles, potentially replacing the aircraft carrier and its air wing in the strike warfare role.
Surface Missile Carrier
Multi-purpose surface ships equipped with the AEGIS radar system and Vertical Launch System (VLS), such as the US Ticonderoga-class cruiser, offer a modular strike alternative with up to 100-plus weapons, spanning across land-attack, anti-surface, anti-air and anti-submarine capabilities. The major benefit of these systems is in their cost efficiency. Smaller surface ships are cheaper to purchase and the missiles do not require delivery from a costly aerial platform. Additionally, one could also deploy a flotilla of smaller, low-cost, missile-laden surface ships into an A2/AD environment thereby complicating an adversary’s targeting solution and delivering a strike capability comparable to that of several air wings.
Sub-surface Missile Carrier
The use of submarines as an alternative strike platform adds the tactical benefit of operating under the water’s surface, complicating an adversary’s maritime domain awareness. The US Navy’s converted four Ohio-class Ballistic Missile Submarines (SSBNs), rechristened as SSGNs, are armed with 155 conventional Tomahawk missiles. The SSGNs maintain some of the benefits of an aircraft carrier, without the susceptibility of surface combatants to ASCMs.
Indian Missile Carriers
The IN has the ability to build missile carriers by extending the hulls of the Kochi class. With the extended range BrahMos under development, such surface missile carriers could be potent missile carriers. As a corollary, these would also enhance our A2/AD capability manifold. Our SSN/SSBM programme is at the cusp of maturing from initial ‘technology demonstrators’ to capable and proven weapon platforms. When available in adequate numbers, it would be possible to convert a couple of these into SSGNs by pairing them with the NG BrahMos, which will have a submarine-launched version. The timeframe for both these programmes to fructify would be similar to that required to operationalise the Vishal class, along with its air wing.
Critique of the Missile Carriers
A missile-centric force is certainly cost effective, risk efficient and more survivable due to the distributed shooters and their ability to shoot and scoot. The carrier, on the other hand, has a much larger signature and must remain vulnerable to attack while the air wing is launched and recovered through multiple cycles. However having said this, the support for missile carriers as an alternative or replacement to aircraft carriers, fail to address the three major shortfalls enumerated below.
- Significantly Lower Strike Capability. A six-destroyer Surface Action Group (SAG) of the US would carry 288 TLAMs. Based on a RAND Corporation report, one air wing provides “the target-coverage equivalent of 4,000–5,000 TLAMs over the course of a 30-day operation. So it is a myth that a missile carrier group and an aircraft carrier have comparable strike capability.
- Re-Load Capability. There is currently no method for rearming a VLS system at sea. This capability shortfall therefore, would require any missile carrier to depart the area of operations to re-arm, sacrificing valuable time during its transit.
- Scalability of Air Power. When an aircraft takes off, it can escalate its response to a threat starting with a show-of-presence to a show-of-force and terminating with an eventual kinetic strike. A missile however, is only capable of the latter. The ability to provide a scalable response can help in avoiding or de-escalating tensions in the early stages of a crisis or in less than war situations.
- Battle Space Awareness. With regard to battle-space awareness, there is currently no missile-based alternative to the capabilities of carrier-based aircraft. In terms of battle, the mainstay of an air wing’s airborne command, control and situational awareness capabilities are rotary or fixed-wing EW capable platforms operating from the flight deck. While land-based alternatives exist in the form of various Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS), relying on such assets in a maritime environment would assume the availability and survivability of airfields in the midst of conflict; a dangerous presumption that forgoes the tactical benefits of manoeuver warfare.
Missile Carrier- Aircraft Carrier Symbiosis
Surface and submarine missile carriers, armed with a myriad of strike capabilities provide an additive benefit to the aircraft carrier in an A2/AD environment. Their ability to deliver quick hits against an enemy’s missile launchers or command and control targets can help reduce risks to conducting carrier operations. Further, the modularity of their VLS payloads can enable a transition from a strike to an air defence role – albeit for a limited time based on their inventory. Arguing for the total replacement of the aircraft carrier however, does more to highlight their capability shortfalls than promote their strengths. Therefore, while a missile-centric force cannot replace the current capabilities of carrier- based aviation, as a symbiotic component of the CBG, in a dense A2/AD environment, they augment their strike capability and enhance their collective survivability.
Large Vs Smaller Carriers
Arguments in favour of transitioning to smaller aircraft carriers acknowledge the value of sea-based air, but argue against the financial and tactical costs of building a platform that is becoming big, expensive and vulnerable and probably irrelevant to the conflicts of the time. The benefits of this transition include reduced operating costs, increase in available funds for more production, distribution of air power across a larger number of ships and over a wider geographic area, and a reduction in the risk of suffering mass casualties aboard a single ship.
Critique of the Smaller Carriers
While these benefits appear viable at first glance, closer inspection reveals several critical shortfalls in three areas enumerated below:–
Types of Aircraft:The aircraft available for different ship designs are directly related to the size of the ship. Since smaller carriers including escort carriers, LHDs and LHAs, may not incorporate a catapult or arresting gear system. They would at best use a sky jump flight deck for VSTOL aircraft. The nature of VSTOL technology significantly limits the range of capabilities aircraft can pursue. Consider the AV-8B Harrier and its combat radius of approximately 300 nautical miles as compared to the near 450nm nautical miles of the MiG-29K and around 800nm of Rafale M. If VSTOL aircraft are limited in range compared to their non-VSTOL alternatives, then an alternative carrier design that relies on VSTOL aircraft does not alleviate the military problem of an A2/AD environment being faced by larger carriers.
Air Wing Size: Inherently, a larger ship platform can accommodate more aircraft than a smaller one. An ability to accommodate more aircraft also allows for more mission specialisation amongst airframes. INS Vikramaditya and IAC 1, INS Vikrant are both similar in displacement and air wing size’ about 45,000 tonne and around 35 aircraft (24 fixed-wing and ten helicopters) respectively. The IAC 2, INS Vishal, on the other hand, would displace about 65,000 tonne and carry around 55 aircraft which would include UCAVs and fixed-wing AEW/ASW
Sortie Rate: A smaller carrier design – with its smaller air wing would have fewer aircraft available for sorties at any given time when compared to a super carrier even of 65,000tonne. No data is available, at least in the open domain, regarding the comparison of a 30,000-45000tonne carrier vs a 65,000tonne and above aircraft carrier. However, comparing the Ford-class to a French Navy Charles de Gaulle aircraft carrier (loosely comparable to INS Vikramaditya and INS Vikrant) modernised to include advanced launch and recovery systems shows the smaller carrier provides only a fraction of financial savings (approximately 22 percent), but at extreme costs in operational capabilities (a 53 percent decrease in embarked aircraft, 225 percent less aviation fuel storage and 383 percent less munitions storage. While theoretically, the Navy could potentially make up for the sortie shortfall of a single smaller carrier by purchasing more number of smaller aircraft carriers, (or LHDs/LHAs), unfortunately, sortie capabilities do not scale so efficiently.
Vulnerability and Additional Logistic Support: As mentioned above, current ship designs for small and medium-sized aircraft carriers are no less susceptible to the same A2/AD threats aimed against super carriers. Also, smaller aircraft carriers with decreased fuel and ammo capacity would require additional logistics support, what IN has identified as an already strained ‘at sea’ logistic supply system. Therefore, divesting from the current policy of super carrier in the 65,000-tonne bracket towards smaller carriers like the current Vikramaditya/Vikrant class, provides a significant decrease in operational capability while accepting the same, if not higher, level of risk.
Sea control, power projection and ensuring access to the maritime commons for both commercial and military use are central functions of the Indian national maritime strategy. Modern A2/AD capabilities target the IN’s ability to perform these functions. Anti-Access and Area Denial strategies seek to deny us the ability to project power into the area of our maritime interest. Without the capabilities to project power and influence the battle ashore, we would reducing our security and ability to protect our assets; even increasing the possibility of conflict. While there is a definite need for us to address our capability shortfalls in the face of A2/AD capabilities, the threat against aircraft carriers does not nullify their value, nor does it signal the end of its 50-year plus history with the IN. Prima facie, it may seem that there are cheaper, more efficient and effective options available to replace the aircraft carrier. However, a more detailed analysis of these alternatives indicate severe limitations. These alternatives to the aircraft carrier are, in fact, symbiotic rather than competitive. To counter the emerging A2/AD threat, we require both – aircraft carriers as well as surface and sub-surface missile cruisers.
As far as aircraft carriers are concerned, size matters. While we may not yet be in the league of the 100,000-tonne super carriers, we certainly can make in India, super carriers in the region of 65,000-tonne displacement. Appropriate foreign assistance in terms of design, metallurgy, ship systems and weapons integration, would help us navigate the learning curve and compress our time lines. India is a growing economy with global aspirations. Our predicted growth rates would provide us fiscal flexibility to enhance defence spending and fulfil the felt need to operate a three-CBG Navy. An assured IAC programme of say, three carriers of Vishal Class would also have many economic, social and intellectual spin-offs. These would include job creation, skill development, infrastructure development, creation of a vibrant MSME eco-system and providing impetus to the R&D efforts. The time will most likely come when a capability signals the end of the big deck aircraft carrier as a viable component of naval sea power. Today’s big missiles are not that threat and today is not that time.
- Relevance of Aircraft Carriers for Indian Navy. V Adm Sekhar Sinha (Retd). Jun 2016.
- Are Air Aircraft Carriers Still Relevant? Ben HO Wan Bay. Nov 2018.
- Aircraft Carriers Vs Submarines. Which is the Ultimate naval Weapon for War? Robert Furley, Nov 2018.
- Big Missiles Vs Big Decks. The Viability of Aircraft Carriers in an A2/AD World. Robert A. Coffman, Jr, Jun 2006.
- IOWA Class Battle Carrier. A Design That Never Took Off. Jon Hoppe, June 2019.