This blog contains material I wrote and posted on between the years 2005 and 2011 only. It does not contain any new material. For newer writing, please check my main blog (Bill the Butcher).

Monday, 26 November 2012

White Water Elephant: The Indian Aircraft Carrier

From March 2009

The dawn rises slowly upon the flat blue sea.

Out of the western darkness comes a floating city, complete with airport, a mass of metal from which sleek fighter-bombers take off, crewed by the best of the best of the world’s pilots, loaded with fuel and  weapons, to deliver their loads of death and destruction on enemy targets hundreds of kilometres distant, reigning over a swathe of ocean, undisputed lords of the air and the sea and what lies beneath. A grand vision, isn’t it? Seductive?

Sexy indeed, if you’re of the proper mindset.

Aircraft carriers aren’t very common beasts on the world’s seas – there are currently only 22 of them afloat, and of them exactly half belong to only one nation – the United States. They used to be somewhat commoner in former times, but for some really not very obscure reasons most nations seem to have decided that they can get along well enough without them...but not India. No. 

I’ve said, so many times that regular readers of mine will be sick of it by now, that Indian planners – civilian as well as military – lack both imagination and forward thinking ability. This is allied with a very strong streak of tokenism. In fact, one might say that tokenism is the most important facet of all forms of Indian planning – including defence.

So, while we slip further and further down the list of nations in the Human Development Index, and while schools in the villages exist only on paper and hospitals lack doctors and nurses, we continue to spend more and more on defence, of all addition to tax sops for corporate entities, of course.

But about the defence, since it’s probably one of the largest single items of expenditure as far as our government is concerned. On the face of it, it might even seem kind of justified – as a nation facing many insurgencies and a distinct terrorist threat, both an acknowledged threat from jihadis and an unacknowledged threat from Hindunazis, any nation with a modicum of prudence would invest in security forces. But the rub, as one might put it, lies in just what form that investment lies.

You’d assume that, as a nation facing a semi-permanent low-grade combat situation, the thrust of the military spending (whether justified or not) would be on the common soldiery and special forces, the people who are actually responsible (at least ostensibly) to fight such low-intensity wars. However, after all the fancy spending, the soldiers still lack Kevlar helmets and body armour and use rifles (the INSAS system) whose reliability is suspect and whose design is an untidy compromise between several competing systems; the armed police still depend on World War One-vintage Lee Enfield .303 rifles, many of which are no longer capable of firing; and if the so-called Special Forces have proved none too effective even in Bombay in November of last year.

In the meantime, though, the defence establishment continues to spend, big time, on items which have nothing to do with low-intensity combat, and which, arguably, cannot ever be used – especially since, with our primary adversary armed with a goodly nuclear arsenal, a full-scale war would be equivalent to suicide. So we have large amounts spent on multi-barrelled rocket launcher systems for the army, which lacks even modern helmets or good uniforms; and on 126 fighters for the air force, which lacks a usable trainer (even the Hawk trainers lately imported from Britain are largely immobilised through lack of spares); and for the navy, we’ve just announced the building of our own aircraft carrier.

Ah, yes, that aircraft carrier. I’m concentrating on it because it’s such a perfect metaphor of everything that’s wrong with our defence forces. 

Those of you who have watched that wonderful film on the Pearl Harbour attack, Tora! Tora! Tora!, will remember how the Japanese carrier strike group penetrated within less than 400 kilometres of the American base on Hawaii and launched two waves of attacks, gaining virtually complete tactical surprise and a tremendous strategic victory. And those who know a modicum of military history will know well enough that the carrier forces of the time, American, British, and Japanese, decided between them the outcome of the war in the Pacific.

I assume a lot of our naval officers have watched that film. Also, I make another assumption about them, which is that they’re unaware that this is 2009, not 1941; or at least this is what they seem to be claiming.

Let’s just go over the role of an aircraft carrier once, shall we? It is, when all is said and done, a floating airport at sea, whose purpose is to land and take off aeroplanes which are to be directed to perform certain tasks in warfare. Said tasks can be defensive, involving providing air cover for other ships or for troops on land; or offensive, involving attacking enemy ships or shore installations or troops. Fundamentally, therefore, an aircraft carrier is a ship to be used in situations where other aircraft, based on land, can’t perform those roles – because in that case what would be the point of the carrier at all? Logically, then, a carrier is a ship to be used in combat situations so far from one’s own landmass or friendly bases that land based aeroplanes cannot fulfil that function.

I’m sure that’s clear.

So, tell me this, just what situation could possibly arise where Indian naval ships – engaged in legitimate action in defence of national territories – could be so far from home that they cannot be covered by land-based aircraft? Since I’m not anticipating that India is going to, say, invade Australia or Mozambique, and since I do not think (despite the government we have, whose foreign policy can only be described as knee-jerk pro-Americanism) that we are about to join in an American invasion of Venezuela or El Salvador, there’s no legitimate action I can think of that requires the use of an aircraft carrier. 

That is, then, the first of my objections to the aircraft carrier.

Then, an aircraft carrier, by its very nature, is a large floating object whose primary purpose is to launch, recover, and service aeroplanes. It is not, and never was, a weapons-carrying platform in its own right. It cannot be; the space taken up by aeroplanes and support systems precludes the carrying of more than a limited number of surface-to-air anti-aircraft missiles and perhaps a few anti-aircraft guns, if that. An aircraft carrier’s primary responsibility is to its aeroplanes. This puts it at a huge disadvantage where it is forced to fight against an opponent who has the means and weapons to strike at floating airfields which can do not very much to protect themselves.

Therefore, and the significance of this can be readily appreciated, an aircraft carrier cannot be used alone against any such opponent, because it is likely to be destroyed. It will need a large support group of destroyers, hunter-killer submarines, frigates, and the like, to protect it from enemy surface ships, submarines, and perhaps suicide boats as well. And, since that support group of destroyers et al will require, in their turn, protection from enemy aircraft and surface ships, a large part of the aircraft carrier’s aeroplanes will be permanently tied up in protecting the support group, not excepting the carrier itself. The only way out might be to add more carriers – which would make for more targets for enemy submarines or aeroplanes that might slip through the defensive screen, and so on. It’s a vicious cycle.

This is probably why – ever since the end of the Second World War – aircraft carriers have been (with one exception) never used against an opponent actually capable of shooting back on roughly equal terms. The US used them against North Korea, which had no navy; against Vietnam and Libya, whose navy of missile boats lacked the ability or range to even approach the American carriers (and in the latter case still required the assistance of F111 bombers based in Britain to provide additional support); against Iraq, a nation so devastated by sanctions and undeclared war that it was hardly capable of defending itself, and which, in any case, had almost no coastline, let alone a navy; and against Afghanistan, which is landlocked and incapable of striking back. Britain and France used carriers against Egypt in 1956, against a nation, again, without any means of striking back at the carriers themselves. India (and this shows at least some of the planners are roughly aware of the problem) used its then carrier, INS Vikrant, against Pakistan in 1971 – but only against defenceless East Pakistan (I’ll get to that in a moment) and not against West Pakistan with its screen of Daphne class submarines.

The only exception was the British action in the Islas Malvinas (so-called “Falkland Islands”) in 1982; in the course of that colonial war, two British aircraft carriers, HMS Hermes (of which more anon) and HMSInvincible, were used against the Argentines. But the entire action was fraught with nervous risk because of the fact that the Argentines possessed a tiny handful of French-made Exocet missiles, which sank several British escort vessels from the support force; and the Argentines did not risk the use of their own aircraft carrier (they had one at the time, which was later retired and not replaced) at all, though it did put to sea. If the Argentine junta had possessed some more Exocets the story of the war might have been a little different.

Also, in a modern battlefield environment with satellite coverage and real-time intelligence, a ship as large as a carrier can’t hide; there won’t be any more Pearl Harbour style attacks because the strike groups can’t approach the targets undetected. Yes, the carrier might improve its chances of escaping detection a smidgen if it dispensed with its escorts and went out alone, but of course it would then put itself at the mercy of any enemy sub that happened on the scene. And enemy subs can even penetrate the defensive screens of the escort group with little trouble, as a Chinese Song class sub did to an American battle group, so one can readily fill in the blanks of what happens to a lone carrier in wartime. Glub, glub...

In summation, therefore, an aircraft carrier is usable today against an opponent who has no effective means of retaliation; against an opponent who can fight on equal terms, the use of a carrier is extremely risky, and even with all precautions a carrier can be sunk for a tiny fraction of its own cost in money and effort. As the late Admiral Rickenbacker of the United States Navy said, “An aircraft carrier should be expected to last two days in a modern conflict, after which it is expendable.” Especially in the case of a nation as risk-averse as India, whose navy sat out the 1965 war against Pakistan in harbour for fear of losses, a potential carrier sinking would be a catastrophe of such dimensions that no naval chief would ever put a carrier in such harm’s way.

That is the second of my objections to the aircraft carrier: that even if there should be an occasion where it might be legitimately used, no naval chief would dare put it in combat against a capable foe anyway.

Then, there is the little fact that an aircraft carrier is an awesomely expensive ship; even such a relatively modest vessel, by carrier standards, as India’s proposed new flat-top is projected to cost US$ 762 million. (In reality, given the history of Indian defence projects, it would be surprising if it did not cost many times more by the time it’s finished, assuming it ever is.) This is quite separate from the cost of the aeroplanes it will operate (including the MiG29K, the obsolete Sea Harrier – all of which in India’s possession are now grounded because about half have been lost in accidents over the years – and the naval version of the indigenous Light Combat Aircraft Tejas, which is an aeroplane that as of now does not even exist). 

Add to that the cost of the special dry-docking and other repair facilities to service such a large and complex ship, which will be of no use for other ships. And then add to that the cost of the ships of the escort – the destroyers and frigates and submarines. And then you have to add to that the cost of the ships that have to be acquired to replace the ships of the support group, because obviously while the ships of the support group are busy escorting the carrier they aren’t available for duties elsewhere. And those ships, in turn, will require berthing and servicing facilities, and training and accommodation for crew (at a time when people aren’t exactly lining up to join the military), and so on and so forth. Now you’re looking at serious money.

Since even the most over-optimistic of the cheerleaders of the carrier programme don’t expect that there will ever be that much money available, even if the carrier force comes into existence, it will mean that the rest of the navy becomes an adjunct to the carrier, with nothing left over for other roles; or it will mean that the carrier, stripped of escorts and support vessels, will never be used in combat. A little further reading and you’ll know which is the more likely.

This, therefore, is the third reason to oppose the carrier programme – the expense.

Then there is the little fact that our navy hasn’t even the capability to run the ships that it has. Last November, while its frigate was sinking a Thai trawler off Somalia and pretending that the hapless vessel was a “pirate mother ship”, it could not stop terrorists from launching an amphibious assault on Bombay in rubber boats. Consider also that most of its ships and submarines are aging and of doubtful serviceability (vide the Indian Government’s own report, made out by the Comptroller and Auditor General in mid-2008). You might come to the conclusion that a fleet of speedboats would serve the navy’s purpose better than even a single carrier. You might be right, but being right won’t get you far. Our gallant navy actually plans to have at least four carriers! Apparently we need one carrier for the eastern coast, one for the western, one for the southern and one in perpetual refit, and perhaps a few more as well. Apparently this is “conventional wisdom”. Did someone say hubris?

This might be the moment to stand back and take a look at the history of India’s aircraft carriers...of which to date there have been two. The first was the former HMS Hercules, a light carrier laid down during the Second World War and finally completed as the INS Vikrant and transferred to India in 1961. Vikrant, along with the rest of the navy, sat out the 1965 war against Pakistan in Bombay harbour, because Pakistan’s submarine PNS Ghazi was on patrol and the government was terrified of the political costs of a sinking. Vikrant did launch some antisubmarine patrols, but none of them detected Ghazi even though one of the carrier’s AlizĂ© antisubmarine planes flew right over that sub. 

When war threatened again in 1971, Vikrant was shifted from Bombay, where she was close to the probable theatre of major naval combat (at the approaches of the Pakistani port of Karachi) to Visakhapatnam on the Eastern coast, where the only probably enemy were a few Pakistani gunboats and merchant vessels in East Pakistan. But even that was not secure enough for her – when the old PNS Ghazi made a tortuous journey from Karachi round the southern tip of India and up towards Visakhapatnam to sink the carrier, she took herself off to a secret hidey-hole in the Andaman Islands. There she stayed until Ghaziobligingly sank herself while laying mines off Visakhapatnam harbour. Later, when the few planes of the Pakistani Air Force in East Pakistan had been safely neutralised, Seahawk fighters based on Vikrantlaunched a few raids against the  East Pakistani ports of Chittagong and Cox’s Bazar, raids that could as well, have been carried out by the Indian Air Force. But the ship had to justify her existence!

By the early 1990s, Vikrant, now “modernised” with a ski jump (see below) and equipped with Sea Harrier aircraft, was so old that she was no longer able to put to sea. She was always “refitting” in order to “lengthen her lifespan” - but finally, in 1997, she was decommissioned and instead of finding her rightful place in a scrapyard she is preserved as a putative “museum” off Bombay. I know of nobody who has actually visited this museum and I do not know if this ship is open to the public anyway.

Long before Vikrant’s retirement from service, though, the Indian Navy bought from Britain the aforementioned HMS Hermes, which after service in the Islas Malvinas conflict was scheduled to be scrapped. This piece of floating junk, rescued almost literally from the breaker’s yard, has (renamed INS Viraat) adorned India’s navy for more than two decades now, although her air arm of obsolete Harrier FRS.51 aircraft are now grounded after losing more than half their number to accidents and though she, herself, now the oldest carrier in the world, spends most of her time “refitting” in harbour and has hardly put to sea in years. Anyone recall the last years of the Vikrant?

In the meantime, after a long and tortuous series of negotiations, India agreed to purchase from Russia the Kiev class aircraft carrying cruiserAdmiral Gorshkov. The Gorshkov has now spent several years, much longer than projected, being converted into an aircraft carrier and may perhaps join the Indian navy after another four or five years, which, I suppose, is how long the hulk of the Viraat is going to be kept on strength.

The point, as you’ll appreciate, is that India hasn’t exactly covered itself with glory in its use of carriers so far, and is highly unlikely to cover itself with glory in its use of carriers in the future, especially as it’s extremely unlikely that there will ever be a situation where they will be used.

Meanwhile, the navy continues with the construction of the new carrier, also designated Vikrant, and tells itself that it will join the fleet by 2014. The record of India’s defence industries isn’t exactly awe-inspiring; the air force version of the LCA Tejas is still not operational after over two decades of development (nobody even knows when the naval version will appear), while the main battle tank Arjun was obsolete long before the first prototype rolled out of the factory, and so on. Therefore I won’t hold my breath. I do not, however, rule out a Potemkin village of a carrier – hollow inside, only a shell with aircraft parked on the flight deck and a few antennae rotating – to tell the taxpayers that their money has been well spent. Since it’s never going to be used, who’s to know the difference?

All right, let’s just, for the sake of argument, let’s assume that this carrier is going to be produced on time and is meant to be used (just what the Indian Navy intends that it be used for, I’ll come to at the end of this overlong blog post). What then?

Apparently, the navy first intended this new carrier to be a light carrier of the 20000 tonne class; about the same as the original Vikrant. Someone seems to have finally realised that a big carrier and a small carrier will need the same amount of escorting and the same back-up, while a big carrier obviously can carry more aeroplanes than a smaller one; so the size of the carrier was doubled to 40000 tonnes. This will probably allow it to carry a squadron of MiG29K fighters as well as antisubmarine helicopters, pathetically small though the numbers ,may be compared to the US Navy supercarriers in the 90000 tonne range. But numbers are not the only part of the story.

You see, carriers can be classified by the method by which they launch their fixed-wing aeroplanes from their flight decks. There are three different categories.

The first is the Catapult Assisted Take Off But Arrested Recovery (CATOBAR) configuration, which all American carriers use (perhaps it’s appropriate to point out that the Americans are the world’s foremost users of carriers and the ones with the most experience in their use). In this configuration, the flight deck is flat all the way, and the aeroplanes are assisted to take off by a shuttle attached to a steam catapult device built into the flight deck. This allows heavily laden, relatively slow aeroplanes to take off from the deck. On landing, they use a tail hook to snag one of several arrestor wires stretched across the flight deck, the purpose of which is to bring them to a halt.

The second, which is used by most carriers except the American (one French and one Brazilian carriers also use CATOBAR), is the Short Take Off and Vertical Landing (STOVL) technique, which uses aircraft (mostly of the Sea Harrier family) that can take off and land vertically. These aircraft are light planes of limited load carrying capacity, and while they can take off vertically, this is very fuel-inefficient and they normally use a raised “ski jump” at the front end of the flight deck to take off. Since they can land vertically, there is no need for arrestor wires or catapults.

The third category is a compromise between the two types: the Short Take Off But Arrested Recovery (STOBAR) carrier. Currently there is only one STOBAR carrier in existence – the Russian Admiral Kuznetsov – but Admiral Gorshkov is being rebuilt into the STOBAR configuration. STOBAR carriers have a ski jump like the STOVL carriers and like them lack a catapult. However, they house aeroplanes that cannot land or take off vertically, and therefore use arrestor wires and a tail hook like the CATOBAR carriers. All Indian carriers henceforth will apparently be built to the STOBAR configuration.

The problem of the STOVL and STOBAR configurations, unlike the CATOBAR, is that the ski jump can only be used for aeroplanes having high engine thrust relative to their weights: which means they are limited to light aeroplanes carrying a limited load. This means in turn that the aircraft launched from these carriers will have to carry either less fuel than they optimally can, meaning reduced range, or less weaponry, meaning reduced combat effectiveness, or both. Either way, any aeroplane being launched without the benefit of a catapult is handicapped before it even leaves the flight deck. Yet, even though a cursory reading of Wikipedia would show this fact up, the Indian Navy prefers the STOBAR method. I wonder why.

Maybe – just maybe – it’s because all those MiG29Ks are never meant to go into serious combat, so there’s no need to tackle the technical complexity of catapults? Surely not!

So we have a planned carrier which cannot even optimally use the aircraft it carries, and which is not a nuclear carrier and must periodically return to port to refuel. It strikes me that such a carrier might not be, even if all other factors were  favourable, capable of being used in the most efficient way to fulfil the goals it had been set.

And what are those goals, precisely? What does our navy want these carriers for?

Back in the nineties, magazine articles used to quote naval officers going on and on about “sea control”, which allegedly was provided by aircraft carriers, as opposed to “sea denial”, which submarines provided. The idea was that carriers controlled whatever happened within the radius of action of their aircraft, while subs denied the enemy the freedom to put to sea. To anyone with half a mind, it might have occurred that the act of denying the enemy the access to the sea meant that you controlled it by default, so the submarine is a sea control vessel par excellence. Nowadays, the USP is something called “power projection” – and I’m yet to learn the purpose of said projection. Projection why, exactly? This isn’t the era of imperialist gunboat diplomacy, is it?

As I said earlier, a navy that cannot even protect Bombay harbour from amphibious assault by terrorists in rubber boats has some rather more urgent tasks than power projection. A navy that cannot secure its own bases has no business aspiring to be a blue water navy.

But sometimes the truth does leak through the verbiage – and it did, a while ago, when an Indian Navy officer said, apropos the Viraat, “A navy like India’s cannot be without a carrier.” Prestige, that’s what it is. No more.

I’m convinced, personally, that the aircraft carrier will go the way of the battleship, which was once the capital ship no self-respecting navy could be without. Where are the battleships of yesteryear?

Meanwhile, the Indian carrier is going to suck funds away from genuine needs, both civilian and military, but then this is the land of tokenism, as I said. So it’s par for the course.

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