INS Vishal or more submarine, what’s best for Indian Navy? The way forward!

Source:-INS Vishal or more submarine, what’s best for Indian Navy? The way forward!

The Indian Navy is once again pushing it’s case for INS Vishal, even though recently CDS has said that India should move forward with more submarines than a huge capital intensive ship like a super carrier. Yet the navy is determined that it wants a third carrier so that it can operate two carriers simultaneously on both eastern and western seaboards even if a carrier is undergoing refit or repairs.

It all comes down to this debate- whether India wants to pursue the strategy of Sea Denial or of Sea Control?

Let’s understand both strategies

Sea Denial – The strategy involves procurement of platforms like submarines and missile boats, so as to deter enemy warship from entering your area of interest. The strategy follows a kind of harassment tactics to make the cost of venturing into your seas by enemy warships high. However, this tactics don’t provide you complete authority over the waters but it just focus on keeping your enemy away from you but that doesn’t guarantee that enemy won’t try to venture into your waters.

Sea Control – This strategy involves a group of capital warships centred around an Aircraft carrier or a Landing Helicopter Dock (LHD). The aim of this strategy is to establish absolute control over large part of sea so as to be in dictating terms on what goes through that area.  This helps in creating naval blockade which chokes your enemy of essential supplies. Sea denial is also part of sea control strategy.  Sea control also ensure that your trade routes are secured while you deny your enemy of the same.

Which strategy is best for India?

Indian Navy has always considered Indian Ocean Region (IOR) as its own backyard, a playground which India navy will always want to dominate considering the fact that for all three countries i.e. India, China and Pakistan, Indian ocean is the main supply route of most of the essential commodities, most important of it being oil. In such a case, the strategy you would want to follow is not Sea Denial but Sea Control. As you would not only want to restrict movement of enemy navy, but create a total blockade to stop any movement of naval or other vessels like oil containers etc. of your enemy and would also want safe passage for your shipping as it is important for your war fighting effort. Now question is- can submarine and missile boats provide you with such capabilities? Well the answer is NO! Submarines at best can be used to harass your enemy but they are quite prone to enemy air activity. When China brings in its super carrier along with an LHD, your submarine will find it very difficult to get close to carrier group due to multiple ASW helicopter available on those ships. But movement of those helos restricts when you have your own fighter jets patrolling the area. As enemy first has to achieve air superiority prior to launching unrestricted ASW patrol. In fact, even for your own ASW platforms like P8 and MH60 Romeo, you will need an immediate air cover, which only an aircraft carrier can provide.

Why INS Vishal when we already have 2 Carriers?

Since it is clear that Indian Navy would prefer a sea domination over sneak attacks, question which people ask is why another carrier when we already have two. Well to answer this question, we will have to take into consideration many factors, of which most important is what your enemy can muster against you. Now it is well known to world that China plans to have 5 to 6 carriers by next decade i.e.2030. While it is most likely that they will keep atleast 3 carriers around South China sea, East China sea and Pacific ocean to challenge US and Japanese Navy. They can very well permanently deploy atleast a carrier in Indian Ocean Region operating from their naval base in Djibouti or potential naval base which can come up either on their owned island Maldives or Coco island.

It is also possible that after 2030 when China builds more carriers, it can transfer it’s refurbished carrier a.k.a. Liaoning to Pakistan Navy just to make India uncomfortable. They anyways don’t plan to keep it in service with themselves for long, as they are not happy with its performance. This means, in future there can be atleast two hostile aircraft carriers permanently operating in Indian Ocean Region(IOR). While more can join too, so to dominate them you too need to have carriers available at all times. And that’s what Indian Navy strategy is to have atleast 1 carrier group operational on its each flank if the third one is in refit or maintenance. Another factor always pulled in is high cost to build a carrier.
Building of Vishal can easily cost Indian navy around $4-5 billion along with its air group of fighter jet, AWACS and Multirole helicopters which may cost another $7-8 billion. i.e a total cost of $11-13 billion. But this cost will be divided over a period of around 7-8 years or so.  Current year capital allocation for Navy is $3.56 billion and if we take a moderate growth rate of 10% per annum, Indian Navy will have some $55-60 billion to spend in just next 10 years. So it is quite possible to start construction towards late 2020s.
Aircraft Carrier

Aircraft carriers are not obsolete. The US operates ten and is building a new class of carriers, first of which is undergoing trials. The UK after pondering over the need for carriers went ahead and commissioned two. China has two and plans to operate at least six. Threatened by China’s increasing naval muscle, pacifist Japan announced to convert its two Izumo class of helicopter carriers into aircraft carriers. France operates the only nuclear powered carrier apart from the US.

An aircraft carrier is not a sitting duck as it is made out to be. It is escorted by destroyers, frigates and corvettes and submarines. For India, these are armed with the 290km range Brahmos supersonic anti ship cruise missiles which can take out enemy warships at that distance in about five minutes, travelling at 3,700 kmph. The sea skimming Brahmos will not be picked up by enemy ships until it’s too late. India is working on a longer range Brahmos that can strike up to 600 kms. These combatants including the carrier carry air defence systems to counter incoming missiles. A carrier is not easy to sink even if a missile hits it.

The carrier’s fighter jets, currently the MiG-29K on India’s INS Vikramaditya with a combat range of 850kms on fleet defence mission will be able to neutralise enemy combatants at long distances before they get close to the carrier. In the future, the carriers will be armed with even more advanced and potent fighter jets with Boeing’s F-18 Super Hornet and Dassault’s Rafale competing for the 57 jet program. India plans indigenous carrier borne fighter jets which will reduce acquisition costs. There are anti submarine helicopters onboard and the Indian Navy has the advanced P-8 surveillance, anti-submarine and anti-surface warship aircrafts – armed with anti-ship missiles and torpedoes. In the future there will be directed energy based defence systems.

With its air complement, carrier groups are able to control a huge expanse of the seas compared to other surface and sub-surface platforms on their own. In a conflict situation, say with Pakistan – a carrier task force will be able to bottle up Pakistan navy close to its shores and completely dominate the seas including cutting off Pakistan’s supplies and undertake offensive action against it. Or make it difficult for Chinese navy to enter the Indian Ocean to undertake offensive missions.

Sufficient submarine fleet by the time INS Vishal Construction starts?

India currently has 8 Sindhughosh class, 4 Shishumar class and 2 Kalvari class submarines i.e. a total of 14 submarines. With 4 more Kalvari class and upgradation of both Sindhughosh class and Shishumar class, the total strength will stand at 18 submarines. With the P75I project, 6 more submarines will be added by 2030 taking a total to 24, which is the sanctioned requirement by Indian Navy. All this if Indian Navy don’t even exercise additional clause in Kalvari class deal and Russian proposal of 3 additional refurbished improved Kilo class  submarines along with upgrade of 3 Sindhughosh class. However, beyond this point Sindhughosh and Shishumar class will start retiring but these can be replaced with what Indians unofficially call as P76 indigenous submarines. The construction of INS Vishal may also start around 2027-28 with design work starting around 2023-24. It is also possible we may see indigenous SSN or nuclear attack submarine based on INS Arihant coming in too by the time construction of Vishal starts as work on these submarine is already going on. So when the construction of INS Vishal starts, we already expect India to achieve decent underwater strength. What will be needed is just timely replacement of older submarines, which as a matter of fact won’t cost as much as increasing number costs. Also with India’s successful growth story, the defense budget is suppose to grow exponentially over the next decade to cater for such capital intensive projects.

INS Vishal Capabilities enhancement over Current Carrier classes

INS Vishal is supposed to be a 65000-tonne beast as compared to 40000 tonne INS Vikrant and 44000 tonne INS Vikramaditya. Vishal will feature Catapult launch system probably Electromagnetic Aircraft Launch System(EMALS) instead of ski jump in its predecessors. Catapult launch provide considerable advantage over ski Jump like quicker launch time, allowing it to launch heavier fixed wing platform and also no weight penalty for fighter jets. Vishal is suppose to have an air group of 50 to 55 aircrafts including 36-40 fighter jets(most likely TEDBF), 2-4 AEW&CS and 10-12 helicopters, while current ski jump carriers have capability to carry 24 fighter jets and 10 Helicopters. Most important of it is the capability to launch fixed-wing AEW&CS like E-2 Hawkeye which have range in excess of 500km as compared to rotary-wing AEW platforms like Kamov KA-31 which provide a range of merely 150km.

The addition of INS Vishal into Indian Navy will provide it unmatched superiority in Indian Ocean region. And with India expected to achieve its desired submarine strength by 2030, should start planning to invest in this Super Carrier. Indian naval planners are quite visionary in their approach to think of this carrier and its usefulness.

A million dollar missile or torpedo V/S a billion dollar carrier

And for all those who comes up with the argument that 1 million dollar missile and billions of dollar drowned. Well that’s just a vague assumption or let me say laughable assumption. The reason being- first of all, a carrier always operates from a safe distance and only it’s air wing takes the offensive roles. And for long range anti-ship cruise or ballistic missiles, you must understand detection and tracking methodology. First of all, it is next to impossible to detect a carrier group at such distances unless you have a network of very advanced satellites, radars and other sensors. Even after detecting, for a missile to do continuous tacking and get a lock on is almost next to impossible. A little change is carrier course or missile approach will throw the missile miles off the carrier. Even if somehow the missile is able to get a lock on, it will have to go through the network of Air Defense created by the battle group moving with it. Also with AEW&CS in air, you are likely to spot cruise missile at considerable distances as they won’t be limited by earth curvature. For Anti ship ballistic missiles, BARAK-8ER and XR SAM will provide anti-TBM cover and also capability of such a ballistic missile to hit a moving target is yet to be proven keeping aside all those big claims for psychological warfare. Also you must understand that carriers are made in a way that it is highly unlikely one missile sink it unless it’s a very high angle of attack say 80-110 degree that too towards the middle of deck. You have to be highly unfortunate to be in such a situation to lose a carrier. But then, that’s the risk you always carry in an active warzone, be it anything. For argument towards a submarine closing in and taking a shot, that too is very difficult because of presence of multiple ASW platforms like ASW corvettes, multipurpose frigates and destroyers, ASW helicopters and submarines covering the carrier battle group. Post World War-2 till date, there has not been a single carrier which has been sunk but there are tens of success stories revolving around a carrier battle group be it US, UK or India.

Let me end it with this

“A submarine may be considered as stealth assassin, you give it a target and it will destroy but a carrier battle group is like a king who decides law of the land, in this case- of the sea.”


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