Sixty-five thousand tonnes of ambition

Recent reports of Indian intentions to purchase an aircraft carrier from Britain would not substantially add to India's ambitions to be a global power. However, the rumours are symbolic of India's delicate strategic balancing act as it shifts its focus to China.

By Shashank Joshi  for

Britain's imperial control over India was secured by its mastery of the seas, what strategists today call 'command of the commons'. The very idea that the United Kingdom could sell one of the Royal Navy's - and indeed the nation's - most potent political and military assets to its erstwhile colony is therefore of considerable symbolic importance - both because of the geopolitical inversion that it represents, and also the implications for India's ascent from a regional to global power.

In November 2009, The Guardian reported that one of Britain's two forthcoming Queen Elizabeth class aircraft carriers, each costing £2bn, could be sold to India as part of next year's strategic defence review. India is reported to have lodged 'a firm expression of interest'.

Each ship will displace 65,000 tonnes (three times the size of the preceding Invincible class carriers), will be specially configured for power projection, and will be the most capable carriers outside of the United States Navy. There is minimal official evidence to support the story, and any Indian Navy interest is more likely to be in understanding the ships' design and technology than in the purchase of a hull. India's defence establishment has severe and sometimes crippling difficulties with efficient and timely procurement, and has budgetary constraints of its own. In 2008, sources raised the possible sale of the USN aircraft carrier USS Kitty Hawk, but nothing transpired. The report could be an attempt by the Indians to shake Russia out of its lethargic refurbishment of the Admiral Gorshkov. Lastly, Britain's Ministry of Defence (MoD) labeled the report 'unfounded speculation', although the denial was awkwardly worded and there are strong political incentives to issue such a statement. Nonetheless, if a deal were to pass, there could be far-reaching military and political consequences for both sides and outside powers.


Indian Seapower

Naval expansion

The Indian Navy (IN), the world's fifth largest, has wide-ranging maritime aspirations. As early as 2000, Defence Minister George Fernandes defined India's sphere of interest as extending 'from the North of the Arabian Sea to the South China sea'. A year later, India patrolled the Malacca Straits in the aftermath of 9/11, on America's request. In 2004, its ships played a prominent role in humanitarian operations after the Indian Ocean earthquake. India's first naval doctrine was released in the same year. Two years later, four Indian warships in the Mediterranean evacuated thousands from Lebanon during the war between Israel and Hezbollah. In 2008, Admiral Navy Chief Sureesh Mehta announced that 'by 2022, we plan to have a 160-plus ship navy, including three aircraft carriers, 60 major combatants, including submarines and close to 400 aircraft of different types', constituting 'a formidable three dimensional force with satellite surveillance and networking'.

India's naval expansion accords with rapidly growing perception of a threat from China, whose surface fleet is three times as large and is supported by five times the personnel. The notion of a 'string of pearls', referring to Chinese political and military ties with states on India's periphery, is ubiquitous in strategic circles. This fear is compounded by the pace and scale of Chinese military, and especially naval, modernisation. China has also intensified its claim on India's north-eastern state of Arunachal Pradesh, blocked a $3bn loan from the Asian Development Bank directed at the province, issued a demarche after Prime Minister Manmohan Singh campaigned there, and reportedly increased the frequency of incursions. As India's strategic attention shifts from Pakistan to China, its orientation is becoming increasingly maritime in nature; India's Sea Lanes of Communication (SLOC), along which its energy supplies travel, are perceived to be vulnerable to coercive disruption during a crisis or war. This shift to naval concerns was reinforced by the amphibious nature of the Mumbai terrorist attacks in November 2008.

India's carrier fleet

Presently, the Indian Navy possesses the INS Viraat, an ageing platform that served the UK as HMS Hermes in the Falklands, but cannot launch heavy combat aircraft from its short runway. It was expected to serve until 2011-2, but after recent refurbishments may endure until 2019. The Admiral Gorshkov, purchased from Russia and bedevilled by delays and spiralling costs, is anticipated to enter the fleet in 2012-3 as the INS Vikramaditya. Finally, the first of India's Vikrant class or Indigenous Aircraft Carrier, the INS Vikrant, is expected to enter into service in 2014, with a second to follow three years later.

If, as is likely, the Vikramaditya replaces the Viraat, then India could possess three carriers by 2017 (delays are probably inevitable). This would guarantee that at least one carrier would be deployed whatever the state of maintenance operations, and that carriers could potentially be simultaneously deployed in the Indian Ocean, Arabian Sea, and Bay of Bengal. These carrier groups would be equipped with highly capable BrahMos cruise missiles, advanced MiG-29Ks, and limited submarine escorts. Depending on China's naval modernisation, this would constitute Asia's largest, most advanced and most offensively capable naval force.


65,000 tonnes of ambition: Indias Navy and its rivals, 2010-2025


The Queen Elizabeth class carriers


It is unclear why the Indian Navy would seek to procure a Queen Elizabeth class carrier: whether they would replace or augment the prospective Vikramaditya. Financial constraints and force planning imply the former, since India would be unlikely to pay an extra $3bn to Russia for an additional carrier whose function has not been articulated in naval doctrine or strategic planning. At the same time, a few factors speak against India purchasing a replacement British carrier.

First, the sheer size of the vessels - capable of carrying forty aircraft - would render them expensive to man and equip with airpower. An extra carrier group would be costly to support in terms of protective screens of surface ships, anti-submarine platforms, and submarine escorts. The naval budget has risen rapidly in recent years, but could not support this scale of expansion. Some naval thinkers contend that inadequately protected aircraft carriers are deeply vulnerable, and consequently of limited military use in a conflict if put at risk by an adversary. This is borne out by the British experience during the Falklands War, and current US concerns over China's growing submarine force. For India, a hugely costly platform that could be 'asymmetrically' neutralised would represent a poor investment.  

Second, issues that were invoked during the prospective purchase of the USS Kitty Hawk emerge here: although the flight deck of the Queen Elizabeth class carriers is not much larger than that of the Vikramaditya, the aircraft capacity is twice as large. Indian sailors may not possess the experience to manage a correspondingly more complicated flight deck.

Third, the British carriers are not likely to be as adapted to Indian needs as the Vikramaditya will be. The latter will employ a STOBAR configuration (ski-jump on the bow and three arrestor wires on the stern) with an eye to the Indian purchase of MiG29Ks. The British carrier will use STOVL, as is appropriate to the British fleet of Harriers and the anticipated F-35s. However, this is not a major concern because the British design is anticipated to be modifiable, and arrestor wires could be installed at reasonable cost.

Fourth, India may be concerned about too rapid an expansion in naval capabilities during a period of heightened regional tension. India's previous use of an aircraft carrier, during the 1971 Bangladesh War, was to launch attacks on Pakistani territory. Pakistan may use procurement of an additional carrier, or an accelerated procurement of a replacement for Viraat, as a pretext for a more offensive posture on Kashmir or advancement of its ballistic missile and nuclear programmes. China may also gain wider acceptance of its own modernisation. Regional powers who have undertaken joint naval exercises with India may become warier of its ambitions.

Fifth, and potentially most important, India may jeopardise its deeply rooted defence relationship with Russia. Bharat Karnad, a former member of India's National Security Advisory Board, has cautioned that if India chose an American aircraft in its $11bn tender for multirole combat aircraft, 'the tourniquet of spares and servicing support could be applied across the board, resulting in a rapid degrading of the readiness aspects of the Indian military [and] a cutback in the Russian involvement in many high value military technology collaboration projects'.

He goes on to speculate that 'there is the possibility of Russia making common cause with China in denying India a permanent seat in the UN Security Council, a seat India craves'. Although the Gorshkov deal is not as lucrative, Russia would likely take issue with Indian rejection at this late stage. It should be noted that although 70 per cent of India's present military equipment is of Soviet or Russian origin, Russia also depends on India as a major customer and might be self-deterred from taking excessively punitive measures.


On the other hand, the acquisition of a Queen Elizabeth class carrier (or a carrier with a similar design) could also bring several benefits. The expanded aircraft capacity over the Vikramaditya would allow for the long-term expansion of naval airpower. The editor of Jane's Navy International suggests that 'It's all about power projection. The Indian Navy is in the process of expanding its reach as a naval force capable of operating far from its own shores'. The actual difference in power projection depends on the Navy's ability to acquire a suitable aerial contingent and ancillary ships, but the Vikramaditya would likely be a faster ship. The service life of the British carrier, though, would be up to three decades longer.

It is also significant that the British carrier was adapted to be interoperable with the US Navy. In February 2009, executives of Lockheed Martin claimed that 'the Indian Navy has expressed an interest in the [fifth-generation] F-35B', for which the Queen Elizabeth class carriers are optimised, adding that the F-16, entered in India's tender for 126 multi-role combat aircraft, is 'the bridge to the F-35 for India'. These comments could be nothing more than a tactic to encourage Indian consideration of the F-16. But in the context of the 'New framework for the US-India Defense relationship' of 2005, the possibility of configuring a major platform for US assets would be of potential strategic value.


Wider implications

Dr. Lee Willett, Head of the Maritime Studies Programme at RUSI, argues that 'there is no public indication as yet that this story has any substance. In the context of the current visceral debates in the UK regarding the defence budget and the Future Defence Review, there are many different rumours emanating from different sources for different reasons often due to vested interests. If there is any substance to the story, it is likely that the potential sale of one carrier will be just one of many options being considered within the defence review thinking.'

'The Government has stated clearly and regularly that the UK's own requirement for two carriers remains,' he adds. 'This raises the question of whether - if there is any truth in this story - the UK should actually consider adding a third carrier to the programme, with that third carrier being the ship sold to the Indian Navy. This would potentially reduce the cost of all three ships, would enable the UK to sell the third ship at market value, and would extend the carrier programme's investment in British industry and jobs'. The IN's interest may be in the design and technology principles which are underpinning the UK's delivery of two state-of-the-art carriers for £5 billion for the pair. One Indian naval source suggested that 'If we were to be interested at all in the Queen Elizabeth class, it would be because of their claimed air defenses [and] what they claim their radar systems could do'.

If Indian intentions transcend design and technology, the strategic consequences of a sale could be severe for the UK. HMS Invincible was decommissioned in July 2005, Ark Royal is planned to be decommissioned in 2015, and Illustrious in 2012. After 2015, therefore, Britain would be left with just one aircraft carrier. Along with its two major twentieth-century withdrawals from bases in Singapore and East of Suez, this would mark a milestone in the Royal Navy's ongoing retrenchment. It would also constrain Britain's ability to simultaneously defend local waters and engage in power projection without local bases. In the summer, former chief of defence staff Lord Guthrie had questioned Britain's need for two carriers at all, asking 'Are there other, better ways of delivering sea power, maybe with more frigates? How good are aircraft carriers at chasing Somali pirates in the Gulf of Aden'? The sale of a carrier could dovetail with an intellectual shift in the strategic defence review to manpower-centric conceptions of war, increasingly salient after the British experience in Iraq and Afghanistan. Alternatively, mounting casualties in the latter theatre could instill a wariness to commit troops, strengthening the case for carrier-based air power, as applied against Serbia during the 1999 Kosovo war.

What could be equally important in the medium to long-term would be the shift in the naval balance. At present, Britain has a 3:1 superiority in carriers over India. If a sale occurs, India could reverse that figure in under a decade, giving it the world's second largest number of carriers. Britain at present supports India's bid for a permanent seat on the UN Security Council. The UK's own position is perceived to depend on its nuclear status and formidable military capacity. With the future of Britain's nuclear deterrent under considerable debate and the possibility of a precipitous decline in its expeditionary capabilities, the UK might judge that India's accession to the UN Security Council could come at cost to itself. Britain may therefore soften its enthusiasm for India's bid, as might France. Russia also supports India's bid, and a weakening in the Indo-Russia defence relationship could similarly imperil its backing. These are merely possible rather than probable scenarios, but their magnitude renders them worthy of attention.

India's ambitions to be a global power would not be substantially more fulfilled by acquisition of a British rather than Russian carrier. The potential for integration with the F-35 is less consequential than seems, for India is jointly producing a fifth-generation fighter with Russia. The projection of power in defensive, coercive, or humanitarian operations would depend more on the number of carriers than their precise capabilities, although India would prefer a more advanced carrier built to British specifications. This is particularly imperative if India considers China its major peer competitor; any Chinese carrier would not emerge until 2014, and could therefore be a half-generation ahead in terms of technology. None of these considerations has been publicly aired, but they will weigh on the minds of strategists in Britain and India over the coming months.

Shashank Joshi is a Graduate Student at the Department of Government, Harvard University 

The views expressed above are the author's own, and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI


Shashank Joshi

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