Wednesday 12 August 2020, 06:36 AM
Carrier strike capabilities unparalleled tools against Chinese hegemony in IOR, SCS
By Sumit Kumar Singh | Bharat Defence Kavach | Publish Date: 7/23/2020 2:48:14 PM
Carrier strike capabilities unparalleled tools against Chinese hegemony in IOR, SCS

New Delhi: The latest joint coordinated naval exercises carried out by United States Navy Carrier Battle Group with Indian Navy warships off the strategically important Andaman and Nicobar Islands two days ago would have passed off unnoticed if it was not for the signalling by the two nations.The warning of a joint operation was clearly aimed at the irresponsible and expansionist China that has been troubling its neighbours both in the Himalayan mountains and in the South China Sea. And that's the significance.

All along, India has held that stand that it will not become part of any military alliance globally and would exercise its strategic independence. But that would now change, as China exhibits its military aggressiveness along the Line of Actual Control in Ladakh and its challenge to the freedom of navigation by other maritime nations, particularly the US, and the littoral countries in South China Sea.

The import of the passage exercise that the Indian Navy had with the US Navy's Carrier Strike Group led by its flagship USS Nimitz was the two nations expressing intent to jointly meet the maritime challenge that China is posing them. Clearly, Indian Navy has the levers to the two key choke points to the Indian Ocean Region: The Straits of Malacca Straits on the East and the Straits of Hormuz on the West. China is also obviously dependent on the sea lanes of communication for its crude imports to perforce pass through these two key choke points to reach its destinations and thus, ensuring China's energy security.

No wonder, the joint maritime exercise and the wide publicity it got has irked China and has come as a torpedo to its plans to dominate the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean Region, to which it began sending its warships and placing them permanently since 2007 on the pretext of anti-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden. The growth in ties between India and the US navies is being seen as unprecedented.

However, murmurs within the security establishment demands significant enhancement of the Indian Navy capabilities for long-term strategy, and any slackness in maritime approach at this point would become costly at a later stage. "A small exercise between US and Indian navies has irked China. And when India enhances its naval capabilities, the Chinese threat would be thwarted effectively," said a senior government officer.

The recent exercise when the Nimitz Carrier Strike Group (CSG), consisting of US Navy's largest aircraft carrier USS Nimitz, guided missile cruisers and destroyers participated in �PASSEX' or �Passage Exercises' with four destroyers or frigates of the Indian Navy's Eastern Fleet this week. The Nimitz Carrier Strike Group Commander stated that the Nimitz CSG was deployed to support a free and open Indo-Pacific, clearly sending the message to the Chinese Communist Party and the People's Liberation Army-Navy.

The officer went on to state that the PASSEX improved interoperability and is a testimony to the flexibility of the US and Indian Navies. "High-end exercises towards achieving interoperability were conducted including air defence, flying operations, communication procedures and close manoeuvres," the Nimitz Carrier Strike Group Commander stated.

The Chinese side was quick to get the implied message emanating from these exercises. The presence of a Carrier Strike Group in the Indian Ocean Region has visibly affected the Chinese Communist Party. Their mouthpiece claimed that pressurising China with US-India naval drills is "pure vanity". They assumed that the Indian Navy may now also join the US Navy in challenging the CCP's belligerence in the South China Sea.

The ability of a single aircraft carrier and its attendant battle group to shape the strategic environment has been displayed yet again. "The Indian Navy has also been operating Carrier Battle Groups and aircraft carriers for nearly six decades and this would be an opportune moment to delve on the relevance of aircraft carriers in shaping the current strategic environment, especially in the Indian Ocean Region," said a senior government officer.

China's focus on naval power

In 1996, the US Navy positioned two of its aircraft carriers along with their Carrier Strike Groups (CBGs) between Taiwan and China during the Taiwan Straits Crisis. It was a wakeup call for China; enough to accelerate its focus on naval force structure complemented with regular pruning of the most massive standing army in the world. Now, less than a quarter of a century later, the CCP's navy boasts of two operational aircraft carriers in its inventory, one under construction and two more in the pipeline.

It also has two Type 075 landing platform/docks under construction with an eventual three as ultimate strength. Bigger than most aircraft carriers in the world, the Type 075 LPDs could also perform the role of a light aircraft carrier if push comes to shove.

The spotlight on aircraft carriers and what they could achieve was back in mid-June this year, when for the first time in recent history, USN positioned, not one, but three of its carriers in the Western Pacific with two in South China Sea (SCS). This relatively shallow water body supports one-third of global maritime trade, with over $5.3 trillion annually passing through it.

The USS Theodore Roosevelt and USS Nimitz Carrier Strike Groups (CSG) conducted dual carrier flight operations, long-range strike drills, defensive air combat training, air defence drills, sea surveillance, replenishment at sea, coordinated manoeuvres and other exercises in the Philippines Sea. At the same time, the Yokosuka, Japan-based USS Ronald Reagan and its strike group were also conducting operations in the Philippines Sea. It was not a one-off event.

In the first week of July, the US Navy was back with USS Nimitz and USS Ronald Regan CSGs in South China Sea. The messaging is unmistakable and unmissable.

Fight Within

"Yet, until recently, it was fashionable in some circles to write obituaries on aircraft carriers. Some authors spilt a lot of ink over the past few years on the carriers' supposed easy detection by satellite-based imagery and vulnerability to cruise and ballistic missiles as fatal to its continued utility," said a retired top Indian Naval officer.

The officer also pointed that others went on to even compare submarines and aircraft carriers in terms of the former's stealth and absolute undetectability and the threat they posed to the enemy. "It was akin to comparing a sniper hidden in the jungle with an armoured tank. Each has its unique capability and role. What one can do, the other cannot. And yet, both are required for the niche capabilities they bring to the table."

Another oft-cited counterpoint in all countries, which operate aircraft carriers, is how it would be a better option to increase the number of combat aircraft for the Air Force. "This option pitched as an alternative to investing in a floating airfield with its integral air assets is an imperfect narrative, which is quite myopic," the Naval officer explained.

As can be seen now in the South China Sea, carriers free the country from the problems and political compromises linked to diplomatic authorisations necessary to operate from a land-based airport abroad or for that matter the clearances to overfly other countries' airspace. It is good to invest in air power and not aircraft carriers when you have friendly neighbours. When you have two of a kind neighbours -- Pakistan and China, evidently that air assets would be wholly preoccupied and justifiably so, in their support of the action across land boundaries.

It would perhaps be imprudent to expect significant land-based air power over the seas -- precisely why Carrier Battle Groups would be inescapable capabilities to deliver the needful in the Indian Ocean Region. Further, the maritime battle space now extends thousands of kilometres into the deep remote oceans, far beyond the reach of any land-based air power.

Naysayers have even given their perspective about how expensive carriers are in terms of their construction and maintenance. But because they bring a unique unparalleled capability, operating countries or those aspiring to be one continue to invest even when their purse strings are tight.

Aircraft carrier status world over

Little wonder then that the US Navy continues to not only maintain 11 carriers but is inducting the bigger and larger Ford-class carriers as replacements. The Royal Navy has built two Queen Elizabeth class carriers. France operates one and has already announced a plan for its replacement by the year 2037 even as their Mistral-class larger than usual LPDs can up-swing to a light carrier.

The Italians are refurbishing the ITS Cavour to enable it to operate the F-35. The Japanese are converting their Izumo class helicopter carriers into F-35 operating carriers. Republic of Korea has announced construction of two medium-sized carriers possibly to operate the F-35. Turkey meanwhile is constructing its first light assault carrier, the TCG Anadolu, which was intended to carry the F-35, till the deal turned sour. Egypt recently showcased operations of its French Mistral-class LPDs while Russia is not only constructing LPDs but has also announced replacement carriers for its sole Kuznetsov.

Spain and Australia operate the San Juan class LPDs which with minor modifications could be converted to launch the F-35s. The number of countries aspiring and willing to operate carriers or carrier like capability platforms is only on the rise. Surely, all these countries with mighty air forces have realised the unmistakable and unparalleled capability that an aircraft carrier brings to the table.

Aircraft Carriers in India

Aircraft Carriers in India today are a unique opportunity like no other. The first three carriers of the Indian Navy were all hand-me-down imports from the United Kingdom and Russia. The under-construction and soon to be inducted maiden Indigenous Aircraft Carrier (IAC) at Cochin Shipyard Limited (CSL), Kochi though, is a symbol of growing India and its industry. Indigenous warships and in particular the aircraft carrier, which is a project like no other, fits in perfectly with the Prime Minister's clarion call for 'Atmanirbharta'.

Indeed, amongst all the services, the Indian Navy has been at the forefront of indigenisation. What the Indigenous Aircraft Carrier has done is not only boost Cochin Shipyard Limited's confidence and capability in undertaking complex shipbuilding but has spawned a plethora of MSMEs within the country while generating employment for thousands. Some of these MSMEs -- from hardware to software -- took birth only because of the Indigenous Aircraft Carrier and have the potential to grow into the next big thing for India.

The IAC has also been an opportunity of self-discovery for the Navy. Many of the MSMEs involved in the project have now become a primary source of spare supply to the Indian Navy, not just the Indigenous Aircraft Carrier. In contrast, the same spares were earlier being procured through either more expensive or less efficient alternatives.

A second Indigenous Aircraft Carrier would only be a booster dose propelling such MSMEs, generating employment in thousands while filling in an inescapable capability deficiency. A win-win situation indeed. However, carriers take time to build. They are complex in construction and challenging to integrate. A decision now would affect the geopolitical environment a decade later. Likewise, indecision now would result in history taunting today's decision-makers a decade later.

An aircraft carrier is the most potent sea-based asset in any modern Fleet. It offers an incomparable military instrument with its ability to project air-power over long distances, including Air Interdiction, Anti-Surface Warfare, offensive and defensive Counter-Air, Airborne Anti-Submarine Warfare and Airborne Early Warning. The carriers in the foreseeable future shall continue to be the key to the operating country's ability to deter, to punish, and to defeat aggression.

Aircraft Carriers support capabilities

The Carrier Battle Group is centred around a carrier, and the usual discourse is how the carrier needs the support of other destroyers and frigates. Yet, while the offensive component of a carrier -- its fighter wing -- is the unchallenged prima donna in all discussions, the carrier's less glamourous but distinctive support capabilities make it an asset to any fleet.

Its in-house repair facilities are often availed by the ships of the fleet in company. In its absence, such repairs have to wait till the accompanying frigate or destroyer pulls up into a harbour. Similar is the case with helicopters embarked onboard such accompanying ships. Instead of waiting to get to port, the defective component could be repaired in the hangar of a carrier, which is a repair bay like none other.

With a dedicated hospital complex ranging from CT Scan to X-Ray machines, from a purpose-built operation theatre to a dentistry complex, the medical facilities available on a carrier extend the sustenance of ships at sea even in case of causalities. One could consider the carrier as a field hospital in itself.

Aircraft Carriers a diplomatic tool

A floating airbase, aircraft carriers combine operational flexibility and speed of intervention; to project force of a relevant maritime nation. The biggest mistake one could make is to classify an aircraft carrier as a military platform or option. A carrier is a diplomatic tool like no other. Its ability to influence outcomes by its mere presence in an area, and to deliver strategic political messages cannot be achieved by any submarine or aircraft. Yet, the nature of messaging itself is exceptionally flexible. If the first image of CBG within striking distance is that of a threat to a hostile country, it is equally deft as a symbol of strengthening alliances and forging coalitions.

China threat at IOR

The Indian Ocean Region is no small bay or landlocked sea. Its expanses are paralleled only by the traffic volumes it witnesses, especially China-bound traffic. With Djibouti and now even Gwadar likely to become a CCP Navy base, the ability of China to influence the Indian Ocean Region has graduated from theory to naked reality. Chinese naval ships are increasingly establishing sustained patrols in the Indian Ocean Region.

While this is viewed rather naively as a complement to their growing maritime trade route dependence, the same patrols also provide for ready offensive capabilities. "With five carriers likely to be in its force by 2030, permanent deployment of Chinese carriers in the Indian Ocean Region shall be a hypothesis only for a short duration," said a top Intelligence officer.

Operational necessity

For India, whose trade is overwhelmingly dependent on maritime routes - 85 percent by value and 90 percent by volume; whose crude oil imports and dependence by sea routes are only increasing by the day, sea control is not an option, but a necessity.

While the argument of submarines versus carriers can continue till the cows come home, what is apparent is that to undertake sea control -only a Carrier Battle Group can deliver. The Galwan incident in June this year has refreshed memories of the Kargil war since the situation is approaching a potential stalemate. Yet, historical records remind us that it was the deployment of the Navy at the doorsteps of Karachi that brought a swift end to the conflict.

"If there is one lesson that must not be missed from the Galwan incident, it is of how a Carrier Battle Group could dominate the oceans and the Sea Lanes of Communication," said the officer. The capability to operate, and availability of one each Carrier Battle Group in the western Indian Ocean Region and eastern Indian Ocean Region throughout the year would be an operational necessity to the planners in New Delhi.

Yet, such an obligation could be met only if there are three carriers in the kitty, since one would be under maintenance at any given time. India, as a maritime nation, is driven by the vision of SAGAR or "Security And Growth for All in the Region".It is also a preferred security partner in Indian Ocean Region, ensuring its Sea Lines of Communication are stable and are usable as a global common. Carrier Battle Groups would therefore allow New Delhi to calibrate diplomatic or military actions to optimise the management of a crisis or conflict.

The Carrier Battle Group shall continue to constitute any maritime force in the world in the foreseeable future, a highly adaptable instrument of power to control a threat in an early stage, while facilitating crisis prevention at considerable distances from home. In any conflict, the enemy too has a vote.It is time that our vote is more weighted -- a weight that cannot be achieved in the Indian Ocean Region without round-the-year CBG capabilities. China can be tamed effectively if the tools in the arsenal are utilised properly.


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