TIME TO REFURBISH THE INDIAN NAVAL AIR ARM
Geopolitics|December 2021
A highly modernised Indian naval air arm will prove to be the biggest sea-based conventional deterrence, both for the tactical and strategic-level battlefields, explains AMARTYA SINHA
AMARTYA SINHA

The last three quarters of 20th century were transformational times for naval warfare as traditional maritime strike capabilities of nations were further boosted with offensive airpower. The second world war witnessed massive aerial bombing operations being launched by allied and axis nations from their respective naval platforms and remote bases. The concept of aircraft-carrier ships and carrier-borne strike aircraft took concrete shape during the war which permanently changed the way wars are fought over longer ranges in the strategic level battlefield. With the beginning of cold war between two superpowers in 1945, the world was largely divided into two camps with both the military blocs deploying large number of aircraft carrier ships and warships armed with supersonic turbofan-powered strike aircrafts, helicopters and cruise missiles, away from home bases. The advent of nuclear-powered aircraft carriers further augmented the ranges of nations’ offensive capabilities as the combat assets could be mobilised tens of thousands of kilometres away into the high seas near hostile territories, thus increasing the strike envelope.

Significance of a carrier-borne fleet

Surrounded by Pakistan on one side and China on the other flank, there was a growing need for India to defend the peninsula from hostile naval action. The country’s first ever aircraft carrier INS Vikrant (R-11), a Majestic-class ship, was bought off the shelf from the Britishers in 1957 and commissioned into service with the Indian Navy in 1961. The ship carried a ‘White Tigers’ squadron consisting of Hawker Sea Hawk fighter jets, a ‘Cobras’ squadron of Breguet 1050 Alize anti-submarine warfare aircraft, and two helicopter squadrons: ‘Angels’ and ‘Harpoons’ consisting of Aerospatiale Alouette-III (HAL Chetak) and Westland Sea King choppers respectively. INS Vikrant launched deadly air raids targeting enemy garrisons, ports, ammunition storages and fuel dumps in East Pakistan and enforced a naval blockade in the Bay of Bengal during the India-Pakistan war of 1971 (Bangladesh liberation war) which totally crippled the Pakistani forces and led to a decisive Indian victory on December 16, 1971. Thus, the significance of a formidable carrier-borne strike force in modern day battlefield scenarios was realised and endorsed by policymakers in New Delhi. The fleet of strike aircrafts onboard Vikrant was further augmented with the British Aerospace Sea Harriers joining the ‘Cobras’ squadron in 1983.

With Vikrant slated to reach its end of life by 1990s, deliberations began on replacing the ship with a new aircraft carrier. INS Viraat, a British Centaur-class vessel, was acquired and commissioned with the Indian Navy in 1987. The brand-new ship was capable of hosting up to 26 aircrafts. INS Viraat was armed with two squadrons (christened as ‘White Tigers’ and ‘The Braves’) of British Aerospace Sea Harrier fighter jets, and one squadron each of Alouette-III (Angels) and Westland Sea King (Harpoons) helicopters. The ship was also equipped with two 40mm Bofors anti-aircraft guns, 16 Barak-1 surface-to-air missiles and two AK-230 CIWS (Close-in Weapon System) for self-defence against incoming hostile aircrafts and low-flying cruise missiles. But a single aircraft carrier wasn’t adequate to handle a two-front scenario in the Eastern and Western seaboards simultaneously. Moreover, with an ever-expanding Chinese navy in the neighbourhood, the Indian government drew up plans to develop ‘blue-water’ capabilities. The ‘Maritime Capabilities Perspective Plan’ published in 2007, outlined plans for deploying more aircraft carriers. With INS Viraat poised to retire by late 2010s, a replacement had to be found on an urgent basis. Hence, INS Vikramaditya, a Kiev-class aircraft carrier was bought off the shelf from Russia. With a displacement of 45,000 tonnes (almost twice than that of Viraat’s 23,900 tonnes), the new ship is capable of carrying up to 36 aircrafts of different configurations. The vessel is armed with four AK-630 Close-in Weapon System (CIWS) along with Barak-1 and Barak-8 long-range surface-to-air missiles for self-defence. A deal was also struck to acquire 45 MiG-29K fighter-bombers for long-range strikes, 18 Kamov Ka-28 helicopters for anti-submarine warfare and 14 Kamov Ka-31 choppers for AEW&C (airborne early warning and control). While some of these aircrafts are currently operated from INS Vikramaditya, the rest (additional capacity and backups) have been stationed at coastal bases located in peninsular India.

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