Sail or dive?
THE WEEK|November 22, 2020
What should be at the heart of India’s maritime strategy—submarines or aircraft carriers? A lively debate is gathering momentum
PRADIP R. SAGAR

When HMS Hercules joined the Indian Navy as INS Vikrant in 1961, India became the first Asian power to have an aircraft carrier. That single carrier was enough for several decades, since no other Asian power wanted to control the Indian Ocean. Today, though, when the Chinese navy is projecting power with two carriers, while building a third and planning for two more, India is finding itself at sea.

India’s second carrier—Vikrant, which is the first to be made in India—is getting fitted at Cochin Shipyard; naval engineers have been drawing up designs for a third. But in February, Gen Bipin Rawat poured cold water on their blueprint. As chief of defence staff, whose job is to prioritise military procurement, Rawat questioned the wisdom of having three carriers. Carriers, he said, were expensive and vulnerable to torpedoes. He favoured submarines, citing the Navy’s worries about its dwindling underwater capability. Or, he asked, why not develop shore-based capabilities?

Rawat’s idea, apparently, is to build more submarines and develop islands in the Bay of Bengal and the Arabian Sea into “unsinkable strategic hubs”. He has left the call to the defence ministry, which he said might review its decision after INS Vikrant becomes operational.

The main argument against carriers is indeed their cost. India’s lone carrier in operation, the Russian-made Vikramaditya, cost a whopping 012,500 crore ($2.35 billion). Vikrant is expected to cost 019,590 crore ($2.8 billion). Its sister ship, which naval designers have been working on since 2012 and want to name Vishal, is expected to cost between 075,000 crore and 01.5 lakh crore.

Rawat’s comments have triggered a debate on whether carriers are white elephants. “They cost a packet and if hit by one enemy torpedo, all this will sink to the bottom of the sea,” said a Navy officer.

Abhijit Bhattacharyya, member of the London-based think tank International Institute of Strategic Studies, said: “Between a submarine and an aircraft carrier, the former is comparatively economical and safer to operate, is difficult to be detected, and does not require an accompanying flotilla of surface vessels.” He added that the visible deterrence provided by a carrier battle group was something a submarine could not achieve.

Unlike submarines, carriers operate in battle groups—with destroyers, corvettes and frigates accompanying them—and thus have no stealth element. They are visible, and therefore vulnerable, to ships, aircraft and submarines. Many maritime strategists, too, have been arguing for a submarine-centric force. The debate is as old as the start of the Cold War, when the US acquired carrier after carrier, while the Soviet Union went for fleet after fleet of silent submarines.

The trends led to two rival maritime doctrines—of sea control (by American carriers) and sea denial (by Soviet submarines). The rivalry and divergence got reflected in the Indian subcontinent, too. While India went for a carrier as far back as 1961, the Pakistan Navy put a premium on submarines. After the 1970s, however, India acquired submarines, too.

The doctrines also evolved out of geopolitcal compulsions. India, like the US, has a long coastline and, therefore, can have bases from where carrier battle groups can operate. Pakistan, like Russia, does not have much of a coastline, and thus cannot have many bases.

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