On Monday (December 14), India’s first state-of-the-art guided missile stealth frigate for the Indian Navy, INS Himgiri, was launched in Kolkata. Present on the occasion was Chief of Defence Staff, General Bipin Rawat, who sought to share his views amid a raging debate in defence circles over whether the Navy needs more aircraft carriers or submarines.
“Both have their advantages and disadvantages. Submarines have their separate place in the naval warfare and so does an aircraft carrier. I am in no way saying the Navy does not need its air wing. But how to manage it and how to ensure the security and sanctity of our sea lines of communication we are thinking about,” he said.
He hinted at an alternative to an aircraft carrier. “I think you also need to look at our Island territories that we have in large numbers. If we can leverage our Island territories to our advantage, then we can balance out… this can be used as territories to launch naval strike aircraft or do we need an aircraft carrier? Once we have studied all that in detail we will take a call,” he said.
On December 3, on the eve of Navy Day, Indian Navy Chief of Staff, Admiral Karambir Singh, said that the Navy is determined to acquire a third aircraft carrier. “As a navy, we are absolutely clear of the utility of a third carrier,” Admiral Singh said at a press conference. Airpower at sea is required “here and now”, he declared. He said India needed a navy with reach and sustenance to protect its expanding strategic interests.
India is soon going to have two aircraft carriers – it already has one INS Vikramaditya and will add INS Vikrant which is right now on sea trials. An aircraft carrier is a costly proposition; India acquired INS Vikramaditya, a modified version of Russian Navy Admiral Gorshkov, in 2004 with a price tag of $ 2.35 billion after a series of negotiations spanning a decade. The second aircraft, INS Vikrant has cost India $ 420 million.
An aircraft carrier is a giant warship with a flight deck on which aircraft can be launched and landed. India has one nuclear-powered attack submarine, two nuclear powered ballistic missile submarines and 15 conventionally powered attack submarines.
Late last year, a parliamentary panel was told that Indian Navy plans to build 24 submarines, including six nuclear attack submarines.
The debate over third aircraft carrier versus acquisition of more submarines stems from the high cost for the former. Senior Naval officers say the Indian submarine count has depleted to 15, of which 13 were between 19 and 33 years old and are nearing retirement.
These numbers are nine boats less than the 24 submarines that the navy has been projected to operate by 2030 in accordance with its Maritime Capability Perspective Plan.
This is at a time when critical surface combatants, such as corvettes, mine-sweepers, destroyers, and frigates, have been in short supply like naval utility helicopters and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and other assorted missiles and ordnance.
In the face of funds shortage, the Indian Navy under a $2.6 billion deal with the US, is in the process of acquiring 24 MH-60 Romeo helicopters from Lockheed Martin. The helicopters are designed to operate from frigates, destroyers, cruisers and aircraft carriers.
The Romeo is projected as a potent weapon in the Indian Ocean Region as it would come equipped with anti-surface, anti-submarine warfare, search and rescue mission capabilities. The Seahawk (another name of Romeo) version has advanced combat systems like sensors, missiles, and torpedoes to track and hunt enemy boats and submarines.