Saying no to the USS Kitty Hawk

The irony of Gorshkov

The latest angle to the ups and downs of securing a second aircraft carrier for the Indian navy is the speculation that the United States intends to offer the USS Kitty Hawk, a 53-year old vessel that is up for decommissioning from the US Navy.

Image: Stratfor
The American offer is interesting for three reasons: first, it offers India greater bargaining power with Russia in the negotiations over the delivery of Admiral Gorshkov (INS Vikramaditya). Second, it offers the Indian navy capabilities to operate and train its personnel on an American platform. And third, it could improve India’s maritime power projection capabilities to a relatively greater extent.

The integration of this huge American ship into the Indian navy, however, is likely to pose its own set of problems. From the type of aircraft that can fly off it, to operational processes, to the logistics and docking arrangements, there are a whole range of operational issues that need to be addressed. And in addition to all the usual problems related to the purchase of second-hand equipment (the Kitty Hawk was commissioned in 1955), the possibility that the United States might insist upon an “end-user clause”, requiring US clearance before offensive operations seriously undermines the case for its purchase.

But the main reason to reject the American offer may lie elsewhere. The Kitty Hawk at a full displacement load of over 80,000 tons, it is three times larger than Viraat and almost twice as that of Gorshkov. It is also about a third longer than Viraat, but can carry seven times as many aircraft (70 against 12). There is no doubt that the Kitty Hawk is in itself an attractive alternative to Gorshkov or an addition to the fleet. The problem though, lies in the relevance of aircraft carriers in future naval combat. [See this interview with John Arquilla in MIT Technology Review]

China and Pakistan are investing in a submarine based fleet. Iran is investing in small, fast armed vessels. And they are also investing in anti-ship missiles. The latter are improving in range and capability, and are fairly accessible to even smaller states and non-state actors in the region. In naval conflicts of the future, aircraft carriers will need to increasingly stay away from hostile shores, limiting their effectiveness. The other way of looking at it is that the benefits of deploying an aircraft carrier—and the complement of frigates and destroyers that form part of the task force—will diminish over time, while costs will increase or stay the same. A bigger aircraft carrier may pack a bigger punch, but is also more vulnerable in itself, costlier to protect and will cause a greater strategic setback if damaged or destroyed. [Moreover, as India’s missile capabilities have come of age, they can increasingly replace carrier-based aircraft, just as they are replacing land-based ones]

The person who recognised this and developed a naval strategy that put a lot of weight in submarines was, ironically, Admiral of the Fleet of the Soviet Union, Sergei Gorshkov. While India has bought a ship named after him, China and Pakistan have bought his logic.

This is not to say that the Indian navy doesn’t need aircraft carriers—it does. There are conceivable scenarios where aircraft carriers can be decisive, though not all of them involve actual combat. The point is that the role of carriers is diminishing in the 21st century naval battlefield, and hence smaller, perhaps, is better.

(Navy chief Admiral Sureesh Mehta) denied reports that the United States had offered to gift India its Kitty Hawk aircraft carrier, which is due for decommissioning. Even if the offer were made, India would not accept it, he said, because the ship was “too old, too big.” [The Hindu]

Related Link: Information Dissemination on ‘A strange solution for India’s Russia Problem’

Update: A version of this post appears on the South Asia Monitor, an online publication of the Contemporary Studies Society, New Delhi

13 thoughts on “Saying no to the USS Kitty Hawk

  1. This is old news. It was strongly denied by the CNS, the GoI, and GOTUS officials.

  2. The choice between a carrier or sub-based Navy has to be made on the basis of operational requirements. And the requirements of the USSR were vastly different from those of the IN. We need carriers IMHO, and we need them yesterday.

  3. A little nitpick – the Kitty Hawk cannot carry seven times as many aircraft as the Viraat. The Viraat carries about 30 aircraft, of which 12 are Harriers. The Kitty Hawk carries about 70, of which 48 are Hornets.

  4. Nitin

    The Carrier battlegroup as a concept is still vital for india for one very important reason: force projection.

    1. Force projection is required when you have a massive coastline to defend — aerial cover and the ability to take out hostiles at short notice is only possible via sea-borne air power and not land based air power.

    2. India also has extremely unpleasant neighbours (pakistan, iran, china, malaysia, indonesia) who can choke indian interests — such as oil tanker movements.
    it’d take hours for planes to scramble from the Andamans to deep in the indian ocean or from Gujarat to each the Arabian Gulf.A carrier can provide that cover.
    It can also be very deadly against the cruise missile submarines which our not-so-friendly neighbours are buying.

    Ergo the carrier will continue to be critical for india given her geography and the extent of her coastline. And all the nice new missiles we’ve developed can be deployed in the defence of the carrier group!

    There is no either-or here between submarines and carriers. India needs a critical mass of both.
    One rusting carrier (Viraat) is not enough. A high capacity carrier that has a much larger attack radius is in fact a cheaper alternative to expensive land-based systems (which are also more at risk from our own “home grown” troublemakers!).

  5. Mihir,

    Thanks for the correction. It’s more than a nitpick. To explain my error I offer laziness as the excuse. I hope helicopter pilots don’t start hating me.

    AG & Mihir,

    My argument is not that India does not need carriers: it does. But given the naval strategies of the powers in the region, deploying a carrier in combat will be riskier. Carriers do help project power, but power projection is possible even without carriers, as the Chinese are doing in East Asia. Also irregular warfare and proliferation of anti-ship missiles has reduced the costs of countering carrier-based power projection. It’s necessary to think about these issues without making it into a “carriers vs no carriers” debate.

  6. Nitin,
    While you cite the advantage of submarines you’ve not discussed their fatal flaw. Submarines are good as long as they cannot be detected, and keep their stealth. The diesel subs cannot stay submersed beyond few days. The most advanced American nuclear SSBNs have to surface every six months. US attack submarines almost always tracked down Soviet subs whenever they ventured in international waters. And if you’re detected you’re a sitting duck, at least in the world of subs.

    Making subs quite, the Virginia class for example, is awefully expensive, costs $2.5 billion each. I don’t see how the economics favors subs over carrier. Perhaps someone knowledgeable about the navy will clear things up.

  7. There is a few year old brief article that Adm. Arun Prakash wrote, which I linked to recently. It gives some history of Indian Navy planning for aircraft carrier and reasons by we went with the Russians this time around and why it takes so long to make a decision…

    Also, I agree with Mihir that aircraft carriers are in class by themselves when it comes to power projection – placing/supporting boots on ground and being visible cannot be done by subs or missiles…

  8. Adding to what Socal and Chandra have said:

    A submarine is a vulnerable platform too. Its greatest threat is the long-range maritime patrol aircraft. When Pakistani P-3C Orions come hunting, our submarines will have to run for their lives if the Navy doesn’t provide air cover. Destroyers are equally dangerous. Unlike submarines, maintaining a low acoustic signature is the last thing on the mind of a destroyer captain. These ships have powerful sonars and ping away with their active sonars like there’s no tomorrow. And submarines have to scoot. This places severe limits on their abilities. And if the enemy looses off a few torpedoes, all the submarine do to defend herself is deploy noise makers, stay silent, and pray the damn thing doesn’t detect and destroy it.

    A carrier has aircraft to provide an outer bubble of cover against air and naval threats. Then, there are destroyer-based SAMs to get rid of aerial threats that sneak through the air cover. The third layer of defence are short range missiles and close-in gun systems. Submarines can be taken down by destroyers, ASW choppers, and other submarines. I agree with AG when he says that there is no either-or choice here. Both are equally important.

    There was a thread on orkut where we discussed this a bit:

  9. Having sophisticated anti ship cruise missile does not give any credible capability against a CBG. No sane navy will operate a carrier all by itself in a combat area. What will operate is a CBG. With as many as three destroyer/frigates, with a fistful of corvettes, a couple of submarines and a fleet oiler. This flotilla is very difficult for submarines/anti ship cruise missiles to get past.

    All of the destroyers will have active sonars and strong radars to detect incoming threats. They will also have anti missile missiles and organic anti submarine assets. So will the corvettes. The subs will be mounting ssn patrols while there will always be a radar picket helicopter in the air. In case of a US CBG, there will be an carrier launched awacs plane in the air, capable of detecting all airborne/surface threats from hundreds of miles away.

    These are very substantial obstacles to defeating a CBG.

    Talking about sub-conventional threats in an article discussing the merits of a CBG is pointless. The CBG is a very different tool that has’nt lost its relevance in the arena that its supposed to be used in.

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