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.
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