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The “unsinkable” island is no substitute

Aircraft carriers have a strategic and demonstrative impact no fortified island can replicate.

INS Vikramaditya with British Royal Navy frigate HMS Monmouth (Photo: Ministry of Defence, UK)
INS Vikramaditya with British Royal Navy frigate HMS Monmouth (Photo: Ministry of Defence, UK)

In a recent Interpreter article (Glug, glug, glug: India’s interest in unsinkable aircraft carriers), David Brewster poses an interesting question: is there a cheaper and less risky way for India to project power in the neighborhood than by continuing to rely on its aircraft carriers?

By developing the Andaman and Nicobar Islands into a strategic hub for power projection, Brewster wonders if India could replace its expensive and “sinkable” aircraft carriers with “unsinkable” island bases.

The question is rhetorical. Like some others who have written on the subject recently, Brewster casts doubt on the aircraft carrier’s operational viability, portraying India’s quest for a three-carrier navy as a strategic indulgence and costly undertaking that would only impose a crippling burden on the state.

Yet the choice for New Delhi to abandon its flat-tops in favour of a force projection hub at the Andaman Islands isn’t straightforward.

The real odds that a maritime power will sink another’s aircraft carrier in peacetime are actually quite slim.

The prevailing wisdom is that strategic defence at sea is best provided by mobile military assets, not least since adversaries have a range of flexible combat options at their disposal. Even if India did set up a sea-denial complex around the Andaman Islands, it would by its very “defensive” nature be incapable of furthering the Indian Navy’s force projection efforts in South Asia and beyond.

But India’s political and strategic elite also remains divided on the question of developing the Andaman and Nicobar Islands into a springboard for strategic projection in Asia. What is described as a militarist school cites the China threat, deeming the development of advanced surveillance and power-projection capability as a rank imperative.

This contrasts with the pragmatists, who are not against tapping the strategic potential of the islands, but oppose the idea of large-scale militarisation, which would hurt India’s image as a largely benign military power.

Even assuming New Delhi decided to develop military facilities in the Andaman Islands, the Indian Navy wouldn’t want them as part of a swap-bargain with its aircraft carriers. Despite facing an increasingly hostile operational environment, the aircraft carrier is still the only platform that provides comprehensive access to littoral spaces, for surveillance and effective sea command. 

Many naval analysts seem convinced the aircraft carrier is still relevant to modern-day naval warfare.

Consider this: despite losing more than ten fleet and escort carriers during the Second World War, the US Navy’s reliance on aircraft carrier operations has only grown over time. During the Cold War confrontation with the Soviet Union, US carrier battle groups were deployed in the Mediterranean, Indian Ocean, and the Northern Atlantic, often facing the same heavy odds as in the Second World War.

Skip forwards to 2018, and the US supercarrier still lies at the vanguard of maritime operations in the Asia-Pacific region. Arguably, America’s floating airfields aren’t any less susceptible now than in the past.

Yet Washington persists with its carrier deployments because it is the only reliable way of keeping up a visible tempo of US maritime operations to deter adversaries in the faraway seas.

It is the shifting context of naval warfare that provides the strongest argument in favour of aircraft carriers. In an era of hostile peace, when maritime powers have neither the resources nor the appetite to engage in fully fledged combat, big naval assets are necessary platforms for posturing and strategic signalling.

Since all sides realise the importance of keeping maritime responses below the threshold of retaliation, rivals desist from targeting each other’s principal assets.

This is not to suggest that a navy’s aircraft carrier cannot be sunk; rather that targeting such a ship is never an easy choice for the adversary. In attempting to target a rival aircraft carrier, a navy must ensure a high degree of internal operational coordination for simultaneous strikes by multiple weapons systems. It must also hedge against the possibility that a badly planned operation would be repelled, triggering a massive response by the adversary.

Even if the attack was successfully executed, it would need more than a few missile and torpedo strikes for a big aircraft carrier to end up on the ocean floor. By then, both sides would have hit Armageddon.

The real odds that a maritime power will sink another’s aircraft carrier in peacetime are actually quite slim. True, the flat-top is expensive, and perhaps more vulnerable than before. But so long as it is employed judiciously in less-than-war conditions (as is likely to be the case), there is still no platform to beat its strategic utility. 

For the Indian Navy, the aircraft carrier is an article of faith because of its ability to alter the psychological balance in the Indian Ocean littorals. It is a potent symbol of a nation’s pride and power; a floating piece of sovereign territory; and a projection of national will.

Although the flat-top could be replaced by island facilities (unsinkable carriers), or even lesser floating platforms that might do the job, none can replicate its demonstrative impact. Far from being a status symbol, the ship is the “beating heart” of the fighting fleet that provides naval operations with an essential vigour.

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