What Good Are the Indian Navy’s Aircraft Carriers Against Pakistan? By Robert Farley*
The Indian Navy is devoting enormous resources to the development of an effective, multi-ship carrier force. It remains unclear, however, precisely how the Indian Navy would use that force in the event of a rekindled war with Pakistan. A recent Naval War College Review article by Ben Wan Beng Ho sheds some light on the problems that India’s carrier force might have in taking the fight to Pakistan. Long story short, India’s carriers would face enormous risks in undertaking offensive operations, with very uncertain benefits.
Ho argues that the need for self-defense, combined with limited deck space, make it very difficult for INS Vikrant and INS Vikramaditya, either separately or in tandem, to threaten Pakistani land installations. Pakistan’s A2/AD network, including submarines, aircraft, and surface ships, poses a credible threat to the carriers, making their use in offensive operations very risky. Conceivably, Pakistan could even attack Indian carriers with tactical nuclear weapons, if the war developed in that direction. The Indian carriers would struggle to execute a close blockade of Pakistani ports, destroy the Pakistani surface fleet, or do much damage to Pakistani military targets on land.
But some core problems remain. Indian naval strategy envisions three operational carrier battle groups undertaking more or less the same tasks. But Indian naval procurement has produced a plan to acquire three carriers with radically different capabilities, meaning that the actual utility of the carrier battle group in crisis conditions will depend upon which carrier is operational at a given time.
We also have no clear idea regarding the reliability of the two existing ships. Vikramaditya is an old Russian hull that underwent controversial late-life transformation into a STOBAR carrier; Vikrant is a purpose-built STOBAR carrier, but will be the largest warship ever constructed in India, with all of the potential reliability issues that this entails. The two ships are similar but not identical, meaning that maintenance and flight procedures will vary in potentially consequential ways. This makes sharing aircraft and pilots a dicey proposition.
* The author, Mr. Robert Farley is a senior lecturer at the Patterson School of Diplomacy and International Commerce.
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