Is the time right for India to get a third aircraft carrier?

News: The idea of buying a third aircraft carrier may have to be delayed due to the current economic situation.

There is a broad consensus in the strategic community on the Indian Navy having two aircraft carriers, one for each of the two seaboards.

There also exists a broad consensus on acquiring the third carrier to ensure the operational availability of two aircraft carriers at any given time, accounting for maintenance, repairs, and refits.

However, equally, there are fit reasons to delay the buying of a third aircraft carrier for India’s coastal security.

What is the present status of aircraft carriers in India?

At present, India has only one aircraft carrier, the INS Vikramaditya, which is a Russian-origin platform.

The indigenously-built aircraft carrier (IAC) Vikrant, the first of its kind and a symbol of India’s atmanirbharta in defence, is expected to be commissioned later this year.

Why India should go for the early acquisition of the third aircraft carrier?

One, operational necessity for sustained naval presence in the vast oceanic space.

Two, to counter the rapid expansion of the Chinese PLA Navy (PLAN) and its growing forays into the Indian Ocean. Moreover, China is building a third carrier, the Type 003, and may have a few more in the next decade.

Three, With the Indo-Pacific increasingly becoming a contested theatre, India must prepare for the future well in advance.

Four, Aircraft carriers add more strength to India’s defence capabilities due to their innate advantages. For example,

  • They are mobile platforms that ensure sea control and power projection.
  • They permit the use of tactical airpower over a vast region.
  • Furthermore, they are equally capable of mounting offensive attacks on maritime as well as shore-based targets.
  • Due to their mobility, aircraft carriers can evade hostile attacks.

Fifth, the gestation period for any such indigenous acquisition is long. The Vikrant took 17 years to complete and is yet to be commissioned.

Failure to take an early decision could result in India’s shipyards losing the expertise that has been nurtured in recent years.

Sixth, shore-based aircraft for maritime dominance has some limitations. Like, they need to develop effective jointness with the Indian Air Force and their ability to provide air defense cover to our fleets would be limited.

Why India should not push for early acquisition of the third aircraft carrier?

First, the astronomical cost of an aircraft carrier is high, while cheaper alternative options like Shore-based aircraft are available today for achieving air dominance in the area of interest.

Second, there is also the case for greater strategic utilisation of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands and Lakshadweep Islands that has proximity to vital sea lanes of communication.

Third, India’s economic constraint due to the pandemic is also an issue.

Fourth, the navy budget is the smallest of the three services. It is doubtful whether the navy can absorb the cost of a third aircraft carrier within its existing budget.

Moreover, the prioritisation of ongoing and planned major naval acquisitions is already in the pipeline. It includes the Scorpene submarines (P-75 Programme), the Project 75 (India)-class submarines, the Visakhapatnam (P-15B) class destroyers, and the Nilgiri (P17A) class stealth frigates.

Source: This post is based on the article “Is the time right for India to get a third aircraft carrier?” published in Indian Express on 24th Feb 2022.

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