How an aircraft carrier projects power deep into the coast

INS Vikrant is set to receive her commission

30-The-Navy-which-owns Stately procession: The Navy, which owns and operates one of the world’s largest carriers, is getting ready to welcome its second queen—Vikrant | Photo Courtesy Cochin Shipyard Ltd

When George W. Bush invaded Afghanistan in 2001, among the first weapon platforms that he moved was the warship USS Carl Vinson. Sending a warship to invade landlocked Afghanistan? To those uninitiated into maritime strategies, it would have sounded like an Iznogud misadventure. It wasn't.

The commissioning of INS Delhi changed the narrative. India’s marine engineers and designers—civilian and military—proved that they could, on their own, conceive, design, build and deliver a warship that would prowl and police the blue waters well into the 21st century.

Stationed majestically somewhere in the perennially troubled Persian Gulf, Carl Vinson sent Super Hornets and Tomcats in squadrons from her deck to pulverise the cities of Kabul, Herat and Mazar-e-Sherief. The precision bombs that those warjets dropped on the already scorched Afghan earth knocked off the Taliban command and control systems, and sent their troops fleeing into the caves of the Tora Bora mountains. So much so, the Northern Alliance troops, who had been fighting the Taliban bravely but in vain for half a decade from the mountains of Panjsher, could walk into Kabul and occupy the city without having to fire a single shot.

That's an aircraft carrier. She (ships are female, even if named Vikramaditya, Carl Vinson, Admiral Gorshkov or Charles de Gaulle) is not just a weapon platform in the sea, but a repository of awesome power that can be projected to control and dominate thousands of square miles of the ocean surface and its deep fathoms, all the airspace over it, and hundreds of square miles of terra firma on the littoral and even interior.

The carrier is the queen of the sea. She hardly ever moves out alone. Like a queen, she moves with a large escort—of a fleet of smaller warships, patrol vessels and even replenishment ships. She hosts the flag-bearing fleet admiral, the mighty sea lord who is saluted by all the ships and sailors whom he passes by. Fixed-wing airplanes shoot off now and then from her deck declaring her paramountcy over all the seas, air and land that they can survey, while deep-looking helicopters peer into the depths searching for enemy submarines. Even flies and small fry, literally, fall within the radars and sonars of her escort party. She lords over all that she surveys.

The Indian Navy, already owning and operating one of the world's largest carriers, is getting ready to welcome its second queen, INS Vikrant. Though smaller than the in-service Vikramaditya (originally Russia's Admiral Gorshkov), Vikrant will carry the halo of having been built at home, in Cochin Shipyard, virtually next door to the Indian Navy's Southern Command, and to THE WEEK's publishing centre. “Aren't you the one from THE WEEK?” I remember Admiral Vishnu Bhagwat suddenly turning to me while chatting with a few of us on board his special flight from Mumbai to Delhi in November 1997. We were returning after the commissioning of India's first home-made new-generation warship, INS Delhi, a proud event in the annals of India's maritime history. “I have something that would excite you. We have put it up that the ADS [Air Defence Ship, as the project was called at that time] shall be built in Cochin Shipyard.”

The commissioning of INS Delhi, the event that we had attended that morning, had been a turning point in the country's endeavour to indigenise its capital weapon systems. With that, India proved to itself and to the world that the country, still lacking a design engineering culture, could build a complex weapon system that was acceptable to the armed forces. The Arjun battle tank had already been made, but the Army was being pretty squeamish about it, complaining of overweight, barrel heating, fire control problems and so on. The light combat aircraft (later Tejas) was still on the drawing board, and many were wondering whether it would ever fly. With all that, the morale of the military scientists was in the pits.

Queen number one: Though smaller than Vikramaditya (seen here anchored in Mumbai), Vikrant will carry the halo of having been built at home | PTI Queen number one: Though smaller than Vikramaditya (seen here anchored in Mumbai), Vikrant will carry the halo of having been built at home | PTI

The commissioning of INS Delhi changed the narrative. India's marine engineers and designers—civilian and military—proved that they could, on their own, conceive, design, build and deliver a warship that would prowl and police the blue waters well into the 21st century. Though much less toasted in the media and among the public than the first fully Indian motor car that came out of the Tata plants a year later, INS Delhi quietly announced to the world that India was coming of technological age, despite the political instability that was the talk of the towns during those years of coalition governments. The sight of the ship majestically sailing into the vast waters off Mumbai instilled a new self-confidence into the state system itself.

It was that self-confidence that led the military brass, the ministry babus and the politicians in the Inder Gujral cabinet to award the carrier contract to a civilian shipyard that had built only cargo ships till then. Needless to say, the decision made the yard masters of St Petersburg, Glasgow, Marseilles and elsewhere in Europe and America turn green with envy. One could understand if Mazagaon Docks, Garden Reach or even Goa Shipyard, all three of which had been building frigates, destroyers, corvettes, patrol vessels and submarines for the Indian Navy, had been given the job. But no, the naval brass chose a civilian shipyard, a greenhorn compared with the European and American yards that had been building warships in hundreds for decades, for the job. That showed the trust that India's sea lords had and have in the country's civilian industry.

The Navy has been much better-behaved when it comes to arms shopping. While the Army and the Air Force are yet to be cured of the import fever, the Navy has been not only trying to place most of its orders with Indian industry, but also joining the industry teams in designing and making weapon platforms.

With its own design bureau and teams that rub their starched-white uniform shoulders with the DRDO nerds and the grease-soiled technicians in dockyards, the Navy has been transforming itself into a builder's navy. Even in the case of armaments, the Navy has largely preferred home-made stuff to imported toys. It has been happily accepting the torpedoes, underwater sensors and weapons, propulsion systems and stealth technologies developed at home. Perhaps the one disappointment was when the Navy rejected the home-made naval Tejas as underpowered, and asked for imported fighters on the deck of Vikrant, but that is another story to be told some other time.

Now Vikrant is set to receive her commission and sail out flying the Indian naval ensign and professing the Indian Navy's doctrine of sea control. Traditionally, the Indian Navy has followed the doctrine—of controlling the waters that it can—against the western neighbour's submarine-based doctrine of sea denial. There are many who still debate about either and both, but the fact is that these doctrines are essentially grounded on the nature of territory and waters that each navy has to guard. Endowed with a long coastline which affords lot more ship-servicing facilities, India can follow a doctrine of sea control with fleets of surface ships, carrier-based task forces and so on. On the contrary, Pakistan, with a very limited stretch of coastline, is forced to follow the doctrine of sea denial with emphasis on submarines.

With new digital technologies allowing much more doctrinal flexibility than when wars were fought with iron and nitre alone, these doctrines are also being re-examined. The debate whether to have more carriers or submarines is sounding more like the debates that mediaeval knights had about whether to carry the lance or the sword. The answer is: carry both, if you and your steed can.