By Vidya Sagar Reddy (*)
The worst-case scenario confronting India’s national security is a two front war. The adversaries will mobilize over the land and as such these wars will be characterized by air-land battles. Unlike its adversaries though, India has the advantage of utilizing its naval resources for communications, intelligence and firepower thereby introducing an entire service as a force multiplier to the air-land battles.
The fundamental configuration of the Indian Navy approaching these wars is in the form of a carrier strike group (CSG). However, the current readiness level of the service is plagued by the absence of minimum required CSGs, attendant naval aviation fleets and force multipliers.
The Indian Navy is aiming at a 200 ship fleet by 2027 to help safeguard India’s national interests. The force will be centered on CSGs centered on aircraft carriers supported by advanced destroyers, frigates, submarines and support ships. With the recent decommissioning of INS Viraat, INS Vikramaditya remains the sole aircraft carrier available for India for any contingencies in near future.
This platform tends to be occupied with its own problems ranging from break down of propulsion complex to aviation management. The MiG 29-K aircraft bought from Russia are still undergoing various acceptance trials even as the Comptroller and Auditor General found defects in the aircraft frames, engines and other systems. These problems render the carrier tethered to its homeport leading to poor serviceability and capability shortage in case of impending war.
Meanwhile, the first platform under the indigenous aircraft carrier (IAC) programme, INS Vikrant, is also experiencing construction delays. It is estimated to be completed only by 2023 after which it still has to undergo naval aviation trials. INS Vikrant will also be operating MiG 29-K while the navy is yet to decide on procuring other naval combat aircraft such as Rafale, F-18 etc. for future naval operations. It has already dropped the naval version of indigenous fighter aircraft Tejas from consideration owing to its excessive weight.
The requirement for airborne early warning, command and control aircraft seems to have lost its space amidst this debate surrounding the choice of fighter aircraft. These aircraft such as the E-2 Hawkeye acts as a force multiplier providing early warning to the deck based command and control. It also acts as forward deployed tactical command and control post directing friendly aircraft to accurately strike targets. It is also an invaluable asset for damage assessment as well as search and rescue over high seas.
The Indian Navy should make provision for acquiring these aircraft early in the IAC programme to ensure seamless integration of strike aircraft with deck based force multipliers as well as update concurrent training and operational manuals.
In addition, the navy should also consider airborne refueling as a permanent option. The availability of aerial tankers helps reduce the weight of aircraft taking off a carrier thus increasing their capacity for sensor and weapon payloads. Once airborne, the aircraft can stay aloft for maximum periods until their weapons are exhausted. Interoperability with the Indian Air Force in this regard would increase the efficiency of sea to land attack missions. The tanker option will also defend the carrier from enemy’s missiles as it can now launch aircraft from safe standoff distances.
The CSG enhances its destructive potential by deploying advanced destroyers, frigates and submarines. The air arm of a CSG offers a potent mix of capabilities including surveillance and reconnaissance, locating and tracking threats, command and control, anti-surface and anti-submarine warfare. An immediate requirement of the Indian Navy is advanced helicopter fleet that can deployed from carriers, destroyers and frigates.
These platforms also offer kinetic kill capabilities in the form of anti-ship and land attack cruise missiles. A salvo of BrahMos land attack cruise missiles has the potential to cripple enemy’s war waging potential due to their ability to penetrate bunkered installations such as the command and control centers and communication nodes.
Such salvoes also help overwhelm enemy’s air and fleet defenses guarding strategic installations on the shore prior to an air campaign launched from the carrier. The Indian Navy already operates the anti-ship version of BrahMos supersonic cruise missile with the land attack version under testing and development.
The efficiency of these missiles depend on accurate intelligence of the target and guidance towards it. The Indian Navy made a leap by acquiring a dedicated satellite for communication purposes while India has already put in place indigenous positioning and navigation satellite system.
However, it is imperative for the service and the country to also deploy dedicated maritime reconnaissance, signals intelligence (communications and electronic intelligence) and missile early warning sensors over the Indian Ocean on priority basis to defeat threats on pro-active or even pre-emptive footing. Robust communication network carrying actionable intelligence is vital for the CSG to maneuver, defend and attack.
The annual Theatre Level Readiness and Operational Exercise (TROPEX) has been instrumental in synergizing naval resources across the board to test these facets of warfighting and joint combat capabilities in response to emerging threat situations. These exercises also evaluate the level of coordination with the Indian Army and the Indian Air Force to enhance interoperability and jointness. However, these annual exercises continue to be played with certain advanced equipment and platforms still in finalization phase.
India’s defence minister in his address to the Naval Commanders’ Conference organized recently emphasized ‘preparedness’ as the best deterrent. The Indian Navy is modernizing at a fast pace in consonance with the mission sets assigned to it and optimum force structure centered on CSGs. The CSGs possess inherent capability for cross-domain attacks but India is yet to either upgrade or plug-in the basic elements of this capability.