|Aircraft Carriers: An Indian Introspection
By Dean Mathew*
Aircraft Carriers made their debut towards the end of World War I and evolved over a period of time as a priceless tool of power projection symbolised by the magnificent Super Carrier Battle Groups of the United States Navy. These products of impressive technological achievement are often viewed as the ultimate measure of a nation?s will and credibility and the ?status symbol? of the superpower, the United States of America.
Part of the legend and aura around the aircraft carriers stem from their history. Carriers were at the centre of some epic battles fought in World War II. Then, carriers were entirely oriented towards offensive air power and until a few decades ago, the aircraft complement that could be launched from the deck of a large carrier could outmatch the complete air forces of most countries.
The end of World War II saw the United States as the only major power left with a carrier fleet to be reckoned with. Others like the UK opted to downsize their holding, primarily due to economic and political compulsions. In the Soviet Union, the initial attempts in building aircraft carriers came to light with the launching of Moskva in the year 1965 though it did not carry any fixed wing aircraft. The logical culmination of this Soviet dream was the laying of the 75,000 ton nuclear-powered aircraft carrier in 1988. The construction was never completed owing to the political turbulence of the early 90?s and a paucity of funds. The unfinished ship was scrapped after 4 years.
Since World War II, the US has remained the only country to have built and operated heavy, nuclear-powered aircraft carriers with a complement of nearly 90-100 aircraft on board. Over a period of time, from the cold war days to post-cold war days, these super carriers have been the American leaders? preferred military means of carrying out political objectives across the globe.
The post World War II decades also saw the emergence of a few regional navies, mostly schooled in the western traditions. Many of them considered a sea-based air arm essential for their perceived roles and proceeded to acquire medium-sized aircraft carriers either by building their own or mostly by buying post-war surplus disposed of by the Royal Navy. The Indian Navy, too, acquired its first aircraft carrier in 1961 and continues to possess a carrier-based air arm.
This paper aims to explode myths and explore facts surrounding sea-borne aviation in a historical framework and attempts a fresh look against the backdrop of the likely Indian security compulsions in the early 21st century.
It may not be entirely incidental that today the image of an aircraft carrier is synonymous with that of a nuclear-powered, nuclear capable Nimitz class super carrier with an impressive fleet around it. These carriers had a legitimate role in the execution of the US global strategy during the cold war days. The rationale for a 15-carrier navy during the Reagan era was the perceived offensive operations against the Soviet Union on a global scale envisioned in the US strategy. The open ocean warfighting principle of the US Navy?s maritime strategy was primarily focused on a powerful and threatening Soviet Union with a world-wide naval capability. At the same time, the role and utility of these carriers in a direct confrontation with the Soviet Union, which maintained more than 2000 frontline fighters in their air defence forces alone or Power Projection missions in the Third World countries, could never escape intense public and institutional debate even in the US. 1With the demise of the Soviet Union and the end of the cold war, the scenarios will never be the same again. The post-cold war US Naval strategy will have its focus shifted from a perceived global threat to likely regional challenges, interests and opportunities. In all probability, the most likely subjects will be the littoral* regions of the world and the Carrier Battle Groups(CBGs) will continue to represent US commitment to project power into these regions.
Most of the post-World War II medium aircraft carriers of the second-rung navies retired without seeing much action with the exception of the Indo-Pak war(1971) and the Falklands(1982). Notably, there are cases like those of France, Italy, Spain and Thailand which have decided to acquire new aircraft carriers during the last two decades. Also, there is speculation about China, Germany and Japan going in for aircraft carriers in the near future.
It is more than five decades since a carrier faced another carrier or a fleet out at sea. The same goes about having faced a respectable airforce. For that matter, only once during the entire post-world war period, the carrier-borne aircraft were tasked to provide air defence cover to own fleet (Falklands, 1982). Barring this exception, mo