Maritime Air Power
Airborne fighter assets at sea provide the flexibility of shifting the theatre of war as also bring to bear concentrated firepower which can cripple the economy of any adversary
|The Author is former Chief of Integrated Defence Staff. A naval aviator of fighter stream, he has flown over 2700 hours and steered naval aviation acquisition as the Assistant Chief of Naval Staff. He retired in 2014 as the Flag Officer Commanding-in-Chief of the Western Naval Command.|
The Navy operates far away from the visible or perceivable range of an average citizen. Hence it is called the silent service. India’s Maritime geographical positioning in the world, more specifically in the Indian Ocean, is of great strategic importance. Till such time the technology developed, sea voyages were imprisoned by the available modes of movement over sea. It was accepted that sea voyages were time consuming, risk prone and could result in loss of lives in the process of negotiating the fury of the seas. Though India was a thriving and rich civilisation for centuries in the Indian Ocean region, it was unknown to the rest of the world. Therefore, when Vasco de Gama reached India, the first time ever a westerner, he was proclaimed to be the discoverer of India.
Much time has elapsed since. Technology has shrunk the distances, the ships/ submarines with very advanced navigation and survival systems have replaced primitive rowing/sailing boats. The only armed action that the sea farers were familiar with was piracy at sea. The coastal settlements in every country were familiar with the sea and her nuances (fury inclusive). They would also indulge in piracy of goods in transit to add to the well-being of people of their own clan. They often intercepted larger boats carrying merchandise and force the crew to surrender before making heist with goodies. The pirate boats had to be faster and stronger as also armed to threaten the merchantmen.
Warships in the Frigate and Destroyer category, which are without ASW helicopters, need this rotary wing asset very quickly given the presence of nuclear/diesel submarines of adversaries in the Indian Ocean. These helicopters are very effective against submarines.
One could argue that Navies round the world are an evolution of act of piracy at sea. World has come a long way. Navies have driven the technology to invent new systems to make it more potent than the other competitors. Once sea faring became the main mode of transportation for trade worldwide, its protection along various sea lanes of communication became a necessity. Countries which had powerful navies were accepted as regional or world power. Great Britain was leading world power mainly due to its sea power & ability to take military action across the world to crush any law disorder/disputes as also help the allies. Once its sea power declined, the US emerged as the strongest sea power by the end of WW II. Subsequent to invention of aircraft in 1903 by Wright brothers, aviation technology had advanced rapidly. Maritime air power, particularly aircraft carriers, became symbol of sea power projection, the relevance of which exists to date.
Lawmakers in India had sensed the merit of maritime air power during nascence of our independence. They equipped the navy with rotary wing aircraft initially which could operate from small decks of warships. India’s decision to purchase an aircraft carrier in 1960, equipped with jet fighters and turboprop Anti Submarine aircraft, was a clear reflection of her intention and belief that projection of power at and from sea would be the core of our naval operations in future. It was in the fitness of things given India’s size and sea around it which witnessed exponential rise in world trade. India’s sea power and its dominance in the Indian Ocean has been the ethos of the Navy ever since. The demonstration of sea power was best acknowledged in 1971 war against Pakistan. Destruction of Pakistan’s Naval ships and blockade of ports, in erstwhile East Pakistan, lead to early surrender of Pakistan’s Armed forces (93000 POWs) and creation of Bangladesh.
Naval planners had great foresight and wide perspective of future wars and India’s leading role in the IOR. They also foresaw the importance of indigenisation of platforms and therefore, developed shipbuilding capabilities very early. There began the journey of shipbuilding PSUs. Indian Navy created its own ship design bureau and later submarine design bureau. Regrettably the aviation industry evolved in the form of just single entity HAL which could only indulge in licensed production in the absence of our ability to develop aircraft /helicopter design. Let’s examine the specific roles of maritime air power and our current ability.
This is key to commencement of any maritime operation. Any naval action at sea or near far flung islands and littorals begins with extensive reconnaissance. Maritime Patrol Aircraft (MPA) and satellites play stellar role. Indian Navy has Boeing P-8I aircraft which is the workhorse for generating surface picture (Maritime Domain Awareness or MDA). Do we have enough? Short answer would be NO. These are very expensive assets and within the budget allocation for the Navy, total need could not have been met. Vast expanse of Indian Ocean comprises of three very important choke points, Straits of Malacca, Gulf of Aden and the Straits of Hormuz through which the trade of the world flows. Surveillance of the choke points provides the input on entire traffic transiting through India Ocean. Navy will need thrice as many aircraft of P-8I Type if this vast area has to be kept under constant surveillance. Satellites, Surface Ships and Submarines supplement P-8I to build robust MDA. Geo Synchronous synthetic aperture and thermal sensing satellites over these three choke points is a necessity. Presently, Indian Navy has number of bilateral agreements for exchange of white shipping data which provides real time movement of merchant ships. Agreement on grey hull data sharing with countries of converging strategic interest has become necessity in the present times. India has agreements with US, France, Japan, Indonesia, UK, Australia and the likes for sharing of such information. This enhances our ability to undertake pinpointed strikes at sea. The requirement of aviation assets in this role is noteworthy.
Navy has shown its intention of buying 59 deck based fighters. This is right time to decide on type of aircraft and finalise the contract.
This is another very important area in ensuring sea denial capability in which aviation assets play very significant role. Research and development in the areas of underwater sound propagation must be pursued with vigor in close co-operation with countries which possess high technology. Knowledge of propagation of underwater sound is key to developing state of the art weapons which are used to destroy a hostile submarine. It also forms the backbone of underwater unmanned vehicles which could function remotely and reduce dependence on manned submersibles.
Presently, the ASW role is being performed effectively by P-8I aircraft which is capable of detecting tracking and prosecuting submarines. It has very advanced equipment and weapons onboard and equally capable systems officers. If Navy is to deploy P-8Is in ASW roles in addition to reconnaissance, larger number of these aircraft will be required. Now, more than ever, a two+ front war is staring at us. It was only the Armed Forces who have been talking about it so far, but now it is a nationwide buzzword post the Galwan incident. Our political and bureaucratic dispensation have realised the compulsion of Defence preparedness.
If Navy is to deploy P-8Is in ASW roles in addition to reconnaissance, larger number of these aircraft will be required
In a limited area ASW, helicopters such as Sea King 42B & Kamov 28 are the only shipborne assets.This needs very urgent replacement due to the end of their technical life and obsolescence. Lockheed Martin MH-60R Seahawk has been contracted for, the supply of which must be expedited. Warships in the Frigate and Destroyer category, which are without ASW helicopters, need this rotary wing asset very quickly given the presence of nuclear/diesel submarines of adversaries in the Indian Ocean. Till such time we are self sufficient, bilateral and mini lateral maritime cooperation should be utilised for obtaining intelligence on movement of submarines which can interfere with our trade and commerce. Development of fixed underwater sensors is essential to enhance our ability to detect submarines early enough for tracking and prosecution by ASW helicopters. These helicopters are very effective against submarines.
World over UAVs (both fixed and rotary wing) are now being used for reconnaissance. Data link facility with ground/ship control systems, UAVs reduce the necessity of using aircraft/helicopters in this role. Fixed wing UAVs have long endurance (shore based) and in some cases armed to prosecute targets of opportunity. Rotary wing UAVs are particularly useful for operations from ships of small deck for local area surveillance. This is another area that requires modernisation of aviation assets.
Aircraft Carriers are often a matter of debate worldwide. Some opinions are not in favour of our Navy having aircraft carriers. These kind of opinions, do emerge due to long periods of peace when every budget shows tendencies of shrinking allocation for Armed Forces. Peace nicks also project vulnerability of large targets like aircraft carriers. India’s place in the region and the world can be achieved by a balanced mix of platforms in the Navy. Navy is a force wherein power is projected more often than used. But when used in conjunction with Army and the Air Force, results are decisive. As regards vulnerability, every person who dons military uniform and every war fighting platform is vulnerable. It does not necessarily suggest that people should not join the armed forces. A well thought out strategy would result in a desirable mix of platforms. Airborne fighter assets at sea provide the flexibility of shifting the theatre of war as also bring to bear concentrated firepower which can cripple the economy of any adversary.
Rotary wing UAVs are particularly useful for operations from ships of small deck for local area surveillance
At the moment we have one carrier in Vikramaditya with MiG-29Ks embarked. The first indigenous aircraft carrier, christened Vikrant, should take to sea anytime soon. The MiG-29Ks would have spent some time with us by then. Navy has shown its intention of buying 59 deck based fighters. This is right time to decide on type of aircraft and finalise the contract. These assets have a long gestation period. To imagine that our threats will always be on land borders is being shortsighted. A country’s Armed Forces hierarchy tends to imagine future wars in present context, which results in misleading outcomes. Any two wars are hardly alike. Quoting from China’s Military Strategy Paper of 2015, which says that the idea of ‘superiority over land makes a country powerful needs to be abandoned’. China has realised that no nation can become a regional or world power without a powerful navy and maritime air power is an important pillar of that thought. While these are expensive assets, entire expenditure is spread over a decade and therefore required is allocation to the Navy of at least 20 per cent budget out of total Armed Forces budget which itself needs pegging at 2.5 per cent of the GDP initially and then raised to 3 per cent of GDP as the economy improves. We are compelled to make emergency purchases at much higher costs, it also reflects at declining defence budget due to prolonged period of peace. In the fast changing geopolitics India must find its rightful place in the emerging multi-polar world order (both economics and security).