BI-LATERAL / INDO-US
The two important lessons from this exercise are the dire need for the Indian Navy to have at least two operational aircraft carriers all the time and the role of shore based IAF airpower for the future Maritime Theatre Command
An official USN statement available online, from Commander Task Force 70/ Carrier Strike Group 5 dated June 24, 2021, titled ‘US, India elevate combined joint maritime training with multi-axis integration’, announces, that the US Navy (USN) and Indian armed forces (again) joined together to conduct integrated sea and air engagements off the coast of India on June 23 and 24. Further, a quote from Rear Admiral Will Pennington, the US Commander, included in the statement reads, “our nations share a common interest in a secure Indo-Pacific and working collectively with like-minded nations to provide full spectrum awareness and defence of the vast Indian Ocean expanse ensures stability in the region.” This assertion on the continued pursuit of the common good, is important.
That this Passex - the first one after the previous IN-USN Passex conducted on July 20, 2020, when the Galwan incident of June 15, 2020 was still in the limelight - could be conducted without much ado, despite the unfortunate USN declaration that USS John Paul Jones had carried out a ‘Freedom of Navigation operation in the Arabian Sea’ on April 07, 2021, indicates that Indo US military engagement has matured adequately enough to overcome occasional indiscretions. The inclusion of IAF aircraft in the exercise was a novel step too, although the unfortunate IAF decision to announce their involvement, without mentioning the Navy, underscored some of the challenges enroute to setting up of Theatre Commands here in India.
For the record, USN was represented by Nimitz class aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan, Arleigh Burke class guided missile destroyer USS Halsey and Ticonderoga class guided missile cruiser USS Shiloh. IN was represented by the Kolkata class guided missile destroyer INS Kochi and the Russian built Talwar class frigate INS Teg. As for aircraft, while the IN deployed P8-I LRMP aircraft, maritime air dominance fighter MiG-29Ks, Seaking 42B helicopters and Kamov AEW helicopters, the IAF deployed Sukhoi-30 MKI fighters from their 222 Squadron earmarked for maritime operations, AWACS, AEW&C, and Air to Air Refueller aircraft. The Indian Navy’s MiG 29Ks operated from the shore as India’s only aircraft carrier, INS Vikramaditya was unavailable as she is undergoing refit. The USN deployed F-18 fighters, E-2D AEW&C aircraft and MH-60R ASW helicopters.
As per an official Indian release, the two day exercise aimed to ‘strengthen bilateral relationship and cooperation by demonstrating the ability to integrate and coordinate comprehensively in maritime operations. High tempo operations planned during the exercise included advanced Air Defence exercises, cross deck helicopter operations and Anti-Submarine exercises.’ That is a lot of activity, especially for a short duration Passex. Though USN too have expressed satisfaction with the exercises, two things mentioned in the press release, viz, high temp operations and advanced Air Defence exercises couldn’t have been done optimally in the absence of INS Vikramaditya with her full air assets. Further, as the absence of INS Vikramaditya forced the IN MiG-29Ks to operate from shore like the IAF fighters, the exercises had to be conducted closer to land. With the exercises being conducted closer to land, an opportunity to undertake intense multi-nation maritime air operations at long distances from shore in the vast expanse of the Indian Ocean, our real area of operations in the future, were seriously limited. Any exercise surely contributes to enhancing interoperability among participating forces. But beyond that, the exercises of June 23/24 provided two important interlinked lessons for the future, especially for the impending Maritime Theatre Command.
The two important interlinked lessons from this exercise are, the dire need for the Indian Navy to have at least two operational aircraft carriers all the time, and the role of shore based IAF airpower for the future Maritime Theatre Command. Airpower at sea is critical for Air Defence, ASW, EW, Surveillance, Surface/Shore strike, Communication and SAR. The most important characteristic of air power to undertake most of these tasks at sea, is that it must be ready at hand, always. Immediate availability of airpower 24x7 is an inescapable requirement at sea, especially for Air Defence and ASW.
Air Defence situations develop rapidly at sea and extreme measures like round the clock Combat Air Patrol (CAP) are mounted for safety. With the Chinese steadily increasing their ability to fly their anti-ship missile armed Strike and Long Range Maritime Patrol (LRMP) aircraft from shore bases in the Indian Ocean and with their Carrier Battle Groups all set to mature and proliferate, credible air threat to our units when far away from the Indian mainland, is a reality that requires to be countered. Shore based Air Force aircraft, even when operating with airborne refueller aircraft, can never be available on call for Air Defence, at even moderate distances out to sea.
Here, the persistent warning by the Air Force against the use of air power in penny packets has special merit. With the Air Force too facing a dire shortage in their force levels, professional opinion from the Air Force during a conflict can justifiably be expected to divert available airpower to operations over land, thus precluding any such effort over the sea. Considering the fact that we are destined to fight the same enemies over land and sea, there is no conceivable scenario where IAF airpower, especially AD assets, can be diverted in large quantum to the maritime domain, as a sizeable amount of IAF assets will have to be kept ready for Air Defence in multiple sectors over land while bracing for and when engaged in a conflict. Aircraft carriers alone can provide airpower for Air Defence at sea, all the time.
Token flying undertaken by a few aircraft to relatively short distances at sea during planned exercises prove nothing but the ability of aircraft to physically fly, which is something that doesn’t need any proof. The dangers of failing to understand the stark difference between Carrier based and shore based aircraft in battles fought at great distances is available from the infamous Operation Black Buck in the 1982 Falklands War. This episode, that involves the Royal Air Force, is a classic example of avoidable waste of resources in the midst of a war. IAF aircraft can contribute effectively to antiship strikes closer to land. This needs to be worked on, so as to free naval assets for operations deeper out to sea. This is important for the efficient employment of air assets in the future Maritime Theatre Command.
As for ASW, immediate ASW requirements in the area of operations are handled by large multirole helicopters (MRH). While MRH carried by our big fleet ships in ones and twos do contribute to ASW, the Fleets depend on aircraft carriers for providing a large part of the MRH requirement. Further, only aircraft carriers can operate fixed AEW&C aircraft - an absolute necessity even today - whenever we are fortunate to acquire them in the future. Aircraft carriers also remain the only platforms that can provide repair facilities for integral aircraft during a conflict.
With only INS Vikramaditya being available now, the situation is grim. To have at least two operational aircraft carriers all the time, the Navy requires at least three Carriers in its inventory. While the impending operationalisation of INS Vikrant in the coming years will enhance Carrier availability to some extent, it is only a third carrier that can assure the quantum of integral air power that the Navy needs at sea, all the time, on both the coasts.
Large ships, especially aircraft carriers take a long time to design and build. We cannot afford to lose the skills we have developed in building the new Vikrant. We can delay, or at worst discard the second indigenous aircraft carrier, only at great peril. The way our neighbourhood is shaping up, it won’t take long before the impact of our failure will be there to be seen, clearly. Even a short two day international exercise can give lessons of lasting value.