Adm Arun Prakash responds to “Do we really need an aircraft carrier?”

Responding to the post about the induction of a INS Kesari, one of our commenters, Ankur, suggested that the real need for an aircraft carrier in the Indian fleet was questionable, since a carrier battle group was “simply an offensive weapon”. I told Ankur that I’d get the best person on the subject to offer us his views. Former Chief of Naval Staff Admiral Arun Prakash, who has served on INS Vikrant, and commanded India’s sole present aircraft carrier INS Viraat, has very kindly offered LiveFist the following insights on the matter:

Admiral Arun Prakash: It is not quite appropriate to say that an aircraft-carrier’s sole purpose is to project power, and that a battle group (CBG) is therefore only an offensive unit/formation… So why does India need one? This is an old debate and could go on for a long time, but let me just make a couple of brief points:

An aircraft carrier’s raison d’etre is to provide comprehensive support to maritime forces, and not the other way round. This support can be to forces operating at sea, as well as ashore. At sea, the support is in all three dimensions. For example: it would take many hours/days of search by LRMP (long-range maritime patrol) aircraft or ASW (anti-submarine warfare) ships to localise a diesel submarine (SSN or SSBN in the very near future) in the Indian Ocean. Thereafter, it will require a force of 6-8 large ASW helicopters operating around the clock to search and locate such an elusive target, and attack it if required. Only a carrier can provide this kind of sustained ASW support within a few minutes of flying time and for as long as required.

If our maritime forces are going to operate within range of enemy air threat, which could be from strike aircraft, or missile-armed LRMP machines, they will require fighter protection within a matter of minutes, and 24×7. Again, only a carrier operating in support of the force can provide this kind of cover.

The carrier’s fighters will also make sure that no surface ship (missile armed or otherwise) can get anywhere near 150-200 miles of a maritime force.

Finally, carriers are an invaluable asset in littoral and amphibious warfare, because of their manifold capabilities, including sea-lift as well as heli-lift. Carrier critics will of talk of the size & vulnerability of a carrier. Nothing at sea is invulnerable, and certainly not in war. But carriers, by virtue of their integral aircraft and helicopter force can keep any threat at bay. And if hit, by virtue of their size can absorb far more damage than any other ship. – AP

More by Admiral Arun Prakash on LiveFist:
On the China Threat
On the New Indo-US Strategic Partnership
On what platforms the future Indian Navy needs
On DRDO, Obsolesence and Self-reliance (FORCE Magazine)
On the need for nuclear submarines
On the future of Naval aviation

27 thoughts on “Adm Arun Prakash responds to “Do we really need an aircraft carrier?””

  1. Dear Admiral,

    Thank you, first of all, for the extremely fast reply!

    Secondly, I had not considered the all-round capabilities of the aircraft carrier as a force enhancer. I guess therein lies the value to the Indian Navy, in its quest to become a true blue-water power.

    Kind Regards,

    P.S. Thanks Shiv, for organising this so fast!

  2. what is this blue water…in which part of the world is water not blue????? idiots…who are these idiots on this blog

  3. Shiv you seem to have turned into a spokesperson of Ankur and others….are you officially the naval PRO…..and as it is you’re definitely Arun Prakash’s PRO….no doubt…are you his adopted son???

    As it is having an IAF fighter test pilot as ex-father-in-law, you’re as it is on teh other side of the system…..official IAF spokesperson as well!!

  4. Found on Orkut:

    Nowadays its very easy to get dazzled by all the awe and shock which the US Navy projects. Consequently, we feel that all air craft carriers are expensive white elephants.

    If one wants to study how effective an air craft carrier can really be, then one simply has to study 3 conflicts – the Suez crisis of 1956, our war in 1971 and the Falklands conflict in 1982.

    1. The aircraft carriers of Britain and France were enough to decimate the Egyptian airforce and project air power beyond the territorial limits of either of the 2 European countries.

    2. Despite all the resources available to the Pakistan navy with the help of the US, they could not locate INS Vikrant. That carrier alone was responsible for the complete isolation of East Pakistan and the bottling up of the Pakis in that area.

    3. The two dozen odd aircraft (Harriers and helicopters) were all that was between the British sea fleet and decimation in the Falklands. If the British did not have air cover in the South Atlantic Seas then they would have been pulverized by the Argentinian airforce.

    People tend to forget the size of India. India is so big that the ocean around it is known as the “Indian” Ocean.
    Despite a 5000 km long coastline, farflung islands, overdependence on sea lanes for a majority of our trade, etc, we are still obsessed with our northern borders – so much so that we neglect the fact that we have 2 seas and a ocean at our doorstep.

    Ideally what India needs are 5 aircraft carriers – 2 for the Western Fleet, 2 for the Bay of Bengal and 1 in general reserve. These aircraft carriers do not have to be gigantic 100 plane-wallas. They should be just the size of the Vikrant / Viraat types – carrying around 8 fixed wing aircraft and 10 rotary aircraft. They can be either custom made or converted merchant ships (take a basic double skinned commercial hull, stick a flat air deck on top with 2 elevators and use VTOL aircraft).

    Subs are groovy, but the battle of the Atlantic was won by the Allied air power during World War 2. 🙂

  5. Mihir – great info. Much appreciated. Seems like air power is not something to be sneezed at for the Navy.

    Also – why are all the haters always anonymous? Here are some answers:

    1. I don’t see how asking a source within the Navy a question (which apparently more people than myself were curious to hear about) makes Shiv (who I don’t even know personally!) my spokesperson. But trust me – it is extremely flattering, nonetheless! So thanks, anonymous.

    2. And a “blue water” navy is one that can operate independently far away from home shores (read air-defence and supplies). For this one typically requires a carrier battle group (aircraft carrier and support vessels).

    What India has is essentially a green-water (local seas)/ brown-water (rivers) navy in transition to a blue-water navy. Please use google next time.

  6. Shiv: Loved the article – and it explains a lot about the back-story of the IAC.

    It would be rather nice to have an updated version of this (e.g. when does phase 2 start? How is the IAC faring – esp. with regards to the LCA and its engine worries? How has the wrangling with the Russians impacted the Navy’s plans?).

  7. what has the air force done with the su 30 K/MKs, have they upgraded it or using it as it was?
    How many squadrons of sukhois are operational presently in the IAF?

    are the backseaters/WSO’s of the sukhois equally trained in the sukhois or are specially trained navigators/bombers?

  8. It may be flattering for you Ankur, but is it flattering for Shiv to be your spoksperson?

    Ask him…by now he must’ve buried his head deep in sand out of shame and embarrassment !!

  9. Hi Shiv,

    Good you got the Admiral to comment.Few can be as incisive.Always nice to learn. Keep it up


  10. Mihir! Technology has changed leaps and bounds since 1971. I think US can locate now a pinhead on vikrant and pass it on to the pakis! The way defence deals are getting messed up in our bureaucracy, it makes me very sad. Take for example the AEW&C programme! The Phalcon got delayed and even if we get it what are all will be its capabilities? indegenous AEW is like any ARJUN,TEJAS BLAH BLAH! CABS and GOD only knows its status and credibility. pakistan is learning from our mistakes. They are quietly buying the ERIEYE fitted on SAAB falcon and will be operational soon once the radar is fitted.We are creating a mess for ourselves!

  11. anonymous, it must be galling for you to know that shiv aroor has access to the admiral and could get a response from the admiral within 24 hours! go get a life and let shiv do his good work.

    2. Despite all the resources available to the Pakistan navy with the help of the US, they could not locate INS Vikrant. That carrier alone was responsible for the complete isolation of East Pakistan and the bottling up of the Pakis in that area.

    Debatable but we should argue over it on some other time.


  12. Mihir

    The Vikrant played a role no doubt. But a significant chunck of the credit also goes to the Indian Air Force. I believe even places like Chittagong etc were first taken care of by the IAF and only after they confirmed that the PAF was not in a position to operate from there did Vikrant send in aircraft for Chittagong and Cos Bazar. The aircraft they were operating were first generation jets and would have stood no chance against the Pakistanis . Hence the Navy was reluctant to take the first shot at the airfield.

    hence i take objection to the part “The Carrier alone …”. Also the blockade was not fully complete. The Pakis were able to dispatch atleast one of their Gunboats to Burma by hugging the coast line.


  13. AKD whats so great about having access to a retired Admiral like Arun Prakash….anyone can have his number and he responds very promptly…..even you can talk and ask him anything anytime…..if you want i can give you his numbers.ya access to serving people is what matters and that Shiv Aroor doesnt have !!

  14. from where to where? this is nonsense. the admiral has answered a question, so why does this lead us to such a stupid debate rather than what is at hand on the aircraft carrier’s need in our fleet? shiv aroor has bothered to get the admiral’s insights and that’s what counts. arun prakash is by far the best person to get to answer such a question – retired, hindsight, test pilot, ex-chief. why is shiv aroor’s access to serving personnel an issue??? and anyway going by the stories he does, it sure looks like that is nowhere near the case.

  15. I have a question… at what point does a carrier go from being a Mace for power projection to a 30,000 ton floating bullseye.

    Specifically, what I’m asking about is like the Viraat, with a seriously depleted aircraft complement. An aircraft carrier is a natural target in any conflict, and a protective air cover must be maintained at all times. Too small an air wing, and the ability to conduct offensive ops is compromised by the need for diverting a large number of aircraft for Air Cover… its no use if only 3-4 aircraft can be spared for a strike op, even assuming that the minimum air cover is given.

    second, is it just me, or has there suddenly appeared a weird google Chat widget on the blog?

  16. sniperz: that’s a good point. it’s particularly dodgy talking about carrier strength in the Indian context when the Viraat now operates without a singly fully-ops Harrier, and serviceabaility of its SeaKings at an all time low. i did a story as a matter of fact on headlines today some time ago precisely about viraat’s new “denuded” avatar. i took some soundbytes from admiral arun prakash, who happened to be in town at the time. he said the navy wasn’t unprepared for such an eventuality, but that at some point of time british aerospace just lost interest in the entire harrier programme with india, and that’s when india simply had to do everything on its own. he said it’s a mystery why negotiations for the purchase of six Harriers from the Royal Navy had fallen through (I did a story on that as well — the deal didn’t go through because India went ahead and supplied a pair of Navy Islander airplanes to Burma despite stiff protests from London). Finally, the Admiral revealed that the only option was to tap the navies of Thailand, Italy or Spain to spare four-five Harriers, though he wished “it wouldn’t come to that”. he added that not every eventuality at sea would require an aircraft carrier so the navy was fully prepared for any interim operational gaps that such a situation would throw up. other weapons would have to stand in for the potentiality of a carrier.

  17. I feel that a poorly protected carrier would quickly turn into a floating liability than a mace to assert naval strength. I mean, the embarrasment/morale loss of losing a carrier in battle woulf far outweigh any benefits of power projection right?
    My question: How many sea skimming harpoons/BVRs would be needed to take out a carrier the size of the Gorshkov or the Viraat? What do the Pakis have that can knock out our carriers from far away?

  18. never underestimate the power of power projection. remember we are the only nation in the region with an aircraft carrier. it wont be long before china fields its own, so we should make no mistake about including carriers in our perspective plans for fleet modernisation.

  19. Hmm… interesting info Shiv. Hopefully, IAC 1 and AG come fast, before we end up with a very big, empty, floating airfield.

    Very interesting widget with the chat thing. Nice!

  20. AKD, I agree that the IAF first neutralised the PAF in the East before the Vikrant set up its blockade.

    But once the blockade was set up, you mention that only one gunboat got away (that too by hugging the coast)… with the kind of technology we had, that sounds pretty impressive to me!

  21. Hello Shiv,

    One quick clarification, are the text in paranthesis in the article, for example, (CBG) or (SSN or SSBN in the very near future) part of the Admiral's words or provided as clarifications by you? Thanks!

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