After INS Vikrant and a New Nishaan, IAC-2 Should be the New Nishana

When INS Vikrant, India’s first Indigenous Aircraft Carrier (IAC-1), is commissioned into service on Friday, Sep 2, 2022, India will join a handful of countries that build and operate their own carriers. Coming a few weeks after ‘Azadi ka Amrit Mahotsav‘ or 75 years of Independence, it is hard to miss the equivalence between Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s famous ‘tryst with destiny‘ speech at the cusp of India’s freedom, and one of Indian Navy’s most significant ‘coming of age’ moment since Independence.

Fast forward 75 years. One of India’s most dynamic and decisive leaders, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, will keep his date with history as he presides over the commissioning of INS Vikrant this Friday at Kochi. A powerful orator who can ignite hearts and minds of millions of Indians and diaspora across the world, PM Modi’s speech must be getting its final touches as I write this piece. A multi billion-dollar question will hang over the flight deck as he takes the lectern at Kochi.

Through one of the calibrated ‘teasers’ released this high-profile event, it is learnt that PM Modi will also unveil a new naval ensign or ‘Nishaan‘ at the august ceremony, “doing away with the colonial past and befitting the rich Indian maritime heritage”, as per an official release.

As a former naval aviator keen observer of defence matters, I believe the Nishaan is a low hanging fruit — best announced by the naval chief, or defence secretary at best. I hold our PM to a much higher calling. There are undeniably customs and traditions that need review and reform, but the issue that should dominate the PM’s mindspace at this important juncture in history weighs at least 60-80,000 tons — the question of IAC-2.

It is a question where the best minds from Indian Navy have come a cropper against vested interests, both internal and external. Naval plans for a third carrier have repeatedly faced a wall of criticism and scorn, often from our own.

A third carrier has always been part of IN’s published long-term perspective plans. These plans were not devised in a cave in the Himalayas but in the corridors of Integrated Headquarters of the Ministry of Defence. It had the tacit approval of successive Raksha Mantris before India’s first CDS, the late Gen Bipin Rawat, decided to trash it in public. Today, there are more people scuttling IAC-2 than welding its joints.

Only PM Modi can bring about a change in this grim outlook. But for that, the naval chief must seek private audience with the PM and recommend a small tweak to his commissioning speech. If that doesn’t happen, India will most likely remain a ‘single operational carrier’ navy. If Adm Hari Kumar has his Gen Sam Manekshaw-Indira Gandhi moment with PM Modi, India will one day have the flexibility of deploying two operational carriers with elan instead of living in eternal fear of losing one.

As a man with great insights and shrewd Gujarati business acumen, Narendra Modi the politician is known to dispense decisions when others around are pussyfooting or fence-sitting. He knows very well the weight and reach of his words. If he wishes it and makes the announcement, it will be done. The entire machinery that is now conspiring against IAC-2 will quietly fall in line or do a Williamson’s turn. Sometimes diktats work better than endless discussions that deliver nothing concrete.

Force structures are derived from a national strategy or grand strategy. In the least, a white paper or doctrine for national security that clearly specifies the plan for ensuring defence of India is required. We celebrated 75 Independence Days without such a paper. Left to their own, the services have hobbled along, charting their own blueprints with rough guidelines from political leadership. At the tactical level, it comes down to capabilities and the numbers in which they must be fielded.

Numbers in every capital acquisition in defence are calculated based on many considerations, including units required on the frontline plus a maintenance reserve (MR). Then a factor for peacetime losses / exigencies must also be added. War brings its own unknowns, but one thing is noteworthy: if you need two carriers to fight a war or maintain the peace, there has to be a third in reserve.

Maintenance reserves for aircraft — however underestimated and under-reported — are instructive. For a country like ours that imports whole or parts from all over the world, it could range anything between 15-20% to even 100% in certain cases. It’s a number no technocrat would want to acknowledge, but penny-packet acquisitions have been the bane of Indian defence.

An aircraft carrier is a living breathing micro-city, domicile to thousands of disciplines, all of which exist for the singular reason of maintaining required sorties rates of the air group. If past and present air group maintenance reserves are anything to go by, we should be looking at acquiring two aircraft to keep one flying. The host ship will of course have its own maintenance demands that are much lower than individual air group reserves. But when it comes to a prime asset or ‘centre of gravity’ like an aircraft carrier, decimals can neither be eye-balled or rounded off. There is no such thing as half a carrier.

While the air group has its own calendar and flying hour-based maintenance schedules, the carrier has to deal with its own refit cycle to keep itself in prime condition. These refits extend from few months for a short refit to a couple of years for a medium or long where the entire ship is taken apart — chipped, painted, engines overhauled, weapon systems serviced and calibrated, miles of cabling replaced, etc.

A smart adversary will always know how to time an act of aggression and exploit periods of ‘absence’. If we need two carriers operational at any given time, a third one (in reserve or under scheduled maintenance) is not a luxury but an imperative. Having just two, however expensive it may seem, means only one may be available to fight when the balloon goes up. If we are okay with that, we can celebrate a new Nishaan and go home after commissioning Vikrant. If we are serious about force levels, PM Modi must unequivocally enunciate his support for IAC-2 when he takes the lectern on Sep 2.

Friday may well go down as a red-letter day when the PM personally walked his talk that aircraft carriers are not meant for throwing parties or used as ‘personal taxi‘. Going forward with a total of two carriers when the blueprint requires two operational carriers effectively harks back to the era where flight decks turned venues for VVIP indulgence or political gimmicks, with an occasional fighter launch thrown in.

Let us not even go into the debate around how we plan to amortise the investments into infrastructure and centres of excellence created for the making of IAC-1 without a plan for larger, more potent IAC-2. An entire ecosystem of engineering talent, design and manufacturing excellence, 500+ companies and MSMEs, sub-contractors, logistic chains running across continents and a world-class warship design bureau will slowly be left to atrophy if this momentum is not carried forward.

CMD of Cochin Shipyard Ltd Mr. Madhu Nair will soon have to explain to shareholders how he plans to use the new Rs. 1800 crore dry dock built for a larger carrier. He may still get away by bagging a contract or two for a large merchant vessel, but the navy, and indeed India, will lose all those who honed their skills in design and manufacture of an indigenous aircraft carrier. Some day in the future, we may end up walking right back into the arms of Vodka-sipping Russians or dollar-hungry Americans. Nobody will recall the new Nishaan then.

Refurbished Admiral Gorshkov (decommissioned 1996), in its new avatar as INS Vikramaditya (VKD, 2013), is already close to a decade old and not getting any younger. Russia’s slow war of attrition with Ukraine will not be without its effect on VKD or its air group. Indigenous twin-engine deck-based fighter (TEDBF) is still on paper while the MiG-29Ks burn the bitumen at INS Hansa whenever VKD enters refit or her material state smoulders occasionally. For the longest time, IN had to make do with a single operational carrier with hardly any aircraft to deliver the iron fist. If we do not green light IAC-2, very soon we may see a fair-sized air group sunning itself on the beaches of Karwar or Vizag with not enough carriers.

Look at how the Indian peninsula and our island territories straddle vital arteries of global trade. Guests at Vikrant’s commissioning will invariably include pro-submarine, ‘islands are also carriers’ theorists smiling for the cameras only to return to their desks to advance the facile ‘carrier versus submarine’ binary and ‘stand-off strike’ tropes. Such whisper campaigns have now started shaping policy. If those concerns were legitimate, why would India ever go for a carrier at all? Those who invoke the aura of hypersonic carrier-killer missiles have many miles to go in protecting their own missiles from misfire, ships from taking-in water and sinking at sea, submarines from blowing up ashore, shore bases from being sabotaged or run over, helicopters suffering fratricide and old fighters snatching young lives, before training their guns on India’s real need to keep two carriers operational.

Dear PM Narendra Modi ji, left to the mandarins of South Block or the bean counters in North Block, indigenous shipbuilding may have never gotten this far. ‘Colours’ are hoisted on naval ships at 8AM. You gave us direction and decision in difficult moments with your ‘8 PM’ announcements. This is your ‘8AM moment’ to script history and boost our much-touted maritime heritage.

A change of Nishaan just doesn’t cut it. Even if your script doesn’t already include it, please walk away from the teleprompter one more time. Announce IAC-2. Without it, India will remain a one-carrier navy. Surely, nobody other than the ‘dragon who cannot be named’ would like that?

(An edited version of this story was first published as an op-ed by The Quint. You can access it here)


©KP Sanjeev Kumar, 2022. All rights reserved. I can be reached at Views are personal. Cover photo of IAC-1 courtesy Indian Navy.

6 thoughts on “After INS Vikrant and a New Nishaan, IAC-2 Should be the New Nishana

  1. Well defined write up.
    Look forward to the day we have another IAC – Keep the talent, skilled shipbuilding yard Alive, with msmes and host of teno-engineering from rusting or opting to migrate to western shores.

  2. Agreed! As a student at DSSC in 1976 I wrote a thesis on the need for a second carrier. My DS was not too happy but he let me write it. I had pointed out the limitations of land based Air Power and the need for organic capability in a fleet on the high seas.
    Carriers are excellent for force projection, providing relief during natural calamities and showcasing a country’s industrial might. In a shooting war one must be able to absorb the loss of a carrier and carry on the war. Protecting a carrier will consume a lot of resources and must be catered for.

  3. Well thought and articulated. There is no doubt that there is a need for a third carrier. We (armed forces) need to sit together with the relevant ministries and work out the future plans for force projection. Grow beyond turf.
    Just an aside, presently our carriers are essentially air defence ships due to the launch limitations, type of ac on board, and weapon fit. Force projection requires offensive power. Our acquisition need to cater to carrier launch limitations and our aspirations. This leads us back to para 1. Joint plans instead of joined ones.

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