Asia’s other rising power, India, is rapidly accelerating its capacity to project long-range power and sea control to counter a myriad of challenges to their national interests, with eyes firmly set on an extra aircraft carrier to beef out this capacity.
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At the end of the Second World War, the aircraft carrier emerged as the apex of naval prestige and power projection.
Unlike their predecessor (the battleship), aircraft carriers in themselves are relatively benign actors, relying heavily at their attached carrier air wings and supporting escort fleets of cruisers, destroyers, and submarines to screen them from hostile action.
In recent years, nations throughout the Indo-Pacific have begun a series of naval expansion and modernisation programs with traditional aircraft carriers – and large-deck, amphibious warfare ships serve as the core of their respective shift towards greater maritime power projection.
Driving this change is an unprecedented period of Chinese assertiveness in the South China Sea and the growing capabilities of the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN), which has seen the Chinese fielding or preparing to field a range of power projection capabilities, including aircraft carriers and supporting strike groups, fifth-generation combat aircraft, modernised land forces, area-access denial, and strategic nuclear forces, combined with growing political and financial influence throughout the region.
In the Indian Ocean, Beijing’s spreading influence and presence driven by economic opportunities in the Middle East and Africa have brought these two nations into further competition, separate to their longstanding and periodic conflicts in the Himalayan mountains.
In response, India, a well-established aircraft carrier power, with major economic, political, and strategic interests across the Indian Ocean and well-publicised animosities with the People’s Republic of China, has increasingly moved to modernise and expand its own carrier capabilities, embarking on a period of what Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has described as Indian self-reliance or “Aatmanirbhar Bharat”.
Aircraft carriers remain a potent symbol of India’s emerging economic, political, and military ambitions and capabilities in the region and a defining mechanism for countering mounting Chinese tensions in the region.
Following the rule of three?
A key part of India’s extensive and rapidly growing naval modernisation efforts under Prime Minister Modi has been the emphasis on establishing the Indian Navy as a credible “two-carrier” force, at a minimum – that is a fleet, capable of operating two aircraft carriers and supporting battlegroups concurrently throughout the Indian Ocean, with specific focus on the operating areas close to the Middle East, namely the Persian Gulf, and the critically important Straits of Malacca in Southeast Asia.
To achieve this new focus, the Indian Navy’s newest aircraft carrier, the INS Vikrant (R11), is completing a major operational milestone in early-2023.
This includes the successful integration of the Russian-built MiG-29K into the ship and, in a major first for India’s burgeoning defence industry, successfully landing and launching the nation’s indigenous Hindustan Aeronautics Limited designed and built light combat aircraft (LCA) on the vessel for the first time.
However, despite this achievement, the growing challenges presented by China’s own growing power projection capabilities, particularly with its interests in the Indian Ocean, has prompted a major rethink behind the scenes within India’s political and military hierarchy.
At the core of this tactical and strategic rethink is the Indian Navy’s Chief of Naval Staff, Admiral R Hari Kumar, who announced in early-September, “We are working for a third aircraft carrier which will be a repeat of the INS Vikrant. There has been a lot of expertise that has been generated in terms of building an aircraft carrier.
“We are looking at having an IAC (indigenous aircraft carrier), a follow on I would say, a repeat order being made. We are preparing a case for it,” ADM Kumar told journalists at an event in New Delhi.
This proposed capability would be reinforced by plans for the Indian Navy’s broader expansion which would see the fleet grow to 155–160 by the end of this year, with a further ambitious target for a total fleet of approximately 175 major fleet units by 2035.
The addition of a third aircraft carrier meanwhile would expand the tactical and strategic flexibility of the Indian Navy and its existing carrier fleet in particular, with the extra carrier easing the operational burden on both the ships and the aircraft operated.
Additionally, the third carrier will enhance the Indian Navy’s capacity to operate multiple major carrier battlegroups concurrently across the Indian Ocean areas of interest, while also enabling sustained blue water operations including long-range patrols in Southeast Asia and the South China Sea.
There is no doubt that Australia’s position and responsibilities in the Indo-Pacific region will depend on the nation’s ability to sustain itself economically, strategically, and politically in the face of rising regional and global competition.
Despite our virtually unrivalled wealth of natural resources, agricultural and industrial potential, there is a lack of a cohesive national security strategy integrating the development of individual, yet complementary public policy strategies to support a more robust Australian role in the region.
While contemporary Australia has been far removed from the harsh realities of conflict, with many generations never enduring the reality of rationing for food, energy, medical supplies or luxury goods, and even fewer within modern Australia understanding the sociopolitical and economic impact such rationing would have on the now world-leading Australian standard of living.
This rapidly deteriorating geopolitical and strategic environment transforming the global and regional security paradigm requires a realistic analysis and assessment by Australia’s policymakers.
Equally, both the Australian government and the Australian public have to accept and understand that we will need to dramatically increase spending in our national defence and do so over the long term, rather than short-term sugar hits or sleight of hand that push money out over the forward estimates and allow inflation to account for “increases” in spending, despite there being little-to-no new money in real terms.
Ultimately, this comes back to the government’s shift away from a “balanced force” towards “focused force” as championed in the Defence Strategic Review. It equally fails to account for the planned increase in ADF personnel by 2040 and places ultimate hope in a series of as yet to be developed “wunderwaffe” or wonder weapons, like autonomous systems, cyber or tactical weapons like HIMARs and others to provide both “impactful projection” and deterrence against “any potential adversary”.
Importantly, no one has said that defending the nation in this era of renewed and increasingly capable great power competition will be cheap or easy and we have to accept that uncomfortable reality.