Insurgency at sea: the currency of carriers

Last month, the American strategic affairs journal Orbis recounted the sorry tale of ‘how the United States lost the naval war of 2015’. The presumptive defeat stemmed from the adoption of ‘a declining naval force structured around ten aircraft carriers spread thinly throughout the globe’. The cautionary tale may have highlighted a trend. Just as the crystallisation of guerrilla war as an effective means of political change left industrial age armies struggling to adapt, has the analogue for naval war, insurgency at sea, meant that the rapid maturation of the Indian navy will be to limited military effect? If maritime guerrillas—submarines, missile boats, and anti-ship missiles (ASMs)—can neutralise ponderous aircraft carriers, the fulcrum of the navy’s aspirations, India should think carefully about its emerging force structure.

The Indian navy, the world’s fifth largest, has stood at the forefront of India’s military modernisation. In the year to 2008, its procurement and construction budget leapt 36 percent. Notably for the Indian armed forces, this expansion is guided by a loose sense of the endgame: a three-carrier navy before 2020, an enlarged fleet of surface ships and attack submarines, and an indigenously built nuclear submarine, INS Arihant, to complement the air and land arms of the embryonic nuclear triad. As early as a decade ago, a navy chief invoked ‘fleets in the Arabian Sea, Bay of Bengal, and Indian Ocean, on the same lines as the US Pacific, Atlantic, and Mediterranean fleets’. In terms of raw potency and coverage, the navy is entering a new era.

But the army’s predicament should give pause for thought. Its ability to generate force was not in doubt in 2002 or 2008, but its force structure and doctrine (among other things) precluded war under the perceived nuclear threshold. Two factors, technology—the nuclearisation of the subcontinent—and the adversary’s posture, together blunted the efficacy of an otherwise conventionally advanced force.


During the nineteenth century, a French school of sea power, the Jeune École, argued that the advent of the cheap and manoeuvrable torpedo boat had rendered the battleship obsolescent. This theory, ‘the network centric warfare of its time’, suggested fleets would henceforth struggle to secure command of the seas. Yet despite the almost crippling losses they inflicted, submarines—the successors to torpedo boats—failed to box in the Allied merchant and naval fleets. In the Pacific, capital ships par excellence, aircraft carriers, spearheaded the defeat of Japan. But, as Owen Coté has argued, even then ‘the price of sea control was growing substantially faster than the price of contesting it’ (and it was submarines which destroyed a third of the Japanese fleet and two-thirds of its merchant navy).

The trend has not slowed. In 1967, Israel lost a destroyer to multiple Egyptian guided missiles, prompting the Israeli navy to shift to smaller and faster ships. Coté has argued that a ‘particularly alarming development is the marriage … of the air independent, non-nuclear submarine with the submarine-launched ASM’, since ‘armed with Harpoons or Exocets available from several western suppliers, these platforms can launch fire and forget missiles from over the radar horizon without the need for the noisy and battery draining approach run necessary for a traditional, torpedo-armed, diesel-electric boat’—thus blunting even the most adept anti-submarine warfare (ASW).

John Arquilla, invoking the ‘Falklands Wars on steroids’, has warned of ‘brilliant sea-going mines that know how to manoeuvre, supersonic anti-ship missiles … super-cavitation torpedoes’ and ‘swarming tactics’. The efficacy of all of those has been sharpened by space-based surveillance of the high seas. In his history of war at sea, the military historian John Keegan went as far as to conclude that ‘command of the sea in the future unquestionably lies beneath rather than upon the surface’.


More important than technology is what India’s rivals do with it; and there is every reason to suppose that both Pakistan and China are configuring their maritime forces to exploit the vulnerabilities of aircraft carriers, in both cases out of necessity, and in line with the anti-ship ‘Soviet School’ of naval strategy espoused by the namesake of the much delayed Admiral Gorshkov.

A recent article in International Security, ‘Undersea Dragons’, argued that “there is little evidence that China will endeavour to field carrier battle groups [and] preliminary indications suggest that…submarines are emerging as the centrepiece of an evolving Chinese quest to control the East Asian littoral.” Since any American defence of Taiwan would pivot on the US Seventh Fleet, this focus on ‘sea denial’ or ‘anti-access’ is unsurprising—though there are vociferous debates within the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN). In 2002, China purchased 8 Russian Kilo class submarines, supposedly as quiet as their Los Angeles class American counterparts, bringing their total up to a dozen. The authors conclude that “PLAN writings leave little doubt that destruction of US aircraft carrier battle groups is the focal point of doctrinal development”, according to which “a carrier battle group can be destroyed with multi wave and multi-vector saturation attacks with cruise [and ballistic] missiles.” The US Office of Naval Intelligence stated in 2009 that China had “developed the world’s only anti-ship ballistic missile,” a weapon “specifically designed to defeat US carrier strike groups.” The true extent of the vulnerability of carriers has consequently been an obsession of American naval strategists for over a decade now.

Although Pakistan possesses only 5 diesel-electric submarines, these are equipped with modern ASMs  effective at ‘standoff’ distances, and complemented by submarine-hunters like the Cold War workhorse P-3C Orion. For over four decades, Pakistan’s naval doctrine has called for the use of stealth and initiative to enmesh India in a tortuous submarine chase around sea lines from the Persian Gulf. The inherent difficulty of ASW would prolong any conflict, leaving time for the accretion of outside diplomatic pressure on India to settle on terms relatively favourable to Pakistan. The protracted exposure of Indian platforms would raise the risk of a high-casualty loss with the inevitable damage to public support and morale.

Power projection

When rumours appeared that India might acquire the super-carrier USS Kitty Hawk, Stratfor, a private intelligence firm, suggested that it would supply the “physical capability to project meaningful force to the Strait of Malacca and beyond”. This may be so, but projection against whom or what? Port calls should not be the focus of Indian statecraft. In terms of combat, India should be wary of extrapolating from American naval strategy. The US capability to threaten or attack virtually any state it chooses has two preconditions. First, US carrier groups are protected with multiple screens of surface craft, submarines, ASW platforms and undersea reconnaissance. Any attack on an American carrier group would be no easy task, and would be met by considerable resistance. Second, the US navy enjoys what in an earlier era was called ‘escalation dominance’. Any state launching such an attack, even if successful, would forsake a quiet life. The latent forces that the US could bring to bear in retaliation would steady the hand of any adversary. India cannot fulfil these prerequisites, and so its carriers must be treated as ordinary military tools rather than direct instruments of national strategy.

When NATO forces deployed carriers for operations against Serbia in 1999, or Britain used its shrinking carrier fleet against Afghanistan and Iraq, those targets were virtually defenceless states lacking a competent navy and air force, and without the requisite national capacity to hit back in other ways. This ‘uncontested’ expeditionary capacity is far from useless, but there is no reason to suppose that the scenarios envisioned by India’s maritime doctrine would be so kind to admirals. The argument also loses traction in light of India’s maturing missile capability.

This goes double for amphibious capabilities. The purchase of the Landing Platform Dock (LPD) Jalashva in 2006 provided India with the ability to land roughly a battalion of troops, but the use of this—and any tankers, minesweepers, helicopters and other amphibious platforms—assumes either an unopposed assault or air superiority. Yet an aircraft carrier sitting in littoral waters assumes the spectrum of risks outlined above. The British experience in the Falklands ought to be sobering. Aside from bombing raids from the distant Ascension Island, Britain’s ability to suppress air attack and land a brigade hinged on the presence of two light fleet carriers (one of which, incidentally, serves as INS Viraat). Both required enormous complements to hold Argentine planes and submarines at bay, only barely succeeded and that too at great cost, and were compelled to stay so far offshore that their aircraft could not reach the main Argentine runway on the islands (and in the quarter century since, sea denial technology may have improved at a faster rate than ships’ defences). The Argentine carrier itself was contained in coastal waters by a handful of British submarines, virtually a floating hulk of no military use.

The utility of carriers

The lesson is not that carriers are obsolescent, but that their force has a particular utility.

First, Britain could not have retaken the Falkland Islands without them. As India’s stretched Sea Lines of Communication (SLOCs) assume greater significance in strategic planning, contingencies may arise where India can and must project seaborne airpower in a limited offensive against a peripheral area, the types of conflicts that fall outside presumptive nuclear red-lines and therefore will almost certainly occur. This could involve a modest flotilla targeting Indian merchant shipping at the Strait of Hormuz, seizure of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, or—most likely—a naval black swan too distant on the strategic horizon to see today. But it should be remembered that protecting the Indian littoral does not require more carriers, and India would almost certainly not face a distant blockade without partners.

Second, China will one day field a carrier of its own. The flip side of China’s ability to defend its sea-lanes is its ability to constrain those same routes, and an equivalent capability will be required for scenarios in which India cannot bring to bear its land-based aircraft. It would be imprudent to wait until Beijing works out its ambivalence towards carriers. But India’s planners should not fool themselves that action in the South China Sea, or prying open a truly major blockade in narrow waters, will be feasible operations in the next decade. And since the majority of a carrier air wing is dedicated to defence, the size of Indian carriers means that purely offensive power is still limited. Vague talk of an Indian Ocean ‘footprint’ obfuscates these military realities.

Third, India’s purchase of 8 Boeing P-8I Poseidons is crucial to beefing up the navy’s ASW capabilities, but the $2bn cost underscores the expense of multiple protective screens of destroyers, frigates, and their ASW and anti-missile platforms. The prospective sophistication of the next generation of stealth frigates is less important in this regard than their defense systems. StratPost, an online defence news portal, recently quoted an Indian naval source as claiming that “if we were to be interested at all in the [British] Queen Elizabeth class [aircraft carrier], it would be because of their claimed air defences”. This, and not just firepower, should be a priority for indigenous naval development.

Even if two at-sea battle groups (with a third on refit) could be equipped at reasonable cost before 2020, India also lacks experience. The US spent four decades intensively honing its ASW against a determined Soviet navy, but despite continuous and impressive innovation, found itself outpaced by technological improvements. Without the institutional and doctrinal knowledge accruing from practice, the command, control, and defence of carrier groups in combat would be precarious. A vital start would be for the navy to institute a programme of Indian net assessment (a process that may have begun), in which naval conflict scenarios are conceptualised, war-gamed, bolstered with the lessons gleaned by allied or friendly navies, and organically updated over time. Finally, vulnerability should not be overstated; to note that carriers are vulnerable to submarines overlooks the point that other surface ships that would be used in the defence of sea-lanes and other targets are even more so, lacking as they are in submarine-hunting aircraft.

Fourth, sea denial and sea control are not irreconcilable strategies. In the Falklands, the containment of Argentina’s carrier afforded breathing room for Britain’s, giving the task force the local sea control necessary for projecting power, landing troops, and securing political objectives. The leasing of two Akula-II class submarines, the very type that plagued the US Navy in the 1980s, and the induction of BrahMos (whose origins lie in the Soviet effort against US carriers) are important steps to ensuring India can give as well as it gets in terms of sea denial.

But it is equally important that innovation is tactical and diplomatic as well as merely technological. India has been exceedingly slow to respond to China’s ‘string of pearls’ with diplomatic arrangements of its own, raising questions as to how a task force would be supplied if deployed to protect sea-lanes.

The place for carriers

At present, the trends do not seem to bear out carrier cynicism. Every permanent member of the UN Security Council, every aspiring member bar Germany, as well as Italy and Thailand, are building or fielding some form of carriers. But, as financial institutions are apt to remind us, and Western banks have demonstrated amply, past performance is no guarantee of future results.

Both prevailing technology and the force structures of India’s likely rivals underscore inflation in the price of sea control. More than instituting a symbolic three-carrier navy within a strict timeframe it is important to ensure that the carrier battle group is an appropriate military instrument for the political task at hand. Its use in combat is circumscribed by the proliferation of long-range anti-ship missiles, advanced submarines, space-based reconnaissance, and tactical innovations exploiting speed and manoeuvrability. India’s answer should not be to jettison sea-borne airpower but to invest carefully and generously in its defence, better understand its limits, and strengthen India’s own sea denial capabilities.

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