Aircraft Carriers: The Pivot in Maritime Power Equations


Vice Admiral (retd) Vijay Shankar

This article is forthcoming in the September 2013 issue of Geopolitics

Keywords: Indian Air Craft Carrier Program, INS Vishal, INS Viraat, INS Vikrant, Sino-India relations, India Maritime Strategy, Third Island Chain, Indian Maritime Strategy

Download full article here


 ….to provide the very unity of its objectives directed upon the sea [i]

 The Design of a Thesis

 If we are to form an opinion on the current state of reality and to act upon it with any impact, some sort of a thesis is necessary. The end of the Cold War and the paradigm that it represented brought in its wake scholarly works that sought to prognosticate what future international relations and order held. Wide ranging theories were advanced from the emergence of one world in which harmony, democracy and an end to conflict were prophesized, and with it an end to a turbulent history of man’s ideological evolution with the grand terminal formulation that western liberal democracy had prevailed.[ii] Some saw the emergence of a multi polar order and the arrival of China not withstanding the warts of Tiananmen. Yet others saw in the First Iraq War, the continuing war in the Levant, the admission of former Soviet satellite nations into NATO and the splintering of Yugoslavia an emerging clash of civilisations marked by violent discord shaped by cultural, religious and civilisational similitude.[iii] However, these illusions were, within a decade, dispelled and found little use in understanding and coming to grips with the realities of the post Cold War world as each of them represented a candour of its own. Some of the symptoms that have emerged are an increased and vicious securing of spheres of power and economic influence as exemplified by China in Africa and her claims of the South China Sea; the competition between autocracy and liberalism; an older religious struggle between radical Islam and secular cultures; and the inability to regulate the anarchic flow of technologies and information. As these struggles are played out the first casualty in the post Cold War era is the still born hope of a benign and enlightened world order.

Endemic instability world wide is characterized by the number of armed conflicts that erupted between the periods 1989 to 2010 which total forty nine.[iv] The nature of these wars, more than anything else, reflected what I term the ‘Uncertainty Paradigm’ for they ranged from wars of liberation and freedom to insurgencies, civil wars, racial-ethnic-religious wars, proxy wars, interventions and wars motivated by the urge to corner economic resources. In all cases it was either the perpetuation of a dispensation, political ambitions, or the fear of economic deprivation that was at work below the surface. If that were not enough to underscore the fragility, gravity and self-centeredness of the international system, in the same period the United States of America alone has militarily intervened in foreign countries on 11 occasions; more often than at any time in history.[v]

So too when thinking of maritime affairs a touchstone only places in perspective the events that we are confronted with, provides a pattern and a context within which a strategy may be devised and force structures put in place to come to terms with an uncertain future. China’s quest to secure efficiently rights of passage on the sea to fuel her thirst for markets, energy, primary produce and commodities has led her to the ‘Northern Passage’[vi] as a trade corridor. The distance from China to markets in Europe has been cut down to less than 8000 miles from 14,700 miles. Significantly the route avoids two sensitive ‘choke points’ the Malacca Strait and the Suez Canal. Today the Arctic passage is a near reality, yet her resource and energy jugular that runs across the Indian Ocean continues to bulge and throb. China therefore theorises that the road to securing these sea lines of communication is through a strategy of ‘Access Denial.’[vii] The denial paradigm was founded on lessons of the 1991 Gulf War and security concern in relation to Taiwan. It saw in the Gulf War a reason for pre-emption against build up in-region of inimical combat potential. Logistic preparation was perceived as the first salvo of a conflict. During the 1995–1996 Taiwan Strait crisis, U.S. deployment of two carrier groups to the region remains in Chinese memory as an embarrassing infringement of sovereignty.[viii] The value and logic of an access denial strategy is obvious in reference to Taiwan. But enabling such a strategy when the intent of logistic preparations may be ambiguous and scope and space are enlarged must clearly tax strategists’ world wide and suggest the uncertainty of stability. It is these circumstances that impel the quest for a strategic posture that not only seeks to balance but also shape the future. Given the correlation of forces, for India it is the Ocean that holds the key.

 Oceans and Economic Power: China as the Strategic Competitor

Among the multifarious factors that characterize and influence the development of nations an ever increasing role is being played by its maritime power. The realization of such power is at the heart of making effective use of the world’s oceans. Higher the level of development of the economy greater will be the consequences assumed by the world oceans as an inexhaustible source of energy, raw materials, food and most critically as a medium for the movement of trade, materials, petroleum products and indeed of personnel; so also the portents for discord. Close to 90 per cent of global trade is borne by hulls at sea. It is no secret that to this very day, maritime power is a key catalyst of economic growth.

The change in China from a closed centrally planned system to a market oriented one from the late 1970s to the present must be seen as having been enabled, in good measure, by vigorous promotion of maritime power. So much so that by 2010 it became the world’s largest exporter, its economy at $9.8 trillion is only second to the USA and with an oil consumption of 8.2 million bbl/day she is the third largest consumer in the world (2009 estimates). When we look at the growth pattern of India since liberalization, (which can be pegged to have started on 24th July 1991 with the Narsimha Rao government’s package of industrial reforms along with a new open door policy on inward investment) we note a similar trend with respect to consumption patterns, energy demands, exports and trade. Indeed with one third of this growth being powered by trade to the East (in 2012 trade with ASEAN nations was pegged at $80 billion), the requirement to secure these interests become all the more vital. Already the 2011 figures make China our largest trading partner ($ 70 billion). Security of this trend will be a key to development of India. At the same instant, in the race to garner limited resources for the development of two very large economies the scope for friction looms large.

The reasons many countries view China with trepidation today are similar on the surface to their reaction to the rise of Japan in the 1970s and 80s and yet rooted in very different forces. China, too, uses a competing economic model, albeit with a difference (the very phrase used is an oxymoron) – “state capitalism” – that challenges conventional economic ideologies. In many ways, China also behaves in a mercantilist fashion. It keeps its currency controlled so its exports can out-compete those from other countries, and it corners natural resources for its insatiable growth by methods that are reminiscent of colonial dealings, not that the West did not in the past indulge in more vicious practices.  China is succeeding based on ideas that are anathema to those of the likes of the father of modern economics, Adam Smith, and his theories of the ‘invisible hand’ and the self regulating nature of the ideal economy.[ix] The concerns with China is provoked by its manifest urge to use comprehensive national power to challenge and change the existing global political, economic and security structures without bringing about a change within her own biological morphology. It is not as if these structures are not due for an overhaul but it is the knuckle duster methods that she has chosen to employ and the reluctance to participate in cooperative security and economic arrangements that provide the potential  for discord.

China’s claims on the South China Sea as a territorial sea; her handling of dissent within in Tibet and Tiananmen; her proliferatory carousing with rogue states such as North Korea and Pakistan are cases, amongst others, that do not inspire confidence in change occurring within that nation without turbulence. We also note with some foreboding, the emergence of China from out of its, largely, defensive maritime perimeters as defined by the first and second island chain strategies into the Indian Ocean region as a major stakeholder. To this end, it has through diplomacy and economic inducements established bases in Sittwe, Hambantota, Gwadar and Marao in the Maldives. The geographic and strategic significance of these posts were apparent in the past and are equally vital today, whether for purposes of control, regulating, providing havens or assuring security to energy and resource lines. Sittwe and Gwadar also provide the front end for piping energy into China. These long term strategic investments by China maybe seen as the coming of the ‘Third Island Chain’.

Articulating its strategic objectives in order of precedence China has unambiguously identified three canons, the first of which is internal and external stability to its own gauge; the second is to sustain the current levels of its economic growth and lastly to achieve regional pre-eminence. Gone is the ‘power bashfulness’ that marked the Deng era, in its place is a cockiness that is discernible in the contemporary conviction that “the world needs China more than China the world”. This frame of reference gives form to the ‘Access Denial Strategy’. When projected in consonance with the Third Island Chain, one cannot but note that denial would apply not just to the region of purpose, but also to the points of origin and to the Sea Lines of Communication (SLOC) along which energy, trade and resources are moved. The waters and littorals of the Indian Ocean and specifically the West Pacific Ocean and the Bay of Bengal (together here after termed as the Eastern Ocean) will now become the region where this strategy will be played out.  The Dilemma for planners is in the absence of a security oriented cooperative impulse, such sweeping strategies (specifically the coming ‘Third Island Chain’ superimposed on a long range Access Denial Strategy), is it’s blindness to recognize that, as historically never before, we are in fact dealing with a sea space that, in Mahan’s words, is the busiest of all the “vast commons.” The reluctance for collaboration makes the potential for friction high.

China, in the 18th century under the Qing dynasty enjoyed a golden age. It was a period of shengshi, an age of prosperity. Currently some Chinese nationalists say that, thanks to the Communist Party and its economic prowess, another shengshi has arrived.[x] In 2010 China became the world’s biggest manufacturer, a position that the US had held for most of the 20th century. By 2020, it has been forecast, that China could become the world’s largest economy. Significant to political influence is its matching economic and military growth. Power, changes the very character of nations and its people and of their standing in the comity of nations. It places primacy to their beliefs and interests in the international milieu giving it new drive to shape global affairs in a manner that is self promoting. This search for geopolitical space that the emergence of a new cognizable revisionist power precipitates, historically, global instability and tensions. Add to this that the principle of nationalism is inextricably linked, both in theory and practice, with the concept of war,[xi] then, we are faced with a situation when the military dimension of power will potentially throw up conflictual circumstances that will have to be contended with. Against this backdrop, when the politics of competitive resource access is put into the same pot as survival and development of State, to which is added the blunt character of military power, we have before us the recipe for conflict. It is against this canvas of competitive resource access and strategic uncertainty that the development and structuring of Indian maritime power must be gauged.  


India: A Theory of Maritime Warfare and a Basis for Structuring the Fleet   

            A fourfold classification of maritime forces has dominated naval thought since the Second World War. The grouping is largely functional and task oriented. The differentiation comprises of aircraft carriers, strike units and denial forces, escorts and scouts, and auxiliaries (the last include logistic and other support ships such as landing ships, mine layers, sweepers, tenders etc). In addition contemporary thought has given strategic nuclear forces a restraining role to define and demarcate the limits within which conventional forces operate.

Through the years there have been other concepts governing the constitution of the Fleet and its development, often driven by well reasoned logic and at other times motivated by nothing beyond the instantaneous intimidation. That being as it may, clearly the make up of fleets must logically be a material articulation of the strategic concepts and ideas that prevail. The principal demand of the theory of naval war is to attain a strategic posture that would permit control of oceanic spaces in order to progress and influence the course of conflict. Against this frame of reference the fundamental obligation is therefore to provide the means to seize and exercise that control (it therefore comes as no surprise that China develops forces necessary to realize ‘access denial’). Pursuing this line of argument, the rational formulation that remains consistent with our theory of naval warfare is that upon the escorts and scouts depends our ability to exercise control over the objective maritime space or of Sea Lines of Communication; while on the Aircraft Carrier group and its intrinsic air power assisted by strike and denial forces depends the security of control. It is here that the true impact of the Aircraft Carrier is felt. Control and Security of Control is the relationship that operationally links all maritime forces with the Aircraft Carrier.

It may be argued that the best means of achieving control is to incapacitate the adversary’s ability to interfere.  It would then appear that even in the maritime environment the doctrine of destroying the enemy’s armed forces reasserts itself as the paramount objective. This is what must concern the planner to the extreme; that is, should we not concentrate our maritime exertions with the singular aim of dealing that knock out punch. But the maritime environment and the vastness of the hydrosphere that we choose to influence is of a nature that force compromises will have to be made that depletes the escort forces in order to pull away the carrier group to seek out and destroy the adversary’s denial and strike elements. At the same time the antagonist may hardly be expected to be so accommodating as to expose his main forces in unfavorable circumstances. As Corbett so eloquently put it “the more closely he induces us to concentrate in the face of his fleet, the more he frees the sea for the circulation of his own trade, and the more he exposes ours to cruiser raids.”[xii]

Indeed, there is no correct solution to this dilemma of how best in time, space and most economically, can sea control be established as this would often be dictated by the relative strength, structure and constitution of the fleet, intentions and the geographic character of the theatre of operations which favors one or the other protagonist. However, we may draw a general conclusion that the object of maritime power is to establish control over a predesignated area for a desired period of time. The process may be preceded by strikes against the foe and actions to deny that sea space. The consequence of control may either be operations to secure the object on land or an assurance of passage on that sea area in order to further the war effort. To achieve this state efficiently it is necessary that maritime power be equipped with the appropriate mix of vessels specially adapted for the purpose.

We have thus far noted that our theory of maritime warfare is governed by the ability to control maritime space and put it to use that furthers the national effort. However it is the conditions of use of sea power and the nature of twenty first century conflicts  that is now of significance.

Why the Aircraft Carrier

We have thus far seen how geostrategic uncertainty, growth of China as a strategic competitor and its military posture have together precipitated a theory of military maritime preparedness that suggests the building of a capability that could deny and then control maritime spaces. But what is the real world answer to the question why the Aircraft Carrier? What value does a hundred year old operational concept have in an age of ballistic missiles, satellite surveillance, global drones and cyber warfare? How does the Carrier support a strategy that aims at wresting the initiative in the Indian Ocean in a competitive face-off? And how do a few squadrons of aircraft based on sea mobile platforms impact regional events disproportionately?

Maritime combat air operations in a century has transited from the first hesitant heavier than air flight to wide area domain transparency and control but this evolution was bumpy and far from convincing. The main stumbling block in the minds of strategists was, had gunnery, that had been the gauge of naval power for nearly five centuries, reached a state of decline that it could be unseated and supplanted by air power? At start the latter’s vulnerability, fragility and inefficiency did not inspire the same certainty that technology prophesised. The rise of airpower at the turn of the twentieth century was therefore neither obvious nor was it readily accepted as anything more than an insignificant power tool. While much of this line of thinking was driven by the traditional gunnery biases and the investments already made in the ‘Dreadnought’ programmes;[xiii] there remained the undeniable capability that the seaborne aircraft brought to the theatre of operations: they could deliver payloads further than naval guns could with greater mobility, rapidity and flexibility; at the same time the parent platform could more readily keep pace with combat technologies as represented by its suite of  aircrafts and tailor them for designated tasks. In the shipbuilder’s lexicon, the Aircraft Carrier is an open architecture weapon system with well-understood interfaces and parameters.[xiv]

It is tactically true that contemporary missile armed ships, submarines and shore based long range missiles including Anti Ship Ballistic Missiles pose a threat to the Carrier, as they do to all vessels. However, superior surveillance, cooperative engagement capability, mobility (a Carrier Group can move nearly 1000 kms in a day), range and payload of its aircrafts give it the upper hand in any tactical scenario. The Carrier, through the devise of its aircrafts, can hold an enemy ship or target at safe distances and then neutralize it by “standing off” and delivering a lethal strike.  It can, depending upon circumstances either degrade enemy surveillance and command and control or altogether inhibit the capability to counter attack. The impact of a Carrier Group on operations and the centrality that it assumes in control of maritime space may be summarised as follows:

  • Control of maritime space and assuring its security for any length of time is impossible without a standoff capability and this is provided by the Carrier Group.
  • Functional diversity that the Carrier Group can bring to bear include: deterrence, support of amphibious operations, land attack missions, wide area domain awareness, command and control of large forces and personnel evacuation.
  • The Carrier Group can sustain the conditions for long term offensive presence and power projection. It can, during the adversary’s preparation and build up phase deny free access to his bases.
  • The operational agility, firepower and flexibility that the Carrier Group provides to the Commander is unmatched by any other maritime force.
  • As opposed to land forces and ground based air forces, maritime power particularly the Carrier Group represents the most potent yet the least intrusive of military power because it operates in and from international waters.



The ultimate reality of the international system is the place that power enjoys in the scheme of assuring stability in relations between nations. Uncertainty in international relations queers the pitch, in view of the expanded space of possibles. China has unambiguously articulated three canons that make for its strategic objectives; stability, growth and regional pre eminence. In the absence of a security oriented cooperative impulse, the problem with such sweeping strategies specifically the coming ‘Third Island Chain’ superimposed on a long range power projection and access denial is its blindness to recognize that, we are in fact dealing with a sea space that is the busiest of all the “vast commons”. The reluctance for collaboration makes the potential for friction high.

Contemporary challenges in our areas of interest is dominated by what direction China’s rise will take, of significance is that the potential for a collision is a reality and the only consideration that could deter it, is the ability to attain a strategic posture that serves to stabilize. The ready availability of the Aircraft Carrier and its complimentary group is central to any power equation and in consequence to stability.

End Notes

[i] Mahan. Alfred T, The Influence of Seapower on History. Hill and Wang 1957. ‘Unity of aim directed upon the sea’ is a recurring theme that finds articulation in Chapters 1, 9 and 11.

[ii]Fukuayama Francis. “The End of History.” The National Interest, 16 (Summer 1989), pp 4, 18.

[iii] Huntington. Samuel, P. The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of  World Order, Penguin Books, India 1997, pp 30-39.

[iv] The World at War United Nations defines “major wars” as military conflicts inflicting 1,000 battlefield deaths per year. In 1965, there were 10 major wars under way. The new millennium began with much of the world consumed in armed conflict or cultivating an uncertain peace. As of mid-2005, there were eight Major Wars under way [down from 15 at the end of 2003], with as many as two dozen “lesser” conflicts ongoing with varrying degrees of intensity.

[v] Occasions of US military intervention 1989 – 2010 :

1989 – Panama, 1991 – Iraq, 1992 – Somalia,1994 – Haiti, 1995-96 –  Bosnia, 1998 – Iraq, 1999 – Kosovo, 2001 – Afghanistan, 2003 – Iraq, 2009 – Pakistan (Drones), 2010 – Libya .

[vi] Article by author titledThe Gwadar-Karakoram-Xinjiang Corridor”, published in the September 2012 issue of the DSA. The Northern Passage was a fabled sea route theorised by adventurers, merchants and money chandlers over the last six centuries to

link the Pacific with the Atlantic Ocean. The Route lay through the Arctic archipelago the treacherous ice flows that frustrate passage across the Arctic Ocean.

[vii] Security analysts  have examined China’s efforts to develop weapons systems that can retard or even stop a potential adversary from entering an area of interest. Dubbed “access-denial,” the aim of such a strategy is to use weapons that deter and should the need arise challenge or indeed prevent inimical forces from operating in conlict zones or oceanic areas of interest . The teeth of this strategy is an anti-ship missile. Such a missile, fired from land, sea, underwater or air can cause tremendous damage to an enemy surface vessel. While such technology isn’t new, the effective ranges of such weapons have increased tremendously, along with their accuracy, speed of delivery and precision. Defending against such systems is therefore a major problem for planners

[viii] Lewis John Wilson and Litai Xue, “The Quest for a Modern Air Force” in Imagined Enemies China Prepares for Uncertain War,  Stanford University Press 2006, p237. General Liu Jingsong, a member of the 15th CPC Central Committee, he was also the PLA  Commander of the Shenyang and Lanzhou military regions and to him amongst others is attributed the opening of Equatorial Guinea 1995.

[ix] Smith Adam , The Wealth of Nations.

[x] The Economist, June 25th – July 1st 2011, special report China.

[xi] Howard, Michael. The Lessons of History, Yale University Press New Haven and London, p39.

[xii] Corbett, Julian. Some Principles of Maritime Strategy. Longmans, Green and CO, London 1911, p.115

[xiii] Friedman, Norman (1978). Battleship Design and Development 1905–1945. Conway Maritime Press p19-21.

[xiv] Clancy, Tom. Carrier, Berkeley Books, New York 1999, p 4.

4 thoughts on “Aircraft Carriers: The Pivot in Maritime Power Equations

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