Effectiveness of the Fleet Aircraft Carrier  


Vice Admiral (retd) Vijay Shankar

(To be published in the December issue of the DSA magazine)

The Fleet Aircraft Carrier possesses a number of attributes that make it the Operational Commander’s platform of choice to deal with maritime crises. These virtues may be summed-up in the platform’s intrinsic ability to operate in international waters Independent of territorial and political constraints; the carrier’s Mobility allows it to deploy its full array of combat power over distances in excess of 600 nautical miles in a day; the Role-Flexibility provided by the vessel’s integral air and power projection competence permits it to respond across the spectrum of maritime conflict scenarios.

The Sceptics View

Detractors of the Fleet Carrier harp on three issues that to them lies at the heart of the debate of whether the Navy’s demand for the Fleet Aircraft Carrier is justified or not. The assertions made in support of their premise are as follows:

  • The Aircraft Carrier is old in concept and vulnerable in contemporary Anti-Access/Area-Denial (A2/AD) threat scenarios.
  • The platform is expensive and the nation’s maritime security interests are better served by sea-denial forces such as submarines, small missile units and land based air-power.
  • The prospect of action damage makes the Commander of a deployed Aircraft Carrier much too tentative to venture into “harm’s way”.

Analysing the Three Assertions

The first Assertion suggests obsolescence of the concept of the Aircraft Carrier; this is not rational since obsolescence is a condition when the Carrier ceases to have operational use. Concepts are essentially tempered by time and technology. The issue of vulnerability to contemporary A2/AD threats requires more serious deliberation. Depending on the situation, threat perceptions and how operations have been conceived; the Carrier Group, in addition to its integral air power, will comprise of elements that provide the necessary capabilities to neutralize or supress forces that are likely to confront it. Where the threat is perceived to emanate from long range Anti-Ship Ballistic or Cruise Missiles, then the adversaries extended surveillance and control chain will be targeted either by co-operating units or by integral forces.

The second Assertion relates to the cost-benefit or the valuation of the Carrier in terms of its ability to provide security. This while sounding ‘scholarly’ is in fact a distortion of the theory of maritime warfare; of Control of oceanic spaces and of Denial of the same. That the Aircraft Carrier is a ‘big ticket’ platform cannot be seen in isolation. The economics of the platform must be weighed against the part it plays in defining and securing the maritime interests of the nation. The relationship between the Carrier and denial forces when integrated provides the instrument for sea control to influence the outcome of operations; but when separated, denial forces restrict themselves to chance skirmishes and nuisance value.

 The third Assertion deals with the tentativeness of the Commander when required to commit an aircraft carrier to battle. This is, at best, a fallacious argument. At any rate the hesitancy to go into “harm’s way” only occurs when the fleet force package is wanting in material and technological capabilities. The three ‘assertions’ are, therefore, rather eclectic in form and tendentious in content, particularly in the light of the unique attributes of the Fleet Carrier.  

Unique Characteristics of the Fleet Carrier: Indian Experience

The Aircraft Carrier’s Mobility, which enables it to act as a rapid responder, has been evident in every operation that it has participated in. Whether it was the liberation of Bangla-Desh in 1971, Operation Jupiter the Sri-Lanka peacekeeping operations in 1989, Operation Parakram the Indo-Pakistan stand-off post the Pakistan sponsored terror attack on the Indian Parliament in December 2001 or the rescue and relief operations consequent to the Tsunami of December 2004. During the recent crisis along the Line of Actual Control with China, the Indian Carrier Group was poised to execute its plans to squeeze China’s energy-jugular plying across the Indian Ocean and through the Malacca Straits.

The importance of an Aircraft Carrier as the central control and strike element of a task force charged with exercising sea control was validated over a sustained period of several months in the North Arabian Sea during Operation Parakram. The Carrier’s integral air-power and co-operating maritime patrol aircrafts ensured complete sanitisation of the surveillance bubble around the force; Surface Action Groups comprising speedy and stealthy missile units prowled the surveillance and kill zones to counter hostile trespassers venturing into these tracts; while anti-submarine warfare units searched, located and suppressed the submarine threat. Friendly merchant ships and tankers were routed through safe waters while those bound for Pakistani ports were marked by forces in readiness to divert/seize them. Not only was the Pakistan Navy limited to coastal patrols, but its surveillance elements remained, in the main, restricted to the Makran littoral.

After US combat operations in the Gulf were terminated in 2003, tanker traffic was being flagged by the US out of the Gulf under escort. To verify Indian capability to do the same without being targeted the Indian Carrier Group was deployed in the Gulf of Oman to provide airborne escort to Indian hulls coming out of the Gulf. The tankers motored along three escort lines patrolled by missile destroyers from the Carrier Group. Significantly, this was accomplished in sea-space where no land based aviation was available. These tasks could not have been achieved in the absence of the Indian Fleet Carrier.

And because the Carrier is such a large and capable platform, it can integrate assets from other services (even other nations) into its operations. Its Role-Flexibility was on display in Operation Jupiter during the peacekeeping operations in Sri-Lanka in 1989. This is especially crucial today with the stress placed on jointness between the armed services and between allies. In the current combat environment characterized by fluidity, the capabilities needed in one situation may not be the same in another. This is where the versatility of the carrier and its consorts to be tailored for foreseeable roles comes to play. Given the adaptability, payload, mobility and power of the Carrier Group it now becomes meaningful to understand the operational philosophy that governs its deployment.

Contemporary Naval Thought

A fourfold classification of maritime forces has dominated contemporary naval thought. The grouping is largely functional and task oriented. It comprises of aircraft carriers, denial forces (including surface, air and sub-surface units), escorts and surveillance elements. Auxiliaries including logistic and other support ships and tenders provide distant and indirect support. In addition current thought has given strategic nuclear forces a restraining role to define and demarcate the limits within which conventional forces operate.

The make-up of the fleet must logically be a material and technological articulation of strategic concepts that prevail. India has for long aspired to attain a strategic maritime posture that would permit control and hold sway over oceanic spaces that serve to promote its national interests. And in times of hostility, 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 must come as no surprise that China develops forces necessary to realize its A2/AD policy). Pursuing this line of argument, it is the Aircraft Carrier Group and its intrinsic air power assisted by strike and denial forces that sea control and security of control can be achieved. 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. In the absence of the latter, naval operations are reduced to a series of denial actions limited in time, space and restricted to littoral waters with little impact on the progress of operations on land. It is for this reason that the Indian aircraft carrier programme today envisages a minimum force level of three Fleet Carriers at all times in order to meet the diverse tasks that the Navy may be charged with across geographically separated areas of interest under circumstances of change and uncertainty.

The Uncertainty Paradigm

As struggles of the post-cold war era are played out the first casualty is the still born hope of an enlightened global order. Endemic instability worldwide is manifest in the number of armed conflicts (over 50) that erupted in this period. The nature of these wars, more than anything else, reflect what may be termed the ‘Uncertainty Paradigm’ for they ranged from wars of liberation and freedom to insurgencies, civil wars, ethno-racial-religious wars, proxy wars, interventions, armed settlement of historical scores and conflicts motivated by the urge to corner economic resources. In all cases it was either the perpetuation of a regime, political ambitions, radical religious ideologies, racial animosities or the fear of economic deprivation that was at work.

The unease of nations in this milieu is compounded by the perpetuation of each State, its sovereignty, growth, demand for distinctive aspirations and its right to use force; all of which are features that every individual nation lists as primary national interests. It is also here that the roots of uncertainty often lie. Against this backdrop, when politics of ‘territorial grab’ and competitive resource access are linked to survival and growth of State; we have before us the recipe for diverse forms of inter-state, intra-state and bloc conflicts.

Challenge of China

Of all the uncertainties that influence strategic stability, it is China; a self-declared revisionist autocratic power, that will impact and challenge globally. Particularly so, in the maritime domain. And therefore it is appropriate that the planner examine and understand in some detail the challenge of China.

Of import is China’s dazzling economic growth and strategic military prowess. This has transformed their perspective of the world and their role in it. Beijing places primacy on its beliefs and interests, its comprehensive power gives it the required heft to shape global affairs in a manner that promotes own well-being. The search for geopolitical space that the emergence of a new revisionist power precipitates, historically, has been the cause for global instability and tensions. Add to this is the ideology of nationalism that is inextricably linked to their military and we are faced with a situation when China’s power and its revisionist urge has the potential to provoke conflicts. Progressively, China appears to be challenging not just today’s economic orthodoxy and order, but the world’s political and security framework as well without bringing about a change within her own political morphology.

China’s claim of sovereignty over the South China Sea; her territorial aggressiveness; her handling of dissent within Tibet and Sinkiang; her proliferatory carousing with rogue states such as North Korea and Pakistan are cases that do not inspire confidence in change occurring within that nation without turbulence. It is also noted, with some foreboding, the breaking out of China from its largely defensive maritime perimeter into the Indo-Pacific.


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 relations queers the pitch, in view of the expanded space for possibilities. China has unambiguously articulated three canons that make for its strategic objectives; revision of the existing order, sustained growth at any cost and regional pre-eminence. In the absence of a security oriented cooperative impulse, the problem with such sweeping strategies 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 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 Fleet Aircraft Carrier and its complimentary group is central to any power equation and in consequence provides the foundation for stability.

The Looming Winter of Discontent


Vice Admiral (retd) Vijay Shankar (Published in the IPCS web journal. Available at http://ipcs.org/comm_select.php?articleNo=5837 )

Impact and Veracity of Social Media

       The widespread popularity of social media, despite its loud and frequent boorish content, has made the study of events that form historical processes more a disarrayed function of the common than, hitherto, an orderly and elitist function. With around 63.4 million tweets in cyber space relating to the Russo-Ukraine conflict inside a fortnight of the commencement of operations, reality is tossed around and mangled as never before to present itself in the garb of emerging history. Meanwhile, people quite blithely debate whether a nuclear holocaust is an option; whether the NATO should impose a no-fly zone (forget the consequences); or if the alleged counter offensives are kosher; and indeed the imminence of a palace coup in the Kremlin  through the revolt by the oligarchs or even the return of Alexei Navalny.

       A viewpoint built on contrived interpretations of happenings serves only to manipulate human understanding in a manner that gives life to wishful projections. All this has left discernments of the conflict in Ukraine confounded in a mire of half-truths, myths and propaganda.

Where Lies the Truth?

       In this ambience of facts being irrelevant to a distorted narrative, Orwell’s suggestion that the truth  “is not merely determined by the accuracy of verbal veracity; it is the sense of the importance of the event that is its truth; a combination of actual fact and factual relevance ultimately impel an outcome which is the inviolable truth…” Arguably, this is the most important sense in which the truth exists and also the only way of deciphering the goings on in the war in Ukraine.

       President Zelenskyy addressing his nation stated that “The pace of providing aid to Ukraine by partners should correspond to the pace of our movement.” To a military mind, this may suggest that western arms and war material is either not keeping pace with losses or that Ukraine is running low on reserves. And what of the Ukrainian counter offensive? It appears to be vacated space that is being reclaimed; not on account of having exacted a military rout but more owing to Russian operational inability to consolidate a territorial over-reach.

Not the Era for War

       At the recent meeting of the 77th session of the UNGA, deliberations were dominated by the situation in Ukraine. President Macron went to some length as he quoted Prime Minister Modi’s dialogue with President Putin at the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation summit exhorting him that “Today’s era is not an era of war…” There can be several interpretations of the discourse; but the one that underscored sense and criticality to Macron, the EU and indeed the world was the impact that Russian controlled energy cut-offs will have on the people and economies of the EU.

Russia’s Menacing Energy Bludgeon

       Russia supplied the EU with 40% of its natural gas last year. Germany, Europe’s largest economy, was the leading importer. As the main supplier of gas for many European countries, Moscow controls energy to propel industries, keep alive essential services and for domestic heating. The resource has become a lever that governs relations and, indeed, tensions. Europe’s dependency on Russian gas was no accident. It began as a measure to wean itself away from the OPEC and then became a part of a larger project spearheaded by Germany to deliberately tie the two together in bonds of reliance. The probable understanding was that increased dependency on Russia would open their vast markets to bi-lateral trade and mutual dependency would bring to an end an historical adversarial relationship. But the war in Ukraine exposed the failings of this strategy as Russia’s dominance over energy supplies far outweighed any sense of mutuality. On the contrary it has put immense pressure on European leaders without in any way reducing Russian oil revenues, as demands mount.

       The Kremlin has already cut off gas to six countries and fettered supply to six more in response to NATO’s sanctions. While energy policies of EU states have recognised that it is overly dependent on Russia, it offers no definitive answers of how to reduce that dependency. After all, Russia earned over $430 billion in revenue from oil and gas exports to the EU in the last one year and this figure far exceeds the estimated costs of Russia’s war in Ukraine. In balance is the menacing hardship of an extreme winter for Europe without Russian gas to brave it. Add to this Russia’s control over a third of global wheat supplies that has laid bare the food insecurity of the world. Clearly economics has trumped strategy.

       In the meantime, in a referendum ordered in the occupied Eastern and Southern regions of Ukraine, the people there have apparently voted overwhelmingly in favour of joining the Russian Federation. The annexation has made clear that Moscow’s war aims was the territories that comprised the Donbas region, Kherson and the Zaporizhizhia Oblasts (if it weren’t discernable all along).  A reported partial Russian mobilisation has been called, perhaps to generate the necessary “boots-on-ground” that will secure the fresh appropriations.

External Factors and Peace Prospects

       Distinguishing myths from the reality of disparities in Russo-Ukrainian war waging potential and the flagging nature of aid coming in from the NATO are keys to understanding the direction of this conflict. There is little doubt that Moscow has suffered military reverses, yet their hold on substantial swathes of land in the East and South to the extent of near 20% of the Ukrainian land area is firm and is in the process of being consolidated.  On a daily basis, Ukraine confirms the pivotal dependence upon external factors. Fundamental to the war and, ironically, the weakest link is the US and NATO material backing. Both, surprisingly, bristling at the start of the conflict; are perhaps becoming aware that sanctions are not going to make the Kremlin sue for peace. The answer is not more sanctions as much as the political will to see through privations, a harsh winter and the current economic downturn; we note, NATO’s strategic patience has worn thin.

       Given the correlation that is emerging, hazards of escalation and NATO’s wilting resolve to stay-the-course; one is unlikely to see the appearance of an olive branch till the worst of winter is past and that too on Kremlin’s terms.

Counterforce: a Threat to Nuclear Deterrence Stability


Vice Admiral (retd) Vijay Shankar

(Published in the IPCS web journal. Available at the following link:  http://ipcs.org/comm_select.php?articleNo=5829 )

Early atomic bombs were crude city-annihilators. Their ability to bring enormous and horrific destruction to the civilian domain was demonstrated by the USA on 06 August 1945 when the Japanese city of Hiroshima was devastated; and if that were not enough, a second atomic weapon was detonated over the city of Nagasaki three days later. The two caused 214,000 primary fatalities to a combined population of 613,000 and an unknowable number of secondary and tertiary casualties.

Targeting Concepts

The use of nuclear weapons is governed by two basic targeting concepts: “Counterforce” and “Countervalue”. The former emphasizes strikes on military forces both nuclear and conventional, their infrastructure and logistics; while the latter focuses on economic targets and population centres. A Countervalue doctrine is limited in complexity and demands relatively simpler capabilities. During the Cold-War It led to a rather macabre belief that “assurance of mass destruction” would bring about a balance-of-terror which in turn guaranteed stability. It led to an amassing of arsenals whose aggregate yield could destroy the world many times over. The Counterforce doctrine, on the other hand, suggests that nuclear war could be limited and nuclear forces could be used to disarm the adversary of nuclear weapons; almost as if, the side adopting a Counterforce doctrine controls retaliation by the victim.

Both targeting concepts lose sight of a cardinal principle of international relations; that war has political purpose. Destruction of purpose debases the application of force to a savage all-obliterating clash. Ironically, we note today how nuclear armed states are, adopting postures that increase prospects of the use of nuclear weapons in armed conflicts.

Bernard Brodie, in 1946, provided an intellectual framework for avoiding nuclear war. In his seminal work The Absolute Weapon (New York, Harcourt Brace, 1946, P76) he suggested: “Thus far the chief purpose of our military establishment has been to win wars. From now on its chief purpose must be to avert them. It can have almost no other useful purpose”.  Brodie recognised that the possibility of ‘total destruction’ inherent in the use of nuclear weapons had made victory unachievable, at the same time it’s political value lay in the threat it posed to manipulate an adversary’s mind.

Evolution of Nuclear Weapons & Political Purpose

In examining the evolution of the nuclear deterrence theory, we note there is an allegorical tendency to correlate the nature of war with the changing characteristics of the nuclear weapon. War, as Clausewitz pointed out, has an enduring nature that is defined by four continuities: a political dimension, a human dimension as characterised by military genius, pervasiveness of uncertainty and the contest of opposing resolve. All of these exist within an historical, social and political context. While the dynamics that govern characteristics of nuclear weapons, is in the main, influenced by human ability to harness technology. Regardless, it is apparent that if either political purpose is lost or the human dimension is removed; then war itself is deprived of meaning.

 Given man’s facility to exploit technology, nuclear weapons have evolved in three distinct phases: first, from a weapon of use to an instrument that assured a balance of terror. Second, the threat of mutually guaranteed destruction developed into a contrivance for bargaining and devising compromises. Third, it comes full circle to a bizarre situation that today attempts to again justify nuclear war fighting. Such a progression of the weapon has lost sight of the political and human impact of use.

The Counterforce Strategic Narrative

For a nation, a strategic narrative is a lodestone to avoid a return to a trauma of the past around which the narrative was built and accepted. Its essence is often reflected in simple but pithy mantras such as “War on Terror”, “Mutually Assured Destruction” or “Counterforce doctrine”. The narrative that governs policies of nuclear armed states has, largely, been stimulated by that which emerged in the USA and been systematised in the wake of the first nuclear attacks, through the Cold-War and in its aftermath of a multi-polar world.  

In today’s strategic milieu, the lines between nuclear arsenals and conventional weapons have dangerously become intertwined as new offensive technologies such as precision hypersonic glide vehicles are introduced that pose a potent threat to the security of nuclear weapons and the stability of a deterrent relationship. The narrative in turn urges a “nuclear counterforce” strategy which determines policy and fashions a first-strike strategic posture.  And so we note with some alarm, that a nuclear weapon state when confronted by another may decide to use precision nuclear or conventional counterforce in a first strike to annul the possibility of being a victim of a nuclear attack. In this context the “reported” Russian policy Escalate to De-escalate and the US deployment of low yield nuclear weapons is confounding as it presumes total domination of the escalation ladder. 

The blurring of conventional and nuclear deterrence is apparent by the increasing integration of conventional and nuclear warfighting doctrines.  The US 2018 Nuclear Posture Review stresses the possibility of nuclear weapon use in response to non-nuclear attacks is a case in point. The long held view that nuclear weapons are exceptional has been set aside and in its place a dramatic escalation to nuclear warfighting is advocated. That, such use could provoke an unpredictable set of nuclear responses has been, eerily, blanked-out. Concepts that promote ‘first use’ of nuclear weapons are not new, for tactical nuclear weapons (TNW) were deployed with decentralised release authority during the Cold War. Recognising the catastrophic hazards of pre-delegation,  Presidential Nuclear Initiatives  attempted to remove all TNWs from the battlefield.


Counterforce strategies intrinsically translate to heightened nuclear risks as it prompts a ‘first strike’. It is also a flawed premise that response to nuclear escalation can ever be predictable and controlled. To the contrary, foreclosure of the option to use nuclear weapons first would not only enhance the stability of deterrence and reduce the role played by nuclear weapons in security policy; but also provide greater political legitimacy. Therefore, to adopt a ‘No-First-Use’ nuclear-policy provides sagacity to a troubled world in its deference for greater security and, indeed, for survival.