Submarines or aircraft carriers? A lively debate is gathering momentum

By Defence Update

When HMS Hercules joined the Indian Navy as INS Vikrant in 1961, India became the first Asian power to have an aircraft carrier. That single carrier was enough for several decades, since no other Asian power wanted to control the Indian Ocean. Today, though, when the Chinese navy is projecting power with two carriers, while building a third and planning for two more, India is finding itself at sea.

India’s second carrier—Vikrant, which is the first to be made in India—is getting fitted at Cochin Shipyard; naval engineers have been drawing up designs for a third. But in February, Gen Bipin Rawat poured cold water on their blueprint. As chief of defence staff, whose job is to prioritise military procurement, Rawat questioned the wisdom of having three carriers. Carriers, he said, were expensive and vulnerable to torpedoes. He favoured submarines, citing the Navy’s worries about its dwindling underwater capability. Or, he asked, why not develop shore-based capabilities?

Rawat’s idea, apparently, is to build more submarines and develop islands in the Bay of Bengal and the Arabian Sea into “unsinkable strategic hubs”. He has left the call to the defence ministry, which he said might review its decision after INS Vikrant becomes operational.

The main argument against carriers is indeed their cost. India’s lone carrier in operation, the Russian-made Vikramaditya, cost a whopping 012,500 crore ($2.35 billion). Vikrant is expected to cost 019,590 crore ($2.8 billion). Its sister ship, which naval designers have been working on since 2012 and want to name Vishal, is expected to cost between 075,000 crore and 01.5 lakh crore.

Rawat’s comments have triggered a debate on whether carriers are white elephants. “They cost a packet and if hit by one enemy torpedo, all this will sink to the bottom of the sea,” said a Navy officer.

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