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Force Magazine
Guest Column - Force Magazine
A Vital Strategic Asset
Politicians and armed forces officials should not abandon the Carrier Battle Group
Cmde Lalit Kapur
By Cmde Lalit Kapur (retd)

When Argentina occupied the Falklands, South Georgia and Sandwich Islands in April 1982, Britain launched Operation Corporate to recapture the islands. Analysts gave the British operation negligible chance of success, considering the challenges of operating far from home and within reach of modern land based Argentine Air Force aircraft. That it did succeed is due to the irreplaceable role played by Carrier Battle Group (CBG) centred on Hermes and Invincible, which provided the British Task Force integral air power. Carrier-borne Harriers accounted for 21 of the 46 Argentine aircraft casualties in the air, with naval surface-to-air missiles tallying 12 kills and air defence guns only 1 (the remaining 12 aircraft were lost to ground based weapons). Had the integral air power not been available, the British operation would inevitably have failed.

India, with island territories of its own in the Lakshadweep as well as Andaman and Nicobar Islands and extensive interests in the Indian Ocean, can ill afford to forget the strategic lessons of Falklands. It is a geographical fact that our Eastern island territories are outside the combat radius of all mainland based Indian Air Force (IAF) aircraft except the Su-30 MKI, while being well within the combat radius of aircraft belonging to other littorals. If the islands are threatened, the only way for India to exercise military power in the Andaman Sea is through maritime forces with integral air power. The strategic choice of not entering into military alliances leaves India no choice but to field a navy with the full spectrum of capabilities. It cannot remain non-aligned and still dream that someone else will bail it out with the requisite air power when required.

The aircraft carrier constitutes a ‘strategic capability’, which, in essence, is one whose possession makes available certain strategies to attain the desired outcome, and the lack of which constrains the choice of strategy. It should be obvious that possession of the carrier creates the ability to promote desired outcomes in numerous areas of naval conflict, ranging from strike against enemy warships or land targets to air defence and anti-submarine warfare. The ‘capability’ is provided by the weapons and sensors carried by the numerous platforms, including fixed and rotary wing aircraft that comprise a CBG.

Can this capability be obtained by alternate means? With air-to-air refuellers such as the IL-78 coupled with strike aircraft including the Su-30MKI, the ability to hit a target anywhere in the Indian Ocean certainly exists. The RAF had similar capability in 1982, and in fact, used Vulcan bombers in Operation Black Buck to carry out ineffectual air strikes on Port Stanley. However, the Royal Air Force (RAF) did not possess the capability to provide air defence to the force tasked with retaking the Falklands; by far the more important requirement. For the Task Force Commander far from own air force bases facing incoming enemy air attack, the fact that air force interceptors will eventually reach him once he reports an incoming strike, provides little consolation: he needs them before the enemy reaches him, not later, after the enemy has completed his attack and gone away. The integral air capability is irreplaceable.

Every strategic asset offers strengths and has vulnerabilities. This is as true of the aircraft carrier as it is for nuclear weapons. One doesn’t hear the argument that because nuclear assets are difficult to defend, or because their loss would have a massive impact on morale, they should not be acquired. Mobility is one means of protection: nuclear powers the world over have chosen to move strategic nuclear assets from static to mobile platforms, including road and rail mobile launchers and nuclear submarines. The carrier enables mobile air capability that can hide in the vast expanse of the seas, emerging only when required for a specific task. Locating the CBG at sea is perhaps more challenging than locating a road/rail mobile nuclear missile launcher. One cannot help but wonder if apprehensions about the carrier’s survivability are driven more by extraneous factors including inter-service resource competition than dispassionate analysis.

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