Guest Column | Through the Looking Glass

A walk through the history of Indian Navy’s maritime air power

Vice Admiral Shekhar Sinha (retd)

It will be appropriate to mention the writings of 19th century Prussian general and military theorist Carl von Clausewitz, who suggested that war consists of a trinity – the people, government and armed forces. War comprises and balances between creative forces (symbolised by the armed forces action), rational forces (symbolised by the government) and emotional forces (symbolised by the people). Essentially, it means that the armed forces are separable from the people (who do not take part in fighting) and from the government, which leads the war. Obviously, Clausewitz’s analysis was influenced by the military and political context in which he lived. Now we are into the 21st century, and this doesn’t hold true anymore.

Civilians were usually absent from theatre or the battlefield either because the battle occurred in relatively unpopulated area or they fled the area before the onset of war. Today, this linearity has diminished severely. Now, the civilians and civilian objectives intermingle with military objectives.

The valid targets which could not feasibly be struck in the past have now become vulnerable. The universe of strikeable targets multiplies and so does the potential of collateral damage and incidental injury while still achieving military objectives.

MiG-29K taking off from the aircraft carrier INS Vikramaditya

While addressing the Combined Commanders Conference in 2015, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said, “Beyond the immediate, we are facing a future where security challenges will be less predictable; situations will evolve and change swiftly; technological changes will make response more difficult to keep pace with. Threats may be known but the enemy may be invisible.” He further said, “Full scale war may become rare, but force will remain an instrument of deterrence influencing behaviour and the duration of conflicts will be shorter”.

Effectively, to handle today’s changed nature of warfare, comprehensive national power will have to be brought to achieve political objectives in the short time-frame that would be available. While doing so, nations will ensure least collateral damage and incidental injury since military and civilian objectives will be difficult to discern; media will control dissemination and regulate public reaction. Clearly, precision engagements will underline military tactics and strategy which highlights the centrality of air power. It will consist of several systems of systems that enable military forces to locate the objectives or targets, provide responsive command and control, generate the desired effect, asses the level of success, and retain flexibility to re-engage with the precision required. It is in this context that the maritime arm of the national air power has gained significance in the present decade while the land-based air power has had a much longer wait towards sharpening their teeth. The Indian Air Force (IAF), which is celebrating its anniversary, deserves credit for being the alma mater of all varieties of military aviation in India. This article is a tribute to the alma mater of aviation from one of their frontiers: Maritime.

We are a little over halfway in the decade, it is still counting. Induction of Tejas in light combat role, additional Su-0 MKIs, delivery of C-17/ C-130 strategic transport aircraft, Mi-17V E and Pilatus basic training aircraft are but some important additions. The contract for acquisition of Rafale MMRCA has also been signed. The deliberation on manufacturing of advanced fighters under ‘Make in India’ drive is also in progress. In the absence of newer inductions, the IAF has done the country proud by innovating new avenues of application of air power; landing of Su-30 aircraft closer to the Northeastern and Northern borders, demonstrating ability of strategic air lift up to DBO, supporting fighter operations outside the country and carrying out large number of humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HADR) operations and maintaining highest levels of surveillance and response mechanisms in turbulent atmosphere around us.

Maritime air power has undergone historic transition in the present decade. There has been fundamental change in the philosophy of maritime patrol, anti-submarine and anti-surface warfare processes and carrier borne fighter operations. During the remaining 40 per cent of the decade, prospects of strengthening anti-submarine rotary wing fleet, increasing surveillance bubble in the Indian Ocean by addition of more long range and medium range maritime patrol aircraft, utility and multi-role helicopters, drones and commissioning of the first indigenous aircraft carrier are very encouraging. We examine these fundamental shifts in concept and philosophies.

Since 1976, the IAF relinquished the role of long range maritime patrol task to the navy by transferring the Super Constellation aircraft. This was first time the navy operated four-engine long endurance aircraft. It was a new experience for the crew to fly long hours, and, from an air station, maintaining alertness on the radar and visual watch, transfer data information manually to Maritime Operation Centre, criss-cross number of Flight Information Region (FIR) boundaries, operate close to open airspace of neighbouring countries and in the process get intercepted by advanced fighter aircraft mainly of the US Navy. Aircrew developed the desired skills to handle the new ways in the changed operational environment.

Earlier, as carrier borne Alize provided surveillance in maritime patrol role which was adequate for domain awareness around the carrier task force, the maritime operations rooms (MORs) played limited role. However, with the induction of Super Constellation aircraft, long range maritime patrol became a reality. The MORs were upgraded to handle larger volumes of information over much larger area in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR). The IAF also began exercising their role of shore-based anti-shipping strike in coordination with the Maritime Patrol Aircraft (MPA), leaving the Carrier Task Force to operate further away from EEZ in pursuance of power projection and making impact on land warfare in distant lands. It made the navy truly blue water. However, shore-based airborne ASW operation still remained an enigma.

The Super Constellation aircraft was replaced by IL-38 aircraft which had the capability of both the maritime patrol as well as ASW at long ranges, giving the navy the ability to track submarines in far-off seas, particularly at vulnerable choke points. The aircraft was more modern than the Constellation, had turboprop propulsion, advanced electronics and ability to attack a submarine if it was confirmed to be hostile (being equipped with torpedoes and depth bombs). It still lacked very long legs in terms of endurance given the expanse of IOR and anti-ship strike capability. The navy modified the aircraft to carry Sea Eagle anti-ship missiles.

Also, the concept of shepherding shore-based fighter aircraft for anti-ship strike was developed which kept the adversary further away from areas of our interest. The IL-38 was later supplemented by one squadron of Tu-142 aircraft from erstwhile Soviet Union which had very long endurance and was capable of much higher speeds to reach the patrol area quickly and exit as fast. The Bear, as it was known, was the fastest turboprop aircraft which was difficult target for any interceptor. The concept of gambit tactics was developed by the navy to push the adversary further away into their own waters and prevent their venturing anywhere close to carrier task force. The navy stabilised on a sound concept of reconnaissance ahead of departing fleet from harbours and subsequent sanitisation in the direction of advance, making the probability of offensive operations more effective.

The Tu-142 was also equipped with better sonobuoys which could localise a submarine with higher accuracy, a prerequisite against nuclear powered submarines. Higher endurance gave the capability to keep much larger areas of IOR under surveillance. The combination of Sea Harrier fighter jets operating from two aircraft carriers i.e., Vikrant and Viraat gave the navy capability to intercept MPA and adversary’s maritime strike aircraft, conduct deep penetration strike into enemy heartland as also shepherded strike on surface targets which were out of strike radius of the shore-based aircraft power. These three decades saw the navy truly ruling the waves in the IOR, becoming net security provider to friendly nations and littorals. The navy was frequently called upon by a number of countries for their EEZ surveillance and escort assistance anywhere and everywhere in the IOR.

Vikramaditya and MiG-29K
The naval planners were sanguine of the emerging security paradigm in the Indian Ocean and limitations of Sea Harrier Vikrant/ Viraat combination towards fulfilling the role of the navy in the future. The Sea Harrier was nearing obsolescence and so were the two aircraft carriers. By selecting the Sea Harrier as replacement to Sea Hawk, the navy had drifted away from tail hook fighter aviation operational philosophy, primarily because our carriers were of smaller size and no tail hook aircraft similar to Sea Hawk was available which could see through the life of the carrier. STOVL Sea Harrier met those national aspirations in the IOR in addition to the jump in technology, both power plant and avionics/weapons that it brought in the navy.

Naval aviators adapted to the maintenance and operational philosophy of STOVL very professionally and maintained Indian supremacy in the IOR for 30 years. This was aided by the second aircraft carrier Viraat from 1986. Later, Vikrant was modified with 9.75 ski jump giving the Sea Harrier slightly longer legs.

The geopolitical dynamics was altering its character in and around IOR. Indian economy was doing better and so was the need to protect it in far off seas. Gradually, India became a major regional player in the comity of nations. The Soviet empire had collapsed. Terrorism had become order of the day. The US, the sole superpower, was engrossed in War on Terror against al Qaida and other terror outfits in and around Afghanistan. This preoccupation of the US and downslide in Russian economy gave China adequate opportunity to rise, both economically and militarily.

Indian naval planners were watching these developments as also the growing complicity between China and Pakistan which could hurt Indian national interests in the future. Therefore, there was a need to strengthen maritime offensive capability to keep the adversary’s assets under pressure far off from our areas of interest and act as deterrence against any misadventure on land borders as well as along SLOCs. This necessitated two fundamental conceptual changes both in maritime patrol (MR)/ ASW and fighter operation domains. In the MR ASW task, there was a need to develop capability to reach an area of concern quickly, locate the adversary accurately and prosecute with strength.

At this time, the Tupolev 142 and IL 38 were past their prime. After the collapse of the Soviet empire, the Russian industry had nothing better on offer to replace these fuel guzzlers. Their industry was unable to support the inventory that India had. Also, after the fall of the Soviet Union there were no new proven platforms which were joining the Russian armed forces. This created a situation wherein Indian Navy would have to contend with older technology and that too at a very high price tag.

This was the time when Indo-US bilateral relations were witnessing an upswing. Simultaneously, the presence of Chinese nuclear submarines in the IOR was becoming more frequent. There was a necessity to enhance the navy’s maritime domain awareness (MDA) to the next higher level and therefore, to find Maritime Patrol/ ASW aircraft which had the ability to precisely locate and prosecute hostile surface and sub surface targets. The US was in the process of developing Boeing P8 Poseidon aircraft for MPA/ASW role for their navy.

Given our improved bilateral relations and convergence in security perceptions with the US in the IOR, the navy convinced the government of the day to look westwards for acquiring this capability. It was this foresight that lead to signing of contract and induction of P8 I aircraft which now forms the backbone of all operations in the IOR today. This was the first major defence platform acquisition from the US.

Soon, naval aviation was moving from turboprop propulsion to jet engine propelled Boeing platform. The navy’s avionics and weapons are contemporary and most advanced in the world. Eight aircraft are already in the navy’s inventory and four more are on the way. This has given the navy the capability that it never had before. The anti-submarine sensors are the best available while the attack suite is extremely compatible. The 360 degrees radar is backed by efficient fire control system for the Harpoon ASM, giving it credible anti-surface vessel capability.

These aircraft deployed at choke points, for example Straits of Malacca, Hormuz and Gulf of Aden, can provide the best of surveillance and, if required, offensive capability against hostile/threatening surface or nuclear powered sub-surface platforms. This capability was needed, considering the increasing presence of Chinese nuclear submarines and their decision of China to arm Pakistan with eight submarines possibly nuclear powered. The P 8I is fast and has long loiter time on task. It extends the maritime domain awareness bubble to virtually entire IOR. The real-time data link through own communication satellite GSAT 7 has made the maritime operations centres much inclusive in warfare, making it possible for Commanders ashore to monitor the local surface picture of far off seas and provide valuable inputs to the aircraft Commander in prosecution. It has also given India the ease of operation in support of IOR littorals from their airfields, given that Boeing is a commercial platform and majority of nations can support their operations.

Return of the Tail-Hook Fighters

As mentioned earlier, the VSTOL technology had seemingly peaked as far as ordnance carrying capability and radius of action was concerned. The navy saw this coming. Coupled with this was the need for increasing India’s area of influence to commensurate with its growing stature in the developing geopolitical landscape. The Chinese assertion in the South China Sea (SCS), commissioning of Liaoning and their rejection of the tribunal of the PCA verdict in the SCS are some pointers towards the times which lie ahead in the IOR. It was a very well strategised decision to acquire platforms which gave the navy the capability of operating in the entire IOR with ease and punch which could act as deterrence to prevent any war. Both the aircraft carrier and fighter aircraft, which would have the ability to operate in seas of our interest, penetrate deep into the adversary’s heartland if required and remain on task long enough to counter any retaliatory action.

A much delayed decision to acquire the Soviet era Gorshkov and convert it into an aircraft carrier was a major shift in carrier operation philosophy of the navy. The Gorshkov, renamed Vikramaditya, was to become STOBAR (short take off but arrested recovery) carrier, thereby shifting back to Tail-hook fighters from STOVL Sea Harriers. The aircraft chosen was Mig 29 K. The aircraft was in a prototype form in Russia and therefore, essentially a development aircraft. It had many differences with similar sounding Russian variant Mig 29 which the IAF flies. The aircraft chosen had flyby wire flight control system, more modular engine requiring lesser maintenance, thereby increasing aircraft availability on account of saving time on servicing. The aircraft was truly supersonic, which would give the navy the ability to react quickly and intercept any hostile intruder. Its endurance being high, the Mig 29 K also had the capability to strike deep into the adversary’s heartland, giving relief to the IAF in performance of their task of anti-shipping strike both within and outside the strike radius of shore-based fighters.

The pilots and engineers adapted very well to Tail-hook operation and handling of supersonic flight regime. Vikramaditya arrived from Murmansk in Russia and anchored off her home port on 7 January 2014. That was the day when the reach and power of India in the maritime domain increased manifold. A new squadron called Black Panthers (303 Squadron) was commissioned to embark the carrier. Later, on 11 May 2016, the STOVL fighters Sea Harriers were de-inducted from the navy and White Tigers (300 Squadron) were also armed with the Mig 29 K aircraft, giving the Indian Navy two embarking fighter squadrons equipped for the first time since Independence. This will also keep the navy ready with an operational fighter squadron when indigenous carrier Vikrant gets commissioned. There was a time when the navy had one Sea Harrier squadron and two aircraft carriers, but now it has two Mig 29 K squadrons for one aircraft carrier. The aircraft can also operate from air stations ashore in support of maritime tasks. This points at the reach and intensity of air power that the Indian Navy has acquired when it is seen in conjunction with our capability of the much enlarged maritime domain awareness with the induction of P8I. The government’s Act East Policy along with existing threat packed western seaboard, gets confidently addressed by the creation of these abilities. It also helps the IAF in utilising the fighter assets committed for maritime role for many other operational tasks at a time when their assets are needed for deterrence against two front threat of conflict. We are well on the way to becoming a net security provider in the IOR in the changing Indo Asia Pacific security challenges and construct.



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