by Felix F. Seidler, Editor of the “Deutschland Agenda” and owner of Seidlers Sicherheitspolitik” – the article was first published on “Seidlers Sicherheitspolitik”.
Aircraft carriers are going to be an indispensable asset for all players in the “Indo-Pacific Maritime Great Game”. But China’s carrier got too much attention, while India’s one deserves far more for sure. Operational experience matters and China has none. Furthermore, India is already playing with the world’s three “Carrier Big Boys” and all the important maritime choke points are not far away from the Indian coast.
Downgrade Shi Lang!
Nothing else has been so overhyped since August 2011 than China’s aircraft carrier program. After the former Soviet carrier, fully refurbished by the Chinese and named Shi Lang, undertook its first “test drive”, thousands of blog, press and scholarly articles about possible regional and global implications have been published. Is this single ship a regional or even a global threat? What about the balance in the East and South China Sea?
Stay calm, people. After a few tests, China’s Navy (PLAN) is years away from having an operational aircraft carrier or even a battlegroup. By now, China gains first operational experience from rescuing a grounded warship. Not too scary at all.
Moreover, if you want to operate one aircraft carrier, you need at least two, better three: one in the shipyard, one operating, one in standby. According to the numbers, it is unlikely that the PLAN will be able to sustain a permanent “blue water” carrier presence before 2020. Therefore, China’s carrier program should be downgraded from AAA (All Await Aggression) to CCC (Calm Cool, Cowboys).
However, while most observers were busy with the Shi Lang, Asia’s only operational aircraft carrier, India’s INS Viraat, has disappeared from the scope. Sorry, Thailand, but no one can take your never-operating carrier seriously. Here is the first good reason, why India must be upgraded over China: Operational experience! India has carriers for more than twenty years now. Therefore, India’s Navy has the necessary supply chains and logistics, which the PLAN lacks. Prospectively, China’s maritime “long march” will take more time than Mao’s to gain all the experience India already has (or will get by Russian or maybe even future US & French support).
Other than their Chinese counterparts, Indian commanders already gave orders to their carrier crews. China, just due the lack of capacity, could not even start a real training, yet. In addition, you need skilled officers, pilots and sailors, if you want your carrier to be taken serious by others. While the PLAN still has not started training flight operations, India’s next carrier (former Soviet Admiral Gorshkov), due the benefits of Russian support, is already training in Arctic waters. The indigenous built INS Vikrant is about to be commissioned in 2015. In consequence, whenever the PLAN’s first carrier is operational, India will have at least two well-trained counterparts. Further, India is generally able to maintain always one operational carrier offshore and China is not. The result: Please upgrade India’s carrier program from BB (Be Blind) to AA (Admit Attention).
Of course, neither will India become a US-like carrier super power, nor should it be hyped, but “Admit Attention” is definitely justified. If you do not believe, look on right on the Indian Ocean map and reflect. The world’s most important sea-lanes are running just in front of India’s military ports. All geostrategic hotspots and maritime choke points are nearby.
New Dehli and the three “Carrier Big Boys”
Beside the Russian support – generous, but not for free, of course – India is playing with the “Carrier Big Boys”, United States and France. India has undertaken joint exercises with both these navies. The PLAN is far away from such trials.
In April 2012, the 15th naval joint US-Indian Exercise Malabar was conducted; also including warships from Australia, Japan and Singapore. Training with the US means that India had the opportunity to look at and, thereby, learn from the skills of the world’s best carrier-operating navy. However, Indians pilots starting jets from US carriers have not been reported by the media, yet. Moreover, India’s carrier officers, pilots and crews could train their skills with the world’s best counterparts. Something Chinese sailors are probably not going to experience so soon.
Moreover, not only the U.S. is using their carriers as mean of politics to get closer strategic ties to India. France did so, too. In 2011 the French Navy sent its carrier Charles de Gaulle accompanied by surface vessels and a nuclear sub to India for a joint exercise. Of course, this was an advertising show for the French carrier-capable Rafale fighter, which India is likely to buy. Operating combat proved (Libya), NATO-standards fulfilling fighters from carriers is surely a good asset. Especially, when you have a competitor like China, who is mostly working with copied, a bit further self-developed Soviet and Russian technology.
India already exercised operating carriers with two “Carrier Big Boys” and NATO-countries, which is, due US and French interests, surely going to continue. Furthermore, New Delhi is getting the “Carrier Big Boys” Russia’s support for long and will, due the enduring partnership and Russian interests, get more when it would ask for. All three “Carrier Big Boys” are playing with India, but what about China? The PLAN must do pretty much everything on its own, only with very little help from Brazil. Hence, there can be no doubt that India’s already operating carriers deserve a far higher rating than China’s refurbished test-object in Dalain shipyard. However, time to put the rated carriers into the geostrategic context.
India’s enduring geostrategic advantage
What are the world’s most important maritime choke points? Hormuz Strait, Malacca Strait and the Horn of Africa. What do they all have in common? Free and unhinderable access from India’s coast. In comparison, the PLAN has only access to Malacca Strait, but before it has to pass the South China Sea full of other nation’s subs and U.S. Navy vessels. Thus, just due the geography, the PLAN can be hindered far easier to access Malacca than the Indian Navy.
Finally, in the “Indo-Pacific Maritime Great Game” – the best way to describe what is going to happen in the blue marked area on the right map within the next 50 years – the better cards are on India’s side. India is missing two Island Chains and, therefore, just does not need to think about “Anti Access / Area Denial”, but rather has freedom of action (for the Island Chains see map in this post). New Delhi’s maritime lifelines cannot really be blocked and, furthermore, if someone would try to do so, India’s carriers, surface vessels and subs are always close to the choke points!
In addition, India has the better demography than China. That is important, because, the Achilles Heel of the PLAN’s carrier program is the development of the Chinese population. Inner changes in society and government could reverse Beijing’s decisions in the carrier case. In 2060, India will be the third or second largest economy in the world. Hence, it will have the money and the technology to sustain its number of carriers not only on the current, but rather on a higher level.
Hence, whoever in the United States and Europe worries about those Chinese carriers, which could patrol the Indian Ocean’s SLOCs, should keep in mind, India will be there! Other countries like Australia, too. Time to downgrade the “China as Global Maritime Power”-Debate to “Default”.
Beside, the US military has the wrong doctrine for the “Indo-Pacific Maritime Great Game”. Of course, it must be Air and Sea, but you just cannot miss Space and Cyber. Remember, all ships and fighters are worth nothing without Satellite communications and intelligence alike a working cyber infrastructure. Therefore, Air-Sea-Space-Cyber-Battle is the way ahead; maybe not only for the US, but, too, for other military emerging powers.