INDIA DEFENCE CONSULTANTS

WHAT'S HOT? ANALYSIS OF RECENT HAPPENINGS

FIFTY YEARS OF NAVAL AVIATION

An IDC Analysis 

 

New Delhi, 25 May 2003  

Fifty years ago the Indian Navy commissioned its first naval air station INS GARUDA at Cochin (now Kochi) on 11 May 1953. From its humble beginnings of flying WWII left over Sealands (amphibious aircraft), naval aviation has come a long way. The anniversary was celebrated with much pomp and solemnity and the fly past in front of the gathered top brass and VIPs included the four blue and white Kirans, which like the IAF Surya Kirans showed that naval aviation is on top.

Today the Navy flies some 150 aircraft and helicopters (one sixth of the IAF) and the naval aviators have an excellent record of flght safety, even though they fly over the sea, compared to many Air Forces including the IAF. Till 2003 the Indian Navy had lost an average of just 1.2 lives per year including five lost in the 1971 war. This is a fantastic record considering that the IN flew second hand Sea Hawks and Alizes off the small carrier INS Vikrant. However, in 2002 we suffered a devastating blow when two IL-38 MR aircraft were involved in a skewed accident and the rate went up suddenly. All Navies have aviation and submarine arms, which are beset with several challenges. The Chinese Navy recently lost an entire crew of 70 personnel in one submarine accident. We salute the 72 officers and sailors of naval aviation who gave up their lives for the nation and pay homage to the heroes. May their souls rest in peace.

Looking to the Future

Indian Naval Aviation is set to rapidly expand and inherit a certain degree of maturity with the induction of the Kiev class aircraft carrier "Admiral Gorshkov". Along with the MiG-29K fighters and ASW (anti-submarine warfare) helicopters, they will provide the vital integrated air support, both in terms of Fleet area air defence and "on-spot" ASW screening. The MiG-29Ks can intercept and destroy enemy strike and MR/ASW (maritime reconnaissance/anti-submarine warfare) platforms at great distances, thus preventing them from closing in and firing deadly accurate anti-ship missiles like Harpoon and Exocet. This necessity is more acute if the enemy airborne platforms are guided to their targets by an AWACS (Airborne Warning And Control System) aircraft.

In such situations land based air cover may be too late to react. MiG-29Ks will also deny the operation of enemy. MR/ASW aircraft in the vicinity of our vital submarine operations, while assisting Indian MR/ASW platforms in their operational role by establishing local air superiority.

Another vital role of our CVBG (aircraft-carrier battle group) will be deployment of an air defence fighter and SAM (surface to air missile) cover in the Arabian Sea, to destroy enemy airborne strike platforms in defence of our vital nuclear and oil installations on the West coast. The MiG-29K is well suited to this task, as it was derived from fly-by-wire MiG-29M, with a more advanced Zhuk (Beetle) PH radar capable of conducting four simultaneous attacks with BVR (Beyond Visual Range) R-77RVV-AE (AA-12 Adder) AAMs (Air-to-Air Missiles). The range and endurance may be increased significantly by providing additional fuel tanks and efficient engines. The MiG-29Ks custom built for India are likely to accommodate a significant number of avionics components developed for the Sukhoi-30MKI and LCA (Light Combat Aircraft) project. Presently details are speculative, but in terms of avionics the Indian MiG-29K may well resemble a scaled down Sukhoi-30 rather than an upgraded MiG-29.

Although one may be tempted to be euphoric regarding the induction of 'Admiral Gorshkov' certain limitations need to be noted and should be rectified in relation to future procurements. The 'Admiral Gorshkov' design/redesign fails to accommodate any other type of fixed-wing aircraft other than MiG-29Ks. Thus presently the best Russian fighter in the entire Russian armed forces, the Sukhoi-33 (Sukhoi-27K) was ruled out. Limited elevator capacity was the possible reason.

Similarly absence of steam catapults rule out the possibility of operating the excellent French Rafale. Similarly vital fixed-wing platforms for AWACS and ASW operations are also ruled out. 'Admiral Gorshkov' is dependent on considerable fossil fuel and thus dependent on frequent replenishments at sea.

Our future ADS (Air Defence Ship) which has considerable influence of the French PAN (Porte-Avion, Nulleaires/ Aircraft carrier, nuclear powered) 'Charles de Gaulle' design should also be nuclear powered like the French vessel. The ADS will then be freed from excessive dependence on fleet replenishments during operations thus acquiring flexibility to move and manoeuvre, aspects that are key to survival in a high-threat environment. Provision should be made for steam catapults or futuristic electromagnetic launch systems to operate a composite air wing of fixed-wing airborne platforms. Various types of fighters like MiG-29K or Rafale can then be operated as well as fixed-wing AWACS platforms like the US E-2C 'Hawkeye' or ASW platforms alike S-3 'Viking' that have considerably greater range than similar helicopter platforms. Since the Indian Navy is opting for at least three ADS, at least one needs to be built in France for swift induction in Indian Navy fleet.

Even the primary escorts of our ADS need to be nuclear powered and should be optimised for AAW (Anti-Air Warfare). With the Indian defence industries having established extensive tie-ups with the European missile manufacturer MBDA, the MBDA PAAMS (Principal Anti-Air Missile System) consisting of Aster 15/30 missile system needs to be explored. PAAMS is capable of providing both area and point defence in combination of Aster 15 and Aster 30 missiles. A naval SAM (Surface to Air Missile) with ATBM (Anti-Tactical Ballistic Missile) is urgently needed and the navy may have to approach Russia to fulfill this need. Of special significance, reports appeared in media few years ago of an "indigenous" 148 MW marine nuclear reactor nearing completion and if one has not missed a decimal point, the reactor is capable of propelling Cruiser and Destroyer sized warships.

The primary escorts along with nuclear powered submarines more importantly need to be fitted with LACMs (Land Attack Cruise Missiles) to influence the battles on land. LACMs are invaluable assets of any major navy, and are likely to be used in decimating enemy overland communications, command and control centres and powerful air defence installations before extensive barrage air attack followed by ground invasion. If the foreign LACMs are not available because of MTCR (Missile Technology Control Regime) restrictions, efforts should be made to develop an indigenous LACM of fair range and capacity, or re-engineer and enhance the capability of BrahMos or
the Alpha/Klub (SS-N-27) family of missiles. This aspect will enhance the Indian Navy's capability to influence an "air-land" battle and already a very respected media source indicated the "presence" of Lakshya 2 programme, which is destined to be a dedicated LACM.

India is also reported to be actively involved in multinational STAR cruise missile programme along with Israel, South Korea and Turkey. Extensive space based sensors and reconnaissance, navigation, targeting and ranging assets need to be set up for securing optimum performance from SAM, ATBM and LACM assets and as an interim
measure the Russians and Israelis can provide technical assistance before an extensive "indigenous" infrastructure is set up. In particular, the Russian GLONASS series of satellites for navigation, targeting and ranging and to provide reliable GPS (Global Positioning System) may prove vital. "Information dominance", a vital aspect of modern warfare needs extensive support from space-based assets.

India's strategic geographic position also enables her to influence naval operations with land based "naval assets". Fighters like Sukhoi-30MKI along with Phalcon AWACS and Illyushin-78 in-flight refuelling tankers are capable of providing extensive air cover to our naval fleets while the MR/ASW airborne platforms like Tupolev-142 "Bear-F" and Illyushin-38 "May" provide anti-submarine and ESM (Electronic Support Measures) support. The MR/ASW fleet should be further augmented with possible induction of US Lockheed Martin P-3C Orion. 

The Indian Navy must ensure the induction of it's own TACMO (Take-Charge and Move Out) airborne VLF/ELF (Very Low Frequency/Extremely Low Frequency) platforms like the US E-6 Mercury or the Russian modified "Bear" platform for support of nuclear ATV (Advanced Technology Vessel) once it enters service. Overland VLF/ELF communications are vulnerable to enemy pre-emptive strikes that leave ballistic missile firing submarines ineffective in absence of proper communications. Again research should concentrate on the "access window" of blue-green laser that is capable of penetrating water bodies up to a certain depth and may be used in sub-surface communications.

Indian Naval Aviation along with the Indian Naval Fleet is set for tremendous expansion. By the middle of the next decade any naval operations in the Indian Ocean region will require overt or tacit Indian approval. Moreover if the Indian Navy manages to forge links with United States, Japanese and Russian navies in regional operations it will emerge as a formidable force in its own right.

(With inputs from Sayan Mazumdar)

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