(Published article in Defence and Security Alert Oct 2012)
“When word of crisis breaks out in Washington, it’s no accident the first question that comes to everyone’s lips is: where is the nearest carrier?”
In the Asia Pacific region, currently there are only two regional powers which can operate aircraft carriers, namely India and Thailand. The Chinese Aircraft carrier ex Varyag has not yet commenced operations. A few words about a Carrier strike group (CSG) would be in order at this stage. An aircraft carrier is akin to a mobile naval air station along with 70 to 80 fighters, bombers and support aircraft, which can sail to any place on the earth within a span of about two weeks travelling 650 to 700 nm per day. An aircraft carrier is however vulnerable to attacks from air, sea and underwater and therefore it normally travels with a protective consort comprising of two Guided missile destroyers capable of firing missiles like the Tomahawk, two destroyers, a frigate, two submarines and a supply ship. This group of ships along with the aircraft carrier is called a CSG. The composition of a CSG is however mission centric and can vary depending upon the situation and foreseeable threats that may be encountered.
A CSG does not need permissions from any sovereign power for landing/overflying its aircraft, when it is operating in international waters. A CSG is a sovereign territory of the country to which it belongs and can position itself in international waters in close vicinity of expected conflict zones. This provides it with tremendous flexibility of operations and makes it a powerful diplomatic negotiating tool. It can declare presence, project power ashore or actively associate in stabilising a conflict environment. Thus the CSG has at its disposal, about 9/10 ships, 70/80 aircraft and about 7500/8000 trained naval complement to accomplish its designated task. The air element of the carrier comprises of strike fighter jets (eg. F/A-18 Hornet), fighter jets for gaining air superiority (eg.F-14 Tomcat), an electronic warfare aircraft (eg. EA- 6B Prowler), A tactical warning and control system aircraft (eg. E -2C Hawkeye), A subsonic anti submarine jet aircraft (eg. S -3B Viking), and an ASW /SAR helicopter (eg. SH-60 Sea Hawk).
A CSG is a formidable awe inspiring force centre representing its country and that is one of the reasons why China shelved its plans to convert Varyag in to a floating casino and has instead refurbished it for naval use. A researcher at the Chinese Naval Research Institute, Senior Captain Li Jie has said “Aircraft carriers are incomparable and cannot be replaced by other weapons;” ……”If a big power wants to become a strong power, it has to develop aircraft carriers.” Needless to state that when Varyag becomes operational and if it is deployed in South China fleet it will considerably shift the balance of power in the territorially disputed region.
It is an established fact that nations build up large navies to protect their flourishing sea trade and not the other way round, therefore it would be of interest to get a perspective in to economics of the region with reference to oil imports and reserves as well as trade data pertaining to the United States and South Asian countries. Further it is also necessary to take a look at the access denial perception that the US has about China which would provide clarity in to the reasons why the United States has announced a prominent Asia Pacific shift with practically no cuts in the Naval Budget and also as to why China is forging ahead with its plan to build a truly blue water navy.
Economic Factors that Warrant a Continuous Maritime Presence and Projection
The South East Asian Region is predominantly maritime region, with maritime issues taking centre stage in bilateral and multilateral dialogues between SE Asian countries. The geography of the region makes it very problematic to delineate the maritime boundaries of the countries, with the result that only about 20% of the boundaries have been marked till date. As far as EEZs are concerned hardly any progress has been made so far. The islands in the region constitute a major cause of unresolved sovereignty disputes especially in the South China Sea; other examples in the region include northern Malacca straits, eastern approaches to Singapore Straits and Ambalat region east of Borneo. All these have a bearing on the current and future economic development of the region as well as triggering a disruption to vital oil supplies to China, Japan and other countries east of Malacca. Even though sea piracy has declined considerably, issues like trafficking of drugs, arms and people, maritime terrorism, marine pollution etc continue to plague the seas. The areas of concern are the Northern Malacca Straits, southern part of South China Sea, the Riau Archipelago and the Sulu Archipelago. These areas are put under surveillance by maritime and air patrols (including UAVs) in addition to the shore based coastal radars.
A glance at the oil and gas imports in the region in the last 10 years as per the table below reveals the phenomenal growth of oil imports by South Asian countries and the fact that all this oil has to transit through the SLOCs in this region.
World Imports of Petroleum Products by Country
(Thousand barrels per day)
A glance at the table below in respect of proven crude oil reserves reveals that considerable quantities of oil reserves are held in this region.
World Proven Crude Oil Reserves by Country in Million Barrels
|Asia and Pacific 50,097|
US Trade volume with South East Asia has tripled over the past two decades, from~$45 Billion in 1990 to~ $175 Billion in 2010. America’s largest Southeast Asia export relationship is with Singapore. US exports to Singapore have grown from ~$8 billion in 1990 to ~$29 billion in 2010. US exports to Vietnam and Malaysia have increased four times in the last two decades.
US imports from this region have increased at an even faster rate than exports. Imports from Malaysia have shown a fivefold increase to ~$26 billion in 2010, overtaking Singapore and Thailand. Further Vietnam’s exports to the United States have grown from ~$200 million to ~$15 billion in the last ~15 years. China and Japan have also seen increases in trade volume with the United States: from $20.0 billion in 1990 to $176 billion in 2010 for China and from $138 billion in 1990 to $181 billion in 2010 for Japan. China’s share has increased from 2.3% in 1990 to 14.3% of total US foreign trade in 2010. Whereas Japan’s share of total US foreign trade, declined from 15.6% in 1990 to 5.7% in 2010.
Today, Japan ranks as fourth export market after Canada, Mexico, and China, as also the fourth import source for U.S. goods after Canada, Mexico, and China.
As far as mineral wealth in the Indian Ocean region is concerned Bhupinder Singh states that “The region accounts for 80 per cent of world extraction of gold, 52 percent of tin, 28 percent manganese, 25 percent of nickel, 18 percent bauxite, 12 percent zinc and 77 percent of natural rubber production in the world.” The EEZ resources have not even been assessed till now.
Anti Access/ Area-denial (A2/AD) Perception in Asia Pacific
“The success of any major operation or campaign depends on the free movement of one’s forces in the theatre. Without the ability to conduct large-scale movements on land, at sea, and in the air, operational warfare is essentially an empty concept.”
Dr. Milan Vego
The rapid rise of China despite global recession, the accelerated rate of its military modernisation and its assertion of island territorial claims has increased the perception that it is likely to impinge upon the freedom of movement at sea of the US and its allies. China already has air assets, land and space based systems to project A2/AD regime in areas of its choosing, this coupled with rapid modernisation of its Navy by acquiring Carrier operation capability, land based ASBMs and a credible submarine fleet would make it a force likely to impinge upon US interests in the Asia Pacific region. This in turn would lead to reduction in dominance of the US to project power; weaken faith of allies in US influence and security capabilities leading to increased possibilities of conflict and destabilisation. Admiral R Willard has said in this regard that “Elements of China’s military modernization appear designed to challenge our freedom of action in the region.”
The above perception has gained ground further due to the Obama administration’s decision to reduce / shift emphasis from war on terrorism, phased pull out from Iraq and Afghanistan, and the economic slowdown. The “guns versus butter “debate has sharpened the focus on; the capacity of US military wherewithal to deter and prevail over adversaries like China; and if better synergetic operations between the Army, Navy, Air force and the Marines could achieve the bearing down of projected power on the adversary utilising the existing resources. This fundamentally amounting to, achieving much more with much less in times to come.
Air Sea Battle Concept (ASB)
With the above back ground in mind Secretary of Defence Secretary Robert Gates requested Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Gary Roughead and Air Force Chief of Staff General Norton Schwartz to explore how U.S air and naval forces could combine and integrate their capabilities to confront increasingly complex threats to U.S. freedom of action. The 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) as part of its guidance to rebalance the force, directed the development of the air-sea battle concept to:-
[Defeat] adversaries across the range of military operations, including adversaries equipped with sophisticated anti-access and area denial capabilities. The concept will address how air and naval forces will integrate capabilities across all operational domains – air, sea, land, space, and cyberspace – to counter growing challenges to U.S. freedom of action. 
The US Air Force and the US Navy together are developing the ASB concept for deterring and prevailing upon foes across a range of military operations, including enemies equipped with potent anti-access and area denial capabilities.
Status of Aircraft Carriers in the Asia Pacific Region
The above brief discussion on economics of the region and A2/AD perception brings to fore the need for the United States of America to keep projecting its power from the sea if wants to maintain its supremacy in the area. The status of aircraft carriers in the region only underpins the fact that it may be in the best interests of the countries in the region to ensure that balance of power does not tilt in favour of China at a later date.
India currently operates one carrier (INS Virat) which is reasonably potent and can project sufficient power to cover India’s areas of interest. However with second carrier joining by mid 2013 and the indigenous carrier a couple of years later, India will become a potent regional force in the coming decade.
Thailand currently operates HTMS Chakri Naruebet, however since the Sea Harriers were retired in 2006, it operates only helicopters.
China currently does not operate a carrier but is likely to field ex Varyag by next year. However it is anticipated that it may be quite some time before PLAN is able to operationalise the carrier for power projection role. There are reports of indigenous Chinese aircraft carriers under design/ construction, which would take some time to be inducted.
Russia does not have an aircraft carrier positioned in the region.
USA currently has three carriers in the region with one based in Japan. The Asia – Pacific shift would entail pivoting of 60% of its naval forces to the Asia – Pacific region, implying thereby that 5/6 aircraft carriers can be mobilised for power projection at very short notice. This amounts to about 45 squadrons of fighters (~ 350 a/c). The region will become a beehive of activity with US regional maritime exercises, port calls, disaster relief operations etc. Needless to assert that the US will keep projecting tremendous power ashore from the sea for a long time to come in this area.
The region is becoming more volatile by the day and one can only hope that the Air Sea Battle concept does not play out in Asia Pacific and that all disputes are resolved peacefully through cooperative engagement leading to lasting prosperity for all stake holders.
 Bhupinder Singh, The Indian Ocean and regional Security. (Punjab: B.C. Publishers, 1984),
 Department of Defense, Quadrennial Defense Review Report (Washington, D.C.: Department of Defense, 2010),