When country A invades country B, when a forbidden border is crossed, when a cold war goes hot and when, yes, the first shots are fired, the top brass in charge inevitably ask: “Where are the carriers?” That, at least, is the impression from 1990s movie admirals and grizzled Tom Clancy heroes.
Such is the central role played by aircraft carriers in the national psyche. For the better part of a century, carriers in various forms have been viewed and cherished by politicians as power incarnate, pure strength dressed in steel grey. Much like the global club that requires nuclear codes as IDs, the fraternity of carrier countries has always been a tad smug – you either have one or you don’t.
India’s had one since the late 1980s, formerly British-owned with the name of a Greek god and a pedigree of action in the Falklands. But now they’ve gone and built one of their own with 37,500 tonnes of domestically forged metal and men and up to 36 Russian MiGs: the INS Vikrant. The name means “courageous” in Hindi.
It’s something to be proud of. Only 10 navies worldwide operate them and only four among them have built them entirely in country. You can count the total number of active ships on your fingers and toes; contrary to popular belief, the ocean doesn’t teem with these floating cities. Indeed, the club is extremely small. In a global ranking, the US is in pole position with 10 in service while Italy, surprisingly, is second with two. The former seafaring empires of the UK and Spain have one each, as does Russia. France’s is nuclear. The Brics are all covered too. The odd man out is tiny Thailand whose carrier, commissioned in 1997, lasted just shy of a decade. It’s now used for disaster relief and VIP tours.
The pace of construction continues unabated: just look east to the regional build-up of arms and strategic eyeing of islands. After the Vikrant will surely come a contender with a gigantic “Made in China” tag. The state-owned Global Times has hinted as much already with a recent editorial saying Beijing needs to “speed up”.
Some critics say carriers are ancient relics, easily susceptible to modern missiles and torpedoes, and they’re certainly not wrong. But if you’re keen to add a $5bn trophy to your national kit, why not shoot for a carrier or a space programme – or even a Eurovision win? It beats an ever-more effective nuke any day of the week.
Daniel Giacopelli is a producer for Monocle 24.