Propelling India’s aircraft-carrier ambitions

Nick Childs
Obstacles remain as the Indian Navy plans for a third aircraft carrier to enter service in the early 2030s, but increased naval collaboration between India and the United Kingdom could provide a new impetus behind the programme. 
The Indian Navy’s eventual aim to deploy three aircraft carriers faces considerable challenges. However, developing naval cooperation between India and the United Kingdom could provide the impetus behind the programme. A planned ship visit to Mumbai in November 2019 by a UK Royal Navy destroyer could help further that relationship.

Indian carrier aspirations have been somewhat overshadowed by China’s recent advances and presumed level of ambition. However, the Indian Navy is one of only three that has continuously maintained a carrier or carriers in service over the last half-century (the others being France and the United States, the UK having disqualified itself with the ‘carrier gap’ created by the 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review).

Carrier development

Some question the value of India investing in a carrier force, particularly given that it may have a limited role in, for example, a confrontation with Pakistan due to current capabilities. However, it could have a significant effect in the context of India’s wider maritime-security and power-projection goals in and around the Indian Ocean, particularly given the increasing interest in the region from other carrier-operating nations.

India’s only operational carrier, INS Vikramaditya, is a heavily modified ex-Soviet Kiev-class carrier, and at 44,500 tonnes full-load displacement somewhat smaller than China’s ex-Soviet carrier, Liaoning, which weighs in at 59,400 tonnes. There were significant delays and cost overruns in the Vikramaditya’s modernisation. At the end of the 1990s, Delhi also announced its ambition to produce its first home-built – or ‘indigenous’ – aircraft carrier, the Vikrant, now well behind its original schedule. The latest timeline would see the 40,000-tonne vessel begin basin trials (when the ship’s machinery is tested in floating conditions, prior to sea trials) in 2020, enter Indian Navy service in 2021 and be fully commissioned in 2023.

But it is the planned third carrier (and second indigenous vessel), a larger vessel with more capability, on which attention is now focusing. And it is here where the UK potentially comes in.

Stepping up in capability

The inauguration of a carrier-technology working group to assist with India’s plans is one development in the growing relationship between India and the US. The US Electromagnetic Aircraft Launch System (EMALS) is a focus of Indian interest. The Vikramaditya and Vikrant both rely on a ‘ski-jump’ ramp for take-off and arrestor gear for landing, restricting aircraft performance. However, India is not seeking a carrier on the same scale as the US vessels, nor is it expected to be nuclear powered.

The planned size of the new vessel is about 65,000 tonnes. As it happens, that is the same size as the Royal Navy’s new-generation Queen Elizabeth-class carriers. In March, when Admiral Sunil Lanba, the then-chief of the Indian Navy, visited the UK, the Indian Navy and the Royal Navy formed a Carrier Capability Partnership, and there have been further talks between the two parties.

This has led to speculation that India may be interested in adopting the UK design in full. That remains possible, but more likely is that there are certain capabilities and aspects of the design that could be attractive to India. One in particular is the ships’ integrated electric propulsion (IEP), which allows the generation of electrical power for future weapons and systems, such as EMALS, but without the complication and added cost of nuclear power. This makes the upcoming visit of the Royal Navy Type-45 destroyer HMS Defender noteworthy. Although they have had significant reliability problems, the Type-45s are equipped with a version of IEP. Another Type-45, HMS Dragon, visited India in late 2018.

There are broader reasons why India and the UK might be attracted to increased carrier collaboration. The Indian Ocean may well be a notable centre of gravity for future UK carrier operations, and the first operational deployment by HMS Queen Elizabeth in 2021 is intended to include significant interaction with INS Vikramaditya. But India will also be keen to maintain its contacts with other nations in this area of capability, not least the US.

The Indian Navy is firm in its belief that it needs a third carrier. Parts of the Indian government may not yet be fully convinced, including when it comes to allocating the necessary funding. Finding money for a new range of carrier-borne aircraft as well will present another major hurdle. Notionally, the plan is for the third carrier to enter service some time in the early 2030s. That may be optimistic even in the most favourable circumstances. But the Indian Navy carrier plan still appears to have momentum behind it.

Source: Strategic Study India
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Propelling India’s aircraft-carrier ambitions

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