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Future Carrier Wars in the Indo Pacific – Wither Indian Navy?

Published Jul 10, 2018
Updated Aug 10, 2021

Aircraft Carriers are the symbols of a great power, a nuclear powered one that of a pre-eminent global power, the Chinese who are subtle practitioners of power politics know this fact well.

 Thus China is in the process of constructing a second indigenous aircraft carrier  (Type 002) having launched the first for sea trials this year.

China’s first aircraft carrier is a training warship was regarded as an experimental one converted from the Ukrainian Waryag to Liaoning. Given that the PLA Navy had no experience of carrier operations this was a wise move.

Most analysts saw in this an attempt to build a carrier borne Navy from the scratch and expected the pace to be reasonably slow.

Yet today Beijing is launching a couple of large ships each month and plans to power the fourth carrier (Type 003) with a nuclear plant, becoming only the second nation to do so after the United States.  Follow of at least two more is being planned.

United States carrier fleets are no doubt unsurpassable for now and China may not be able to catch up even by 2050 as is the objective of President Xi Jinping outlined as the goal of being a military with global reach by the middle of the 21st Century at the 19th Communist Party of China Congress (CPC) in October last year.

However given the global commitment of the United States and despite the boost in military expenditure set in by the Trump administration it is unlikely that the US plans for building more carriers the Gerald Ford class are likely to slow down.

Moreover apart from the Western Pacific and the Persian Gulf for now the operational deployment of the US carrier fleets may not be fully warranted in the Indo Pacific.

The other carrier owning Navy in the Indian Ocean Region is India.

Indian Navy has a long history and experience in carrier operations.

The Indian Navy plans to operate three carriers by 2030,  one off each seaboard – the Western and the Eastern and one at port for maintenance and refit.

At present however the Indian Navy operates only the INS Vikramaditya (former Gorshkov). This has  a Stobar based aircraft launch capability which carries 24 MiG 29, with reduced takeoff weight thus limiting the potency.

The second aircraft carrier Vikrant (renamed) will also be Stobar based, while the Navy may go in for EMALS launch in the third carrier Vishal.

A three carrier Indian and PLA Navy could perhaps square off in the Indo Pacific in the future and this does not imply a necessary war like scenario but the practice of active deterrence- be it for blockade of waters or support of favourable political regimes in the littoral.

However the ability to field a three carrier force by 2030 appears challenging for the Indian Navy, whereas the PLA Navy could well drop anchor with more thus upsetting the very balance of deterrence and converting the same into imbalance of power.

This is because of India’s proverbial delay in defence capability building.

Multiple factors ranging from budgeting to capability of shipyards, naval design bureaus, industrial capacity, lack of adequate supply of special steels and so on has been the bane.

Vikrant is in the fitting out stage and is expected to be fielded by the Indian Navy by 2020 as per a report in the Hindu by Dinakar Peri in January 2018 who quotes Commodore J. Chowdhary, principal director of naval design. The delivery is expected by Cochin Shipyard by the end of this year and then a period of two years for trial to make it operational by the Navy. Other estimates expect Vikrant to be inducted in 2023.

Vishal continues to be in the design stage and if the number of years from design to fielding based on the Vikrant is anything to go by it is unlikely to be fielded by the Indian Navy by 2035.

In all probability this will be one of the prime Defence Technology and Trade Initiative (DTTI) project between the United States and India with EMALS launch capability, while the plans for use of a nuclear plant to power the carrier has been shelved.

However Rahul Bedi noted defence correspondent of the Jane’s writes in July that the plans for construction of Vishal have been considerably delayed due to a number of factors ranging from budget to technology challenges and long process for defence procurement decision making.

By 2035 the marker identified by President Xi Jinping in his blueprint at the 19th CPC, China expects to field a regionally dominant Navy amongst other services with three carriers at sea in the Indo Pacific one of which could well be nuclear powered.

The Indian Navy may be hobbling with only one the Viraat as the Vikramaditya could well be at the end of its life span.

Will the US Navy then come to India’s assistance if the necessity so arises as the naval power play unfolds in the waters of the Indo Pacific remains to be seen?

What about strategic autonomy, the core of India’s foreign and security policy?

Time the powers that be realise that without considerable investment in capital assets as aircraft carriers, combat fighters, helicopters, tanks and Infantry Fighting Vehicles as well as the basic assault rifles and munitions produced indigenously – strategic autonomy will remain a chimera.