Next aircraft carrier India may be smaller; China’s lead greater

The development of the Indian aircraft carrier program has been further delayed with the announcement that the construction of the new aircraft carrier is not a major adjustment as previously expected, but will be a copy of the last aircraft carrier. After the construction of INS Vikrant, the first self-built aircraft carrier in India, the second aircraft carrier was expected to be an improvement of INS Vikrant.


INS Vikrant, India’s newest aircraft carrier, was commissioned in September. The ship is 262 meters long, has a displacement of 40,000 tonnes and has space for 30 aircraft. The next ship would be bigger. (Photo: Indian Navy)

The second home-built Indian aircraft carrier, INS Vishal, would have a displacement of around 65,000 tonnes and the aircraft would be launched by catapults. Instead, it looks like the second home-built Indian aircraft carrier will be a copy of INS Vikrant. This came to light during a press briefing by the Indian Navy chief earlier this month, India Today reported. “We are seriously looking at a repeat order from IAC I [de Vikrant]instead of building IAC II,” Admiral Hari Kumar said.
Development of the Vishal (IAC II) had begun in 2012 and the carrier was initially to receive nuclear propulsion. The ship was supposed to operate in the 1920s, which was adjusted to the 1930s in 2018.

A complex story
The Indian Navy has a long and complex history of using aircraft carriers. India operated for a long time with two British aircraft carriers. Majestic-class INS Vikrant dating back to World War II and INS Viraat, the former British HMS Hermes, which was purchased by India in 1987. The age of both aircraft carriers forced India to look for new aircraft carriers around the turn of the century. The original intention was to eventually build two of its own aircraft carriers in Indian shipyards.

However, Indian shipyards were not yet able to build a new aircraft carrier in time at this time, so the Indian Navy had to look for a foreign aircraft carrier to make a bridge. This resulted in the purchase and modernization of the Russian aircraft carrier Admiral Gorshkov. However, the modernization suffered significant delays due to additional costs incurred by the Sevmash shipyard for the modernization. Only after several diplomatic consultations did India agree to pay the necessary additional $1.2 billion to complete the modernization.

It was only in November 2013, 9 years after the purchase, that Admiral Gorshkov was commissioned by India as INS Vikramaditya. The aircraft carrier is a STOBAR design (no catapult, but has brake cables) with a 14.3 degree ramp on the bow to facilitate aircraft take-off. Apart from the aircraft carrier, India also purchased several MiG-29K fighters and Ka-31 helicopters to form the air component of the aircraft carrier. With the decommissioning of INS Viraat on 23 July 2016, INS Vikramaditya became the only Indian aircraft carrier until the construction of new aircraft carriers at Indian shipyards was completed.

Vikramaditya
INS Vikramaditya has been in Indian service for nearly ten years. This ship is longer than Vikrant: 283 meters, has a displacement of 45,000 tons and can accommodate 35 aircraft. (Photo: Indian Navy)

Own construction
Construction of INS Vikrant at the Cochin shipyard started in 2009, while the modernization of Admiral Gorshkov was still in full swing. Although India had sufficient experience in maintaining and modernizing aircraft carriers, the construction of an entirely new aircraft carrier of its own design proved more difficult than expected. INS Vikrant was first launched in 2013 and sea trials started in August 2021. However, the official commissioning was on 2 September 2022. Vikrant is currently undergoing tests in operating aircraft from her cockpit. These tests must be completed during 2023.

INS Vishal less anyway
With the construction of INS Vikrant completed, India plans to build another aircraft carrier, INS Vishal. INS Vishal was originally planned as a further development of INS Vikrant, but with significant changes. The displacement would be increased from 40,000 tons to 65,000 tons. This also increases the space for the number of aircraft from 30 to 55.

The aircraft carrier would also not have a bow ramp, but would receive electromagnetic catapults. The transition from a STOBAR to a CATOBAR design allows heavier fighters to operate from the aircraft carrier.

Taking off through a ramp on the bow severely limits the type of aircraft that India can use. STOBAR ships require light aircraft for launch, which greatly limits fuel and weapons weight. CATOBAR aircraft carriers (like the US and France have, and soon China will have) can use their catapults to launch heavier fighters that have greater range and weapon capacity.

However, the Indian Navy recently decided to abandon the intended design of INS Vishal and instead focus on the construction of a sister ship to INS Vikrant. Although no official decision has yet been made, the main reason will be the high costs associated with a new and larger design. In addition, the lessons learned from the construction of INS Vikrant would not be included if a new design was chosen.

Although not officially confirmed, the age of INS Vikramaditya should also be considered. The design and construction of Vikrant took 13 years, and the construction of a new, larger design will probably take as long. However, a sister ship to Vikrant can be built faster as the necessary knowledge and experience is available so that a replacement of INS Vikramaditya can take place in time. In an ideal scenario, there is even a possibility that India could have three aircraft carriers active simultaneously.

Airplanes
With the purchase of INS Vikramaditya, the Indian Navy has switched to Russian MiG-29K fighters as the offensive capability of its aircraft carriers. The Indian Navy is working on its own aircraft. A first trial included a maritime variant of the Tejas fighter jet. Tests of this aircraft began on land in 2014 and only resulted in the first landings and takeoffs from INS Vikramaditya in January 2020.

Despite these advances, the Indian Navy decided not to adopt the Tejas as a future combat aircraft. Instead, it was decided to go for a twin-engine fighter, the TEDBF. Twin-engined aircraft can develop more takeoff thrust, allowing them to carry more weapons and fuel. Twin-engine aircraft are also more robust and more deployable on CATOBAR aircraft carriers to absorb the forces of the catapult. Something India keeps in mind for the construction of future CATOBAR aircraft carriers.

TEDBF
A concept HAL Twin Engine Deck Based Fighter for the Indian Navy. (Image: Josh097/ CC BY-SA 4.0)

However, the development of the TEDBF is still ongoing and the first test flights are not expected until around 2026 at the earliest. This means that India is currently looking for foreign fighters to replace the current fleet of Russian Mig-29K fighters. The American F/A-18 Super Hornet and French Rafale-M are currently under evaluation. The winning model will operate from INS Vikrant and at least 26 fighters will be procured to bridge the gap until the TEDBF can be delivered.

Testing of Rafale and Super Honet was conducted at INS Hansa, the test facility near Goa. Here the flight deck of INS Vikramaditya has been recreated. It is striking that both aircraft were originally built to be deployed from a CATOBAR aircraft carrier. It is not clear whether these aircraft would have to undergo modifications to take off from a STOBAR ship. The latest reports suggest that the French Rafale-M has passed the tests best and is closest to the requirements of the Indian Navy.

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Operational necessity and competition with China
The Indian Navy is the most dominant maritime power in the Indian Ocean, but has been engaged in a naval rivalry in recent decades. The main threats to the Indian Navy are the advance of the Chinese Navy in the Indian Ocean and the modernization of the Pakistani Navy, with mainly Chinese support.

Aircraft carriers play an important role in Indian naval strategy. In a war scenario against archenemy Pakistan, aircraft carriers allow it to launch airstrikes from the Arabian Sea. This makes it possible to bypass the Pakistani air defenses, which are largely aimed at the Indian border. Aircraft carriers are also useful in the Bay of Bengal as they supplement Indian bases in the Nicobar and Andaman Islands from which the Straits of Malacca can be monitored.

India is currently heavily focused on playing a dominant role in the Indian Ocean and is beginning to operate more frequently outside the Indian Ocean. The threat to the Chinese navy plays an important role here. For example, India is a member of the Quad Group along with the United States, Australia and Japan. Maritime cooperation between these four countries is becoming more and more common, including joint exercises between the Indian and Japanese navies in the Bay of Bengal.

Fujian
The Chinese type 003 carriage named Fujian is only slightly smaller than the US Nimitz and Ford class carriages. In terms of displacement, Fujian is almost double that of Vikrant. (Photo: Airbus Maxar via Google)

Comparison with China
The Indian aircraft carrier program bears a very superficial resemblance to the Chinese navy. Over the past two decades, both countries have been busy establishing the necessary knowledge and infrastructure for the construction of their own aircraft carriers. Both countries started their own program of modernization and construction of STOBAR aircraft carriers and then made the leap to larger CATOBAR aircraft carriers.

However, China accelerated the transition with the construction of the Type 003 aircraft carrier Fujian, which is equipped with electromagnetic catapults. With this, China now has three aircraft carriers, two STOBAR and one CATOBAR type, bringing China to the level initially set by India as a target for its own aircraft carrier program.

Despite all the previous knowledge and experience within the Indian Navy, the country failed to translate this knowledge in a timely and correct manner into the construction of the necessary infrastructure to build aircraft carriers independently. Converting INS Vishal from a 65,000 tonne aircraft carrier to a sister ship to Vikrant is a sign that India is lagging behind China and will not be able to close the gap in the near future.

Frederick Author: Frederik Van Lokeren
Frederik has been writing as a freelancer for Marineschips.nl since 2022. As a logistics officer in the Belgian navy (2010-2017), he was unit commander for minehunter BNS Lobelia during the maintenance period and head of the logistics service in M ​​frigate BNS Louise-Marie. Frederik is now a manager in Supply Chain Business Consultancy at Moore Belgium. In addition, Frederik closely follows maritime and amphibious developments with particular interest in the Russian navy and marine infantry.


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