The makings of a naval power
As one of the leaders of the Asia-Pacific Region (APR), India possesses a commensurate military capability, one of the main components of which is the country's naval forces. Today, India shows all the signs of being a first-class naval power with a nuclear submarine fleet and carrier aviation. Neither is astonishing in terms of scale, yet the trends and construction programmes indicate that, although far short of marine supremacy in the APR (unthinkable in the near future while the U.S. still draws breath), India's claim to being on equal terms with China's growing maritime prowess is valid.
Given that the main arena of military confrontation in the APR is the vast expanse of the Indian and Pacific oceans, India's aircraft carrier programme is of crucial importance to the country, alongside its nuclear and air force programmes. India possesses half a century of uninterrupted experience of carrier aviation, and its newly adopted programme entails the commissioning over a 15-year period of three aircraft carriers, two of which are to be built in India itself. These three carriers will enable the Indian Navy to maintain two aircraft carrier groups in a permanent state of combat readiness.
Russia's focus on Indian carriers
For India's armed forces, the first half of the 2000s was marked by the arrival in its arsenal of the Su-30: the Su-30KN "interim" version was followed by the fully-fledged Su-30MKI with the very latest avionics and powerful weaponry. These truly versatile planes, equally effective at dog-fighting and attacking ground targets with precision weapons, radically altered the Indian military's perception of what is possible in modern aviation.
At the same time, the Indian Navy, which already had successful experience of operating Soviet warships, submarines, and helicopters, became interested in Russia's proposals to overhaul the Admiral Gorshkov aircraft carrier in line with India’s requirements and to supply MiG-29K fighters.
Indian admirals adopted a hard line on defence: the idea of replacing the 20,000-tonne Vikrant and the 29,000-tonne Virat with ships almost half their size was not to their liking. Nevertheless, the design of a new aircraft carrier capable of carrying 12-15 aircraft got underway, although the fleet did manage to up the displacement to 17,000 metric tonnes.
In layman's language, the term "aircraft carrier" generally implies a multirole vessel capable of carrying aircraft, while the word "indigenous" in this context refers to a national project of top priority that is mostly implemented internally.
The project in question, however, does involve foreign experts, since India is not yet capable of independently engineering a ship of such complexity. Officially, India does not recognize the foreign provenance of the vessel, but the press has reported the participation of Italy's Fincantieri.
Russia’s involvement is also tacitly assumed, namely MiG Aircraft Corporation, supplier of next-generation fighters to the Indian Navy, and Nevskoe PKB, developer of Soviet aircraft carriers with experience of refitting carriers for the MiG-29K.
Super carriers and dreams of maritime supremacy
In the summer of 2012, India began work on a second aircraft carrier under its IAC programme. The INS Vishal is due to follow the Vikramaditya and the new Vikrant into service in the early 2020s. It will be much larger than both its sister vessels. The displacement of the Vishal will exceed 65,000 metric tonnes, against the 40,000 metric tonnes of its two predecessors. In 2010, Chief of Staff of the Indian Navy Admiral Nirmal Kumar Verma announced that the future ship would be a "large aircraft carrier capable of hosting fighters, AWACS aircraft, [tactical flying] tankers, and other hardware."
The technical specification automatically does away with STOBAR (Short Take-Off But Arrested Recovery), adopted for the Vikramaditya and the new Vikrant, because the deployment of flying radars and tankers on board requires a fully operational CATOBAR (Catapult Assisted Take-Off But Arrested Recovery) system, functionally similar to the U.S. super carriers and France's Charles de Gaulle. But it is not ruled out that the vessel will feature a combined scheme: the ramp in the bow will be supplemented by a catapult on the corner deck, as contained in the blueprint of the unfinished Soviet Ulyanovsk.
Such a ship would transform India into an aircraft carrier superpower: even Britain, for example, cannot afford CATOBAR. Looking ahead to the potential of the Indian Navy on completion of the program, we can draw the following conclusions:
India's already overwhelming naval superiority over Pakistan, whose forces are being degraded, will turn into absolute supremacy.
Even in its current form, India's aircraft carrier programme looks more ambitious than China's, which (at least for now) relies on refitting the Liaoning aircraft carrier (the former Varyag) with J-15 fighters (pirated from the Su-33). The availability of two 40,000-tonne carriers capable of hosting more than 40 MiG-29Ks (nominally 16 per ship) and approximately 20 helicopters gives the Indian Navy a significant advantage over the 60,000-tonne Liaoning with 18-20 J-15s (nominally 12 maximum). Accommodating more aircraft on board the Chinese carrier poses difficulties: like the Su-33, the J-15 is heavy and sizeable. Moreover, the superior strike capability of the Chinese jet is neutralized by the larger number of Indian fighters, as well as the higher-grade workmanship of the Indian Navy's Russian-built escort vessels.
In possession of a third aircraft carrier with a displacement of over 60,000 tonnes and with a more numerous air group (up to 40 MiG-29K class Rafale and Tejas aircraft), India will secure at least parity, and possibly superiority, even if the Chinese Navy puts into service three ships armed with J-15s. The balance of power will shift only if China either introduces a more carrier-based (compared to the Su-33/J-15) fighter, which is no trivial matter, or constructs a carrier in the mould of the U.S. 100,000-tonners, capable of carrying a large group of heavy fighters. The second option, besides the greater technical complexity, will invariably provoke a strong reaction from the U.S., making a military alliance with India almost inevitable. As a result, China will either settle for equilibrium with India, or prepare for full-scale open confrontation at sea with the world's leading military power.
The writer is a military commentator for the Voice of Russia and an expert of the Russian Council for International Affairs
First published in The Voice of Russia.