NEW DELHI: China is set to begin preliminary sea trials of its second
within a month or so, even as it steams ahead with plans to also construct mammoth nuclear-powered ones, signalling its hard-nosed intent to project military power on the high seas in the years ahead.
China’s scorching pace in constructing aircraft carriers confronts India, which has been operating such sea-going airbases or “flat-tops” for over five decades now, with the very real prospect of losing its long-standing edge over its larger neighbour in this arena.
India is currently making do with just one aircraft carrier in the shape of the 44,400-tonne INS Vikramaditya, the refurbished Admiral Gorshkov inducted from Russia for $2.33 billion in November 2013.
Sources say the long-delayed 40,000-tonne indigenous aircraft carrier (IAC-I) or INS Vikrant, being built at Cochin Shipyard, is likely to begin sea trials only by October 2020 now. It will become fully-operational, with its aviation complex and long-range surface-to-air missiles, only by 2023 at the earliest. Sanctioned by the government way back in January 2003, INS Vikrant will now cost Rs 19,341 crore.
To make matters worse, the 65,000-tonne IAC-II (tentatively christened INS Vishal) remains a mere pipe-dream due to politico-bureaucratic apathy despite the Navy first moving the Defence Acquisitions Council for it in May 2015.
“The proposed project to construct IAC-II has gone around in circles, with the defence ministry constituting a three-member expert committee to review the proposal after three detailed studies. But the committee never really got
going. It’s likely to be revived soon,” said a source.
The Navy has also ditched its ambition of having nuclear-propulsion for IAC-II for much greater endurance, which will also significantly bring down the overall costs. But the carrier will have CATOBAR (catapult assisted take-off but arrested recovery) configuration to launch fighters as well as heavier aircraft for surveillance, early-warning and electronic warfare from its deck. Till now, India has operated carriers with angled ski-jumps for only fighters to take off under their own power in STOBAR (short take-off but arrested recovery) operations.
“It takes over a decade in India to build a carrier after the government’s approval. But China is constructing them at a furious pace. It eventually wants six carrier strike groups, with at least two of them being nuclear,” said a senior officer.
After inducting its first carrier 65,000-tonne Liaoning in 2012, China will soon begin sea trials of its domestically-built Type-001A carrier, which is slated for induction in 2019. “It’s designed for only STOBAR operations. But their future carriers are likely to have CATOBAR and nuclear-propulsion, and be almost as large as US carriers,” said the officer.
The US has 10 Nimitz-class nuclear-powered super-carriers, each of which is over 100,000-tonne and capable of carrying 80-90 fighters, to project power and unleash strikes around the globe. One of them, the USS Theodore Roosevelt, with its accompanying warships and strike group, recently sailed through the contentious South China Sea to show the flag to China.