As China builds aircraft carriers in shorter periods, India has a lot of catching up to do
Captain Jawahar Bhagwat (retd), Ph.D.
The PLA Navy’s first carrier, Liaoning, originally the Soviet Admiral Kuznetsov class carrier Varyag, was sold to a Chinese travel agency in 1998, and was transferred in a partially completed state from Ukraine in 2001 after it was stripped of all weapons and engines. It underwent years of refitting and was handed over to the Chinese Navy in September 2012 as an ‘aircraft carrier training platform’, which was not assigned to any of the fleets.
Two months after commissioning, the PLAN conducted its first carrier-based takeoffs and landings. In 2013, it made its first long range operational deployment in the South China Sea. It has slowly and steadily built-up its combat capability. On 4 February 2014, South China Morning Post reported President Xi Jinping telling the Liaoning Captain, “You should build up the carrier’s combat readiness, logistics and support expeditiously”.
In November 2016, it was reported that it was fully combat worthy. In December 2016, it was reported that the Liaoning conducted its first ‘live-fire’ drills. From September 2018, the carrier has been undergoing a major refit which reportedly includes an upgrade to the island structure. According to the American Center for Strategic and International Studies, “The Liaoning may be best suited for regional missions short of a high intensity conflict. ….The Liaoning’s lack of an aircraft catapult, inefficient propulsion and the relative inexperience of its aviators and support crew do not augur well for high intensity combat operations… Beijing considers the Liaoning as a symbol of its great power status. Regardless of the Liaoning’s future abilities, the ship commands a degree of political utility, as a tool of naval diplomacy, through various operations, regional and global.”
Surprisingly, there were media reports including from the US-based defence website ‘navyrecognition.com’, ‘Russia Today’ based upon the US website report and the Pakistan-based new outlet ‘The Nation’ in February 2019, stating that China is likely to sell Liaoning to Pakistan so as to compete with India. However, the Chinese state media was quick to deny these reports as completely untrue. Song Zhongpin, a Chinese military expert, told Global Times that it is a groundless allegation and complete falsehood. He said that there is zero possibility of China reselling it. He further added that “such reports have no credibility from Pakistan’s perspective as the country pursues an onshore defence strategy, which means that it does not need an aircraft carrier. And its defence budget cannot afford an aircraft carrier or maintain one.”
China’s second aircraft carrier was commissioned into the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) on 17 December 2019 in a ceremony held at the Sanya-Yulin naval base on Hainan Island, and was given the name Shandong after a Chinese province with the pennant number 17. The ceremony was honoured by the presence of Chinese President Xi Jinping, who presented the PLA flag and naming certificate to the ship’s captain and political commissar, reflecting the significance with which the entry into service of China’s first completely indigenously built aircraft carrier is viewed. “Commending China’s achievements in aircraft carrier construction, Xi encouraged them to continue their efforts to make new contributions in the service of the party and the people”, the official Xinhua news agency reported. (Jesse Johnson, The Shandong, China’s first homegrown Aircraft carrier: More than just a symbol of prestige. Website: https://www.japantimes.com/, December 18, 2019, available at https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2019/12/18/asia-pacific/shandong-china-homegrown-aircraft-carrier/#.Xft9q9IzbMw, accessed on 19 December 2019.)
The carrier’s base-port of Sanya-Yulin is on the northern shores of the South China Sea, at the doorstep of the South China Sea which may indicate the region where the carrier is likely to operate in the immediate future. Although it will be geographically co-located with the naval forces of the Southern Theatre Command (South Sea Fleet), the carrier may be placed under the direct command and control of the Central Military Commission because of its perceived strategic value. Liaoning’s base port is Qingdao, which is closer to Japan.
Shandong was built by Dalian Shipbuilding International Corporation (DSIC) and was launched on 26 April 2017. It commenced sea trials in May 2018 and has completed a total of nine trial sea-sorties. The final trials phase included a transit from Dalian to Hainan during which it passed through the politically sensitive Taiwan Strait and predictably the US and Japanese vessels shadowed the ship for intelligence carrying purposes.
The carrier was built broadly to a similar design as the PLAN’s first carrier, Liaoning, which was formerly the Kuznetsov-class carrier Varyag. It is modelled on the Soviet design with a ‘ski jump’ flight deck for takeoffs and has conventional steam turbine propulsion. The Chinese shipbuilding chief says the Type 001A is a major departure from its sister, while several military commentators observe that the new vessel could showcase at least some lessons that were learned from the Liaoning. Several modifications may have been included in Shandong that are likely to reflect the knowledge gained from operating Liaoning. It would also be different from the PLAN’s concept of carrier operations, unlike that of the former Soviet Navy, which originally designed the Kuznetsov-class as aircraft-carrying cruisers armed with long range anti-ship and surface-to-air missiles. State media says that the ship will be able to carry 36 J-15 jets as compared to Liaoning’s capacity of 24, and also assert that it will be more powerful than the Liaoning. (Jesse Johnson, The Shandong, China’s first homegrown Aircraft carrier: More than just a symbol of prestige, Website: https://www.japantimes.com/ available at https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2019/12/18/asia-pacific/shandong-china-homegrown-aircraft-carrier/#.Xft9q9IzbMw, 18 December 2019, accessed on 19 December 2019.) The rapidity with which Shandong was constructed (reportedly early 2015, Vinayak Bhat, China’s Aircraft carrier program: India must speed up its CV programme, Website: https://www.orfonline.org/ available at https://www.orfonline.org/expert-speak/chinas-aircraft-carrier-programme-india-must-speed-up-its-cv-programme/, 09 May 2017, accessed on 10 May 2017.) subsequently launched (26 April 2017) and delivered to the PLAN in December 2019 – a total time duration of less than five years is a direct reflection of the competency and strength of the Chinese design bureau and shipbuilding industry, from which we need to learn.
Based on satellite images of September 2019, the Washington-based think tank Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), said in October 2019 that China was making fast progress on its third aircraft carrier and the Jiangnan shipyard may be expanded to build bigger ships. They expect the construction to be completed in one year and thereafter, outfitting to start. Though China is still to reveal details of Type 002, the state media has confirmed that it is being built.
China’s Plans for Aircraft Carriers
Several naval experts predict that China may build ships so as to have a fleet of five to six aircraft carriers by 2030-2035 and these may include two nuclear powered carriers. Chinese defence ministry spokesman Ren Guoqiang said in November 2018 that the development of aircraft carriers will be based on the country’s overall plan. (Quoted in Global Times, Editor Huang Panyue, Liaoning sale to Pakistan totally false, op.cit.) But in an era of precision-guided munitions, especially hypersonic cruise missiles and enhanced satellite surveillance and reconnaissance, it is the opinion of many experienced naval officers that in wartime aircraft carriers become vulnerable, sitting (or more accurately, floating) ducks, especially in any conflict involving a highly capable adversary. This is exacerbated when the aircraft carrier has inadequate escort ships and anti-submarine helicopters for protection, particularly against a nuclear submarine when the threat is all-round. The reality is that the United States has not been tested since World War II. Britain also used the aircraft carrier against an inferior adversary Argentina in the Falklands conflict. Similarly, India used INS Vikrant in the liberation of Bangladesh. China needs to be wary of investing too much in platforms they may not really need. The example of the ill-fated Soviet super carrier ‘Ulyanovsk’ is a case in point. According to James Holmes, Professor of Strategy at the US Naval War College, “the Soviets wanted to create a defensive ‘blue belt’ in their offshore waters. The ‘blue belt’ was a combination of land, air and sea power that would work together to thwart the US carrier and submarine forces while providing safe patrol areas for ballistic missile submarines.” (Quoted in Paul Richard Huard, Introducing the Ulyanovsk: The Super Aircraft carrier Russian wished it had, available at Website: https://www.nationalinterest.org, 26 November 2018, available at https://nationalinterest.org/blog/buzz/introducing-ulyanovsk-super-aircraft-carrier-russia-wished-it-had-37172, accessed on 20 December 2019.) This strategy propounded by Holmes had a basic flaw because by the Eighties the Soviet boomers or ballistic missile submarines were equipped with missiles whose ranges permitted them to strike at all parts of the continental United States and they did not need to venture out of their safe havens which were situated in the vicinity of their bases. It is also doubtful whether the US carriers would venture close to an enemy with almost equal airpower and a formidable fleet of submarines. Holmes added that “Pride and national honour prompted the decision to build the Ulyanovsk.” (Quoted in Paul Richard Huard, Introducing the Ulyanovsk: The Super Aircraft carrier Russian wished it had, op.cit.) and the ship was launched in 1988 at the Nikolayev South shipyard 444 on the Black Sea in the Ukraine but scrapped in 1992 post the disintegration of the Soviet Union. Holmes also made a significant point which is of relevance to both China and India: “There’s also the keeping-up-with-the-Joneses-aspect to carrier development. If the US is the world superpower and the USSR wants to keep pace, then Soviet leaders wanted the same toys to demonstrate that they are keeping pace. It sounds childish but there are basic human motives at stake here. (Ibid)
India’s Indigenous Aircraft Carrier Programme
Indigenous Aircraft Carrier-1: The original INS Vikrant was commissioned in 1961. The ship, currently under construction, Vikrant, is to be India’s first indigenous aircraft carrier (IAC-1). According to Admiral Vishnu Bhagwat, former Chief of the Naval Staff, “The navy’s priority was to build an Air Defence Ship. In 1996, the navy’s five-year plan only permitted funds for the indigenous ADS. The navy had recommended in 1998 that an additional budgetary grant would need to be made for the Admiral Gorshkov, now INS Vikramaditya.” (Admiral Vishnu Bhagwat, ‘Air Defence Ship’, from the Book: Betrayal of the Defence Forces, Manas Publications, 2001). Unfortunately, much water has flown under the bridge and Vikrant is still in the making. It may be said to metaphorically showcase New Delhi’s current international standing – which many commentators call ‘strategic autonomy’ that New Delhi would like to retain what it can and what it wants from its cooperation with Russia, but is focused on enhancing its growing relationship with the United States. It is the considered opinion of this author that strategic autonomy is of no significance when a nation needs to seek waiver from another nation to pay for a weapon system which it has purchased from a third country or to develop a strategic port project like Chabahar, Iran. (Press Trust of India, US says Chabahar project won’t be impacted by Iran sanctions, available at Website: https://www.economictimes.indiatimes.com, 24 April 2019, available at URL: https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/economy/foreign-trade/us-decision-to-end-iran-oil-sanctions-waiver-wont-affect-indias-investments-in-chabahar-port/articleshow/69019491.cms, accessed on 26 April 2019.) The classic example being the S-400 missile system. (Franz-Stefan Gady, US warns India over S-400 air defence system deal with Russia, available at Website: https://www.thediplomat. com, 17 June 2019, available at URL: https://thediplomat.com/2019/06/us-warns-india-over-s-400-air-defense-system-deal-with-russia/, accessed on 18 June 2019.)
The IAC-1 will similarly represent a mix of imports (from various sources) and India’s own shipbuilding industry. Some of its major solutions will be following the design of INS Vikramaditya: the launch system will be of the same type (STOBAR, which is a ski-jump launch system) and some of the systems will be provided by the Russian company (Rosoboronexport). The aviation complex was also designed by another Russian firm (Nevskoye Design Bureau). However, the ship is to be propelled by US-made turbines to be provided by General Electric, just like the Washington-New Delhi relationship currently propels India in other directions as well. Due to slow construction, the infirmities of the design bureau dependent on consultants, lack of continuity in design and project teams, and the delay in contracting for certain equipment the IAC originally scheduled to be delivered by 2016 and then 2018, is likely to be delivered to the Indian Navy only by 2021 and may be commissioned by 2023. In contrast to Shandong which was launched on 26 April 2017 and commissioned on 17 December 2019 (time from launch to commissioning of 2 years 8 months), IAC-1 was launched on 12 August 2013 (Gautam Dutt, INS Vikrant, India’s first indigenous aircraft carrier is unlikely to be battle-ready before 2020, available at Website: https://www.indiatoday.in, 13 August 2013, available at URL: https://www.indiatoday.in/india/south/story/ins-vikrant-indigenous-aircraft-carrier-launched-seven-years-navy-173640-2013-08-13, accessed on 27 April 2016.), an advantage of 3 years and 8 months with respect to Shandong. The ship is yet to be commissioned. The launch of IAC-1 itself was delayed by a year and a half. It was earlier scheduled for December 2011. (Ibid) Admiral AK Saxena, speaking at a curtain raiser for a seminar on ‘Nation-building through ship building’, organised jointly by the navy and FICCI in July 2019, said, “Basin trials are likely to be conducted in February-March 2020 and contractor sea trials in 2021. Flight trials would start after the delivery in 2021.” (Dinakar Peri, Indigenous Aircraft Carrier to developed to be handed over to the Indian Navy by 2021, op.cit) However, it would be inappropriate to commission the IAC without its aircraft complement and completion of flight trials. It may be relevant to recall the case of INS Brahmaputra, a guided missile frigate which was commissioned in 2000 without its SAM system, the Kolkata class ships were commissioned without being designed for integral torpedoes as well as a modern ASW helicopter and the first of the Scorpene class was commissioned with a dated heavyweight torpedo. No world-class navy would commission a platform which is not fit for its intended purpose. In addition, it may be noted that the associated berthing infrastructure required by the navy’s bigger ships including INS Vikramaditya and now IAC-1 has regrettably always lagged behind the commissioning. The aircraft carrier is a visible symbol of India’s growing naval prowess wherever it steams and is also useful in non-combat missions, though vulnerable in combat with a navy equipped with precision cruise missiles and long-range heavy weight torpedoes.
Indigenous Aircraft Carrier 2: The ship is in the conceptual phase as of now and thus there is no way of predicting how it might be built. Vishaal is to be India’s second indigenous aircraft carrier, but is unlikely to follow on the lines of Vikrant. Its launch system is to be (Catapult Assisted Take-Off but Arrested Recovery) CATOBAR or, more precisely, its new generation: (Electromagnetic Aircraft Launch System) EMALS. Such a system is being developed by the Americans and thus, India would have to team up with them. It is understood that an Indo-American working group has been formed for that purpose. A change to a different launch system will probably affect the type of machines used on it as well. Vikramaditya uses the STOBAR system and Vikrant is designed for the same, and the primary embarked aircraft of the former carrier is the Russian MiG-29K. If Vishaal is fitted with EMALS, it will make it compatible with Western-made aircraft, and capable of working with heavier planes, such as the American E-2 Hawkeye. However, it may be noted that in early 2019, the US Navy confirmed that it had major problems with the design, construction and performance of EMALS on its latest aircraft carrier USS Gerald Ford and three other Ford class carriers under construction. According to US Navy sources, “With steam catapults when one went down the other three could continue to operate. In case of EMALS even minor repairs or maintenance on one catapult means all four had to be out of service. The US Navy has been working on modifications to EMALS to fix all these problems. In the meantime, the new Ford carrier is much less useful than older ones that use steam catapults. The U.S. Navy has been having an increasing number of similar problems (the design of the LCS, the DDG 1000 and a lot of other systems)”. (Website: https://www.news.usni.org/, Navy Air: EMALS in the Age of Error, available at URL: https://www.strategypage.com/htmw/htnavai/articles/20190216.aspx, 16 February 2019, accessed on 17 December 2019.) President Trump himself faulted EMALS for causing delays and cost overruns on the first in-class USS Gerald Ford (CVN-78). (Ben Werner, Experts: Navy would spend billions to answer Trump’s call to return to steam catapults, available at Website: https://www.news.usni.org/ available at URL: https://news.usni.org/2019/05/28/experts-navy-would-spend-billions-to-answer-trumps-call-to-return-carriers-to-steam-catapults, 28 May 2019, accessed on 17 December 2019.)
The Indian Navy and ultimately, the taxpayer can ill-afford such experimentation when it does not have its own indigenous design and production capability for EMALS. There was also a view within the Indian Navy that it should be nuclear powered. The Indian Navy commissioned a study under a Flag officer (former nuclear submarine captain) to examine the feasibility. This despite the fact that BARC may not have the nuclear fuel to fuel both the nuclear submarine programme and the aircraft carrier. In addition, there is the tremendous cost involved, both of the platform and the associated infrastructure associated with a nuclear platform. It is understood that the government has not given approval for the project due to lack of funds. It is also evident that the operating risks are exacerbated with nuclear platforms and therefore, the periodicity of inspections of nuclear-powered ships or submarines for nuclear and radiation safety certificates and testing of knowledge for seafarers also needs to be more frequent. The Indian Navy is slowly and steadily coming to grips with these stringent requirements. To a layman, this is analogous to more periodic checks on a nuclear-powered station vis-à-vis a conventional hydroelectric power station.
PLAN’s first indigenous constructed aircraft carrier, Shandong, is undoubtedly likely to be superior to Liaoning, in terms of military capability. It is an outstanding technological achievement of a nation which did not know anything of aircraft carrier construction and operation prior to 2001. However, China may consider a rethink in its strategy for aircraft carriers in this age of hypersonic cruise missiles. India, which had a headstart of four decades in its experience of operating aircraft carriers, has fallen well behind and would do well to emulate the Chinese example and build realistic, more affordable aircraft carriers within a shorter time period. It would also need to re-examine its plans and the feasibility of having three carriers at any one time in view of likely budget cuts due to a slowing economy.
(The writer a former nuclear submariner and Captain of INS Chakra, is an independent maritime security and strategy analyst, who also has a focus on maritime security in the Arctic)