Naval Air: India Falls Farther Behind China

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August 17, 2018: China and India have both decided to expand their navies by building their own aircraft carriers. Both nations began by refurbishing Russian carriers before designing and building their own. China was able to refurbish the former Russian carrier it purchased and learned a lot while turning an unfinished Kuznetsov class carrier, the Varyag, into the Type 001 carrier Liaoning (CV-16).

India did not have the resources to do the refurbishing so they hired Russian firms to do the job. That was a disaster. The 45,000 ton Vikramaditya was originally a Russian Kiev class carrier that served in the Russian Navy from 1987 to 1995 but was then withdrawn from service because Russia could not afford to keep the carrier operational. The ship was put up for sale in 1996 and in 2005. India agreed to buy it if a few changes could be made. India ended up paying over $2.3 billion to refurbish the Kiev class ship and turn it into the Vikramaditya, which entered service in 2014.

India’s attempt to build an aircraft carrier is, as expected, over budget and way behind schedule. This effort, the INS Vikrant, began construction in 2009 and the plan was for it to be launched in 2010, fitting out was to be completed by 2013 followed by sea trials and entering service in 2014. Things began to go wrong early on. By 2011 there were several major problems with Indian suppliers that had delayed completion until 2017. A growing list of technical problems encountered by Indian suppliers of key equipment led to more delays and by 2016 an audit of the project concluded that it was unlikely that Vikrant would enter service in 2020 and that 2023 was more likely, but not guaranteed.

The 40,000 ton Vikrant has a ski-jump deck, like the refurbished Russian carrier INS Vikramaditya and is designed to carry 29 jet fighters and ten helicopters. A second Indian carrier is in the planning stages and will be based on Vikrant but larger (65,000 tons) and use a catapult instead of a ski jump for takeoffs. That enables aircraft to take off carrying more weight and some kinds of aircraft (like radar early warning types) to be used. The Indian Navy wants to see how the Vikrant works out before committing to the final design for Vikrant 2.0; the 65.000 ton INS Vishal. Faced with the dismal performance of the Vikrant construction effort it is unlikely that Vishal will be in service until the 2030s. Vikrant is now nine years behind schedule and there is still ample opportunity for more self-inflicted problems and delays.

China’s second aircraft carrier (CV-17 Shandong) was launched in April 2017. That was 25 months after construction began.  This Type 001A carrier turned out to be (based on photographic comparisons and information officially released by the government and unofficially by many who live or work in or near the shipyard) 315 meters (1,033 feet) three percent longer that CV-16 and displaces 72,000 tons (11 percent more than CV-16). Obvious differences are a slightly (about 10 percent) smaller control tower and about ten percent more flight deck area.

China admitted the CV-17 existed in 2016 and called it a Type 001A ship rather than Type 001 because it is slightly different from its predecessor. The 2016 announcement revealed more details, some of them already obvious. CV-17 is considered a new design but based on CV-16 (Liaoning). That first carrier was a 65,000 ton, 305 meter (999 feet) long ship that was itself a modified version of the last Cold War Russian carrier design. In 2016 China confirmed that CV-17 would also have the ski jump deck like Liaoning and would be somewhat heavier and incorporate new design features that would enable it to carry more aircraft (mainly the J-15) in a larger hanger deck (just below the flight deck) as well as more fuel and aircraft weapons. Since then photos of CV-17 under construction indicate that it also incorporates design features that will make it more capable of surviving combat damage as well as operating more efficiently and effectively as a carrier. In addition to the Chinese built J-15 fighter, the new carrier will also have some early-warning radar aircraft as well as some anti-submarine aircraft as well as some helicopters. CV-17 could apparently operate about 20 percent more aircraft than CV-16 (50 fixed wing and helicopters versus about 40).

China has not revealed how many carriers they plan to eventually build. But based on what is being said in Chinese media and around the shipyard the performance of CV-17 will play a large role in that decision. CV-17 is expected to undergo one or two years of sea trials before entering service by 2020. But “the plan” is apparently to build two more similar carriers (CV-18 and 19) which will lose the ski jump deck and instead adopt a catapult. These two will be a bit larger than CV-17 and the first one is already under construction as a Type 002 ship and is expected to be in the water by 2020 and in service by 2024. One thing that might delay the Type 002 is the decision on which catapult system (steam or electric) to use. The U.S. Navy has had problems getting its EMALS (electromagnetic aircraft launch system) to work effectively and the Chinese may be waiting to see how that works out before making their decision. The Type 002 will have a steam propulsion system but one that will produce a lot more electricity (for laser weapons and catapult). After the two catapult equipped carriers are evaluated it is believed that two nuclear-powered carriers are planned (CVN-20 and 21). These will be similar to the American Nimitz class CVNs and the first one could be in service before the smaller Indian INS Vishal.

In 2014, when it entered service, the 45,000 ton the Vikramaditya became the largest ship in the Indian Navy and the largest the navy has ever handled. That will apparently remain the case for longer than planned while the Chinese already have two large one 65.000 ton and one 72,000 ton carriers and are ready move on to the larger nuclear-powered carrier design that the Americans pioneered in the 1960s.

The Chinese navy is rapidly expanding with new Chinese warship designs built in Chinese shipyards and the construction is completed on time. That is the primary Chinese advantage, one that naval rival India is unable to compete with.

 


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