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Indian Carrier Aviation: No Longer the Only Game in Town

The Indian Navy likes to point out with respect to Indian carrier aviation that besides the Royal Australian Navy (RAN) which operated carriers from 1948 to 1982 (and is set to regain that capability in 2014) it is the only navy in the Asia-Pacific region that has more or less maintained a carrier aviation capability continuously since 1961.

While this is true, beginning in 1997 this calculus changed with the introduction of other “flat tops”  – primarily light carriers and helicopter carriers – first by Thailand, then South Korea, Japan, and most recently, by China, when the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) commissioned the 65,000-ton ski jump carrier, Liaoning (ex Varyag) in September 2012.

Indian Carrier Aviation J-15s aboard Liaoning

Two PLA Navy J-15 fighters aboard the newly commissioned carrier Liaoning in November 2012, when they performed both short takeoffs and arrested landings.

The Chinese development is very significant indeed – signaling as it does the start of what is ultimately believed to be a 5-8 carrier force. Already plans for conventional as well as nuclear-powered carriers with catapults are emerging on the Chinese internet. For the IN, carrier and naval air developments in China will have direct implications for its maritime strategy and force structure planning going forward.

There is no doubt achieving full operational status will take some time yet. That said, the widely publicized landings and take offs by three J-15 fighters – albeit in a clean and possibly lightened configuration – from the Liaoning on Nov. 25, 2012, would suggest that “the basic art of carrier flying and deck marshaling has been achieved” as Cmdre. (Ret) Ranjit Rai, a former head of Indian naval intelligence puts it. Moreover, in March 2013, PLA Navy officials spoke of a “long range” deployment of the Liaoning to further test and refine aviation skills.

The People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) has probably surprised observers everywhere with the rapidity at which it is adapting to carrier aviation. Therefore, the argument by senior IN officers, like their Western counterparts, that it takes 25 years to acquire and hone carrier aviation skills and evolve appropriate tactics, techniques and procedures (TTP) is quite hollow. Past performance is no guarantee of future success. As such, it would be a mistake to underestimate the ability of the PLAN to master the basics of carrier aviation within a much shorter timescale than anticipated by most observers.

There is no doubt achieving full operational status will take some time yet. That said, the widely publicized landings and take offs by three J-15 fighters – albeit in a clean and possibly lightened configuration – from the Liaoning on Nov. 25, 2012, would suggest that “the basic art of carrier flying and deck marshaling has been achieved” as Cmdr. (Ret) Ranjit Rai, a former head of Indian naval intelligence puts it. Moreover, in March 2013, PLA Navy officials spoke of a “long range” deployment of the Liaoning to further test and refine aviation skills.

 

Multi-carrier Fleet Plans Come to Fruition at Last

As a former Chief of Naval Staff (CNS) Adm. Nirmal K. Verma stated in 2010, “aircraft carriers have been central to the doctrinal, strategic and operational philosophy of the Indian Navy for the last five decades.”

Indian Carrier Aviation Viraat Vikrant IN mod

INS Viraat sailing together with INS Vikrant in 1990. Indian Navy photo

In fact, the IN’s 1948-1958 aviation master plan envisioned a carrier fleet with two light fleet carriers (to be inducted between 1954 and 1956), followed by four fleet carriers (each with a 32-aircraft air wing) to be inducted between 1958 and 1963 along with an additional 134 aircraft of various types. In total, this plan envisaged a force of nearly 280 aircraft – a number that is close to today’s force levels!  Though this was a very far-fetched plan at the time, it clearly underscores the importance accorded to Indian carrier aviation by IN planners.

In the near term, the IN is focused on inducting two 40,000-45,000 ton carriers in a STOBAR (short take off but arrested recovery) configuration with an air wing of 30 or so aircraft, each comprising 12-18 fighters – a mix of Mig-29K and N-LCA – and helicopters. In parallel, design work continues apace on a third carrier (IAC-2). It is not fully clear if this will be a larger ship of 65,000 tons with a CATOBAR (catapult assisted take off) configuration or a near clone of the IAC-1 but with electric propulsion.

In the event, only one light carrier – INS Vikrant (ex HMS Hercules) – was acquired from the United Kingdom (UK) in 1961. Vikrant played a key role blockading East Pakistan with an embarked air wing of Hawker Seahawk fighters and Breguet Br 1050 Alize anti-submarine warfare (ASW)/strike aircraft during the December 1971 India-Pakistan War that ultimately led to the creation of Bangladesh from what was East Pakistan.

MiG-29KUB Vikramaditya trials

A two-seat MiG-29KUB chocked and chained aboard the Russian carrier Admiral Kuznetsov during trials at sea. RAC MiG photo

For a brief period lasting from 1987 to 1991, the IN operated two carriers when a second carrier, INS Viraat (exHMS Hermes of Falklands War fame) operated alongside the Vikrant. Viraat, acquired in 1987 after serving 25 years in the Royal Navy, completed another 25 years serving under the Indian ensign in 2012 and is set to serve until 2017 or 2018.

The first of the new carriers to enter service will be the Russian built Vikramaditya (ex Project 11434 Gorshkov). Under Project 11430, the 283-meter, 45,000-ton carrier has been so radically altered and modernized by Sevmash shipyard in Russia that the IN says it is almost a new ship.

In spite of losing over a decade in deliberations over the future of carriers, the IN is now firmly on track to inducting multiple carriers. “The Indian Navy is committed to building, operating and maintaining at least two Carrier Battle Groups, which will allow us to carry out the tasks that we foresee for ourselves in the future” remarked Verma at a naval aviation seminar in July 2010.

Indian Carrier Aviation Vikramaditya

Vikramaditya on sea trials in 2012. via Oleg Kuleshov

In essence, this plan calls for three carriers to be in service around 2022 with a fourth to follow in due course. However, planned timelines would appear to be highly optimistic. Three of the four carriers – IAC-1 to IAC-3 – would be built under the Indigenous Aircraft Carrier (IAC) program that is “planned to be a continuing process over the next decade-plus” according to Adml Verma.

In the near term, the IN is focused on inducting two 40,000-45,000 ton carriers in a STOBAR (short take off but arrested recovery) configuration with an air wing of 30 or so aircraft, each comprising 12-18 fighters – a mix of Mig-29K and N-LCA – and helicopters. In parallel, design work continues apace on a third carrier (IAC-2). It is not fully clear if this will be a larger ship of 65,000 tons with a CATOBAR (catapult assisted take off) configuration or a near clone of the IAC-1 but with electric propulsion.

Graphic of what the completed IAC-1 is to look like. Indian Navy via Shiv Aroor

Graphic of what the completed IAC-1 is to look like. Indian Navy via Shiv Aroor

The first of the new carriers to enter service will be the Russian built Vikramaditya (ex Project 11434 Gorshkov). Under Project 11430, the 283-meter, 45,000-ton carrier has been so radically altered and modernized by Sevmash shipyard in Russia that the IN says it is almost a new ship.

The other carrier is the 262-meter, 40,000-ton homebuilt IAC-1 under Project 71. The IAC-1, likely to be named Vikrant, is being built at Cochin Shipyard Ltd. (CSL) to a design by the IN’s in-house Directorate General of Naval Design (DGND). Key technical partners are Italy’s Fincantieri, for propulsion system integration, and Russia’s Nevskoye Design Bureau, for aviation facilities, since these are modeled after the Vikramaditya.