This November, the Chinese Communist Party carried out a scheduled leadership change. Reportedly Hu’s replacement, Xi Jinping, favors the army over the navy and air force. If that is true, then the recent surge in new construction may have been an attempt to place a large program in place before naval funding was cut. It is also possible that the Chinese naval leadership will feel that it has to demonstrate its value to a skeptic, in which case we can expect further clashes in places like the South China Sea.
If the Chinese navy is now justifying its program based mainly on guaranteeing access to vital resources, that would seem to place greater emphasis on the sea lanes crossing the Indian Ocean from the oil sources of the Middle East (development of oil in the South China Sea would, of course, change matters). In that case, the Chinese will see the Indian navy as more and more of a problem.
For their part, the Indians have justified increased naval expenditure by arguing that the Chinese are moving into the Indian Ocean. The centerpiece of their program is a plan to build or acquire three carriers: the rebuilt ex-Russian Vikramaditya (ex-Admiral Gorshkov) plus one or two to be built in India.
By this year, the cost of the ex-Russian carrier had already escalated spectacularly. The latest news was serious machinery trouble. Although the ship’s boilers performed properly when tested ashore, once on board ship only one of the eight produced enough steam, and the ship could not make her designed speed. That was particularly unfortunate because the ship has no catapults; she relies on a ski-jump (and wind over the deck) to launch her aircraft. If she is not fast enough, she cannot operate at all.
The problem seems to have been asbestos insulation. The Indians wanted it removed as a health hazard, and they had to back down in order to achieve the desired performance. Like many other Russian warships of her vintage, Vikramaditya has pressure-fired boilers, in which a turbocharger feeds high-pressure air into her boilers. The insulation was presumably required in order for the boilers to burn at the necessary high temperature.
Vikramaditya is to enter service late in 2014. She is older (and smaller) than the Chinese carrier, but considerably newer than the existing ex-British Vikrant, and can accommodate a much more powerful air wing.
Meanwhile, the United States is building the far larger nuclear carrier Gerald R. Ford, the first of a new class. Major new features include a redesigned flight deck (the island is moved well aft) intended to speed flight deck turn around, a one-shot reactor, and electromagnetic catapults and arresting gear (and other electric rather than hydraulic or steam systems). The emphasis for several years has been on the number of separate sorties, hence the number of individual targets, a carrier can handle per day. That contrasts with an older emphasis on mass strikes assigned to a single target. The difference is modern precision munitions, launched from a distance at targets designated by position (using GPS and its relatives). For such tactics, what matters is how quickly a few aircraft can be turned around, not so much how quickly a mass of aircraft can be prepared to take off together. The new emphasis long predates the Ford-class design, but the new carrier is the first to be shaped by it.
The single-shot reactor, an idea also being applied to submarines, is a reactor designed to function through the life of a ship without refueling. Refueling is the single-most expensive event in the life of a nuclear carrier or submarine; it is also when major changes are made in the ship. Eliminating it ought to make a dramatic reduction in the ship’s lifetime cost.
In effect, however, the British about-face saved the STOVL F-35 (at least for now), something for which its main user, the U.S. Marine Corps, must be very grateful. Other navies, which have built small carriers that cannot operate anything except STOVL aircraft, are probably even more grateful – no other STOVL attack aircraft is either in production or anywhere near it. The main navies currently involved are those of Italy and Spain, although it is quite possible that Japan and Australia will later feel similar relief. Japan has two 13,000-ton helicopter carriers (designated as helicopter destroyers), and plans to build a 19,000-ton follow-on, which would be a natural STOVL ship.
The new carrier introduces an electromagnetic catapult as part of a shift away from hydraulics and steam auxiliaries and toward electric power. For example, as in a hybrid car, the braking action of the arrester gear will generate some electric power. Some of that power will be available to the catapult. Another advantage of a powerful electric plant is that it can power electric lasers for close-in defense; reportedly the Navy has been pleased with recent experiments with such weapons. Alternatively, electric (rail) guns may be adopted for close-in defense. The electromagnetic catapult itself is advertised as more flexible than its steam predecessors, and it is reportedly better adapted to launching unmanned aircraft.