The Buzz

Are America and India Building an 'Aircraft Carrier' Alliance?

America appears ready to provide a significant boost to India’s future aircraft carrier.

According to Indian media reports, the United States and India have entered the final stages of a negotiation for Washington to equip Delhi’s future aircraft carrier with a state-of-the-art electromagnetic aircraft launch system (EMALS). Ahead of President Donald Trump’s meeting with Prime Minister Narendra Modi this month, an eleven member U.S. delegation led by Rear Adm. Brian Antonio, the U.S. Navy's Program Executive Officer for aircraft carriers, met with Indian counterparts in western India from October 29–31. The Indian side was led by Vice Admiral DM Deshpande, Controller Warship Production and Acquisition, the Hindustan Times reported.

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One of the hang ups for the agreement has been that India has insisted on using an electrical system to power its future carrier, whereas U.S. flat tops use nuclear propulsion systems. Washington appears to have relented on the issue, however. The Hindustan Times cited sources as saying “that at the meeting of the joint working group on aircraft carrier technology, the United States was ready to power the EMALS with integrated electric propulsion rather than nuclear power as the cost of latter alone is over $1 billion or Rs 6.5 thousand crore. This will involve installation of giant capacitors for storage and discharge of power.”

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Electromagnetic aircraft launch systems, which are built by General Atomics, are the most advanced launch systems in the world. Indeed, America’s new Ford-class carriers utilize EMALS. Discussions about Indian carriers using EMALS dates at least as far back as 2013, and India officially requested to purchase the launch systems during the Obama administration. Deccan Chronicle, an Indian newspaper, explained Delhi’s desire for EMALS last month: “Due to its flexible architecture, EMALS can launch a wide variety of aircraft weights and can be used on a variety of platforms with differing catapult configurations.”

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President Trump himself has repeatedly criticized EMALS. The first time came when the American president recounted a conversation he had with a sailor to Time magazine back in May. According to Trump, the sailor told him the EMALS wasn’t working as well as previous steam systems. “It sounded bad to me. Digital. They have digital. What is digital?,” Trump asked during the interview. “And it’s very complicated. You have to be Albert Einstein to figure it out. And I said — and now they want to buy more aircraft carriers. I said what system are you going to be — ‘Sir, we’re staying with digital.’ I said no you’re not. You going to goddamned steam, the digital costs hundreds of millions of dollars more money and it’s no good.”

Despite his personal hesitations about the launch system, Trump is likely to favor the sale to India as he has consistently promoted increasing American arms sales abroad. This has been especially true during the president’s current trip to Asia when Trump has called on Japan and South Korea to purchase more American-made systems.

The Trump administration has also made strengthening ties to India a growing priority as of late. Although President Trump isn’t scheduled to visit India during his current trip, Secretary of Defense James Mattis visited the country in September and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson followed suit a month later.