The United States Navy currently operates eleven nuclear-powered aircraft carriers. No other nation in the world operates more than two aircraft carriers at the present time and apart from the French Marine Nationale’s flagship Charles de Gaulle, none of them are nuclear-powered.
However, as China now is building two additional aircraft carriers there are warnings that this could upset a delicate balance—and those warning signals aren’t coming from Washington now but rather New Delhi, as the Indian Navy has just one aging carrier in service with another under construction. As tensions with China have increased there are now increased calls for a third Indian Navy aircraft carrier.
Such a move would be significant and quite notable as it would mean India could eventually operate even more carriers than the UK or France at the present time.
China could launch a far larger, and much more high-tech third carrier by the end of this year, and it is part of the overall modernization efforts underway with the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN). It could be a far-more capable carrier, and feature smoother, longer-range electromagnetic catapults similar to those in use on the U.S. Navy’s Gerald R. Ford-class.
Additionally, it is expected that the full displacement of this third Chinese carrier will be in excessive of eight thousand tons—making it a heavy carrier. By contrast, the previous two PLAN carriers, at approximately sixty thousand tons, are considered medium-sized carriers.
The Indian Navy has faced significant delays with its second carrier—and first to be domestically produced—Vikrant (IAC-1), which is now undergoing Basin Trails with sea trials to follow in December. The forty-thousand-ton warship, which is notably smaller than those in the PLAN, will begin the testing of its propulsion, transmission and shafting systems. The new state-of-the-art warship won’t likely enter service until 2022-23, and the delays are the last thing that New Delhi needs as it finds itself in a potential showdown with Beijing.
Going for Three
The Indian Navy has reportedly been pushing for a third carrier for a while. However, the calls to increase the number of flattops intensified earlier this year after Chief of Defence Staff Gen. Bipin Rawat called out the government for failing to grant the approval to build a third carrier. Rawat had suggested that the need is there so that India could maintain its overall strategy that is centered on the operation of Carrier Battle Groups (CBGs), which could be supported by surface and air platforms to maintain an edge over potential adversaries.
The Indian Navy has called for three aircraft carriers to further ensure that at least two would be operationally available, with one deployed to the eastern seaboard and the other on the western seaboard.
At issue is the cost of such a carrier—especially as the Indian Navy has proposed a third sixty-five-thousand-ton carrier, which would be the largest warship ever built by the nation. Even if such a proposed carrier were to be approved, it would be years before it could enter service.
In the meantime, India will still have to make do with the 44,500-ton INS Vikramaditya, which is the refurbished Russian-built carrier Admiral Gorshkovthat was purchased for $2.23 billion in November 2013.
Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer who has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers and websites. He is the author of several books on military headgear including A Gallery of Military Headdress, which is available on Amazon.com.