India's Navy Has a Problem: An Aircraft Carrier Shortage

July 11, 2018 Topic: Security Region: Asia Blog Brand: The Buzz Tags: IndiaChinaNavyAircraft CarrierMilitaryTechnologyWorld

India's Navy Has a Problem: An Aircraft Carrier Shortage

And it won't get better anytime soon. 

India’s second homegrown aircraft carrier is being further delayed, according to media reports.

On July 9th, the trade publication IHS Jane’s reported that India will no longer commission its second indigenous aircraft carrier (IAC-2) in the 2030-2032 timeframe as it was previously scheduled to do.

According to the report, the delay is “due to steadily declining budgets, technological hurdles, and, above all, enduring delays by the Ministry of Defence (MoD) in approving the program.”

Similarly, the local media outlet, Rediff News, reported on the same day that owing to declining budgets “national security planners are reluctant to green light crucial power projection platforms, notably India's second indigenous aircraft carrier (IAC-2), which should have already been under construction to join the fleet by about 2030.”

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It was not immediately clear when IAC-2 is now scheduled to be commissioned, or if a date has been set at all. Even if there is a target date it will remain extremely tentative until actual progress is seen.

As both reports make clear, one of the major challenges involves funding. According to Rediff, the Indian Navy’s share of the military budget is 15.5 percent, down from 19 percent in the 2010-2011 fiscal year.

This decline in naval spending comes despite top Indian leaders, including Prime Minister Narendra Modi, stressing the centrality of the maritime domain to India’s national security. Moreover, the Navy’s Maritime Capability Perspective Plan for 2012-2027 called on the nation to field three aircraft carriers. This would enable Delhi to have one deployed on each coast with the other undergoing maintenance or being kept in reserve.

In reality, India will only have one carrier for the vast majority of the foreseeable future. Since March 2017, when it decommissioned its second 23,900-ton Centaur-class carrier, the Indian Navy has only had one carrier, the 44,000-ton Kiev-class carrier INS Vikramaditya , a refurbished Soviet-era carrier.

As IHS Jane’s points out, INS Vikramaditya was supposed to be supplemented this year or next by India’s first indigenously built aircraft carrier. Not surprisingly, this has been pushed back considerably.

Last year a “highly placed source” told India’s Financial Express : “The Indian Navy’s first indigenous aircraft carrier INS Vikrant is scheduled to roll out from the Cochin Shipyard by 2021-23, almost eight years late.”

One should expect much of the same for IAC-2. Besides funding issues, the project has also suffered from bureaucratic inefficiencies.

For instance, the Financial Express report quoted the highly placed source as saying that “[A] three-member committee that was formed by former defense minister Manohar Parrikar for formulating specifications, costing and aircraft for the carrier has now been disbanded.” More recent reports suggest that the committee might soon be revived.

Part of the issue is that there have been disagreements about how ambitious of an aircraft carrier to build. For instance, the Indian Navy had long advocated for the vessel to be nuclear-powered. These plans have faltered and now the carrier is set to be powered by an integrated electric propulsion system. This is similar to the type of system China’s next carrier is expected to use.

The Indian Navy has also wanted the second homegrown carrier to have a CATOBAR (catapult assisted take-off but arrested recovery) configuration. All of India’s previous carriers, as well as its first homegrown one, have had a STOBAR (short take-off but arrested recovery) configuration.

Besides allowing for a greater variety of aircraft, planes operating from a CATOBAR carrier can carry more weapons and extra fuel for longer trips. They can also use much larger airborne early warning aircraft to protect the ship.

Additionally, CATOBAR carriers can launch aircraft at a faster rate. Thus, they can project more power more quickly with better protection than STOBAR carriers.

Under current plans India’s second homegrown carrier will indeed have a CATOBAR configuration. In fact, America appears willing to provide India with a state-of-the-art electromagnetic aircraft launch system (EMALS). EMALS boast a number of advantages over the steam catapult systems most CATOBAR carriers use.

IAC-2 is also expected to be extremely large, at least compared to India's first homegrown carrier. As IHS Jane's notes, it is expected to displace 65,000-70,000 tons, and carry 50-60 planes and helicopters.

But this comes with an equally large price tag than IHS Jane’s projects at $11.65-13 billion (it’s unclear if this estimate includes maintenance and operation costs, although it likely does). The question is whether India is willing to foot this bill and, if so, when?

There are alternatives. For instance, David Brewster recently argued in the Lowy Interpreter that the money for the carrier would be better spent building up India's capabilities on various islands, especially the Andaman and Nicobar (A&N) Islands. In a sense, these would serve as “unsinkable carriers,” albeit immobile ones.

Zachary Keck ( @ZacharyKeck) is a former managing editor of The National Interest.