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India’s delayed aircraft carrier plan raises concerns as China readies its third one

China’s Type 003 makes substantial progress, while Indian Navy operates with one

shandong carrier China's Shandong aircraft carrier | China's Ministry of National Defense

China's third aircraft carrier is on the fast track. Construction of the warship, known as Type 003 as it is yet to be named, has made "significant progress", according to the latest images released by a commercial satellite. The vessel—expected to be the largest surface combatant in the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN)—is scheduled to be launched before the year-end. 

The development has made India's military planners more anxious as the Navy is operating with only a single aircraft carrier, while the construction of the second and the country's first indigenous aircraft carrier is constantly hit with speed breakers. The move to build the carrier, named INS Vikrant, started more than two decades ago in 1999.

This even as India was the first Asian country to acquire an aircraft carrier when it got HMS (His/Her Majesty's Ship) Hercules from the UK in 1961.

In 2012, China commissioned its first aircraft carrier Liaoning, while the second carrier, Shandong, was launched in 2019. Shandong is the first Chinese-made carrier; Liaoning was rebuilt on a gutted, unfinished Ukrainian aircraft carrier hull. Beijing is said to be further seeking to add at least two more carrier vessels.

According to naval observers, Type 003—under construction at Jiangnan Shipyard in Shanghai since 2018—"will have a flat-top flight deck with a catapult assisted takeoff, but arrested recovery" (CATOBAR) system to launch fighter jets with heavier payloads or more fuel. 

It is expected that China's navy might develop Type 003 to nuclear-powered carriers at a later stage. It would put China with the US and France—the only two countries that currently operate nuclear-powered aircraft carriers.

After going through the high-resolution satellite images of the Chinese under-construction vessel, Type 003 will be configured with two starboard-side aircraft elevators similar to Shandong, noted the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington based think-tank.

However, the elevators on Type 003 are estimated to be larger, which could allow them to lift two aircraft simultaneously. France’s Charles de Gaulle has two elevators and the US's Gerald R. Ford-class carriers have three elevators, all of which are capable of lifting two aircraft at a time.

Though the Chinese military is yet to announce any details of its third aircraft carrier, the Chinese state broadcaster, China Central Television (CCTV), expects the country's third aircraft carrier to make its public debut in 2021.

Talking about the status of the 40,000-tonne-INS Vikrant, a senior naval officer said they were hoping to get its delivery by early next year, as the project is getting delayed due to the Covid pandemic. However, the Cochin shipyard is ramping up its efforts to cover up for the time lost due to Covid restrictions. "Once it is handed over to the Navy, the carrier will go in for extensive sea trials along with aviation trials. And these trials will take about two years to get completed. The carrier is expected to be commissioned into the Navy by early 2024," said the officer.

The design of IAC Vikrant, which costs about Rs 3,500 crore, was initially approved by the defence ministry in 2003. But the construction began only in 2005 at the Cochin Shipyard. 

Initially scheduled to be introduced in water by 2010, it was launched only in August 2013, after three years of delay. The deadline to deliver the warship was 2018, which was also delayed due to issues in procuring aviation equipment from Russia.

With its length of 260m, the warship would have two take-off runways and a landing strip with three arrestor wires capable of operating a STOBAR (short take off but arrested delivery) aircraft and a range of helicopters. Twenty MiG 29K fighter jets and 10 helicopters will be deployed on the aircraft carrier.

The INS Vikramaditya, the only aircraft carrier with the Navy, can carry over 30 aircraft, including MiG 29K, or Sea Harriers, Kamov helicopters, Sea King, ALH-Dhruv, and Chetak helicopters. With 22 decks and a capacity of 1,600 personnel, the ship can sustain itself in the sea for 45 days up to a range of over 13,000 km.

Currently, the Navy is in need of another aircraft carrier to bolster its defence and offensive capabilities as China and Pakistan are modernising their navies rapidly. But, the project to have a second carrier is still under debate due to its cost. Decision-makers in South Block are discussing developing islands into "strategic hubs" as replacement to aircraft carriers with "unsinkable" islands. CDS Gen Rawat suggested the development of the Andaman Nicobar islands as a shore-based facility and as an alternative for aircraft carriers. 

While extending his support for an aircraft carrier, former Navy chief Admiral Arun Prakash, in an interaction with THE WEEK some time back, had said another aircraft carrier will be a powerful weapon for facing an aggressive China. "Hypothetically, if China decides to send three aircraft carriers into the Indian Ocean, then no amount of submarines, destroyers or frigates can tackle it. Aircraft carriers are the only answer to such a situation,” he had said. 

Currently, most of the powers in the world are operating or building technologically advanced aircraft carriers to safeguard their maritime rights and interests. There are a total of 41 active aircraft carriers in operation by 13 navies across the world. Supporters of the aircraft carriers maintain that major maritime powers, including the US, the UK, Russia, Italy and France, are operating carriers, with some navies having shown their interest in these. The Royal Navy commissioned a 65,000-tonne carrier HMS Queen Elizabath and the second carrier, HMS Prince of Wales, is in its last leg of completion. The PLA Navy has a bigger aim to have a fleet of over 10 aircraft carriers by 2050.

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