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India loses its edge over China's navy

April 02, 2017 10:23 IST

With the expected launch of The People’s Liberation Army (Navy)’s second aircraft carrier on April 23, China will match India in carrier numbers reports Ajai Shukla. 

IMAGE: The new Shandong aircraft carrier will be categorised as a Type 001A carrier, while its predecessor the Liaoning  is termed a Type 001 carrier. Photograph: Reuters

Five years ago, India had two aircraft carriers and China had none. Now, perhaps as early as this month, the People’s Liberation Army (Navy) will match India in carrier numbers.

With INS Viraat decommissioned last month, the Indian Navy has just a single carrier, the Russian-built INS Vikramaditya. The PLA(N) too operates a single carrier, the Liaoning, bought from Russia and refurbished in Dalian, China.

However, at an alarming speed, another Chinese carrier is coming on stream. Naval analysts believe that, on April 23 -- the PLA(N)’s 68th anniversary -- its second carrier will be officially launched.

China’s English language media, including People’s Daily, quoted China’s defence ministry spokesperson Wu Qian as stating on Thursday that a date for the launch would be soon announced, which “won’t keep the public waiting for too long”.

The new carrier is being named Shandong. While the Liaoning is termed a Type 001 carrier, the Shandong will be categorised Type 001A.

After the Shandong’s launch, says China’s defence ministry, it would still have to undergo one-two years of outfitting (of weapons, radars, instruments, etc) and another year of sea trials before joining the PLA(N)’s operational fleet in 2020.

Meanwhile, India’s second carrier, INS Vikrant, being fabricated at Cochin Shipyard Ltd, has fallen eight years behind schedule. Originally to be delivered in 2015, it is now expected to be fully operational only in 2023, years after China’s second carrier joins the PLA(N) fleet. Worryingly, the Indian Navy plans to commission a partly operational Vikrant by end-2018, without its “aviation complex” (flight operations control) or LR-SAM anti-ship missiles. That means for some time, maybe years, the Vikrant would lack both strike and defensive capability.

Further, a Comptroller and Auditor General report revealed last year that the MiG-29 fighter was “riddled with problems” and that serviceability rates were just 15-35 per cent.

While the Vikrant would have taken 14 years to build from the time its keel was laid in 2009, the Shandong would have taken barely half that time, assuming construction commenced soon after 2012, when the Liaoning finally vacated her berth at the Dalian shipyard.

India, however, does enjoy superiority in its existing carrier. INS Vikramaditya, a 40,000-tonne carrier that embarks 36 aircraft, including 26 MiG-29 fighters, is a battle-ready platform. The Liaoning, displacing 55,000-60,000 tonne, is termed by Beijing as a “training and research vessel” and is not yet assigned to a PLA(N) operational fleet. Even so, it carries a full compliment of 36 fixed wing and rotary wing aircraft, including 24 Shenyang J-15 (modelled on the Sukhoi-33) fighters; and ten helicopters, including the Changshe Z-18, Kamov-31 and Harbin Z-9. Last November, her political commissar declared the Liaoning was “combat ready”.

The experience of renovating and operating the Liaoning is evident in Shandong’s design. Displacing 65,000 tonnes, it features a ski-jump launch system similar to the Liaoning (as do the Vikramaditya and Vikrant). However, China’s defence ministry says it “will have more cargo room, more sophisticated radar, more advanced weapons systems and more reliable engines than the Liaoning.”

Like India, China plans to build future carriers with a catapult launch system rather than a ski-jump, which restricts the payload aircraft can take off with. Since they carry less weapons and fuel, fighters operating off a ski-jump carrier have shorter flight ranges and lesser punch.

The PLA(N) carrier that follows Shandong, called the Type 002, would overcome these drawbacks with a catapult launch system. A catapult accelerates aircraft to a higher take-off speed, allowing greater payload and faster launches. It is not clear when the Type 002 would be built, or if it would be nuclear powered.

India’s third carrier, INS Vishal, however, is being planned as a technologically cutting-edge warship with American design features. Like the Type 002, it will have a catapult launch system that equips all US Navy carriers. As Business Standard reported (November 7, 2016 Navy’s second home-built carrier will be nuclear but will come only in 2030s) Vishal will feature nuclear propulsion, an “electromagnetic aircraft launch system” (EMALS) and the capacity to embark at least 55 aircraft. It will be built in India and will join the fleet by 2030-35.

Chinese naval strategists say the PLA(N) will eventually operate five -six carriers, with two deployed at all times in the Western Pacific and two in the Indian Ocean. Indian naval planners plan on three carriers -- one each based in the eastern and western coasts with a third in reserve for maintenance and repairs.

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