China is set to begin preliminary sea trials of its second aircraft carrier within a month or so, even as it steams ahead with plans to also construct mammoth nuclear-powered ones, signalling its hard-nosed intent to project military power on the high seas in the years ahead.
China’s scorching pace in constructing aircraft carriers confronts India, which has been operating such sea-going airbases or “flat-tops” for over five decades now, with a real prospect of losing its long-standing edge over its larger neighbour in this arena.
India is currently making do with just one aircraft carrier in the shape of the 44,400-tonne INS Vikramaditya, the refurbished Admiral Gorshkov inducted from Russia for $2.33 billion in November 2013.
Sources say the long-delayed 40,000-tonne indigenous aircraft carrier (IAC-I) or INS Vikrant, being built at Cochin Shipyard, is likely to begin sea trials only by October 2020 now. It will become fully operational, with its aviation complex and long-range surface-to-air missiles, only by 2023 at the earliest. Sanctioned by the government in January 2003, INS Vikrant will now cost Rs 19,341 crore.
To make matters worse, the 65,000-tonne IAC-II (tentatively christened INS Vishal) remains a mere pipe-dream due to politico-bureaucratic apathy despite the Navy first moving the Defence Acquisitions Council for it in May 2015.
The Navy has also ditched its ambition of having nuclear-propulsion for IAC-II for much greater endurance, which will also significantly bring down the overall costs. But the carrier will have CATOBAR (catapult assisted take-off but arrested recovery) configuration to launch fighters as well as heavier aircraft for surveillance, early-warning and electronic warfare from its deck. Till now, India has operated carriers with angled ski-jumps for only fighters to take off under their own power in STOBAR (short take-off but arrested recovery) operations.
“It takes over a decade in India to build a carrier after the government’s approval. But China is constructing them at a furious pace. It eventually wants six carrier strike groups, with at least two of them being nuclear,” said a senior officer.
After inducting its first carrier 65,000-tonne Liaoning in 2012, China will soon begin sea trials of its domestically-built Type-001A carrier, which is slated for induction in 2019. “It’s designed for only STOBAR operations. But their future carriers are likely to have CATOBAR and nuclear-propulsion, and be almost as large as US carriers,” said the officer.