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A bizarre comment stirred speculation India may try to match China's carrier fleet

Michael Peck   

A bizarre comment stirred speculation India may try to match China's carrier fleet
  • "We will not stop at that (three carriers)," India's defense minister recently said.
  • Five or six aircraft carriers would give India a force equal to that of China.

India may build a fleet of five to six new aircraft carriers, according to a comment from the country's defense minister that's been widely debated about whether that's a good strategy or if the offhand remark was even serious.

The Indian Navy operates two small aircraft carriers. Four more would give India a carrier force on par with China's growing one. And it would not be much smaller — at least in number of vessels — than the US Navy's 11 supercarriers.

But whether this ambitious shipbuilding project will happen is another matter. Many Indian experts are convinced it's a bad idea.

Exactly what the Indian government is thinking isn't clear. During an interview with an Indian newspaper regarding plans to construct a third aircraft carrier, Defense Minister Rajnath Singh said India would build yet more. "We will not stop at that (three carriers)," he said. "We will make five, six more."

Some Indian experts aren't sure the government is even serious about this. The defense minister "seemingly made an off-the-cuff remark that was picked up by the media," Abhijit Singh, a former Indian naval officer and now an analyst at the Observer Research Foundation think tank in New Delhi, told Business Insider. "He was only trying to dispel suggestions that the government is resistant to a proposal for a third aircraft carrier."

Nonetheless, there are compelling reasons why India might want a large carrier fleet. India's rival China now has three carriers, including the newly launched 80,000-ton Fujian, and may aim for a fleet of six carriers by 2035. China — which fought border clashes with India in the Himalayas in 2020 — is beginning to project its power into the Indian Ocean, which is India's maritime backyard.

"It is expected that the Chinese will permanently station one of its CBGs [carrier battle groups] in the Indian Ocean, supported by its various bases in Djibouti (on the western edge of the Indian Ocean), Ream in Cambodia (on the eastern edge of the Indian Ocean), and Gwadar in Pakistan, Hambantota in Sri Lanka, and Kyaukpyu in Myanmar," warned India's Swarajya magazine.

Interestingly, Swarajya magazine also suggested that carriers could project Indian power into the South China Sea, which is China's maritime backyard. Indian warships have periodically sailed in those waters.

India has two carriers of around 45,000 tons each: the Vikramaditya (a refurbished former Soviet vessel) and the Vikrant, India's first home-built carrier. Both are ski-jump designs that launch the troubled Soviet-era MiG-29K under its own power because it lacks catapults. Despite early speculation that the proposed third carrier would be a 65,000-ton ski-jump design similar to Britain's Queen Elizabeth-class, the Indian government appears to be opting for a 45,000-ton vessel similar to the Vikrant, and carrying French-made Rafale fighters.

This means that Indian carriers would continue to be less than half the size of the 100,000-ton, nuclear-powered US Nimitz- and Ford-class behemoths, which are equipped with steam or electromagnetic catapults that can launch heavier planes, especially airborne early warning aircraft; China's Fujian also uses an advanced electromagnetic catapult. They would also be less expensive, with the third Indian carrier estimated at around $5 billion, compared to $13 billion for a Ford-class carrier.

In fact, some Indian naval experts would prefer a larger carrier equipped with catapults. "Small aircraft carriers, like those India possesses, are increasingly vulnerable and unlikely to play a significant role in future conflicts," Singh, the defense analyst, said. "Unfortunately, the country lacks the funding for a large carrier and can only afford another small flattop. This presents a predicament with no easy solutions."

On the other hand, there is a reason why America builds enormously expensive aircraft carriers. Its global interests arguably require the ability to dispatch and maintain floating airfields around the world, often in distant places where airbases aren't available. For India and China, which have a more regional focus, smaller vessels may suffice.

For India, carriers are more than floating airfields. They are symbols of national power. Thus regardless of their military utility against a powerful adversary like China, carriers would enable India support other operations, such as humanitarian, peacekeeping and anti-piracy missions.

"The consensus among India's maritime observers is that the aircraft carrier remains central to maritime strategy, not just for its ability to dominate the littoral but also for its crucial peacetime role," said Abhijit Singh. "In less-than-war situations, the flattop can shift the psychological balance in ways no other naval platform can. Despite its drawbacks, the aircraft carrier's aura and impact in peacetime operations are unmatched."

Michael Peck is a defense writer whose work has appeared in Forbes, Defense News, Foreign Policy magazine, and other publications. He holds an MA in political science from Rutgers Univ. Follow him on Twitter and LinkedIn.

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