From Russia With Love? China vs. India Carrier Showdown
Image Credit: U.S. Navy

From Russia With Love? China vs. India Carrier Showdown

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There’s a pronounced aerial component to Asia’s march to the seas.

The Indian Navy’s newest aircraft carrier, the soon-to-be-commissioned INS Vikramaditya, recently took to the Barents Sea for its second shakedown cruise. After putting the ship through its paces, the Russian shipyard Sevmash will reportedly deliver it to the Indian Navy at year’s end—culminating a prolonged, painful, sometimes comical overhaul process that converted the Soviet “aircraft-carrying cruiser” Admiral Gorshkov into a more conventional flattop featuring a ski jump for vaulting short-takeoff warplanes into the skies.

Meanwhile, China’s first carrier, the Soviet-built vessel formerly known as Varyag, is underway for its longest sea trials since first casting off lines last summer. It will reportedly cruise the Bohai Sea for 25 days. Whether New Delhi and Beijing intend to build blue-water fleets around carrier task forces is no longer in question. They do, and they are.

Which aspiring sea power has the advantage in carrier aviation, China or India?

Tough to say.

China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLA Navy) probably gets the nod from a purely material standpoint, whereas the Indian Navy holds the edge in the all-important human dimension.

One caveat. I’ve come to doubt how meaningful side-by-side comparisons of armaments are when abstracted from their larger political, strategic, and geographic context. They have an unearthly feel. Battle is the arbiter of which force is superior. Myriad factors like geographic distance, logistics, the number and capability of escort ships, and the availability and striking power of shore-based fire support shape tactical engagements. Indeed, they can decide the outcome.

Think about it. If the two fleets met in the China seas, Chinese commanders would bring not just the PLA Navy surface fleet but short-range submarines, aircraft flying from airfields ashore, and land-based anti-ship missiles to bear—massing far more firepower than the fleet alone could manage. The pattern would reverse itself if a clash took place in the Bay of Bengal. Indian commanders could hurl additional assets into the fray, taking advantage of short distances to the theater and nearby manpower, land-based platforms, and bases.

It cannot be repeated too many times: sea power is more than the navy. It’s hard to isolate and measure two navies’ relative combat power short of assigning them a set of coordinates far from either belligerent’s shores—how about the Weddell Sea, adjacent to Antarctica, or the South Atlantic?—and instructing them to meet there to fight it out. That would come close to excluding all external variables. In other words, it’s hard to run a controlled experiment to gauge naval power.

All of that being said, it’s worth examining each platform to see what it may bring to a sea fight. The Vikramaditya/Gorshkov displaces about 45,000 tons fully loaded—that is, including the air wing, the crew, fuel, stores, and everything else a man-of-war needs to ply the briny deep. For comparison’s sake, that’s a tad bigger than a US Navy Essex-class fleet carrier of World War II vintage. It approximates the dimensions of today’s big-deck U.S. Navy amphibious assault ships (LHA or LHD).

The Varyag, on the other hand, weighs in at a bit over 67,000 tons fully loaded. That’s roughly the size of the modernized USS Midway, the retired supercarrier that now adorns the San Diego waterfront as a museum ship. Size matters. With bigger hulls comes greater hangar and flight-deck space, and thus the capacity to accommodate a larger, more diverse air wing.

And to be sure, the Varyag will reportedly carry about 26 fixed-wing combat aircraft—the official People’s Daily speculated that J-15s will operate from its deck for the first time during the ongoing shakedown—and about 24 helicopters. (I hem-and-haw on the exact figures because an air wing’s composition is not fixed. The U.S. Navy has experimented with various configurations over the years.) The Vikramaditya/Gorshkov’s complement is a more modest 16 tactical aircraft—Mig-29Ks were part of the package deal for the ship—and 10 helicopters. The Chinese carrier’s fighter/attack force, then, is over half-again as large as its Indian counterpart’s. Quantity isn’t everything, but it is important in air-to-air combat. Advantage: China.

It’s worth pointing out, however, that both ships are modest in capability relative to their nuclear-powered U.S. Navy brethren, each of which displaces over 100,000 tons and can carry an air wing numbering some 90 fixed- and rotary-wing aircraft—nearly double the complement for the Varyag. It’s also worth recalling that both ships are Soviet relics, and that the Soviet Navy never quite got carrier aviation right. Whether Russian or Chinese shipwrights have managed to correct any lingering design defects remains to be seen. Whatever the case, it’s fair to say that Beijing and New Delhi are fielding what some wags term “starter carriers” in the Varyag and Vikramaditya. Both navies are pursuing indigenously built carriers for their future fleets.

My guess is that the Indian Navy commands a significant advantage over the PLA Navy in the domains of airmanship and seamanship. As the late U.S. Air Force colonel John Boyd liked to quip, machines don’t fight wars; people, ideas, and hardware—in that order!—are the determinants of competitive enterprises. There is a reason we call it a trial of arms. Many outcomes are possible when human wills interact.

Indians seem to excel at air power. U.S. Air Force pilots who face off against their Indian counterparts in mock combat rave about the skills and panache of Indian airmen. And while the Vikramaditya is a new class of flattop and the MiG-29K a new aircraft for the Indian Navy, carrier operations are nothing new for the navy. The service has operated at least one flattop for over half a century. For example, INS Viraat, a Centaur­-class vessel built for Britain’s Royal Navy, has served in the Indian fleet for a quarter-century. In short, Indian mariners are steeped in a naval-aviation culture that the Chinese are only starting to instill. Advantage: India.

Both Chinese and Indian flattops—like all warships, and indeed all weapon systems—remain “black boxes” until actually used in battle against real opponents pounding away at them. This is true even of the U.S. Navy, which fought its last major fleet engagement at Leyte Gulf in 1944. Payloads, weapon ranges, and sensor characteristics can look impressive on paper, but weaponry often underperforms the technical characteristics reported in the pages of Jane’s Fighting Ships. Faulty manufacturing, inadequate doctrine or tactics, and less-than-proficient users are only some of the countless variables that can open a chasm between promise and performance.

Observers must keep trying to appraise how platforms will perform in real-world combat. But let’s do so while keeping the political, strategic, and operational context in which battle takes place squarely in view. Numbers tell only part of the tale.

James Holmes is an associate professor of strategy at the U.S. Naval War College. The views voiced here are his alone.

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