James Holmes

India’s Aircraft Carrier Challenge

It’s hard for outsiders to take the measure of a navy in peacetime. News of India’s Russian built carrier does shed some light.

Strategist Edward Luttwak likens warships to “black boxes” during peacetime strategic competition. Without peering inside, outsiders have a hard time judging how well designed, maintained, and operated a ship is. Combat clarifies a ship’s fitness by the most stringent standard possible, but battles are infrequent. The U.S. Navy’s last major fleet engagement, for example, took place at Leyte Gulf in October 1944. Absent that severe test, observers are forced to infer the state of things within the black box. Yet navies—like all big institutions—have defensive instincts. Few naval officials relish advertising ships’ or crews’ shortcomings. Such disclosures tarnish an institution’s reputation with domestic constituents and foreign audiences. In short, it’s hard for outsiders to take the measure of a navy in peacetime. A heavy guesswork quotient prevails.

Dramatic events—fires, groundings, collisions at sea, engineering accidents—offer a rare glimpse inside the box. Seldom is the view encouraging. Exhibit A: engineering travails on board the Soviet-built aircraft carrier Admiral Gorshkov. The flattop has undergone a major conversion since 2004, when New Delhi and Moscow inked a deal for the refit. It will join the Indian Navy as INS Vikramaditya. After repeated postponements, the transfer was slated for this December. Last month, however, the ship encountered major engineering problems during sea trials in the White Sea. The capacity to operate at full power for a specified period of time constitutes a key performance benchmark for propulsion plants. While details remain sketchy, the Gorshkov’s crew evidently had to take seven of eight boilers offline when they overheated during a full-power run. It appears the schedule will slipyet again, until—probably—sometime next year.

How long repairs will consume remains a matter of dispute. At fault was the insulation used to protect the boiler casings from the flames that burn within to generate steam. Indian officials rejected Russian proposals to use asbestos, which fell out of favor long ago owing to health hazards. Instead the boilers were lined with firebrick, long the standard in conventional steam-propelled U.S. warships. The bricks were evidently unable to withstand the heat generated when operating the boilers at full power. Accounts of the fault and likely repair timelines conflict. Some sources within the Russian shipbuilding industry indicated that the boilers will have to be replaced entirely—a major enterprise that would require cutting open the hull. If so, the ship’s delivery date will fall back another year or more.

Such estimates seem unduly dour. Unless the engineering watch team was asleep at the switch, they reduced the firing rate or shut down the boilers altogether when the problem appeared, and long before the heat could compromise the machinery’s structural integrity. In all likelihood, consequently, the shipyard can install new insulation without removing these massive pieces of gear. Betting against fresh setbacks to the Indian carrier program is typically a losing proposition. Still, I place my bet with the Russian boiler-design official who foretold a much shorter delay.

Who pays? is the other lingering question. The controversy took a comic turn late last month when Russian shipyard officials blamed imported, low-grade Chinese firebrick for the Gorshkov’s troubles. No less a personage than Defense Minister Yan Yujun rebutted the charges, maintaining that Chinese firms have “never” exported firebrick suitable for naval propulsion.

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Engineering woes, questions about battle efficiency, diplomatic flare-ups—there’s clearly a reason navies like to keep their problems within black boxes. One hopes the Indian Navy affords this one close scrutiny as it nears service.