India’s Muddled Carrier Plans

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India’s Muddled Carrier Plans

At long last the delivery of INS Vikramaditya appears imminent. Is India’s Navy up to the challenge?

At long last, the delivery of INS Vikramaditya, the former Russian Admiral Gorshkov finally appears imminent. Vikramaditya is currently undergoing sea trials with a mixed Russian-Indian crew, and a transfer to Indian service is scheduled for the autumn.  The delivery comes several years late, but still perhaps in time for the Indian Navy to use the carrier as a test-bed for INS Vikrant, its first indigenous carrier, scheduled for commissioning in 2018.

However, while the delayed delivery of Vikramaditya has surely proven problematic for the Indian Navy, the program has an altogether broader set of problems. Unlike the PLAN, the Indian Navy has a long history of carrier operations, running from the Majestic class INS Vikrant to the former Centaur class INS Viraat.

But India’s carrier heritage may be less of an asset than it seems.  India doesn’t appear interested in achieving greater efficiency in many areas— even in terms of common training and operational procedures— with this path of carrier fleet development. 

With the arrival of Vikramaditya, the Indian Navy will be flying new aircraft off of a new carrier of largely unfamiliar design. Although the Indian Navy has experience with both carriers and with Russian vessels, its previous carriers have been of British design, and it has never operated a ship this large. 

Furthermore, no Kiev class carrier has been put to sea in an operational sense since the early 1990s, and the modifications to Vikramaditya make her a virtually new vessel in any case.  Even after delivery, Vikramaditya will require considerable practice and time to become an effective, operational unit. The MiG-29K is also relatively new to carrier operations, with the first aircraft entering service in 2011. 

Operational tempo in Russian service has thus far been slow, meaning that many of the kinks with the carrier-based version of the veteran fighter will have to be worked out in Indian service.  If India follows through on plans to build INS Vishal as a CATOBAR carrier, the Navy will again have to learn an entirely new set of procedures, presumably with a new generation of aircraft, in the next decade.

The most interesting points to watch will be Indian collaboration with other carrier-operating navies.  The obvious candidate is Russia, but Russia owns only one carrier, which operates at a relatively low temp and may shortly re-enter a prolonged refurbishment period.  The only other navy to operate a similar carrier will, ironically, be the PLAN, which is unlikely to share many of its developing operational procedures with the Indian Navy. 

The risk of duplication of effort can surely be overstated; some of the tacit knowledge of naval aviation operations will carry over from the STOVL Viraat to the STOBAR Vikramaditya and Vikrant to the CATOBAR Vishal. However, “knowledge efficiency” and modularity do not appear to be strongly valued by the Indian Navy; beginning in 2018, it will operate three carriers of radically different age, design, and capability, and will likely maintain that state of affairs into the medium term (even after Vishal replaces Viraat).