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US-India Collaboration on Aircraft Carriers: A Good Idea?

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Asia Defense

US-India Collaboration on Aircraft Carriers: A Good Idea?

Ashley Tellis claims the United States should help India develop its next-generation carriers. He’s right.

US-India Collaboration on Aircraft Carriers: A Good Idea?

Naval variant of Tejas taking-off during test-flight from shore-based sky-jump facility at INS Hansa, Goa

Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Yesterday, my colleague Franz-Stefan Gady covered the main takeaways from a new Carnegie Endowment for International Peace report, authored by Ashley Tellis, that calls for, among other things, broader cooperation between the United States and India on developing the latter’s naval capabilities. Specifically, Tellis focuses on carrier aviation and recommends that the United States ensure that India fields a more robust carrier capability than China. India has a Vikrant-class carrier in the works: the 65,000 ton nuclear-powered INS Vishal will launch in the next decade. Tellis’ report has drawn attention for good reason, and I’d like to herein address two points that stood out to me.

First, Tellis astutely notes that while the United States and India are strategically converging—certainly in the first 11 months of Narendra Modi and the Bharatiya Janata Party’s time in power—what both sides really need is a bilateral strategic event on the scale of the 2005 123 agreement on civil nuclear cooperation. That agreement stands as a watershed moment in bilateral relations between the world’s oldest democracy and its largest. It came a few years after that United States had alienated and sanctioned India for its nuclear tests in the late-1990s. The civil nuclear agreement was a feather in the Bush administration’s cap on foreign policy and showed the India and the United States could work together for mutual benefit.

Today, though both countries cooperate and agree on a variety of security and defense issues (see examples here and here), there is no real looming possibility for a cooperative endeavor on the scale of the civil nuclear cooperation deal. Tellis claims—and I’d agree—that U.S. technical assistance for India’s indigenous aircraft carrier, while not comparable in scale to the nuclear agreement, are a great way to encourage a convergence between the core national security interests of both countries. Tellis situates the strategic logic of this endeavor in terms of the broader conversations that are taking place in both Washington and New Delhi about China’s naval modernization and forays into the Indian Ocean Region (IOR).

Second, while the report’s two core recommendations for the United States on offensive carrier technology are straightforward,  they are not both equally convincing. The recommendations, on improving the ability of India’s next-generation carriers to “fight,” are to allow India access to General Atomics’ electromagnetic aircraft launch system (EMALS, the advantages of which I discussed in some detail earlier this month), and offer India access to “various advanced aviation systems” (read: E-2C/D Hawkeye and F-35C Lightning joint strike fighters). The first proposal—EMALS—is both realistic and feasible while the second is less so. EMALS would ensure that India’s Vikrant-class carriers would have superiorly capable air wings to anything China currently fields on its sole carrier, the sidegraded Russian Admiral Kuznetsov-class carrier, the Liaoning.

In short, an EMALS-equipped INS Vishal (and ostensibly INS Vikrant) would entail a switch to the more complex but versatile catapult-assisted (CATOBAR) launch systems. Currently, India, Russia, and China operate carriers using the less advanced short take-off (STOBAR) launch system. With an EMALS-equipped CATOBAR launch system (pardon the alphabet soup), India’s naval strike fighters would encounter less strain on their airframes and be able to conduct sorties faster. This means that even while China’s current J-15 fighters may be better equipped than India’s currently employed MiG-29K Fulcrum fighters, India would have a leg up when it came to deploying its carrier air wings.

Of course, the MiG-29K Fulcrum won’t be India’s go-to strike fighter (one hopes) when the Vishal heads out to sea. The question of what fighter would adorn the Vishal‘s flattop remains open. Tellis proposes Lockheed Martin’s F-35C Lightning. While it’s an interesting thought, it’s hard to imagine India opting for the F-35C (it would seem Flashpoint‘s Robert Farley agrees with me on this point, based on his post from earlier today discussing the future of India’s carrier aviation). Part of the reason is that India is too far along with Russia on their plans to jointly develop a multi-role fifth generation fighter aircraft based off the Sukhoi T-50 PAK FA. (New Delhi is also testing naval prototypes of its Tejas light combat aircraft, but the focus remains on STOBAR launch systems.)

While joint production and development plans have hit a few roadblocks, New Delhi is almost certainly not interested in looking away at this point. To be sure, that could change in the future and the F-35C may become a compelling option. For example, disagreements over the extent of India’s involvement in the FGFA could drive New Delhi away. Additionally, Tellis notes that the T-50 has no naval variant; the FGFA variant might not either, initially. India’s recent decision to acquire 36 Dassault Rafale fighters from France could be the big wrench in the works here for any Indian plans to explore an F-35C acquisition. While the Rafale is less capable than the F-35C as a stealth fighter, it would fight the bill for India’s next-generation carrier air wings.

As an ancillary note, the F-35 could have had a very different fate with India had things gone differently in the early stages of bidding for India’s now-dead medium multi-role combat aircraft (MMRCA) tender. In 2008, Lockheed Martin pitched a F-16 variant (F-16IN) for consideration under the MMRCA, with the added bonus that India would be eligible for the F-35 Lightning in the future (Tellis himself explored the reasons the U.S. pitch failed in 2011). The F-16 wasn’t appealing for a variety of reasons: Pakistan operated the fighter and its capabilities were insufficiently differentiated from the Mirage 2000s the Indian Air Force already possessed. Additionally, Indian carrier development was less of a priority at the time the MMRCA was conceived. Today, Indian priorities have changed with the times and New Delhi sees a greater role for naval aviation in its bid to exert strategic primacy over the IOR.

Leaving the nuts and bolts of cooperation on India’s carriers aside, one hopes that Tellis’ recommendations will be heard loudly and clearly in both New Delhi and Washington. As the India and the United States continue to build their relationship on a solid foundation of shared interests, both strategic and economic, they will find it easier to pursue their common goal of preserving the status quo in the Indian Ocean through sustained cooperation on defense and security matters. Washington should do its part in buttressing New Delhi’s ability to exercise naval supremacy in the IOR. Making sure India has the right tools for the job (i.e., cutting edge aircraft carriers) is a straightforward and visible way to do so.