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US, India ‘Bet Big’ On Fighter Jet-Armed Warships To Shift Balance Of Power In The Region

The world’s largest, newest, and most advanced carrier, USS Gerald R. Ford (100,000 tonnes), has changed course for the Eastern Mediterranean Sea as a show of force supporting Israel against the terrorist organization Hamas.

During the times when the relevance of aircraft carriers has been called into question, the Ford-class aircraft carrier, with its 75 fighter jets on board, has shown how to organically shift airpower across the globe.

The Indian Navy, on the other hand, has ditched its ambitions of a ‘Super Carrier’ in favor of a small aircraft carrier. Indian Navy Chief Admiral Hari R. Kumar revealed on October 6 that the navy is moving a case for the third aircraft carrier, which will be a repeat of the indigenous INS Vikrant.

Exigency and financial prudence have guided the force’s decision to capitalize on the expertise gained in constructing the aircraft carrier.

“We are working for a third aircraft carrier, which will be a repeat of the INS Vikrant. There is a lot of expertise that has been generated in terms of building an aircraft carrier. We are looking at having an IAC, a follow-on, I would say, a repeat order being made. We are preparing a case for it,” Admiral Kumar said. The need for three aircraft carriers was laid down in the first Plan Paper made for the Indian Navy in 1948 to enable it to exercise sea control in the Indian Ocean.

The Indian Navy presently operates INS Vikramaditya (Admiral Gorshkov) and INS Vikrant.

The Indian Navy commissioned its first aircraft carrier in 1961, but the border dispute with China diverted funds and attention towards the land forces. Despite this, in the 1971 war of Bangladesh liberation, the aircraft on board the earlier INS Vikrant was used to strike strategic targets deep inside East Pakistan, which later became Bangladesh.

However, the deployment of INS Vikrant in the eastern sector gave the Pakistani submarines a free run in the Arabian Sea in the western sector.

The freedom of navigation and overflight in international waters, the right of innocent passage of the territorial waters, and the right of transit passage of international straits guaranteed by the United Nations Convention on Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) provided an aircraft carrier with worldwide mobility. It can reach any conflict area as the major portion of the earth is accessible by sea and remains there for extended periods.

In the 2022 annual press conference ahead of the Navy Day, Admiral Kumar said that the larger aircraft carrier design will be sometime in the future. A school of thought says that the smaller flattop is not fit for the responsibility entrusted to the present-day navy that has to operate in a complex and contested maritime environment.

“Aircraft carriers remain in service for 30-40 years. The second indigenous aircraft carrier will take 7-9 years to build and will be ready by 2035. This means we are going to keep it in service till 2075. A 45,000-tonne carrier will not be able to meet India’s need to counter China, which is going to have a formidable presence in the Indian Ocean Region in the next 5-7 years,” Commodore Anil Jai Singh, an Indian Navy Veteran and Vice President of the Indian Maritime Foundation told the EurAsian Times.

Given the kind of capability we need in the future, we need bigger aircraft carriers in the future, Commodore Singh opined.

“The PLA-Navy is going for a bigger aircraft carrier. India takes pride in that we can turn any situation in the IOR favorably. If we need to maintain it, a 45,000-tonne aircraft carrier is not enough. We are not only looking at the present day but our capability for the next 40 years. What we need is at least a 65000-70000 ton aircraft carrier,” Commodore Singh added.

Indian Navy veteran Rear Admiral Raja Menon wrote in an article: “The accusations of vulnerability against large carriers also don’t hold up. All warships have to go in harm’s way. No weapon system is more vulnerable than the common infantryman – a human being, but that does not make soldiers obsolete. The large carrier is not a naval asset but a national asset – its very presence influences the choices seen to be available in all Indian Ocean littoral countries.

Apart from being unable to operate a large number of aircraft (INS Vikrant can operate 18 fighter jets), unlike their American counterparts, India’s 45,000-tonne indigenous carrier is also constrained by limited range and power. Nuclear propulsion, unlike conventional propulsion, offers higher and unlimited power to the carriers. The nuclear-powered floating bases become more agile and can be deployed for extended periods.

Compared to the big carrier, small flattops have less potent onboard defense systems and are particularly vulnerable to drone swarm attacks. The peacetime importance of a small aircraft carrier is not under contestation, but its combat role is limited.

The USS Gerald R. Ford Carrier not only comes with state-of-the-art offensive and defensive capabilities, it sails with her strike group. The carrier is powered by two nuclear engines that can operate for 25 years without a refuel. Nuclear power enables it to execute deceptive maneuvers in any direction for any duration, far exceeding the range of most hostile forces struggling to find them.

Israel War: World's Biggest Aircraft Carrier, Gerald R. Ford Dispatched; US F-35 Stealth Fighters Join In To Aid Israel
World’s Biggest Aircraft Carrier, Gerald R. Ford Dispatched; US F-35 Stealth Fighters Join In To Aid Israel

Her Strike Group, a formidable assembly of naval power, also includes the Ticonderoga-class guided-missile cruiser USS Normandy (CG 60) and the Arleigh-Burke-class guided missile destroyers USS Thomas Hudner (DDG 116), USS Ramage (DDG 61), USS Carney (DDG 64), and USS Roosevelt (DDG 80).

This deployment is not just a show of force but a clear message to adversaries about the lengths the US is willing to go to protect its allies.

Critics observe how land-based airpower can do the job and often has provided the bulk for sustained operations. The latter is, of course, true. But as first responders, shifting land-based aviation is hard to impossible. A carrier aviation group is entirely self-contained by default.

Indian Aircraft Carrier vs Chinese Aircraft Carrier

For India, an aircraft carrier capability is of utmost importance to balance the rising Chinese influence in the Indian Ocean Region. The latest INS Vikrant has been a major milestone for military indigenization in India. It is often compared to the PLA-Navy’s Shandong aircraft carrier commissioned in 2019.

Both are Soviet-era designs and use the older ‘ski-jump’ technology to help the deck-based fighter jets in taking off. The similarities end there. At 45,000 tonnes, Vikrant is even smaller than China’s homegrown Shandong aircraft carrier.

INS Vikrant
INS Vikrant

The Indian aircraft carrier manufacturing is a slow process. The keel for INS Vikrant was laid down in 2009 but was commissioned only in 2022. In comparison, Shadong’s keel was laid down in 2015, and the ship was commissioned four years later.

China’s capability to take warships from the drawing board to sea trials is congruent with its ambition to construct and deploy six advanced aircraft carrier groups by 2035.

China has already become the first country outside the US to embark on the construction of a supercarrier called Fujian. Fujian is China’s third aircraft carrier and the first to be totally designed and built domestically.

Fujian will be much larger than INS Vikrant and have more aircraft. Fujian is expected to use an electromagnetic system to slingshot aircraft at takeoff, which will help heavier fighter jets to take off with heavier weapons payload and more fuel at a faster rate.

It can also launch larger aircraft, like those suited for airborne early warning and control.

A Type 003-class carrier, Fujian is about 1,035 feet long and displaces about 80,000 tons fully loaded. This makes it slightly larger than the Type 001 Liaoning and Type 002 Shandong, which were about 1,000 feet long and displaced 60,000 to 70,000 tons. All three aircraft carriers of China are conventionally powered.

  • Ritu Sharma has been a journalist for over a decade, writing on defense, foreign affairs, and nuclear technology.
  • She can be reached at ritu.sharma (at) mail.com
  • Follow EurAsian Times on Google News

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