India Has Aircraft Carriers, But Are They Worth Anything?

Robert Beckhusen

Key Point: When compared with Pakistani costal defenses, it's easy to conclude that India's aircraft carriers don't bring much to a fight.

The Indian Navy has put out a proposal for its third aircraft carrier, tentatively titled the Vishal due to enter service in the latter 2020s. The 65,000-ton Vishal will be significantly larger than India’s sole current carrier, the Vikramaditya known formerly as the ex-Soviet Admiral Gorshkov, and the incoming second one, the domestically-built Vikrantwhich is expected to enter service later in 2018.

To see why Vishal is a big deal for the Indian Navy, one needs only to look at her proposed air wing — some 57 fighters, more than Vikramaditya — 24 MiG-29Ks — and Vikrant‘s wing of around 30 MiG-29Ks. While below the 75+ aircraft aboard a U.S. Navy Gerald R. Ford-class supercarrier, Vishal will be a proper full-size carrier and India’s first, as the preceding two are really small-deck carriers and limited in several significant ways.

The Indian Navy is also looking at an electromagnetic launch system for its third carrier, similar to the one aboard the Ford class. India’s first two carriers have STOBAR configurations, in which aircraft launch with the assistance of a ski-jump, which limits the maximum weight a plane can lift into the air. Typically this means that fighters must sacrifice weapons, or fuel thus limiting range, or a combination of both.

The Indian Navy is searching for a foreign-sourced twin-engine fighter for the Vishal, with the U.S. F/A-18 and French Rafale in the running, and India has already ordered 36 multi-role Rafales for its air force. This is a blow to advocates of an Indian-made fighter for the carrier such as naval version of the delta-wing HAL Tejas, which is too heavy for carrier work

But regardless of what kind of fighters Vishal uses, the question is whether India really needs a third carrier, which will cost billions of dollars over its lifetime. To be sure, a third and much larger carrier will free up the burden on the Vikramaditya and Vikrant, only one of which is likely to be battle-ready at any given time.

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