China's Type-001A aircraft carrier at the Dalian Shipworks

Various Chinese state-run media agencies have reported that the country's first indigenously built aircraft carrier could soon commence sea trials, marking impressive progress for a ship that was launched less than a year ago at the Dalian Shipyard.

Work on the Chinese vessel, referred to as Type-001A by observers, was believed to have started in 2012-13, which makes for an astounding comparison with India's own indigenously built carrier (IAC). Construction of the IAC was started in 2005, but the vessel is expected to be ready for sea trials only by 2019, THE WEEK reported recently. The Indian vessel will be named the Vikrant, after India's first carrier, when it is commissioned into service.

The Chinese reports, which have also been quoted by the country's ministry of defence, claim the scaffolding on the ship has been removed an advanced radar system has been installed on it. It is opined that the sea trials could kick off on or around April 23, which is China's Navy Day. Sea trials are expected to take anywhere from several months to a year's time before the ship is officially commissioned into service.

According to analysts, the Type-001A has a loaded weight in excess of 60,000 tonnes and a length of over 300 metres and can carry over 40 aircraft—these figures are similar to the dimensions of China's first carrier, the Liaoning, which was acquired from Ukraine and refurbished by Beijing.

However, compared with the Liaoning, the Type-001A features a higher 'island'—housing command and control facilities—for better coordination of flight operations, an improved flight deck layout and more optimised hangar spaces for maintenance and repair of aircraft. The improvements reflect China's attempts to incrementally modify the design of the Soviet-era Liaoning to eliminate its drawbacks.

The progress of the Type-001A provides stark lessons to India, which ventured into carrier aviation nearly 50 years before China commissioned the Liaoning and has access to technology from both the West (read Europe, Israel and the US) and Russia.

The IAC, for instance, was designed with Italian consultants and has US-origin gas turbines, an Israeli radar and Russian MiG-29K fighters. One of the first major delays the IAC faced was on account of Russia delaying the supply of high-tensile strength steel, which finally led to India developing the metal on its own. Furthermore, given the assortment of technology, the IAC has limited commonality with the INS Vikramaditya, which is an extensively modified Soviet-era ship.

The Chinese, on the other hand, opted for incremental improvements over the Liaoning. This has ensured construction of the Type-001A has proceeded at a rapid pace, but also made management of costs easier. The Chinese have also standardised on the J-15 fighter, a derivative of the Soviet SU-33, for both ships, while India is believed to be looking at buying up to 57 new fighters as the MiG-29K—bought originally for the Vikramaditya—has had a poor reputation in service due to low operational availability and unreliable engines.

The SU-33 was selected by the Soviet Navy over the MiG-29K in the late 1980s; the MiG aircraft was 'resurrected' with the purchase of the Vikramaditya from Russia.

That the MiG-29Ks are effectively being lined up for replacement less than a decade after their induction shows that the Vikramaditya purchase from Russia—and the MiG jets bought with it—has been a debacle for India.

All of the four carriers mentioned in this article—Vikramaditya, the future Vikrant, the Liaoning and the Type-001A—are hampered by their aircraft launch arrangement, which revolves around the fighters relying on their own power to take off via an angled 'ski jump'. This is different from US and French carriers that have catapults to launch aircraft at significantly higher weights, increasing operational flexibility particularly for 'strike' operations against land or sea targets.

It is highly unlikely the Type-001A will venture into India's backyard and face off with the IAC or the Vikramaditya in the near future as China is still at a nascent stage with respect to power projection capabilities. However, Beijing's progress and its approach of pursuing incremental improvements, illustrated by the Type-001A, merit closer study by Indian defence planners.