Chinese aircraft carrier Type 003 under construction at Jiangnan shipyard along Yangzi river

With China on the verge of the launching of what is billed as the world’s largest non-American aircraft carrier in 2021 end, the Indian national security planners are worried about the security of the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) as Beijing, as in the past in the South China Sea, is a practitioner of gunboat diplomacy with scant respect of global law.

Labelled as type 003, the third aircraft carrier after Liaoning and Shandong will be followed by two more Chinese carrier battle groups (CBGs) before the end of this decade as per western intelligence reports.

While western defence experts have tried to lowball the PLA Navy carrier development program citing Chinese perfidious access to technology, the Indian Navy knows that the third aircraft carrier will create instability at least in the Indo-Pacific.

“The question is not how the Chinese acquired the technology but how it will impact India and the IOR. The US narrative that CBGs can be targeted by long-distance ballistic missiles comes from a position of strength, where the US Navy has no less than 11 super carriers at its disposal,” said a former Indian Navy admiral.

The PLA’s type 003 carrier is expected to be more than 85000 tonnes with an electromagnetic aircraft launch system (EMALS), which will allow the ship to launch aircraft with more fuel and weapons as well as airborne radars, anti-submarine warfare and aerial refuelers from the floating deck. This means that the range and strike of the aircraft carrier will increase manifolds. None of the Indian carriers has catapult aircraft launch system.

“In the Indian context, the Chinese carrier is a potent weapon and has to be treated as such. The security of IOR will be affected if two Chinese carriers come into the area. We must remember that the Chinese are using the US playbook in almost all their force application paradigms … like the US carrier in Taiwan straits… what prevents that Chinese carrier in future from carrying out a freedom of navigation operations in Andaman Seas!, ” said a naval operations expert.

While India has developed a new intermediate-range ballistic missile Agni-Prime with the wartime objective of targeting CBGs, the PLA with four aircraft carriers by 2025 will more than a match for INS Vikramaditya (presently under maintenance) and INS Vikrant, which will be commissioned by August 2022. Under the circumstances, India has no options but to build its nuclear-powered attack submarines to deter the Chinese flotilla and have one aircraft carrier operational at all times as air power at sea is an operational necessity and cannot be provided by the land-based air force. Without a protective aerial bubble, the CNG is not only exposed to incoming missiles but also to enemy aircraft.

“Carriers are being looked at purely from a force on force perspective. Questions are being asked why should we not build submarines to counter the Chinese carrier groups. That is true, but then our own carrier can threaten something else and balance the operational equation. Why do we assume that one carrier needs to go into battle with only another carrier? CBGs are flexible and have a range of operations - other than addressing the enemy carrier. That must settle the Carrier or Submarine debate as both are required for protecting the IOR,” an admiral said.

While many within the Indian national security set-up believe that an aircraft carrier is a World War II weapon and the era of stand-off weapon systems has dawned, the Chinese investment in building more such platforms clearly shows that the Indian Navy has a legitimate case for a third aircraft carrier.