Experts feel India will need a bigger carrier than its planned 45,000-ton warship to counter China’s increasing presence in the Indian Ocean Region

Last week, when the China Central Television showed live the People’s Liberation Army Navy’s (PLAN) third aircraft carrier Fujian leaving the Jiangnan Shipyard in Shanghai, the message to the world was loud and clear. The 80,000 metric ton mammoth, Type-003 class warship, which was on its maiden sea trial, has put PLAN way ahead of many other navies.

Only the Nimitz class (87,000 metric tons) and Gerald R. Ford class (100,000 metric tons) aircraft carriers of the US Navy are bigger than the Fujian. The Chinese carrier underscores Beijing’s ambition to assert itself as a major maritime force on the global stage.

Around 42 aircraft carriers are in operation by 13 navies around the world. But it is PLAN’s pace of expansion on this front that naval observers find impressive. In 2012, China commissioned its first aircraft carrier Liaoning; the second carrier, Shandong, was launched in 2019. While Shandong is the first indigenous Chinese carrier, Liaoning was rebuilt on a gutted, unfinished Ukrainian aircraft carrier hull.

PLAN has an ambitious goal of building a fleet of over 10 aircraft carriers by 2050. As China eyes greater dominance in the Indian Ocean Region, the Indian Navy, still awaiting its third aircraft carrier, has some catching up to do.

Interestingly, India became the first Asian country in 1961 to acquire an aircraft carrier—the HMS Hercules from the UK. It now operates two aircraft carriers—INS Vikramaditya, acquired from Russia, and INS Vikrant, the country’s first Indigenous Aircraft Carrier (IAC-1). INS Vikrant has 14 decks and 2,300 compartments, and can accommodate a crew of 1,700.

A comparison of China’s rapid aircraft carrier development and India’s slow progress in this points to strategic considerations in naval development. While China is swiftly advancing its capabilities with Fujian, India’s plans for a third aircraft carrier, the IAC-2, are pending approval. The debate within the Indian military establishment, over the comparative importance of aircraft carriers and submarines, has delayed the third aircraft carrier programme to some extent. As China aims for over 10 aircraft carriers by 2050, there’s growing pressure on India to accelerate its naval modernisation to maintain the balance of power in the Indian Ocean Region.

Last November, to get a third aircraft carrier as early as possible, the Defence Procurement Board moved the proposal before the government, but it is still awaiting a go-ahead from the defence ministry. Moreover, the naval headquarters is working on plans for larger aircraft carriers.

The IAC-2 is expected to have a displacement of 45,000 tons and cost around ₹40,000 crore. It will be built by Cochin Shipyard Limited and modelled on INS Vikrant, which was commissioned in September 2022.

It is notable that India’s aircraft carrier project has hit delays amid the carrier vs submarine debate. Naval experts argue that both submarines and aircraft carriers are critical. While submarines are best for sea denial, aircraft carriers are needed for sea control and power projection. In military parlance, sea control is exercised using a combination of warships, fixed-wing aircraft, helicopters and amphibious capabilities whereas a sea denial strategy means denying the enemy use of a sea area for a certain period of time.

About Fujian, naval observers call it the largest carrier in PLAN’s fleet, featuring advanced Catapult Assisted Take-Off & Barrier Arrested Recovery (CATOBAR) capabilities with an electromagnetic aircraft launch system (EMALS).

Given the namesake of East China’s Fujian Province and hull number 18, China’s third aircraft carrier was launched from the Jiangnan Shipyard in Shanghai on June 17, 2022. It is planned for entry into service by 2026.

Naval observers believe that Fujian is capable of accommodating 3,000 personnel and can achieve top speeds of up to 31 knots (57 kmph). The warship is 316 metres long and displaces over 80,000 tons of water. It is the largest aircraft carrier yet to be built outside the US. The ship is powered by conventional fuel and its propulsion is based on conventional steam turbines with diesel generators.

According to China’s official Xinhua news agency, construction of the Fujian proceeded according to plan, with mooring tests and equipment calibrations completed on time and the carrier acquiring technical readiness for sea trials. Fujian is expected to be tested in sea for over a year, primarily to check the reliability and stability of its propulsion and electrical systems.

According to media reports, Fujian is expected to host not only improved versions of China’s J-15 fighter jet but also new aircraft, including the next-generation stealth fighter jet J-35, the fixed-wing early warning aircraft KJ-600 and the JL-10 advanced trainer jet.

Indian naval experts believe it is high time the Indian Navy starts working on a much bigger aircraft carrier as, they feel, a 45,000-ton IAC-2 will not be an answer to China’s growing naval prowess in the Indian Ocean Region.

Experts feel the contrast between China’s commencement of sea trials for Fujian and the Indian Navy’s wait for approval on its next carrier underscores the difference in pace of naval development in the two countries. China’s swift naval expansion highlights its strategic ambitions while India’s deliberative process reflects careful consideration of defence priorities. As China strengthens its naval presence, there’s increasing pressure on India to expedite its modernisation efforts to maintain a balanced maritime posture in the Indian Ocean Region.

(With Agency Inputs)