Thursday, March 7, 2013

India without aircraft carrier as China takes huge strides

India may fancy itself as a regional superpower but does not have an aircraft carrier prowling on the high seas. Its solitary carrier, the 54-year-old INS Viraat, is out of action for several months once again for a major refit to ensure it can soldier on for another three to four years.

Despite the Indian Ocean having emerged as the new strategic theatre between India and China, the Indian politico-military establishment's lack of long-term planning and timely decision-making has all but dashed the Navy's long-standing ambition to deploy two potent carrier battle groups (CBGs).

China, in contrast, is taking huge strides in the arena. After last year's commissioning of its first carrier, the 65,000-tonne Liaoning, Beijing is furiously engaged in building more to further expand its "blue-water operations''.

If China sees aircraft carriers as "symbols of a great nation'', the US has realized their role in projecting power around the globe for long. As part of its pivot towards Asia-Pacific, at least six of the 11 American CBGs will be deployed in the region. Incidentally, each US carrier is over 94,000 tonne and capable of handling 80-90 fighters.

But the Indian Navy is continuing to flog an old warhorse because of huge delays in other carrier projects. One, Russia will deliver INS Vikramaditya, or the 44,570-tonne Admiral Gorshkov refurbished for $2.33 billion, only by December at the earliest, a good two decades after India first showed interest in it.

Two, Navy will not get its hands on the 40,000-tonne indigenous aircraft carrier (IAC) being built at Cochin Shipyard anytime before 2018. The follow-on 65,000-tonne IAC-II still remains a mere pipedream.

Sources say the 28,000-tonne INS Viraat, the second-hand HMS Hermes inducted by India in May 1987, is currently undergoing "a normal refit'' that takes at least eight to nine months. In the first phase at the Kochi dockyard, the 13-storey high warship is undergoing "hull and other underwater work''. Next in Mumbai, the ship will get its boilers, propulsions and other technical parts overhauled.

"The plan was to operate INS Viraat, whose keel was laid in 1944, for only 10 years after 1987. But fund crunches, protracted negotiation and consequent refit of Gorshkov and huge delays in launching the IAC project has meant INS Viraat has to be kept running,'' said a source.

INS Viraat has undergone a series of refits, with the last major life-extension one being in 2008-2009. With age, it has also lost most of its teeth. The Navy now has only 11 Sea Harrier jump-jets available to operate from its deck, with no replacement of the fighters possible.

The irony is that while INS Viraat has just a few fighters left, India is progressively inducting 45 MiG-29K fighters, ordered from Russia for over $2 billion, meant for INS Vikramaditya though the carrier itself is still awaited. In effect, India will have two effective CBGs only when INS Vikramaditya and IAC can operate together some time after 2018.

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