Indian aircraft carrier Vikrant and the sea rivalry with China

The Chinese Navy continues to increase its aircraft carrier capabilities – another aircraft carrier will soon be added to the two aircraft carrier ships in use. Over the course of nine years, Chinese ships have shattered the balance of power in the region, pushing over India with its 60-year history of carrier-based aircraft. Will the Vikrant aircraft carrier return India’s regional supremacy?

The first Indian-made aircraft carrier is already in sea trials while she finished basin trials in December 2020. INS Vikrant will become the second Indian aircraft carrier, strengthening the capabilities of the Russian-built Vikramaditya. These two ships will face the growing Chinese fleet.

India began operating aircraft carriers in 1961 using aging British ships. Against this background, China, which received its first aircraft carrier in 2012, looks like an insufficiently experienced player. Nevertheless, the Chinese fleet already has two aircraft carriers, and the project 003 ship under construction and it will be bigger and stronger.

"Vikrant" during basin trials in November 2020. 
“Vikrant” during basin trials in November 2020. 

With a smaller standard displacement (40,000 versus 55,000 for the Liaoning), the Vikrant will receive comparable aircraft carrier capabilities, and its dimensions will be 67% of the dimensions of comparable ships in China. It is also believed that its deck area will be approximately 85% of that of Chinese aircraft carriers. In other words, the Indian ship will receive a capacity comparable to the Chinese ships.

Also, the advantage of the Indian vessel can be a novelty. Despite the fact that Indian and Chinese ships are rooted in the Soviet project 1143 “Krechet”, the design of “Vikrant” began much later. So, the Indian ship was launched in 2013 – this allows us to speak about a greater design resource and better manufacturability.

The Chinese aircraft carrier of Project 002
The Chinese aircraft carrier of Project 002

For comparison, “Liaoning” stood unfinished for six years in Nikolaev, and it was laid down in 1985 already. Shandong has been under construction since 2013, but it is still based on the developments of the Soviet cruiser Admiral of the Fleet of the Soviet Union Kuznetsov. For example, Chinese ships inherited steam turbines, while Vikrant will receive modern gas turbines.

Air wing

The main carrier-based aircraft of the PLA Navy is the Shenyang J-15, which is a modernized copy of the Soviet Su-33. The aircraft, which became the development of the heavy Su-27, can carry a wide range of weapons, including PL-12 air-to-air missiles and YJ-91 anti-ship missiles (the Soviet version of the Kh-31).

MiG-29K and Shenyang J-15. 
MiG-29K and Shenyang J-15. 

The Indian Navy chose a different path, choosing for their ships the MiG-29K multipurpose carrier-based fighter . It carries a lower combat load, but due to the lower mass of the MiG-29K, Indian ships can get comparable air wing power. By 2026, Indian carrier-based aircraft may receive a twin-engine HAL TEDBF fighter, which will replace the MiGs, which are criticized for their low reliability. So, in 2017, the Accounts Chamber of India noted that the number of serviceable MiG-29Ks during operation amounted to 16-37% of the total number of 45 aircraft. In addition, the purchase of Dassault Rafale and Boeing F / A-18E / F Super Hornet aircraft was considered.

Speaking of radar capabilities, the aircraft carriers of China and India will receive comparable equipment. So, the aviation of the Indian Navy uses the Ka-31 AWACS helicopters, and the Chinese ships carry the Changhe-Z18J helicopters. These helicopters can slightly increase the situational awareness of aircraft carrier combat groups. To compensate for this, China developed the Xian KJ-600 AWACS aircraft, created with an eye on the American E-2D Hawkeye. The KJ-600 could expand the capabilities of the carrier groups, but the existing aircraft carriers of the PLA Navy cannot carry such aircraft due to the lack of a catapult. It is believed that the project 003 ship with an electromagnetic catapult will be able to carry an AWACS aircraft.

Speaking about air defence capabilities INS Vikrant will be equipped with Barak-8  while the Chinese aircraft carrier is equipped with HQ-9.

ins vikrant aircraft carrier
Satellite image of INS Vikrant aircraft carrier

Summing up, it is important to note that India is unlikely to compare in the number of aircraft carriers with the PLA Navy. Meanwhile, two aircraft carriers will make the gap in capabilities manageable – especially in the event of a potential conflict, China will not be able to send its entire fleet to the Indian Ocean. Therefore, it can be assumed that the construction of the “Vikrant” will help maintain maritime parity in the region.

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