This is part one of a three-part series reviewing Indian and Chinese carrier procurement. Part two is available here.
In recent months, China’s third aircraft carrier, known as 003, has received increasing media attention as its construction proceeds apace at the Jiangnan shipyard in Shanghai, with a launch currently estimated to occur by the first quarter of 2022. Simultaneously, at Cochin shipyard in Kochi, India, the domestically built INS Vikrant is also treading to reach its own milestones, aiming to embark on its long-awaited sea trials in coming months.
The progress of the Vikrant and 003 are useful representations of the fascinating way in which the Indian Navy (IN) and China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) have approached their respective carrier programs. This article, the first in a two-part series, will review the trajectory of the IN and PLAN carrier programs from the recent past to the present, and consider their future prospects in the context of the two nations’ strategic naval priorities.
Setting the Stage
Prior to the 2010s, the general defense community believed India fielded more experience operating carriers than China. This was obvious, simply on the basis that the PLAN had never operated any type of aircraft carrier prior to receiving CV-16 Liaoning in service in late 2012. Meanwhile, India had operated the 20,000 ton INS Vikrant R11 (built by Britain and intended to be the HMS Hercules) between 1961 and 1997, and the 29,000 ton INS Viraat (ex-HMS Hermes) between 1987 and 2016. Of these two aircraft carriers, the Vikrant operated as a catapult equipped (CATOBAR) carrier until the late 1980s whereupon it was modified with a ski jump to primarily operate sea Harrier jets as a vertical short takeoff/landing capability (VSTOL) carrier, while the INS Viraat operated as a VSTOL carrier from the outset of being received by the IN. At present, India’s sole operational aircraft carrier is the ski jump equipped (STOBAR) INS Vikramaditya, commissioned in 2013. This ship was originally a Kiev-class carrier – the ex-Admiral Gorshkov – which Russia sold to India before undergoing an epic saga of modifications to be converted from its previous VSTOL carrier/cruiser role to its present ski jump equipped STOBAR configuration.
Although the PLAN had never operated any aircraft carrier prior to the Liaoning, China did have exposure to some other aircraft carriers that it could draw from. The ex-HMAS Melbourne, an Australian Majestic-class light carrier, was sold to China in the 1980s after retirement for scrapping. Prior to scrapping, the relatively complete ship likely provided useful information to the Chinese navy given the lack of any prior exposure to aircraft carriers, though the actual extent of technical advancement is difficult to assess. Two Kiev-class carriers from the former Soviet Union (and sister ships to the Admiral Gorshkov), the Kiev and the Minsk, were also sold to China in the 1990s. These two ships were converted into naval museums and amusement parks, but it is likely they were similarly assessed by the PLAN to further contribute to their longstanding aircraft carrier goals of the time. Ultimately, none of the ex-Melbourne, ex-Kiev, or ex-Minsk was converted by the PLAN into an operational carrier, likely a result of the inherent limitations of their designs and their hull age, as well as the navy’s economic and shipbuilding priorities at the time. It was only in 1998, when China received the ex-Varyag, the unfinished hull of the Soviet Union’s second Kuznetsov-class carrier (whose purchase and transfer from Ukraine was a saga in of itself), that China received a hull that could be viably converted into an operational warship.
Therefore, in the first decade of the new millennium, both the IN and PLAN had set wheels in motion to pursue robust aircraft carrier programs. India recognized the need to overhaul their carrier force with newer, more capable ships, while China sought to procure the beginnings of a robust carrier capability.
Vikramaditya and Liaoning
As a result of geopolitical expediency and hull availability, India and China found themselves on similar paths for the first of their new aircraft carriers. Both the IN and PLAN adopted greatly overhauled carriers originally built by the ex-Soviet Union: INS Vikramaditya (ex-Gorshkov) and CV-16 Liaoning (ex-Varyag), respectively. However, these ships would embark on very different journeys to reach operational status in their new home navies.
The ex-Gorshkov was sold to India in 2004 for free, but with a cost of $800 million for refurbishing the carrier itself, to be completed by Russia at Sevmash shipyard for delivery in 2008 with the name INS Vikramaditya. The extent of work was not insignificant, as it demanded not only the removal of the ship’s integral weaponry (distinct to the Kiev-class in its carrier/cruiser role), but also extensive expansion of the ship’s flight deck to add a ski jump and arresting gear for STOBAR operations. Unfortunately, cost overruns increased the price to a final bill of $2.35 billion, and delays pushed the delivery to 2013, with the ship itself reaching Indian waters in 2014.
The primary airwing of INS Vikramaditya consists of up to 26 Mig-29K multirole fighters and 10 Kamov 28/31 family helicopters for the antisubmarine (ASW) and airborne early warning (AEW) mission, all procured from Russia. Russia also provided training for initiating Indian aviators to STOBAR operations, notable as at that point the Indian Navy had not conducted arrested recoveries for decades since the original INS Vikrant R11 abandoned its catapult launched aircraft for VSTOL Harriers.
The ex-Varyag was sold by Ukraine to China in 1998. At the time the ship was not part of an official government project, and was instead intended to become a casino. The weathered but robust hull reached Chinese waters in early 2002 after multiple delays along its journey. The carrier remained at Dalian shipyard, where it became apparent it was not destined to become an entertainment venue. Initial, outwardly visible work only consisted of some intermittent anti-corrosion treatments to the ship’s island and flight deck, and it was only in 2009 that obvious structural work on the ship began, initiated by large cutouts to the ship’s island. The ship would subsequently depart on its first sea trials in August 2011, before being commissioned with the PLAN in September 2012 as the Liaoning. While the final cost and time of the ship’s refurbishment is difficult to estimate, one notable difference from the Vikramaditya is that the Liaoning’s subsystems were sourced from domestic suppliers, with work done at a domestic shipyard, both of which would have proved invaluable for subsequent domestic carrier pursuits.
The Indian procurement of the Vikramaditya and the Chinese procurement of the Liaoning are fascinating for their similarities: both were STOBAR carriers with origins in the Soviet Union, both received significant work and entered service within years of each other, and both faced their own share of trials and tribulations. At 45,000 tons full displacement, the Vikramaditya is lighter than the Liaoning, at 65,000 tons full, but they field similar sized combat airwings, as a result of the Vikramaditya operating the smaller Mig-29K and the Liaoning operating the larger J-15. Both the Mig-29K and the J-15 will lack the flexibility to reliably take off at their maximum take-off weights (MTOWs) under all conditions due to their STOBAR configuration, thereby proportionally affecting their maximum range and payloads, though in absolute terms the Mig-29K endures a smaller range and payload than the J-15 simply by virtue of their different weight classes and engine thrust. However, both types at present are credible fourth-generation multirole fighters with beyond visual range (BVR) capability and strike and maritime strike capability, but lack more capable avionics such as AESA radars or newer BVR weapons.
The differences between the Vikramaditya and the Liaoning – as well as their respective airwings – are punctuated by the degree of indigenous self-sufficiency involved. Procuring domestic subsystems and conducting work in domestic shipyards, and fitting a carrier with domestically produced aircraft, not only provides experience for future projects, but it typically also enables superior support for routine operations and maintenance, as the logistics train and human expertise do not need to be organized and imported from abroad. Needless to say, those procurement choices are defined by the availability and maturity of each nation’s shipbuilding industry and overall military industrial complex. Some of these differences become more visible when reviewing India’s first domestically produced carrier, INS Vikrant, and the first domestically produced Chinese carrier, CV-17 Shandong.
Vikrant and Shandong
INS Vikrant – also known as the Indigenous Aircraft Carrier 1 (IAC-1) – is a 45,000 ton full displacement STOBAR carrier built indigenously by India at Cochin shipyard. Vikrant was first laid down in February 2009, with plans at the time aiming to achieve sea trials by 2013 for the ship to be commissioned in 2014. Unfortunately, the ship suffered multiple delays, being launched without its island and complete flight deck in August 2013, before being redocked and refloated in June 2015 in a structurally complete state more consistent with international norms of ship completion at time of launch. Since 2015, the ship has been in fitting out. As of late June 2021, the ship has yet to embark on its first sea trial, but the most recent news reports strongly suggest that is likely to occur in the coming months.
Therefore, INS Vikrant could enter service between late 2022 and 2023, a total period of 13 to 14 years between initiating work and commissioning. The time lapsed is undeniably long, but this is not fully unexpected when considering the Vikrant is by far the largest indigenous warship built by India to this point (the next largest being 7,500-ton destroyers), as well as the state of the Indian shipbuilding industry, and the involvement of and reliance on multiple foreign vendors for key subsystems, to be outlined below.
The Vikrant was first ordered in 2004, alongside procurement plans for the carrier that would become INS Vikramaditya, originating from a goal in the late 1980s to replace India’s two carriers in service at the time (INS Viraat and the older INS Vikrant R11). The design and configuration of the Vikrant is as interesting as the journey it has taken through its construction milestones. The configuration of the ship’s island, flight deck, and elevators resembles a scaled down configuration of the Kuznetsov-class carrier, and presents itself as a sensible, small-to-medium sized STOBAR carrier. Various key subsystems imported from abroad are equipped in the ship, such as four General Electric LM2500+ gas turbines that propel the ship, and a primary radar suite procured from Spain and Israel, alongside steel and aviation suites from Russia and consulting work from Italy.
The primary airwing of Vikrant will consist of 10 helicopters and 26 Mig-29Ks at entry into service. A naval variant of the Tejas light multirole fighter being developed was ultimately abandoned by the Indian Navy in lieu of a new twin engine Tejas derived naval fighter dubbed TEDBF (Twin Engine Deck Based Fighter, to be reviewed in more detail next month). A program to procure 57 carrierborne aircraft to bridge the airwing gap for the Vikrant and Vikramaditya has yet to see a final decision; however, international vendors from the U.S., Russia, and France have all fielded offerings.
Surprisingly, one limiting factor imposed by the design of INS Vikrant itself is the size of its elevators. At 10 by 14 meters each, the two elevators were intended to accommodate the Naval Tejas and Mig-29K, but have proven somewhat small to comfortably fit Western carrierborne aircraft such as the French Rafale-M and U.S. F/A-18E/F Super Hornet, and no definitive solution has yet to be settled upon. Nevertheless, the elevators on the Vikrant are wisely situated at the starboard flight deck edge, while the Vikramaditya inherits its two elevators located in the middle of the flight deck, an undesirable remnant of the Kiev-class.
In the early 2010s, rumors emerged that the PLAN would procure a STOBAR carrier derived from the Liaoning, before procuring its first CATOBAR carrier. This ship was initially known as carrier 001A, before later being identified as 002, and subsequently entering service as CV-17 Shandong. Initial work was rumored to have begun in late 2013 at Dalian shipyard with cutting of steel, and the first modules of the ship were laid down in drydock in 2015, providing the initial visible confirmation of China’s first indigenously produced carrier to outside observers. The Shandong was launched in April 2017, and began sea trials one year later in March 2018, before it was commissioned into the PLAN in December 2019, thus spending six years between initiating work and commissioning.
The configuration of the Shandong follows that of the Liaoning, adopting the same external design and primary dimensions and displacement, while featuring certain improvements such as a smaller and redesigned island and minor flight deck and weapons elevator adjustments. Internally, the Shandong was constructed to modern PLAN damage control standards, and the ship’s propulsion reportedly adopted a variant of the steam boiler and turbine system developed for carrier 003. Similar to the Liaoning, the rest of the Shandong’s subsystems are domestically procured, in some cases using evolved variants of subsystems from the Liaoning (such as the Type 346 family AESA radar). The airwing capacity of the Shandong is identical to the Liaoning, and despite speculation, there is no evidence that the hangar of the Shandong is larger than that of the Liaoning. Therefore, the Shandong can be considered a sister ship to the Liaoning, and by extension, a close relative to the long enduring Admiral Kuznetsov, the lead ship of its class that remains in service with the Russian Navy, which still aims to refurbish the ship for return to operations.
The Indian procurement of INS Vikramaditya and INS Vikrant, and the Chinese procurement of CV-16 Liaoning and CV-17 Shandong, have been revelatory and symptomatic of certain strengths and weaknesses of each nation’s underlying shipbuilding industries and military industrial complexes.
In particular, the way in which the Vikrant and the Shandong proceeded through their work is notable: initial work on the Vikrant began some four years before equivalent work began with the Shandong, yet the latter entered service at least two years (and counting) ahead of the former, at time of writing. Some of this difference can certainly be attributed to the fact that the Shandong is a derivative design of the Liaoning, and the effects of the pandemic on the Vikrant cannot be understated either. But on the other hand, it is undeniable that the Shandong is a larger ship than the Vikrant by some 20,000 tons, equipped with indigenous subsystems, all taking less than half the total time for initial work to commissioning than the Vikrant.
In hindsight, this differing pace of progress seems obvious when comparing the scale and sophistication of the overall Indian shipbuilding industry with that of China, as well as examining the maturity of the domestic suppliers for various subsystems that each nation was capable of producing (and thus supplying in a timely manner). Nevertheless, as the IN and PLAN entered the 2020s, the trajectory of carrier procurement was not dissimilar: both would soon field or already field two STOBAR carriers in service, with the IN possessing some extent of historical naval aviation experience to draw from, and the PLAN leveraging their formidable indigenous shipbuilding industry and aviation industry to seek to rapidly train and develop core carrier operation competencies.
However, the IN and PLAN begin to diverge in their carrier trajectories once we review each navy’s procurement of their third carrier and the scale of their carrier escorts. These topics will be reviewed in part two of this series next month.