India's navy has been scarred by Russia's cost and time overruns in building INS Vikramaditya (formerly Admiral Gorshkov) and the dismal performance of the MiG-29K/KUB aircraft that Russia sold India as "sweeteners" to that deal.
Given the robust contrast posed by the US Navy's carriers and the F/A-18E/F fighters that operate off them, the Indian Navy has enthusiastically embraced the JWG as a platform for accessing American aircraft carrier design and operational expertise, which Indian admirals describe as "an eye opener for us".
India's first indigenous aircraft carrier (IAC-1), called INS Vikrant, which is expected to become fully operational in 2021, incorporates Russian design concepts, such as a "ski-jump" for on-board fighters to take-off. But the second aircraft carrier (IAC-2), called INS Vishal, is almost certain to be based on US Navy operational concepts, such as catapult-assisted take off.
One objective of taking the JWG members on board INS Vikramaditya is to assess ways of easing the Indian Navy's transition from Russian carrier aviation concepts to those of the US Navy.
Over recent years, the Indian Navy has conceived INS Vishal as a smaller version of America's newest super-carrier, the 100,000-tonne USS Gerald R Ford, which was commissioned this summer. It was hoped that INS Vishal would be a 65,000-70,000 tonne, nuclear-powered vessel that launched aircraft with an "electro-magnetic aircraft launch system".
Called EMALS for short, this uses electro-magnetic energy to catapult aircraft to launch speed. It has begun equipping the next generation of US carriers, the so-called Gerald R Ford-class; replacing the six-decade-old steam-driven catapult that equips the Nimitz-class carriers that form the bulk of America's carrier fleet.
However, as this newspaper first reported (October 27, "Navy drops cherished dream of nuclear-powered aircraft carrier
"), indigenously developing a reactor for an Indian aircraft carrier will take another 15-20 years. Even so, India's selection of EMALS would allow the US a place at the design table.
"Washington could well make the sale of EMALS conditional on designing IAC-2. They could cite the need to safeguard the EMALS technology and fitment from a designer who could potentially be a rival," says a serving Indian admiral, speaking off the record.
Business Standard learns that New Delhi is expecting US members of the JWG to carry with them a positive Washington's response to a Letter of Request for EMALS that the defence ministry had sent last year.
Any EMALS transaction would necessarily be a government-to-government sale under the US Foreign Military Sales (FMS) programme.
A key question the JWG will discuss is how the enormous power requirements of EMALS – estimated at one GigaWatt – can be met without nuclear propulsion. The US designer of EMALS, General Atomics, argues that an Integrated Electric Power System (IEPS), which is the alternative to nuclear propulsion, can provide sufficient power.
An IEPS consists of powerful gas turbines that drive electrical generators, generating power to turn the vessel's propellers, as well as to meet onboard power requirements such as EMALS.
While India's navy has put its requirements at three aircraft carriers – one for each coast, while the third undergoes maintenance, repair, and upgrades – the carrier-building programme has been marred by delays. The Navy will operate a single carrier until IAC-1 is commissioned at the end of 2021. The third carrier would only become effective by 2030-35, according to current estimates.
Further, it would then be less like the USS Gerald R Ford and more like the Royal Navy's recently-commissioned aircraft carrier, the 70,000 tonne, gas turbine-powered Queen Elizabeth II, especially if the defence ministry turns down the navy's EMALS request as excessively expensive.