UK pitches to design Indian aircraft carriers, Navy weighing its options

HMS Queen Elizabeth II
Battles are raging around the Navy’s proposed third aircraft carrier, INS Vishal, even though it is still on the drawing board. There is a bitter inter-services debate over whether India can afford another carrier. The Navy is also weighing competing claims from the US and the UK over who should provide design expertise.

Since 2015, the US Navy has guided the design of INS Vishal. But now, the UK’s Royal Navy is offering its partnership on the grounds that INS Vishal is more similar to a British aircraft carrier.

In January 2015, the Indian and US Navies established a joint working group (JWG) on aircraft carrier cooperation, with New Delhi reasoning that the US Navy had long been the world’s pre-eminent builder and operator of aircraft carriers. America operates 11 of the world’s 21 carriers and, by far, the most potent ones.

However, on November 28, in an Indo-UK meeting in New Delhi chaired by the two defence secretaries, London proposed British design consultancy for INS Vishal, given the recent induction of two new state-of-the-art aircraft carriers — Her Majesty’s Ship (HMS) Queen Elizabeth II and HMS Prince of Wales — into the Royal Navy.

Encouraged by the US, the Indian Navy has designed INS Vishal as a large, 65,000-tonne carrier, featuring a state-of-the-art American “electromagnetic aircraft launch system” (EMALS), and the ability to launch not just fighter aircraft but also the game-changing E2D Hawkeye airborne early warning (AEW) aircraft. 

The US Navy’s continuing influencing could lead India to buy not only Northrop Grumman’s E2D Hawkeyes, but also Boeing’s F/A-18E/F Super Hornet, in an ongoing purchase of 57 naval fighters.

However, the UK has pointed out that India’s decision to have full-electric propulsion rather than a nuclear one for INS Vishal, makes it similar to the two Royal Navy carriers. Further, the British have pointed out that INS Vishal will be of the same size — 65,000 tonnes — as the two Royal Navy carriers. 

However, a standard US feature designed into INS Vishal will differentiate it from British carriers. Both HMS Queen Elizabeth II and HMS Prince of Wales incorporate “short take off but arrested landing” (STOBAR) systems. 
Their on-board F-35C fighters take off from a ski-jump and land back by snagging their tail hooks on arrester wires laid across the deck, which then unspool, dragging the fighter to a halt on the 200-metre-long deck.

INS Vishal, however, like all US carriers, incorporates a “catapult take off but arrested landing” (CATOBAR) system. In its latest EMALS version, the aircraft is accelerated to the take-off speed with the help of an electromagnetic catapult (older US carriers use a steam catapult), while it lands the same way as on STOBAR vessels, using arrestor wires.

INS Vishal, which the Navy terms “Indigenous Aircraft Carrier – 2” (IAC-2), will therefore be a hybrid vessel, combining American and British features. 

“The broad contours of IAC-2, to be constructed in India, will be a 65,000-tonne CATOBAR carrier with electric propulsion,” stated navy chief Admiral Karambir Singh on Tuesday.

Queried by Business Standard on design consultancy, Singh admitted it was “a dilemma”. “The issue about nuclear propulsion versus full electric propulsion [is one factor]. There are also other issues like EMALS and AAG (aircraft arrester gear), which only the Americans have. So this is going to be one of our dilemmas,” said Singh.

Asked whether consultancy was possible with both the UK and US, Singh admitted: “I’m not sure of the answer; how you go about it?”

For London, this is a mouth-watering opportunity not just to enter a lucrative, multi-billion-dollar construction programme, but also to restore flagging defence relations. The Royal Navy shaped the Indian Navy in its formative years, with British admirals heading the Indian Navy until 1958. India’s first two aircraft carriers — INS Vikrant and INS Viraat — were both purchased from the Royal Navy.

Last week, in the India-UK Defence Consultative Group, UK officials pressed for reviving the strategic relationship. They promised deeper technology transfer, unlike the straight-up US defence sales that have provided India with little high technology. “Partnering the UK in no way jeopardises the Indo-US relationship, or damages interoperability in the Indo-Pacific. Britain is America’s closest ally,” said a senior UK official, contrasting this with buying weaponry from Russia. The British side is also learned to have pitched strongly to participate in building India’s next six submarines under Project 75-I. “We have not bid in that project, because the Royal Navy only operates nuclear subs. However, we can offer systems and niche technologies that greatly enhance a submarine’s capabilities. And we will be willing to transfer real technology,” said the official.


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