UK eager to help India design second indigenous aircraft carrier INS Vishal

File photo of Indian Navy's conventional aircraft carrier
The British minister for defence procurement, James Heappey, has affirmed the UK’s eagerness to assist the Indian Navy with designing and building its second indigenous aircraft carrier, INS Vishal.

Asked whether the UK had offered carrier design cooperation at the political level, Heappey affirmed: “Very much so! At the very highest level.” Cooperation on aircraft carrier design was also discussed on November 28 in an India-UK meeting in New Delhi.

Terming aircraft carrier design “the most totemic” of UK-India cooperation opportunities, Heappey told Business Standard: “The Royal Navy has world-beating electrical propulsion and operational experience of managing electrical propulsion. That is a real opportunity to develop capability and understanding together.”

The Indian Navy wants INS Vishal to be a 65,000-tonne carrier with an all-electric propulsion system — both features that are common with the Royal Navy’s two new aircraft carriers: Her Majesty’s Ship (HMS) Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales.

For several years, New Delhi has sought to design INS Vishal in partnership with the US Navy, the world’s pre-eminent builder and operator of aircraft carriers. The US operates 11 of the world’s 21 carriers and, by far, the most potent ones.

Towards this end, the Indian and American navies established a joint working group (JWG) on aircraft carrier cooperation in January 2015. India was considering a nuclear-powered carrier like the American vessels. It is also planning a state-of-the-art American “electromagnetic aircraft launch system (EMALS)" that can launch not just fighter aircraft, but also the game-changing E2D Hawkeye airborne early warning (AEW) aircraft. 

However, with nuclear propulsion ruled out because India does not have a suitable nuclear reactor, and severe budget constraints casting a shadow over the EMALS, INS Vishal is increasingly looking like the British carriers.

But one feature that is being considered for INS Vishal would differentiate it from British carriers. Both HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales incorporate “short take-off but vertical landing” (STOVL) systems to operate their aircraft. Their on-board F-35B fighters take off from a ski-jump and land back by hovering like a helicopter and lowering itself onto the deck. 

In contrast, fighters on INS Vishal would take off with the help of a catapult and land by snagging their tail hooks on arrester wires laid across the deck, which then unspool, dragging the fighter to a halt. This is called “catapult assisted takeoff but arrested landing (CATOBAR)”.

Heappey argued India does not need to incur the expense of catapult launch systems. Meanwhile, the British carriers are being fitted with arrestor wires. 

Revealing that “we are already looking at how we could retrofit an arrester wire onto the Queen Elizabeth carrier deck,” Heappey said: “The crucial thing is that, (with) a 65,000-tonne carrier with its existing length of runway and with a ramp on the front, we are confident that an (Indian Navy) fighter jet like the Rafale or the F/A-18 could actually take off from the deck of the Queen Elizabeth without a catapult, just off the ramp. And so that sort of “ramp and trap” solution would suit your existing capability without needing to retrofit a catapult… and we’re looking at developing the arrestor wire anyway. So, I think that makes it quite an interesting proposition.”

This system, called “short take-off but arrested landing” (STOBAR), is already being used in India’s two existing carriers – INS Vikramaditya and the under-construction INS Vikrant.

Heappey is looking for design cooperation to lead to operational cooperation between the two navies. “How amazing would that be to see the Royal Navy and the Indian Navy steaming in the Indian Ocean with two carrier groups side by side, operating together. At the grand strategic level, what higher ambition could there be?” he said.

The UK is also pushing cooperation with India in the British programme to develop a 6th-generation fighter called the Tempest. 

Asked what conversations have taken place between the two governments, Heappey said: “Very meaningful ones. It came up in my meeting with the defence minister yesterday… the Indian government, I know, is very interested in our future Tempest programme and has seen the opportunity within it.”

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