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Asia's Game of Thrones
China and India Racing To Build Carriers

India is scheduled to relaunch its first-ever domestically-produced aircraft carrier, the INS Vikrant, on May 28.

Re-launch? Well, yes—we first wrote about the Vikrant back in August of 2013, when the ship was first launched to much fanfare. Back then, the Times of India was crowing about how Indian shipbuilding was far outpacing China’s own efforts. Then reality set in:

Construction woes have dogged Vikrant — which was originally awarded to Cochin in 2005 — delaying the ship by five years with reported budget overruns as high as $4 billion.

The program was largely stalled until 2014 when the newly elected Modi backed a plan to inject almost $3.18 billion into completing Vikrant in July following a visit to India’s Russian built carrier—INS Vikramaditya.

Not just content with getting the Vikrant ship-shape, however, Prime Minister Narendra Modi is investing in the future of his domestic shipbuilding program:

In addition to the relaunch of Vikrant, the Modi government has also set aside about $5 million for development of the indigenous aircraft carrier-II (IAC-II) program — INS Vishal, according to local press reports.

The planned 65,000-ton Vishal is set to be a much more complex ship than its predecessors and could introduce nuclear power and a catapult launching system for the carrier to launch heavier aircraft than India’s current crop of MiG-29K

China, for its part, has not been standing still. Back in 2013, there were sporadic leaks of work being done on what looked to be China’s first home-built carrier. Then earlier this year, Beijing semi-officially took the wraps off its plans, threatening to build up to four more, promising to have the first one ready by 2018.

Of course, this is all about boosting national prestige as much as anything else. The United States, with its many decades of experience building and operating a carrier fleet, will nevertheless remain the preeminent player in the Pacific and Indian Oceans for some time to come. And the U.S. under President Obama remains committed to balancing (quite publicly, lately) against China’s regional hegemonic aspirations.

To that end, Secretary of Defense Ash Carter is due in India in June to sign a 10-year defense cooperation agreement. The U.S. Ambassador to India Richard Verma said it best last month:“The strategic premise of that is that if U.S. and India are the closest of partners, not just in South Asia, but across Asia and globally, the world would be a safer and more prosperous place. That is the power of having two large democracies coming together. There is so much good that can come out of it.” Indeed.

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  • tarentius

    Let’s not get carried away here. First of all, the INS Vikrant isn’t scheduled to be inducted into the Indian Navy until late 2018 and that is a wildly optimistic date. Work on the aviation complex hasn’t even begun since the Russian company providing it hasn’t delivered any of it yet. Given the incompetence of the Indian defense industrial complex., inclusion of the aviation complex is a disaster waiting to happen. It’s unlikely that this ship will be ready for any serious combat before 2020, if ever. Even so, it is no match for even the US Navy’s misnamed amphibious assault ships of the America class.
    Perhaps the fact that the INS Vikrant is powered by four US gas turbines, the warranties for which will have expired well before the Vikrant is declared operational, should illustrate just how the INS Vikrant is hardly an indigenous Indian aircraft carrier and just how incompetent the Indian defense industry really is.

    • Tom

      Incompetent, or inexperienced? There’s a difference.

      • Dan Greene

        So are you assessing incompetence or inexperience?

        • Tom

          At the moment, neither.

          • Dan Greene

            Do let us know when you make the big call.

          • Tom

            I see no reason to make the big call, seeing as I was not the one asserting that India was incompetent because they were having a hard time doing something they’d never done before.

          • Dan Greene


          • tarentius

            I made the call. The evidence is overwhelming to anyone knowledgeable of the Indian “military/industrial complex.” It’s incompetent. Companies and countries do all kinds of hard things for the first time and succeed. The Indians don’t.

          • Tom


  • Dan Greene

    “China, for its part, has not been standing still. Back in 2013, there were sporadic leaks of work being done on what looked to be China’s first home-built carrier. Then earlier this year, Beijing semi-officially took the wraps off its plans, THREATENING to build up to four more, promising to have the first one ready by 2018.”

    Typical TAI. Notice that an announcement by China that it will produce a series of aircraft carriers is a “threat.” The Vikram is not a “threat.” The Gerald Ford class is not a “threat.” But a Chinese announcement of future carrier construction is, of course, framed as the issuance of a “threat.”

    • Tom

      The fact that China has been more bellicose than India as of late is, of course, entirely irrelevant.

      • Dan Greene

        What point are you trying to make?

        We have embarked on series of self-defeating destabilizations over the last 15 years, including the highly destructive invasion of Iraq. Is that relevant to the launching of the Gerald Ford class aircraft carrier, designed to replace the Nimitz class over the next several decades?

        China’s announcement of future aircraft carrier construction is just that–an announcement. No reason at all for TAI to try and scare all its little readers by claiming that China is “THREATENING to build up to four more” carriers. It is PLANNING to build up to four more carriers. More analysis and less agitprop is what we need here.

        As things stand now, China’s bellicosity pales before our neoconservative-driven love of war.

        • Tom

          This leaves aside the fact that the United States is currently guarantor of the world’s trade lanes (which involves ships) and, as you said yourself, is currently replacing its old carriers…while China is building new carriers. Yes, the situations are exact analogues to each other.
          (Snorts) It’s like claiming, back in the early 1900s, that an article in the London Times calling the Kaiser’s fleet buildup threatening is hypocritical due to the Boer War.

          • Dan Greene

            And if China wants to be a guarantor of the world’s trade lanes, then what?

          • Tom

            Then that is their business, but I’m not sure how many of their neighbors will trust them.
            And no, bellicose and threatening are not synonymous, but given the activities of the other nations in the area–i.e., increase defense spending now–it seems that, at any rate, they do.

          • JR
  • Jacksonian_Libertarian

    I’ll believe they can build and operate Carriers when they actually do it. At a time when the American Navy is becoming more and more worried about defending its Carriers from high speed missiles, we have these beginners trying to create a Carrier force. And what for? Carriers are needed to project power around the Globe and to protect trade as America uses them. Neither India or China have the wide spread Global interests that America has, and can defend all their territory with shore based aircraft. China in particular with its belligerence to all its neighbors is committing a huge strategic mistake. Angering the Nations that sit across all of your shipping routes, when your entire economy is dependent on imports and exports, is an act of Idiocy.

    • Dan Greene

      You mean sort of like carving Panama out of Colombia–because Colombia wouldn’t give up permission to build an isthmian canal–was an act of idiocy? Or starting a war with Spain to eject them from the Caribbean was an act of idiocy?

      China’s strategic gambles may or may not succeed, but they are hardly acts of idiocy.

  • mdmusterstone

    Chinese plans to build carriers is good news. They cost billions of dollars, their escorts
    cost billions more. More, carriers work
    at least in tandem in case one is sunk the air asset isn’t lost also. More still, ships, carriers, become damaged,
    need periodic refitting, etc, so in order to have carriers on station when you
    need them you would have to have at least four, six if you have any more then a
    couple of stations to guard, many more if you have multiple stations. Then of course there is the building of,
    training for and billions needing spending for at-sea-replenishment.

    So far as I know none of the projected carriers will have a
    catapult which means that all aircraft will be short ranged or lightly
    armed. And carriers have to work
    together for years before they can project a punch with gravitas. But I am delighted to read that they are
    wasting the money.

    The Russian, Indian, Chinese, French and British will be
    toys to show off… lookie here we have ’em too.
    In any case the day of the carrier is coming to a close. They were once in place to provide air assets
    beyond what we could provide from land bases.
    They also attacked and neutralized enemy land bases. It seems impossible that any portion of any
    ocean will presently be outside the reach of missiles, said same missiles will
    keep any carrier attacks at bay as far as land attack.

    Someone mentioned Chinese policy being idiotic; of course it
    is. With their growing economy they
    could have sucked every country in the region into an unbreakable economic
    orbit, shared wealth so great that everyone would have went along but instead
    they don’t observe international law, they won’t accept arbitration of disputes
    over ownership of islands, physical altercations with other country’s ships,
    etc. All this has created exactly the opposite of
    what they want; pushing all the countries toward the US.

  • Anthony

    “The two countries (U.S. and China) also share an important external challenge: the need for a smoothly working global trading regime.” Additional views from two former Treasury Secretaries:

  • Kevin

    I can vaguely see China wanting them, not to combat the U.S. but to project power into the Persian Gulf where they will get their oil from. India might want to be able to project power into SE Asia if it is thinking about supporting those states against Chinese pressure. Still in both of these cases diplomacy to acquire basing rights for land based air might be much cheaper and more effective. Carriers do provide flexibility, especially in breaking free of the need for local allies and base, but they cone with an enormous price tag and while useful in dealing with minor powers are not articulately useful (or at least cost effective) against peer competitors. Of course prestige matters too for the militarized and nations building these ships.

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