India: Aircraft Carrier Dynamics

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Tihar Jail
Aug 6, 2009
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India: Aircraft Carrier Dynamics

Two major developments -- a potential deal with Russia over the aircraft carrier Admiral Gorshkov and an unconfirmed rumor or two about the fate of the USS Kitty Hawk -- mark a turning point in India's pursuit of a more robust aircraft carrier fleet.

India's fortunes in its long struggle to acquire a new aircraft carrier appear to have taken a dramatic turn. First, on Feb. 22, The Weekly Standard (a conservative Beltway publication) raised the possibility of U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates offering New Delhi the soon-to-be-decommissioned USS Kitty Hawk aircraft carrier during his trip to India. Then (and probably on a related note), Moscow made broad new overtures to resolve its longstanding dispute with New Delhi over the Admiral Gorshkov aircraft carrier. The potential sale of the Kitty Hawk -- though U.S. defense officials adamantly have denied that it is even a possibility -- would mark one of the most significant developments in global naval dynamics since the collapse of the Soviet navy.

Both Washington and Moscow have been scrambling to curry favor with New Delhi in a broad range of civilian and defense-related endeavors. That rivalry appears to have just paid enormous dividends in South Asia. Russia has made a major overture toward resolving the Gorshkov dispute by agreeing to replace several major subsystems with new parts, rather than simply repairing them. Though pricing still needs to be worked out, it is the most promising development since Russia revealed the massive delays on the Gorshkov in 2007. If this is the only result of rumors about a Kitty Hawk sale, New Delhi is still in a better place than it has been for some time. (It has long been on the losing end of delays on the Gorshkov.)

However, India's improved position is still poor. It had hoped to have the Gorshkov in hand by this summer, then to spend several years learning the ins and outs of conventional flight operations and integrating those lessons into its already delayed indigenous aircraft carrier program. With the delays at the Sevmash shipyard in Russia's North, India will lose several years of valuable time, even if the Gorshkov deal is fully resolved.

Thus, the potential for acquiring an aircraft carrier from Washington in the near term -- despite at least one vehement denial from a Defense Department official -- warrants consideration.

The Kitty Hawk -- Pros and Cons
The $48 million sale of the Amphibious Transport Dockship USS Trenton (LPD-14) to India in 2006 is a case in point. The Indians were operating the ship less than a year after the sale was announced. (Though the announcement reportedly was kept secret for a short time at Washington's behest.)

A carrier is no small thing. But the potential -- even if it is unlikely -- for India to get its hands on an 80,000-ton aircraft carrier well ahead of the Gorshkov would mark more than just a shot in the arm for New Delhi's naval ambitions. It would be a profound shift in the naval dynamics of the region, as well as a very real expansion of New Delhi's physical capability to project meaningful force to the Strait of Malacca and beyond -- a capability unlike any in the world except the U.S. Navy's.

And this is just where the problems start to arise. India learned carrier aviation from the British. Despite initially operating the former Majestic-class HMS Hercules (dubbed the Vikrant) with catapults, India now is well into its third decade of conducting flight operations under the British model with Harriers. The Gorshkov would not use catapults and would function largely on the same scale (in terms of aircraft on the flight deck) as the current Viraat (the lead British Hermes-class carrier).

The Kitty Hawk, as an order-of-magnitude step above the Gorshkov, would represent several significant shifts. Its aircraft capacity is several times greater than either the Viraat or the Gorshkov's, complicating not only logistics and maintenance coordination but also the much more complex management of the flight deck and flight operations, for which Indian sailors are unprepared. (The United States has spent decades mastering carrier aviation; it is not an art that can simply be picked up.) Even the manning and operation of a ship requiring a complement of nearly 3,000 (not including as many as 2,500 additional attached carrier air wing personnel) would present profound new challenges for the Indian navy.

And thus, especially now that the Gorshkov deal appears to be on the mend, New Delhi could find itself operating three different classes of aircraft carriers built in three different nations -- each with very unique design features capable of deploying a different class of carrier aircraft. These will, in part, dictate very different flight deck procedures and flight operations practices.

Such a disparate carrier fleet has nightmare written all over it in terms of everything from coherent training of flight deck personnel and pilots to maintenance and logistical costs -- to say nothing of attempting to coordinate operations. It could indeed be more trouble than it is worth.

The Arrestors
The Kitty Hawk also is valuable as a potential reserve asset for the U.S. fleet. Likely to be mothballed and held in a status where reactivation is retained as an option, the Kitty Hawk is a more attractive candidate than the recently decommissioned John F. Kennedy because it received a full Service Life Extension Program modernization.

Ultimately, it is not at all clear that Washington trusts New Delhi enough to share such a capability at any price, no matter what deals with U.S. firms the arrangement could entail. (No doubt, the purchase of U.S. fixed-wing carrier aircraft would be all but assured.) The United States has helped assure its global maritime dominance in part by consistently choosing not to sell its carriers after their terms of service have ended. To put it simply, the United States has never sold an aircraft carrier to a foreign country. STRATFOR is unconvinced that Washington is planning to start with New Delhi.

Though Washington undoubtedly wants to draw New Delhi away from Moscow, India's long-term strategic inclinations are anything but assured. Thus, though it would prove a fabulous diplomatic coup (and a coup de grace for Russia's hold on India), the military implications make this rumored deal highly suspect and unlikely.


1. what is the point in posting an old topic, which has no relevance today?
2. kitty hawk was never offered to india, all a part of rumor mill.
3. where is the link of the post?

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