Tuesday, July 24, 2012

China vs India: Race to Carriers -and Russia benefits

The Indian Navy’s newest aircraft carrier, INS The newly refurbished Russian Aircraft Carrier, Vikramaditya, recently took to the Barents Sea for its second shakedown cruise. After putting the ship through its paces, the Russian shipyard Sevmash will reportedly deliver it to the Indian Navy at year’s end, ending a prolonged overhaul process that converted the Soviet “aircraft-carrying cruiser” Admiral Gorshkov into a more conventional flattop featuring a ski jump for vaulting short-takeoff warplanes into the skies.

While that is happening, China’s first carrier, another Soviet-built vessel formerly known as Varyag, is underway for sea trials. New Delhi and Beijing are racing to build blue-water fleets around carrier task forces. -And Putin is acting as the arms dealer collecting the profits.

If you want to  compare these two "starter carriers" for the Indians and the Chinese, the Vikramaditya/Gorshkov displaces about 45,000 tons fully loaded, including the air wing, the crew, fuel, stores, and everything else a man-of-war needs to operate. That’s slightly bigger than a US Navy Essex-class fleet carrier of World War II vintage, or approximately the dimensions of today’s big-deck U.S. Navy amphibious assault ships (LHA or LHD).

The Varyag, on the other hand, weighs in at 67,000+ tons fully loaded. That’s roughly the size of the modernized USS Midway, an older carrier that now adorns the San Diego waterfront as a museum ship. And, as usual, size matters. With bigger hulls comes greater hangar and flight-deck space, and thus the capacity to accommodate a larger, more diverse air wing.

The Varyag will reportedly carry about 26 fixed-wing combat aircraft and about 24 helicopters. The Vikramaditya/Gorshkov’s  complement is a more modest 16 tactical aircraft and 10 helicopters (the Russians sold India the aircraft and helicopters as part of the package). The Chinese carrier’s fighter/attack force, then, is over half-again as large as its Indian counterpart’s. Quantity isn’t everything, but it is important in air-to-air combat.

It’s worth pointing out, however, that both ships are modest in capability relative to the U.S. Navy's nuclear-powered carriers, each of which displaces over 100,000 tons and can carry an air wing numbering about 90 fixed- and rotary-wing aircraft(almost double the complement for the Varyag). It’s also worth recalling that both ships are Soviet relics, and that the Soviet Navy never quite got carrier aviation right. Whether Russian or Chinese shipwrights have managed to correct any lingering design defects remains to be seen.

The Chinese have the advantage in quality and quantity of aircraft and hardware but India has the advantage in skill and human resources (Indians seem to excel at air power. U.S. Air Force pilots who face off against their Indian counterparts in mock combat rave about the skills and panache of Indian airmen).

Plus, India has operated at least one flattop for over half a century. INS Viraat, a Centaur­-class vessel built for Britain’s Royal Navy, has served in the Indian fleet for a quarter-century. So, Indian mariners are steeped in a naval-aviation culture that the Chinese are only starting to instill.

All this naval build up is just getting started. China wants to control the South China Sea, keep India from getting an upper hand in their relationship and be seen as a world power by projecting a naval presence around the world. India is keen about keeping China in check. Russia is sitting on the sideline profiting by selling to both sides. As for the United States, well, what helps keep China in check is a good thing for us.

Live Long and Prosper....

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