The Indian Navy is considering the latest technologies for its future aircraft carriers, and has sought “a go-ahead” from the Ministry of Defence (MoD) for a design feasibility study to look at “the latest advances in this field.”
Chief of Naval Staff Admiral Sunil Lanba told India Strategic in an interview and media interaction that over the last few years, new technologies have emerged relating to “propulsion, launch and recovery systems for aircraft as also other ship-borne systems of aircraft carriers” and that the Navy is looking at all the options considering “our operational necessities and financial outlay.”
Very significantly, he mentioned, the idea is “to move forward from the configuration of INS Vikramaditya and the Indigenous Aircraft Carrier IAC-1 that is under construction. Notably, both these carriers have ski jumps and arrestor wires to launch and recover aircraft, and the Navy is known to be studying the latest Electromagnetic Aircraft Launch System (EMALS) and Advanced Arrestor Gear (AAG) that the US Navy has adopted beginning with its newest aircraft carrier USS Gerald Ford.
So far, all aircraft carriers have used turbines or nuclear power to generate steam to propel the ships and onboard aircraft. A ski jump of around 14 degrees is built to give a boost to launch the aircraft on full power. EMALS and AAG use high bursts of electric energy to propel and stop the aircraft. General Atomics (GA), which owns the patent for these two systems, has already offered them to the Indian navy subject to clearance by the US Government.
So far, the Indian Navy was also considering nuclear power for its future aircraft carriers but Admiral Lanba disclosed that the second Indigenous Aircraft Carrier or IAC-2 will be non-nuclear. He did not elaborate but MoD sources indicated that electric propulsion, as for instance used by the latest British Royal Navy’s HMS Queen Elizabeth and US Navy’s Zumwalt class destroyers, was an option.
India is yet to master the technology for building and maintaining modern shipboard nuclear reactors. Carriers using Low Enriched Uranium (LEU) need periodic maintenance and the technology for using Highly Enriched Uranium (HEU) is not available with India although scientists of the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) have been working towards developing indigenous capability.
For the Indian Arihant class of nuclear submarines, India has been assisted by Russia.
Admiran Lanba pointed out that the design and construction of an aircraft carrier is a long-drawn process – 10 to 15 years – even for the most advanced nations. “There are several competing factors such as the type of aircraft, deck and hangar space, propulsion, tonnage etc., and each of these have associated financial implications. The Navy has invested a lot of time and effort for evaluating various options “through consultations and subject matter experts.
“Over the last few years, some new technological advances have taken place related to the propulsion, launch and recovery systems….We have taken cognisance of these developments and all options are being examined.”
The Naval Chief agreed that the Indian navy needs at least three aircraft carriers, normally, two should be operational while the third goes for periodic maintenance.
Although the Navy’s Design Bureau should be looking at aircraft carriers beyond IAC-2, at present the plan is only for three carriers, INS Vikramaditya, IAC-1 Vikrant and IAC 2. “That is the basic minimum requirement for performing our mandated tasks in India’s areas of maritime interests” on the Eastern and Western seaboards.
Delivery timelines for the indigenous carriers are 2019 and 2032.