While India's first home-built carrier, known as the Vikrant, is to be a 44,000-ton short-takeoff-but-arrested-recovery (Stobar) carrier, the second ship—tentatively titled Vishal (“Immense”)—is seen as a 65,000-ton flat-top with a steam-catapult system. The Naval Design Bureau, which oversees design and implementation of all indigenous warship building efforts, is expected to freeze its requirements by year-end.
A commodore with the Naval Design Bureau says, “A decision has been taken to move away from conventional Stobar and short-takeoff-or-vertical-landing (Stovl) operations.”
The navy's Sea Harrier fleet is closing out its service. The Indian carrier Vikramaditya—the former Russian carrier Admiral Gorshkov—and first indigenous carrier (Vikrant) will be transition vessels to Stobar operations. The next logical step is catapult-assisted takeoff-and-barrier-arrested recovery (Catobar), “which brings with it immense advantages in the mix of assets we can deploy on deck,” says the commodore.
The navy has been known to want to deploy heavier fighters from a carrier. Still, the freeze on a flat-top catapult-launch design also dramatically changes the navy's future fighter requirement. In 2009, the service invited information to support a purchase of aircraft for deck-based operations, which did not specify launch type but had been presumed to be Stobar. Several companies were asked for information: Russia's MiG and Sukhoi for the MiG-29K and Su-33, respectively; Dassault Aviation with the Rafale (noting that the Rafale could be modified for Stobar operations); Lockheed Martin's F-35 Joint Strike Fighter; Boeing's F/A-18E/F Super Hornet; and two aircraft concepts—Saab's Sea Gripen and Eurofighter's Naval Typhoon.
A catapult carrier could narrow the field to a competition involving a modified Su-33, the F/A-18, F-35C and Rafale. The Rafale—currently in final negotiations for the Indian air force's largest-ever fighter purchase, worth around $12 billion for 126 aircraft—has already pushed its case with the navy, underlining type commonality.
Officials at Eurofighter said they had heard about the navy's plans with the second aircraft carrier, and agreed that such a decision would all but rule out the Naval Typhoon from future navy contests. “The Typhoon can be modified for Catobar operations, but it is unlikely that the economies of such a modification will work out. And this is before we even talk numbers of aircraft,” says a senior EADS executive in India.
A flat-top configuration also supports the navy's interest in fixed-wing airborne early warning (AEW) aircraft for operations off a carrier, and comes as good news for Northrop Grumman, which has spent the better part of the last decade pitching its E-2 Hawkeye to the Indian navy. The company, in fact, has also offered to help the navy with concept and integration of a steam catapult on the new carrier. Boeing is likewise expected to make its first presentations to the Indian navy later this year on the V-22 Osprey, both as a utility aircraft and a modified AEW platform.
But India's first flat-top is unlikely to see service before 2025. For starters, the Vikrant has experienced further delays, now totaling five years, and will not be commissioned until at least 2017. Apart from the attendant development and manufacturing difficulties that India's most ambitious shipbuilding effort brought with it, the program has been fraught with integration worries—including a recent road accident in which giant generators being transported to the shipbuilding site in south India were damaged and had to be returned to their manufacturer for inspection. Also, the state-owned Cochin Shipyard is not big enough to accept anything larger than India's first home-built Stobar carrier. So the navy will now need to identify a shipyard that can build a much bigger carrier.
The navy chief, Adm. Nirmal Verma, who will retire shortly, remains circumspect, saying: “It is too early to talk about the [second carrier]. There are other priorities right now, particularly the first carrier. Our designers are working toward the second.”
India's existing carrier, the INS Viraat, which has more than 50 years in total service, is not likely to be stretched beyond 2014. Its fleet of Stovl Sea Harriers is already down to just nine aircraft. The Vikramaditya, currently in trials in the White Sea, is expected to join the service early next year and will have a squadron of MiG-29Ks; 16 aircraft have been delivered and 29 more will begin to arrive in three months. Both ships will also operate variants of the indigenous Light Combat Aircraft-Navy, though it remains to be seen if the Mk. 1 version of the fighter proves safe and powerful enough for deck-based operations.