Both Vikrant and Vikramaditya will operate Russian-supplied aircraft. The great drawback of ski-jump operation is that it greatly limits the payload of the aircraft. The ski-jump forces the airplane up at an angle, so that its jet thrust adds to the lift generated by the airplane’s wings. The technique was invented to give short-takeoff/vertical-landing (STOVL) aircraft additional payload, and it was first implemented on board the British Invincible class, now retired.
In the early 1980s the U.S. Navy experimented with conventional aircraft on ski-jumps, discovering that with moderate wind over deck (20 knots) they could take off, albeit with reduced payloads. Besides the reduction in payload, the ski-jump takeoff stressed the airframe in unusual ways, so that unless an airplane (and not just its landing gear) was properly redesigned it could not reliably make more than a few such takeoffs. The only major operational U.S. fixed-wing naval aircraft which could not take off from a ski-jump was the E-2 Hawkeye. At the time, there was interest in a low-cost ski-jump auxiliary carrier, and the problem with the Hawkeye meant that such a ship had to have at least a simple low-capacity catapult. In the Indian case, the airborne early-warning role is filled by the Russian-built Ka-31 helicopter. Compared to a Hawkeye, it cannot fly as high (hence lacks inherent range, not to mention the power needed for long range or for sophisticated processing), cannot fly nearly as far in the direction of a threat, and its radar must be far lighter and therefore less capable.
The Soviets were trying to develop an adequate carrier catapult when their economic collapse killed their carrier program (they had to cut up the nuclear carrier Ulyanovsk on the slip when she was about 20 percent complete), and presumably the Indians are also interested in this technology. Given their warming relationship with the United States (they received their first P-8A maritime-patrol plane this month), presumably catapults are on their shopping list.
The Chinese are also interested in carriers. This month photos appeared that were said to be of a carrier hull module at a Shanghai shipyard. The photos certainly look like a cross-section of a carrier hull, and for years a Chinese building has sported what looks like a carrier flight deck, with aircraft. It is said to be the system-integration facility for future carriers, presumably equivalent to the “Aegis in a cornfield” used for years to test the U.S. Navy’s Aegis software. The Chinese recently conducted successful landings and takeoffs on board the Liaoyang , rebuilt from the Russian Varyag . That is not at all the same thing as U.S.-style high-intensity carrier air operations, but it is a vital early step in developing a carrier force.
In both cases, leadership seems to have accepted that carriers are the essential means of providing mobile air power. The most memorable Indian use of a carrier was a strike by the Vikrant ’s aircraft on a Pakistani port during the 1970-71 Indo-Pakistan War (this war also occasioned an Indian missile strike, using antiship Styxes, against Pakistani oil tanks ashore). Chinese naval spokesmen have argued that their country’s prosperity depends on free access to overseas resources. Their energy supplies come from both Siberia and the Middle East. A Chinese navalist looking at the Middle East would have to wonder whether in future the Indians might wish to interdict that sea route as it crosses the Indian Ocean. It would take a carrier force to deal with such interdiction (the Indians sometimes seem to make the opposite argument, that they need a fleet to ensure that the Chinese do not try to seize control of their vital sea lanes, rather than merely protect shipping using them).
Meanwhile the Japanese are building 22,000-ton “helicopter carrying destroyers” which appear to anyone else to be small STOVL carriers larger than the old British Invincibles . There is no current indication that they plan to use conventional aircraft from their ski-jump bows, but the Japanese are clearly interested in the U.S. F-35C STOVL, the same aircraft the British hope to fly from their Queen Elizabeths .
Then there is the Indian nuclear submarine, which takes her place alongside one or two nuclear-powered attack submarines leased from the Russians. The Arihant is primarily a strategic submarine, armed with 405 nmK-15 ballistic missiles. Their range may seem puny in comparison with that of a Trident or even the Chinese JL-2, but it may be sufficient. Range buys two different advantages for a strategic submarine. One is to keep it far enough out at sea that the potential target is unlikely to be able to detect and attack it. The other is to provide a single submarine with the flexibility to hit many different targets from one location. In the case of India, it might be argued that the ability to wipe out the enemy’s capital is enough of a deterrent. Neither of India’s potential enemies, China or Pakistan, is reported to have sophisticated enough antisubmarine measures to find a submarine 200 or 300 miles out to sea; neither has had any need to develop them.
The Arhihant has sixteen missiles in four groups. Ultimately each group is to be replaced by a single 1,780 nmK-4 missile (not yet tested). That would make the ultimate K-4 broadly equivalent to an early U.S. Polaris. The Chinese probably have access to the long-range ASW search systems the Russians have been advertising since the end of the Cold War. They use active low-frequency pingers and large receiving arrays, and the quoted range is about 350 nm. The Russians, aware of the passive SOSUS technology developed by the United States, deployed somewhat analogous towed arrays (which the Chinese have), albeit operating at much higher frequencies. If this technology is further developed by the Chinese, and if sufficient effort is devoted to the patrol aircraft that would intercept whatever the system found (two big ifs), then at some point the Indians would probably find themselves in need of a longer-range underwater deterrent.
The Arihant seems to offer Indian defense planners a way to reduce massed ground and tactical air forces, which otherwise require expensive modernization. India already has tactical nuclear missiles and a few strategic-missile prototypes, but it can be argued that any such weapons are subject to a preemptive strike. That may become easier in an era of widespread commercial-based satellite reconnaissance. A strategic submarine is a very different proposition. It is not clear whether the Indians are aware that U.S. experience has been that, while nuclear weapons can deter the use of an enemy’s nuclear arsenal, they are an ineffective deterrent against conventional weapons.