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Carrier Fight!

[ 36 ] July 17, 2012 |

James Holmes on INS Vikramaditya vs. The Chinese-carrier-to-be-named-later:

And to be sure, the Varyag will reportedly carry about 26 fixed-wing combat aircraft—the official People’s Daily speculated that J-15s will operate from its deck for the first time during the ongoing shakedown—and about 24 helicopters. (I hem-and-haw on the exact figures because an air wing’s composition is not fixed. The U.S. Navy has experimented with various configurations over the years.) TheVikramaditya/Gorshkov’s complement is a more modest 16 tactical aircraft—Mig-29Ks were part of the package deal for the ship—and 10 helicopters. 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. Advantage: China….

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. And while the Vikramaditya is a new class of flattop and the MiG-29K a new aircraft for the Indian Navy, carrier operations are nothing new for the navy. The service has operated at least one flattop for over half a century. For example, INS Viraat, a Centaur­-class vessel built for Britain’s Royal Navy, has served in the Indian fleet for a quarter-century. In short, Indian mariners are steeped in a naval-aviation culture that the Chinese are only starting to instill. Advantage: India.

The second half is worth emphasizing. Whatever size advantages the ex-Varyag may have, the Indians have fifty years of experience operating aircraft carriers, which matters a lot for the extraordinarily complicated tasks associated with naval aviation. Moreover, whatever problems INS Vikramaditya may have, I’m pretty sure that in the short term her major combat and propulsion systems will be more reliable than those of ex-Varyag, which have been pieced together by a navy with no experience of building or operating a warship of that size.

With regards to the skill of the airmen, it’s certainly true that Indian pilots have a better reputation that their Chinese counterparts, having had more success in combat and in major exercises with foreign partners. It’s hard to say how that would play out in the short term, however, given that the recent Indian experience with carrier aircraft has come in the form of Harriers, rather than fixed-wing MiG-29s. But because pilot quality is most often about developing an effective system of selection and training, and because we’re considerably more confident that India has developed such a system than China, it’s probably fair to count pilot quality as a point in India’s favor. However, it’s also worth noting that neither the Indian nor the Chinese carrier will be well-equipped to conduct strike operations; the ski-jump takeoff format substantially limits aircraft payload.

The more interesting issue might be this; news stories of China’s new carrier have abounded, along with solemn State Department expressions of concern over “what China might do with it’s aircraft carrier.” At the same time, very few people who don’t specialize in the field seem to know that India is getting a new carrier, building two more, and enjoys half a century of experience with naval aviation.

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  1. news stories of China’s new carrier have abounded, along with solemn State Department expressions of concern over “what China might do with it’s aircraft carrier.” At the same time, very few people who don’t specialize in the field seem to know that India is getting a new carrier, building two more, and enjoys half a century of experience with naval aviation.

    That’s probably because it’s difficult to imagine any adversary against whom India might start a naval war (Sri Lanka?), whereas the Straits of Taiwan have been a flashpoint for more than half a century.

    • Bexley says:

      Pakistan?

      The Indian Navy attacked the Pakistani Navy’s headquarters in Karachi during the ’71 war and also blockaded East Pakistan (as it was then).

      • Perhaps I’m wearing rose-colored glasses, but it is difficult for me to imagine India starting a war with Pakistan. India has changed a great deal in the last forty years.

        • Bexley says:

          Ok India might not start a fight but Pakistan might and India could escalate. eg something like the Kargil incident escalating.

        • Murc says:

          Also, why on earth would India strike at Pakistan using carrier-based aircraft?

          Carrier operations are expensive and inherently tricky. I believe doctrine is that if your aircraft can stage off a airstrip, they SHOULD stage off an airstrip, everything else being equal.

          • T Friedman says:

            I wasn’t thinking of India launching an air strike – more the carrier providing air cover for a naval task force.

            In ’71 I think India had a naval task force launch an attack against Karachi without air cover. I’ll happily admit to not knowing much about this so I don’t know whether they would need a carrier to provide air cover for a similar operation now or whether the IAF could provide cover instead.

    • Murc says:

      That’s probably because it’s difficult to imagine any adversary against whom India might start a naval war (Sri Lanka?), whereas the Straits of Taiwan have been a flashpoint for more than half a century.

      I would say its also because India is an ally, whereas China is full of scary commies.

      If India did have a neighboring country it was likely to use its new carrier to get all aggressive with, I somehow don’t think it would get much more press than it is now, because we just wouldn’t care.

    • One of the Blue says:

      That’s probably because it’s difficult to imagine any adversary against whom India might start a naval war (Sri Lanka?), whereas the Straits of Taiwan have been a flashpoint for more than half a century.

      Given China’s maximalist position on terrorial/fishing/mineral rights in the South China Sea, a war between China and one or more of the littoral states is at least a possibility. After all China did wage a short war against Vietnam in ’79.

  2. MacGyver says:

    Just this year alone the Indian Navy simultaneously conducted a two month goodwill trip to the Asia-Pacific region, INS Varaat made a port call to Oman, and participated in counter-piracy operations and patrols in the Gulf of Aden, the Seychelles, Mauritius, and Mauritania. China has yet to demonstrate that kind of operational tempo.

  3. Anderson says:

    “INS Vikramaditya: Keeping It the Indian Ocean.”

  4. Amanda in the South Bay says:

    The U.S. Navy has experimented with various configurations over the years

    Really? US carriers these days carry much less aircraft than their 70s-80s Cold War ancestors, because all of those different types of aircraft were retired and never replaced. Add in budget issues with the spiraling cost and time spent developing the F-35, and I’d say its less of an experiment than an operational necessity that CVNs these days go to sea with significantly fewer planes than 30 years ago.

  5. Dave says:

    Why don’t we just make international dick-waving an Olympic sport and have done with it?

  6. Jaime says:

    The service has operated at least one flattop for over half a century.

    This. On every online discussion thread WRT Russia or China acquiring CV capability, I’ve brought up the issue of institutional experience and bodies of knowledge acquired over time. And next to no one has acknowledged it as a consideration. Ships without catapults. No Hawkeye type AWACs a/c. Not to mention the number of training accidents or Forrestal/Enterprise type disasters a fledgling CV fleet can expect to experience and move past. Then there’s the ultimate question of joining the Yacht Club as a worthwhile enterprise.

  7. James E. Powell says:

    news stories of China’s new carrier have abounded, along with solemn State Department expressions of concern over “what China might do with it’s aircraft carrier.”

    It is hard to sustain public support for massive military spending without an enemy. If there is no real enemy, somebody has to develop and promote a fictional one.

    Also too, the re-make of Red Dawn needs an audience.

  8. wengler says:

    I for one look forward to Mitt Romney’s 50 carrier fleet that will be paid for with social security and teachers’ pensions.

  9. Ken says:

    Have you seen the new Navy recruiting ads? Overhead view of a carrier passing, stats like “70% of international commerce is waterborne” and others, and ending with “100% on guard”. So my guess is that India and China need the carriers to protect global commerce. We should thank them for their help.

  10. melior says:

    “what China might do with it is aircraft carrier.”

    /pedant

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  13. suresh ramasubramanian says:

    First, yes, india sent its navy into karachi harbor in the 1971 war but that was half a dozen fast attack missile boats and corvettes, for a quick hit and run missile attack on a port a very short distance (a few hundred miles) from their home base. those took down several destroyers, a large complex of fuel tanks etc that were moored, sitting ducks.

    They had the vikramaditya then and certainly didnt deploy it tthere. it wasnt a fit case for a carrier deployment. carriers are for a blue water navy, to project power much farther from its borders than individual ships of war can operate outside the range of land based air cover.

    The chinese have shown themselves fast learners. And when you have sufficiently capable aircraft and enough missiles, quantity often does substitute for quality, especially if you dont care about a few more planes totaled and their crews killed.

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