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.