Asia bent on acquiring aircraft carriers

New Delhi, India — Recent years have seen a flurry of orders for aircraft carriers by Japan, India, Australia, South Korea, Russia and China. The sudden focus on air capability at sea represents a paradigm change in the thinking of these states, and both communist and democratic governments appear to be on the same wavelength. Is this a harbinger of a new cold war in Asia?
Unresolved territorial disputes in East Asia, especially related to maritime boundaries, have resulted in the naval build-up by countries in the region. The discovery of oil and gas deposits in deep-sea locations around islands in the region has strengthened the importance of ownership claims.
The pursuit of aircraft carriers is also being fanned by recession-hit European economies largely funded by liberal government bailouts. Their high-tech exports have limited markets, but the rising economies of East and Southeast Asia have become prime candidates for military sales.
As the U.S. military withdraws from Iraq and perhaps Afghanistan, many think Asia could become the next flashpoint. Therefore Asian states are equipping their navies with the prime symbol of power – the aircraft carrier.
Equipping the Indian navy with aircraft carriers, as envisioned by former Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, has stood India in good stead. The country has been operating them for well over 40 years now, which has boosted its naval and air power both in times of war and peace.
For almost a decade India operated two aircraft carriers, since the commissioning of the INS Viraat in 1987, which enhanced its operational profile and service capabilities in the Indian Ocean. The INS Viraat has recently been refitted in India and should see active service till 2015, while the 45,000-ton INS Vikramaditya is being refitted in Severodvinsk, Russia and should commence trials in 2011.
The new Vikrant class aircraft carriers are the Indian Navy’s first to be fully designed and built in India by Cochin Shipyard. Work on the lead vessel commenced in 2008 and is scheduled for launch in 2010. All aircraft carriers are being fitted to support three types of aircraft: the Sea Harrier, MIG-29KUB, the naval version of the light combat aircraft LCA and the TEJAS twin-seater being manufactured at Hindustan Aeronautics in Bangalore.
Some countries view the rise of the Indian Navy as inimical to their military power and business interests in Asia. Old thought processes die hard, and so a vigorous, proactive maritime diplomacy must be pursued by the Indian government.
China’s strategy to acquire aircraft carriers was enunciated by Admiral Liu Huaqing, who studied under Admiral S.G. Gorshkov at the Naval War College in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg). As with the Kremlin, the Chinese admiral had an uphill task to change the land-focused thinking of the Chinese Politburo. However, China’s recent naval review is a clear example of its “sea denial” strategy.
China is also pursuing an aircraft carrier acquisition strategy. Photographs have been taken of the unfinished Soviet aircraft carrier Varyag, purchased by China in 1998 and repainted in the colors of the PLA Navy, in a dockyard in the northeast port city of Dalian.
The Chinese story was that the ship would be used for a casino in the enclave of Macau. A chance meeting with the Macau delegation by the author indicated that they were from the PLA Navy. When asked for an opinion on the warship, I told them it would be very difficult to bring it up to its former Kuznetsov-class standards, but not impossible if money was available. The smiles of the officers said it all – finance is not a limitation for China. This indicates the seriousness with which China is pursuing its dream of an aircraft carrier.
Attempting to start aircraft carrier operations with a 60,000-ton hull is a leap into the unknown. It requires not only the acquisition of a mother ship, aircraft and helicopters, but the ability of 2,500 men and machines to operate at sea with clockwork precision and zero error, every day and in all weather conditions.
To work up the ship from its present refit state to combat status will take a minimum of 10 years. The learning curve will be very slow, difficult and full of hurdles to make the man and machine interface work smoothly. Intelligence reports indicate that China also plans to construct two new aircraft carriers in a shipyard in Shanghai. Apparently the ships will be similar to the Varyag, with nuclear propulsion.
Japan is building Hyuga-class helicopter destroyers, which are essentially 18,000-ton amphibious warfare ships that carry only helicopters. Japanese shipyards are more than capable of achieving the task, given their capability of operating aircraft carriers in the past.
Japan’s new government has recently stated that it will reexamine its past agreements with the U.S. military. The Japanese navy will have to scramble for additional units if the new dispensation is a “go it alone” strategy and the government asks the U.S. Navy to withdraw from its base in Okinawa.
The Australian government has also taken the bold decision to reacquire aircraft carriers and has placed orders for two Canberra-class ships. If hostilities develop in the Strait of Malacca and ships are rerouted into waters near northern Australia, protecting Australian waters will be imperative. Australia will need air power more than 500 miles from its coastline, and shore-based aircraft could not handle the task.
The Canberra-class ships, which are similar to India’s INS Viraat, are expected to be in service from 2014. They will be capable of operating 18 MRH-90 helicopters during hostilities. The navy’s biggest problem will be its ability to retain trained manpower. There are also reports of navy discussions on making Christmas Island an unsinkable aircraft carrier.
In 2007 South Korea commissioned an 18,600-ton “air warfare destroyer” equipped with the AEGIS system imported from the United States. This has amphibious capability and presently operates only helicopters. The South Korean Navy will reportedly acquire four of these Dokdo-class ships in the near future, primarily aimed at the North Korean navy.
Recently, this “interim aircraft carrier” has evoked a fair amount of interest from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. South Korea has very competent shipyards, and it is possible that after gaining valuable operating experience at sea, a larger variant may emerge in the decade beyond 2020.
Russia is the latest entrant to the aircraft carrier acquisition program, amid stirrings of national pride and a desire to reacquire old capabilities. Russia is reportedly purchasing a Mistral-class amphibious ship from France. It has been operating the aircraft carrier Kuznetsov for many years, and has deployed the ship and its fighter wing of SU-33 aircraft in European waters and the Mediterranean Sea. It also successfully tested the naval variant of the supersonic MIG-29 KUB from the Kuznetsov in 2009.
Media reports in Russia indicate that six new aircraft carriers are being sanctioned for operations in the Atlantic and Pacific seas by 2025. Russia could rebuild its naval power faster than anyone else in the Asia Pacific region, as it has its own manufacturing facilities, technology input and research and development facilities.
Modern nuclear-powered SSN submarines are based in Vladivostok to work in tandem with the aircraft carrier groups. The need to protect the oil- and gas-rich Siberian peninsula weighs heavily on the Russian government, as exports from this region to China and Europe are the mainstay of its economy.
The Pacific rim, from Vladivostok in the north to Australia in the south and across the Indian Ocean to the Suez Canal, is in the throes of economic rejuvenation. The two fastest growing economies, China and India, have generated massive commodity trade, virtually all seaborne. Maritime tourism is rising too, as large cruise liners from the West are porting in Singapore and Hong Kong, among other places.
Security issues are increasingly coming to the fore, as the forces of destabilization are also located in this region, unfortunately. Organic air power at sea, beyond littoral waters, can be effectively provided by aircraft carriers only. This requirement is a boon for the languishing shipyards of Europe, as Asia is presently bereft of crucial infrastructure and manufacturing skills.
The aircraft carrier programs of Asia Pacific countries will cost well over US$100 billion in this decade, while infrastructure to support the ships over the next 50 years will cost another US$100 billion. The acquisition of armaments, aircraft, helicopters and associated systems will cost more than US$100 billion in the next five decades.
Aircraft carriers for Asia are a perfect opportunity for the slumping economies of the West, as their military and industrial complexes are geared to supply them. This has made the industry in the West recession proof. Aircraft carriers seldom sail singly; the battle group in support costs a pretty sum too, as it consists of high-technology ships like cruisers, destroyers and frigates. These add-ons will transfer at least US$200 billion to Europe, Russia and the United States in the decade ahead.
(Captain Devindra Sethi is an alumnus of India's National Defense Academy, the College of Defense Management, the College of Naval Warfare, and the War College in St. Petersburg, Russia. He is a successful entrepreneur in the maritime industry and fluent in English, Russian and Hindi. ©Copyright Devindra Sethi.)
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