China recently launched its first indigenous aircraft carrier. Construction of the 70,000 tonne Type 001A carrier which may be named Shandong started in 2013 and it is likely to be commissioned in 2020. It will be China’s second carrier after it commissioned a modified Ukrainian Kuznetsov class aircraft cruiser Varyag into its navy as Liaoning in 2012.
Many Indian commentators have written about the implication of China acquiring its second aircraft carrier on India’s security. A column in Bloomberg View said the Shandong “will give China an edge for the first time in the carrier race with its Asian rival, a literal two-to-one advantage”. The premise is wrong on various counts.
First, China’s existing carrier, the Liaoning, is being used to train the crew to operate aircraft carriers and is not on operational deployment yet. Compare this with India’s aircraft carrier: The INS Vikramaditya is fully operational. And India also has decades of experience in operating aircraft carriers, it has used them in warfare.
Second, the Shandong has only been launched, it doesn’t mean it’s ready for operational deployment. It will undergo outfitting with various systems and then undergo sea trials before being commissioned around 2020. India launched its first indigenous carrier, Vikrant, in 2013 and it is likely to be commissioned in the early 2020s after delays for various reasons.
Imagery expert Colonel Vinayak Bhat, who analysed the pictures of the Shandong, says it is at least two years away from commissioning. He says that the engines of the carrier have not yet been started and no radar or weapons installed. It also does not have the arrestor cables and the pictures suggest a lot of areas being covered up where work probably has not been completed, such as the ammunition elevator and jet blast deflectors. Moreover, they don’t have enough J-15 fighter jets for the carrier.
Third, even after China commissions the Shandong, it will not send both its carriers on permanent deployment in the Indian Ocean. China’s primary areas of interest are the hotly contested waters and islands of the East and South China Sea. The US maintains a potent naval presence in the area. China will maintain both its carriers there although it will make symbolic port visits in the Indian Ocean region especially to Gwadar in Pakistan.
China plans a four- to six-carrier navy which will give it the capability to permanently deploy in the Indian Ocean. But that will take a couple of decades at best and depends on the trajectory of the Chinese economy, which is slowing down. By that time, India will have three aircraft carriers in service.
Fourth, the two Chinese carriers are conventionally powered, not nuclear, which means they cannot be put on extended deployment. They lack the logistics capability to operate far away from Chinese shores.
Fifth, China has to contend with India’s two unsinkable aircraft carriers: the Andaman and Nicobar Islands located close to the choke point of Malacca Strait and the Indian mainland itself which juts into the Indian Ocean. The Andamans has India’s only tri-services command and there are plans to beef up military presence there. India will be able to target PLAN (People’s Liberation Army Navy) warships and interdict supplies using land-based assets like aircraft and missiles. India has deployed its premier fighter aircraft, the Su-30MKI, in the Andamans and also in southern India.
To break India’s dominance in the Indian Ocean, China has invested in a number of port projects in India’s neighbourhood, referred to as string of pearls. All of them, including China’s expected naval base in Gwadar in Pakistan, are within range of India’s land-based fighters and missiles.
Finally, India does not have to match China in the numbers game. The former has the geographical advantage. With over 40 warships under construction, it will have nearly 200 warships by 2025. China has to contend with multiple naval powers in its core areas of interest. The US navy looms large. Japan has a powerful navy with advanced warships and submarines. It recently commissioned its second helicopter carrier, which could carry the F-35B stealth fighter. South Korea has a potent navy and Vietnam has acquired Russian Kilo-class submarines to counter the mightier Chinese navy.
India has multinational cooperation in the maritime domain primarily with the US and Japan. India and the US share information on China’s maritime movements and train extensively during Exercise Malabar. India’s chief of naval staff has said that India has plans in place for China’s naval presence in Gwadar.
India has to prepare for any Chinese threat. It should beef up its air defence and land-based anti-ship missiles in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands as well as peninsular India. Stationing the S-400 surface-to-air missile system that India plans to acquire in the Andamans will cover 500,000 sq. km of airspace over the Bay of Bengal. All major Indian warships are being equipped with Barak 8 long-range surface-to-air missiles along with the supersonic Brahmos anti-ship cruise missiles. India is going to acquire nuclear and diesel-electric attack submarines. While there are delays in the acquisition process, there is no need to panic as the Chinese dragon will not be in a position to breathe fire on India in the Indian Ocean anytime soon.
This article first appeared in Mint here