Observers are questioning the wisdom of India’s decision to begin design work on its second homemade aircraft carrier, even as its first indigenous carrier faces more than two years of delays due to technical snags and its quest to refit a Russian-built carrier has been beset by years of delays and billions in cost overruns.
Sources said the second indigenous carrier, to be named the Vishal, will have a displacement of 65,000 tons, 25,000 tons heavier than the first indigenous carrier, called Vikrant.
Vishal will feature steam catapults, operate larger fighter aircraft, and carry an airborne early-warning (AEW) system and aerial refuelers.
An Indian Navy official said Vishal will also fly naval versions of the Light Combat Aircraft, which is in development.
The decision to go ahead with such a complex and costly project has evoked mixed reactions among analysts here.
While an Indian Navy official said India needs at least three aircraft carriers, Zachariah Mathews, a retired Navy commodore and defense analyst here, questioned the need to spend money on a second carrier at this stage.
“The Indian Navy needs to meet other priorities, including adding more warships and assets now. The carrier is not a top priority,” he said.
Vishal is expected to cost about $1.5 billion, according to Defence Ministry sources, compared with $750 million for the first indigenous carrier.
The Vishal project is still in the design stage, which is being undertaken by the Navy’s Naval Design Bureau.
The Navy has decided not to seek outside help as it did with Vikrant, when it hired Italy-based Fincantieri’s Naval Vessel Business Unit to help prepare the concept, design and implementation plans. The Navy might, however, seek help from the Russian Design Bureau at a later date in order to integrate the Russian aircraft onto Vishal.
While Vishal’s design is not finalized, sources said the carrier was originally planned to be 44,000 tons in 2010 before that was changed to 65,000.
India already has one aircraft carrier — the 53-year-old Viraat, purchased from the British Navy as the former Hermes in 1987 — in its inventory.
The 25-year-old Vikramaditya, purchased from Russia, is expected to join the inventory next year. Its delivery had been delayed by more than five years and was approved only after India agreed in 2010 to pay $2 billion more than the figure established in the 2005 contract.
Vikrant and Vikramaditya will fly the MiG-29K aircraft, but will not fly any AEW aircraft as conceived for Vishal. The Indian Navy source said the MiG-29K will likely not fly from Vishal; officials believe they will need more advanced aircraft to fly from the ship, such as the Russian-made Su-33 and MiG-35.
Meanwhile, Vikrant, which is already delayed by two years, faces yet another two-year delay. Carrier builder Cochin Shipyard is facing difficulties with the main reduction gear box supplied by Gujarat-based Elecon Engineering, which in turn has joined with Renk AG of Germany to build the two main reduction gears for the carrier.
Sources said that apart from delays in the delivery of the gear boxes, the boxes themselves — each weighing around 90 tons — have never been handled by Indian shipyards.
Other delay-causing issues include an accident with a diesel generator and an issue with its alignment. Vikrant is now expected to be inducted by 2017, two years later than planned. The scheduled keel laying was pushed back from 2009 to last year.