Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Dreams of aircraft carriers

Dec 9, 2008

By Ian Storey

THERE are few more potent symbols of national power than aircraft carriers.

America's unrivalled global military reach is underpinned by its Navy's 11 'flat tops', including 10 98,000-tonne nuclear-powered Nimitz- class supercarriers capable of embarking 85 aircraft. Aircraft carriers not only enable the United States to project power around the world, but also protect international sea lanes, deliver humanitarian aid and show the flag in foreign ports.

Aircraft carriers are badges of Great Power status, and so it is not surprising that three of the Asia-Pacific's most ambitious powers - Russia, India and China - are all seeking to expand or acquire carrier capabilities. However, all three face significant technological and operational challenges before they can realise this goal.

A resurgent Russia has the most ambitious plans. As part of President Dmitry Medvedev's plans to fully modernise the Russian armed forces by 2020, the country's navy has been promised five to six nuclear-powered aircraft carriers for its Northern and Pacific Fleets. Moscow has announced that construction could begin as early as 2013.

Russia currently operates only one aircraft carrier, the 67,500-tonne Admiral Kuznetsov. Moscow's desire to acquire a further five to six carriers has been met with scepticism as the country does not have a shipyard capable of accommodating such a large and complex construction programme. All of the former Soviet Union's carriers were built at the Nikolayev shipyard in the Ukraine. Strained political relations between Moscow and Kiev make it highly unlikely that Russia would now award the Ukraine such a strategically important order.

Russia could expand its existing shipyards, but this option would be costly and time-consuming. Also, whether it would be able to turn out a quality product is questionable, given the country's ageing military-industrial complex and lack of skilled workers, who have migrated to the more lucrative private sector.

Moreover, despite Mr Medvedev's insistence that the current global financial downturn will not affect the military modernisation programme, plummeting oil prices will give Russia less financial resources to realise its naval ambitions.

India is also keen to beef up its naval power through the acquisition of flat tops. It currently operates only one carrier, the INS Viraat, that is due to be retired in 2010. Indian plans called for two replacement aircraft carriers by 2010, but both projects have run into difficulties.

Construction problems have delayed by several years the induction of a 40,000-tonne indigenously-built carrier capable of carrying 14-16 MiG-29 fighter aircraft. By this year, India had also hoped to have in service a former Soviet carrier, the Admiral Gorshkov. It had agreed in 2004 to pay Russia US$1.5 billion (S$2.7 billion) for a complete refurbishment of the Gorshkov - to be renamed INS Vikramaditya - plus 50 MiG-29 fighters.

But late last year, Russia stunned India by admitting that it had underestimated the scale of the project, and that New Delhi would have pay additional costs to have the vessel completed. Recent reports suggest Moscow is asking for an extra US$2 billion, a figure described by retired Indian Navy chief Admiral Arun Prakash as 'sheer bare-faced blackmail'.

Negotiations between India and Russia are ongoing, but New Delhi may well baulk at the increased price tag. If it does, Moscow has indicated that it will keep the Gorshkov for its own navy.

If India does walk away from the deal, an intriguing alternative will present itself. Earlier this year, there were rumours that Washington was willing to offer New Delhi the soon to be decommissioned 85,000-tonne conventionally-powered aircraft carrier, the Kitty Hawk. Both countries have denied the rumours, but with the Gorshkov deal now in question, such an arrangement would become a more serious possibility.

The transfer of the Kitty Hawk would not only present a quantum leap in capabilities for the Indian Navy but would also cement the growing strategic alignment between India and America.

China's aircraft carrier ambitions are the most enigmatic among the three countries. It has been exploring the carrier option since the 1980s; and in the 1990s, it purchased three former Soviet carriers to study. Two of these vessels, the Minsk and the Kiev, were turned into theme parks, while the third, the 67,500-tonne Varyag - sister ship of the Admiral Kuznetsov - has remained tied up in the port of Dalian since 2002.

Over the years there have been numerous reports that China intends to build an indigenous fleet of carriers, though none has ever been confirmed. Recent developments suggest that China may be close to making a formal decision to begin an aircraft carrier construction programme. Chinese officials have stated that the country has the technological capabilities to build such a complex vessel. The Chinese Navy has said it has sufficient destroyers and submarines to serve as escort vessels.

The Varyag has reportedly been upgraded - though it still lacks engines and armaments - and may be used as a training vessel, reportedly renamed Shih Lang after the Chinese admiral who conquered Taiwan in 1683. Fifty naval students are now undergoing a four-year training programme to fly fighter jets from aircraft carriers, and Beijing may soon order an unspecified number of Russian-built Su-33 fighters specifically designed for use on carriers.

Last month, General Qian Lihua of the People's Liberation Army told The Financial Times that the world should not be surprised if China were to launch an aircraft carrier. He said: 'The navy of any Great Power has the dream to have one or more aircraft carriers.'

But, as all three countries are finding, turning these dreams into reality is a profoundly difficult venture. America's aircraft carrier battle groups look set to reign supreme on the world's oceans for some time to come.

The writer is a fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies.

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