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Mainstream, VOL LV No 24 New Delhi June 3, 2017

Lessons from the Chinese Aircraft Carrier

Thursday 8 June 2017

by Bhartendu Kumar Singh

Aircraft carriers have, for long, symbolised great power prestige and power projection. China also recognised the centrality of aircraft carriers in its military modernisation programme, more so, after the area denial from the US carriers during the 1995-96 Taiwan Straits crisis. Unlike India, where all the past three aircraft carriers were purchased, China has increasingly domesticised the carrier building since the purchase of Liaoning as an incomplete carrier from Ukraine in 1998; best reflected in its recent launching of the first homegrown aircraft carrier. While the strategic significance of the new carrier is a separate issue, it does signify several lessons for India in defence production.

First, China has achieved the feat of producing the full carrier within five years from its keel-laying in 2012. China has been producing ocean- going tankers and big ships for quite some time. In a just released book (China’s Naval Shipbuilding, 2017), Andrew S. Erickson and others have recorded how China’s ship building industry has grown thirteen-fold from 2002 to 2012, dumping ships for the Chinese Navy and business groups like dumplings. This enabled the country to build the hull of the carrier without much difficulty. The Chinese spent more than a decade learning the basics of aircraft building on Liaoning and only then moved on to the second project for an indigenous production. Further, the new leadership under Xi Jinping, after coming to power in 2012, has been constantly monitoring and supporting the project.

India, despite making an early start in aircraft carrier operations, focussed on outright purchase of one after another three aircraft carriers, thereby diluting the incentive or compulsion for domestic production. Did we lack financial resources? Definitely no, since the country was making in any case outright purchase of big ticket items; was making a fair investment in defence R & D; and, above all, was pampering the monolithic shipbuilding companies in the public sector despite their sluggish performance. The cost-benefit analysis of career production was perhaps never done or subsumed under the rubric of defence imports. Worst, the project monitoring of the aircraft-carrier project was missing despite institutional arrangements for the same. As a result, the deadlines for final delivery have been extended many a time.

Second, as Erickson records, through a process of ‘imitative innovation’, China has been able to leapfrog some naval development, engineering and production steps and achieve tremendous cost and time savings by leveraging work done by the US and other countries. It hardly matters if Chinese engineers have indulged in reverse engineering of key technologies or stolen them or purchased them! At the end of the day, China has delivered an aircraft carrier. The capability to produce instead of simply ‘owning’ it matters a lot! In fact, China has emerged as the sixth largest exporter of military goods and is living upto the reputation of great powers capable of ‘producing’ and ‘selling’ security to others.

India, on the other hand, failed to develop the expertise for the proliferation of the ship techno-logy. Even today, we produce barely ten per cent of merchant vessels in our own shipyards. We do not have the capacity to produce big ships and oil tankers. So the incremental capabilities required to work on a complex system like an aircraft carrier has simply not been there! The carrier project has in fact become a victim of technological immaturity and lack of institutionalised supply chain management for vital technology and spare parts.

Third, China, as the new aircraft carrier reflects, is going in a systematic manner towards its military modernisation. The new carrier is a mid-sized one with conventional energy system and STOBAR technology for aircraft handling. China will have a long way to catch up with the world’s best Nimitz class of the US that are over 1 lakh tonnes in terms of displacement and are nuclear powered. China does have grandiose plans to produce bigger carriers loaded with futuristic fighter jets but would do so only on the basis of incremental experience and technological autarky.

India, on the other hand, started with the CATOBAR (Catapult Assisted but Arrested Recovery) technology with the Vikrant I and has settled for STOBAR (Short Takeoff but Arrested Takeoff) technology in case of Vikrant II. Clearly, we failed to indigenise the advanced technology that we had imported! Did we lack an absolute resolve, say, techno-nationalism? Is it because we have been poor on the monitoring and execution front, as exemplified in the aircraft carrier project? Is it because the defence PSUs suffer from the ‘elephant paradigm’—slow to move and slow to change? Do we need to consider more autonomy for such defence PSUs as enjoyed by the PSUs in space, missile and nuclear sectors? These issues need to be debated.

The launch of the aircraft carrier shows that China has clearly established its credentials for a three-dimensional production capability in land, air and sea-based weapons systems and would surely dominate the Indian Ocean in future. India is presently better off in aircraft career operations by virtue of almost five decades experience, but there is no harm learning from the Chinese experience and give emphasis on production-based defence modernisation than one based on the purchase system. Probably, there lies the secret of India’s great power rise!

The author is in the Indian Defence Accounts Service. The views expressed here are strictly personal.

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