Updated Nov. 30, 2016 6:46 a.m. ET
NEW DELHI—When top American naval engineers recently inspected India’s first locally made aircraft carrier they expected to find a near battle-ready ship set to help counter China’s growing sway in the Indian Ocean.
Instead, they discovered the carrier wouldn’t be operational for up to a decade and other shortcomings: no small missile system to defend itself, a limited ability to launch sorties and no defined strategy for how to use the ship in combat. The findings alarmed U.S. officials hoping to enlist India as a bulwark against China, people close to the meeting said.
“China’s navy will be the biggest in the world soon, and they’re definitely eyeing the Indian Ocean with ports planned in Sri Lanka and Bangladesh,” said retired Admiral Arun Prakash, the former commander of India’s navy. “The Indian navy is concerned about this.”
The February carrier inspection, in the port of Kochi, formed part of U.S. plans to share aircraft carrier technology with India. Indian naval officials followed up with a tour of an American shipbuilding yard in Virginia and strategy briefings at the Pentagon in September, the people close to the meetings said.
The U.S. and India are drawing closer politically and militarily. The two have participated in joint naval exercises with Japan. The U.S. has agreed to sell New Delhi everything from attack helicopters to artillery. Washington has approved proposals by Lockheed Martinand Boeing Co. to make advanced jet fighters in India. And in August, the two countries signed a military logistics-sharing accord.
The emerging relationship has reshaped Asia’s geopolitical terrain, riling China, which has issued diplomatic complaints over the joint exercises, and sometimes sidelining Russia, long India’s largest supplier of military hardware.
Both Indian and American officials say they hope cooperation will grow under President-elect Donald Trump, who has signaled a tougher approach toward China. After the U.S. election, the American Ambassador to India said the ties forged with India under President Barack Obama were “irreversible.”
The centerpiece of the military cooperation are the aircraft carriers.
“Of all the U.S.’s efforts to cooperate with India’s military, the aircraft carrier project is the one with the biggest potential payout and could make the biggest difference to the regional balance of power,” said Ashley Tellis of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a former U.S. adviser in New Delhi.
But U.S. concerns are growing about India’s military strategy. Experts worry New Delhi’s insistence on building complex military gear largely from scratch, a legacy of its period of nonalignment, has led to severe delays in modernizing its carriers, jet fighters and nuclear submarines and limited its ability to fight.
A Indian Defense Ministry spokesman declined to comment beyond saying that its aircraft carriers were “still under progress.” A Navy spokesman declined to comment. Indian Defense Minister Manohar Parrikar recently reiterated a commitment to indigenous manufacturing, citing concerns that foreign supply of arms and ammunition could be cut off in a time of war. “I think self-dependence is very important,” he said.
China, meanwhile, is rapidly expanding its military forces. It launched its first aircraft carrier in 2012 and is building two more. Chinese state-owned companies have invested in strategic ports circling the Indian Ocean in Sri Lanka, Myanmar and Pakistan, that have resupplied its naval vessels. And China is now building its first overseas military outpost in Djibouti.
Chinese officials have rejected assertions that they are pursuing military objectives in the Indian Ocean, saying submarines resupplying in Sri Lanka were heading to the Gulf of Aden on antipiracy missions.
India, for its part, pledged funding last year for a new port in Iran where India’s own ships could potentially resupply for Indian Ocean missions. And it is seeking to match China’s naval force by adding two Indian-built carriers to the Russian one it now operates.
The first homemade Indian carrier, the INS Vikrant, has fallen short of expectations. An Indian state audit, released in July, found serious faults in its design and construction, from gear boxes to jet launching systems and air conditioning units.
The shipyard building the carrier, which has already cost $3 billion, “had no previous experience of warship construction” and is five years behind schedule, the audit said. India’s military sticks by its 2018 deadline.
Other experts said the ship’s hull was built before the navy had decided on some of the weapons systems, likely hampering its eventual performance. India’s homemade Tejas jet fighters, which are slated to fly from the Vikrant alongside squadrons of Russian jets, are also struggling to take off and land with an adequate payload on a simulated flight deck where they are being tested, people familiar with its testing said.
The upshot, these experts say: the carrier’s defensive flaws make it unlikely to able to operate in important theaters like the Persian Gulf or off the eastern coast of Africa, outside of the protective range of India’s land-based air force.
Still, the U.S. Navy plans to step up cooperation, pinning its hopes on India’s second homemade carrier, which promises to be far larger and contain more advanced technology. While carriers are losing their relevancy with the proliferation of cheap antiship missiles and advanced attack submarines, they are still likely to remain at the core of most major navies for some decades.
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Tags: aircraft carrier, antiship missiles, China, Donald Trump, India, India’s first locally made aircraft carrier, Indian Defense Minister Manohar Parrikar, Indian Ocean, INS Vikrant, Japan, joint exercises, military, military logistics-sharing, Naval Exercises, Russia, Tejas jet fighters, U. S., U.S. Navy