INS Vishal:- India’s Nuclear Powered Aircraft Carrier Update

The Indian Navy’s latest aircraft carrier, the 65,000-ton supercarrier INS Vishal, the second ship of the Vikrant-class, will be powered by a nuclear reactor, according to anonymous Indian Navy sources. Furthermore, the INS Vishal will be able to accommodate up to 55 aircraft (35 fixed-wing combat aircraft and 20 rotary wing aircraft), launched using a catapult assisted take-off but arrested recovery (CATOBAR) aircraft launch system, incorporating U.S. defense contractor’s General Atomics’ new electromagnetic aircraft launch system (EMALS) technology, the Business Standard reports on November 7.

At an estimated $5 billion, the fully equipped INS Vishal may be most expensive piece of machinery in the arsenal of India, which wants to match the pace at which China is developing its aircraft carriers. The final cost will also depend on the hardware installed.

In India’s neighbourhood, Pakistan and Sri Lanka don’t possess aircraft carriers.China, which already has the 40,000-tonne CNS Liaoning, is developing a 50,000-tonne aircraft carrier. It plans to develop two more.

An aircraft carrier, complete with fighter squadrons called Carrier Battle Groups (CBG), gives a navy strategic depth in the oceans.

A CBG can control around 200,000 square nautical miles and can moving more than 600 nautical miles a day. The distance between Chennai and Colombo by the sea is 401 nautical miles.

Given the incorporation of these new technologies, the Indian Navy source also revealed that the aircraft carrier will not enter service until the 2030s. It is still unclear when the construction of the new warship will begin.

The INS Vishal will be the first non-Western aircraft carrier equipped with the complex CATOBAR launch capability. CATOBAR aircraft launch systems put less strain on the airframe of planes during takeoff reducing maintenance cost in the long run and also allows carrier-based aircraft to carry a heavier weapons payload. Furthermore, CATOBAR launch systems increase the sortie rates of carrier air wings by allowing a faster landing and takeoff rate.

The Indian Navy’s preference for the CATOBAR aircraft launch system indicates that the new warship will in all likelihood not carry MiG-29K Fulcrum fighter jets, the current mainstay of India’s naval combat aviation.

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"shealthThis will open up opportunities for competitors, in particular France and the United States, to push their naval combat aircraft. As I reported previously  representatives of French aircraft maker Dassault Aviation pitched the naval version of the Dassault Rafale twin-engine, fourth generation multirole fighter to the Indian Navy in early 2016. (The United States has been quietly pushing Lockheed Martin’s F-35c Lightning II and McDonnell Douglas F/A 18 Hornets).

The domestically designed and produced Tejas Light Combat Aircraft (LCA), next to being deployed aboard the INS Vikrant, India’s first indigenously built aircraft carrier, is also slated to serve on the INS Vishal, according to Indian Navy officials. Two naval prototypes of the Tejas LCA successfully conducted test flights from a so-called Shore Based Test Facility—a full-scale model of an aircraft carrier deck—in Goa earlier in the year. Nevertheless, senior Indian defense officials have repeatedly stated that the Indian Navy’s naval combat aviation requirements cannot be covered by domestic production.

Selecting the right aircraft will be critical for India’s naval power.

“The type of aircraft stationed aboard the new supercarrier will heavily influence the new vessel’s design and is thus of critical importance,” as I explained elsewhere. In the middle of 2015, Russia, France, the United Kingdom, and the United States received requests for “technical and costing proposals” by the Indian Navy’s Naval Design Bureau regarding the design of its new aircraft carrier. Should the adaptation of the CATOBAR system be officially confirmed, it will almost certainly rule out Russian participation in the construction of the carrier given strict U.S. export control and intellectual property restrictions.

India has no experience with nuclear propulsion in a surface combat vessel, so U.S.-India or France-India technical cooperation on nuclear technology is a possibility. However, among other things, this would require changes to current U.S. nuclear policy. India and the United States have formed a Joint Working Group on Aircraft Carrier Technology Cooperation (JWGACTC) as part of the so-called bilateral Defense Trade and Technology Initiative (DTTI). According to publicly available information, the talks were largely confined to the the possibility of incorporating EMALS technology on the INS Vishal and did not discuss nuclear propulsion.

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Her EMALS CATOBAR system will allow her to launch heavier aircraft like larger fighters; unmanned air combat vehicles (UCAVs); turbo-prop airborne early-warning aircraft and aerial refueling tankers. INS Vishal remains under development, however, and it is unclear when her construction will begin.

The Indian Navy has also expressed interest in purchasing Northrop Grumman’s E-2 Hawkeye, an American carrier-based tactical battle management system using early warning and command and control aircraft. That item has been on the Navy’s wish list for a considerable time.

Indian Navy is planning for operating UCAVs from this carrier, as well as an AEW aircraft, and medium and light fighters. According to a naval planner, it “could greatly expand our mission envelope with UCAVs, using the pilot-less aircraft for high-risk reconnaissance and SEAD (suppression of enemy air defences). Mid-air refueling would let us keep UCAVs on mission for 24-36 hours continuously, since pilot fatigue would not be a factor.”

This ship will cost three to four times the amount of the INS Vikrant which uses a combination of diesel-electric systems and gas turbines.  Other costs include manpower, additional infrastructure costs for repairs, development.

India has issued an RFI (request for information) for design services to a number of foreign shipyards.  Initial discussions were held with the Russian, American, and French governments for developmental assistance.

It is apparent, the new Supercarrier will not have the curved flight deck with the CATOBAR launch system installed and may look more like the Nimitz class carriers albeit smaller.

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