India's First-Ever Supercarrier Might Be Based On The UK's Queen Elizabeth Class

The India-specific design would need significant changes, but using a known ship as a starting place makes the offer very attractive.

Steve Parsons/PA Wire via AP Images

BAE Systems says it has proposed a design based on the U.K. Royal Navy’s Queen Elizabeth-class to India to meet that country’s requirements for a second domestically-produced aircraft carrier. The Indian government is hoping that, whatever the final design, construction of the future INS Vishal, the country’s first supercarrier, will begin in 2022.

On Apr. 4, 2019, Australian Defence Magazine was first to report the developments after speaking with a representative from the U.K.-headquartered defense contractor at 2019 Langkawi International Maritime and Aerospace (LIMA) trade show in Malaysia. This event ended on Mar. 30, 2019. India has been laying the groundwork for Vishal since at least 2011. The country's authorities sent formal letters of interest about possible carrier designs to BAE, as well as France’s DCNS, U.S. defense giant Lockheed Martin, and Russia’s central arms exporter Rosoboronexport, in 2015.

“BAE Systems is pleased to have begun discussions with India about the potential for basing development of the second Indigenous Aircraft Carrier [IAC-2] project on the Queen Elizabeth class design,” BAE’s representative in Malaysia said, according to Australian Defence. “The U.K. carrier design has now been proven at sea and is a near match to the Indian Navy’s requirement for a 65,000-ton carrier with Integrated Full Electric Propulsion [IFEP], that could be constructed under the country’s ‘Make in India’ program.”

At present, India has one aircraft carrier in service, the INS Vikramaditya, which displaces around 45,000 tons. This is a modified Soviet-era Kiev-class ship, previously known as the Admiral Gorshkov, which the Indians purchased from Russia in 2004.

Indian Navy

INS Vikramaditya.

That same year, the Indian Navy ordered the country’s first indigenously produced aircraft carrier, also known as IAC-1, the future INS Vikrant. The design is similar in many respects to Vikramaditya and has a displacement of around 40,000 tons. At present, she is expected to enter service in 2021.

With her displacement of around 65,000 tons, the future Vishal will be significantly larger than either of these two ships. The Indians had initially considered making her nuclear-powered, as well as, before dropping those plans in favor of a conventional IFEP propulsion system.

Beyond these features, the Indians have not publicly released many details about Vishal’s expected configuration. Most notably, there remains a question about whether it will be a Catapult Assisted Take-Off Barrier Arrested Recovery (CATOBAR) type, like U.S. Navy supercarriers, or a Short Take-Off But Arrested Recovery (STOBAR) design with a ski jump in the front like the smaller Vikramaditya and up-coming Vikrant.

Indian Navy

The future INS Vikrant in 2015.

The Indian Navy is certainly interested in acquiring a CATOBAR type aircraft carrier in the future, in general. In the mid-2010s, the service reportedly evaluated General Atomics’ advanced Electromagnetic Aircraft Launch System (EMALS) for the U.S. Navy’s Ford-class aircraft carriers. In 2017, there were reports that President Donald Trump’s Administration had approved the prospective sale of the EMALS to India.

In principle, EMALS offers substantial benefits over traditional steam-powered catapults, including the ability to fine-tune the exact amount of force the system exerts on the launched aircraft. This limits the wear and tear on the airframes, which in turn reduces maintenance and logistical requirements. The U.S. Navy also says it will help increase the Fords’ ability to generate sorties and launch a wider-range of aircraft, including lighter unmanned systems.

In practice, so far, EMALS has seriously underperformed by every meaningful measure, forcing the Navy to reset its baseline requirements for the system. The electronically-controlled Advanced Arresting Gear, another General Atomics product, has also been plagued by developmental issues.

The final decision could end up being tied to what the composition of India's future carrier air wings and what type of carrier-based fighter jets it plans to buy as part of a new tender. The Indian Navy has already soundly rejected a navalized variant of the domestically produced Tejas as overweight and is now looking to foreign designs. Russia is in the running with its MiG-29K, but India has been disappointed with the performance of its existing naval MiG-29s.

The other entrants include the Dassault Rafale, a naval variant of the Saab Gripen, and Boeing’s F/A-18E/F Super Hornet. Boeing has pointedly said that Super Hornet will be able to fly from a catapult or ski-jump-equipped carrier.

But whether India decides to go with a CATOBAR arrangement using EMALS or steam, or stick with a STOBAR configuration, BAE will have to make significant changes to the existing Queen Elizabeth design. The Royal Navy's carriers are built to accommodate Short-Take Off and Vertical Landing (STOVL) type aircraft that don't need catapults or arresting gear at all.

However, the United Kingdom only arrived at this decision after a notable debate over the carrier's configuration, which means that BAE has already done at least some design work on STOBAR and CATOBAR variations. “The design is adaptable to offer either ski-jump or catapult launch and can be modified to meet Indian Navy and local industry requirements,” the BAE representative explained to Australian Defence.

BAE Systems

An artist's conception of a proposed CATOBAR configured HMS Queen Elizabeth. The United Kingdom did not ultimately choose this design.

The design may need further adapting to meet any other Indian-specific feature or equipment requirements. For instance, the Queen Elizabeth-class has a notably limited suite of air and missile defense systems, though the Royal Navy is now looking at how to improve those capabilities in the future.

India, which faces potential threats from both Pakistan and China, may have immediate demands for a more robust self-protection suite on its ships. The much smaller Vikrant, for instance, will already have four 76mm multi-purpose guns, two 32-cell vertical launch systems for either the Barak 1 or Barak 8 surface-to-air missiles, and a number of Russian 30mm AK-630 close-in weapon systems (CIWS).

But the major advantage of using the Queen Elizabeth as a starting place is that it is a recently produced design that has spent some time at sea. India will build Vishal at the country’s Cochin Shipyard, but could leverage BAE’s production experience to help reduce the chances of serious issues arising during construction and causing major delays.

Andrew Matthews—PA Wire/PA Images

The HMS Queen Elizabeth.

Just in March 2019, a delegation with Indian Navy Chief of Staff Admiral Sunil Lanba at its head visited the United Kingdom. There he toured the Queen Elizabeth and talked with the Royal Navy about best practices for carrier construction.

“I am sure we will be able to develop further synergies in our respective future carrier strike capabilities,” First Sea Lord Admiral Sir Philip Jones, the Royal Navy’s top officer, said afterward. “The important thing is that by developing these capabilities in tandem, we build in a level of interoperability.”

This interoperability could be a major boon for the United Kingdom, as well, which is also looking to expand its naval presence, as well as other military activities, in the Pacific Region. In February 2019, the U.K. Ministry of Defense said it had plans to send Queen Elizabeth on a patrol in the hotly contested South China Sea.

BAE’s representative at LIMA also told Australian Defence that cooperation with the United Kingdom would help reduce the delivery schedule for Vishal and potential risks. “The distributed build of a large complex carrier, having been successfully demonstrated in the U.K., could potentially assist public and private Indian shipyards in sharing roles and responsibility for construction of this important strategic asset,” he added.

All of this would be extremely important given India’s drive for major industrial cooperation in all of its defense procurement, as well as its past experience buying and building aircraft carriers. The Vikramaditya, in particular, was a debacle, with Russia’s Sevmash Shipyard delivering the ship years behind schedule and over budget.

Though India purchased the carrier in 2004, it only re-commissioned the heavily modified and overhauled ship in 2013. Sevmash had no previous experience with aircraft carriers or with any ship close to Vikramaditya’s size. The Soviet Union had built all of its carriers at shipyards in what is now Ukraine and Russians have continually pushed back plans to build new carriers of their own.

Indian Navy

Vikramaditya in the final stages of construction at Sevmash in 2013.

Difficulties with Russian suppliers have also complicated the construction of the future Vikrant. India had to construct facilities to produce the high-grade steel required after difficulties arose in buying the materials from Russia.

This past performance can only hurt Russia’s chances for winning any final deal to cooperate on the construction of the future Vishal. The other two firms that India previously contacted about carrier designs, DCNS and Lockheed Martin, also do not have any recent relevant recent designs in service or under construction.

DCNS, together with Thales Naval France, had been working on their own 75,000-ton displacement carrier concept derived from the Queen Elizabeth, as a replacement from the French Navy’s carrier Charles de Gaulle, but this program got canceled in 2013. DCNS also built the Charles de Gaulle in the 1980s, but this ship is significantly smaller than what the Indians have called for with the future Vishal. France is only now beginning to conduct new studies regarding a future carrier replacement, which DCNS will certainly be a part of, as well. 

DCNS

An artist's conception of the DCNS Porte-Avions 2 aircraft carrier design, which was based on BAE's CATOBAR proposal for the Queen Elizabeth-class.

Lockheed Martin has never built a carrier, though it has worked together with Italy’s Fincantieri on various other shipbuilding projects in the past. Fincantieri designed the Italian Navy’s aircraft carrier Cavour, but this a STOVL type that is also substantially smaller than what India is looking for. It is worth mentioning that this Italian shipbuilder has been involved in the development of the propulsion system for the up-coming Vikrant.

If India were to select BAE from this field to design its future supercarrier, it would also be significant for the company and the British economy in general, which has slowed significantly in the face of the country's increasingly convoluted plans to leave the European Union. Even with the Vishal built in India, BAE systems could be looking at decades of subsequent contracts to support the ship's continued operations and craft future upgrades. 

Depending on how much commonality there is between the Vishal and the Queen Elizabeth-class, it could help create economies of scale that reduce the sustainment and upgrade costs of the Royal Navy's carriers, as well. There are already serious questions about whether the Royal Navy has the personnel, operational budgets, escort ships, and aircraft to make the most of its planned two-carrier fleet. This, in turn, has led to persistent, but so far entirely unfounded rumors that the United Kingdom might just sell Queen Elizabeth's sister ship, HMS Prince of Wales, outright to a foreign party, such as India.

Of course, India has yet to make any formal decision on who will design, or help design, its future Vishal and it’s unclear when that announcement might come. But BAE does make a very strong case for the first Indian supercarrier to use the Queen Elizabeth as an established starting place.

Contact the author: jtrevithickpr@gmail.com