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Ship-building policy needs change

Last week, Chinese supreme leader Xi Jinping made a highly publicised visit to the sole Chinese aircraft carrier, Liaoning. Never mind that the carrier is still five years from achieving full operational capability, but it has already emerged as a potent symbol of China’s naval might. Xi’s visit was widely reported in the Chinese press and he has made it a point to visit military bases and facilities not only to deepen his ties with the PLA, but to send signals of resolve with regard to China defending its maritime claims relating to Japan and some ASEAN countries.

At the Liaoning, not only did Xi get a guard of honour on the deck of the ship, but he went below to chat with the sailors. Earlier, he went to a nearby naval training institute where he saw the aircraft that will form the key complement of the Liaoning carry out training exercises. The aircraft carrier will have a complement of 30 J-15 fighters, an aircraft developed by the Chinese broadly based on the Soviet Su-33 of the 1980s. The next day, Chinese Ministry of National Defence spokesman Yang Yujun said that though the Liaoning was China’s first aircraft carrier, “there will surely be more in future”. And anyone who has seen the manner in which China has handled its economic construction will not doubt that they will be with us soon.

In February, the PLA’s main ship contractor, the China Shipbuilding Industry Corporation, revealed that its ministry of Science and Technology had begun funding two projects, including one for possible nuclear propulsion of a carrier. Last month pictures surfaced on the internet revealing a module at Shanghai’s Changxing Island Shipyard which analysts said was a second Chinese carrier under construction. They said that the pictures showed the telltale profile of the inner hull of a carrier with a well-defined hangar and elevator cutout which appeared to be of a modified Liaoning design.

In contrast to the Chinese, the Japanese “carrier” Izumo which was launched on August 6 was projected as a helicopter carrying destroyer. But the ship with a large flight deck of 250 metres (a little bigger than that of our Viraat), which Japan says will be used for helicopters, has raised hackles in China. The Izumo does not have a ski jump or catapults to launch aircraft, but in future, it could easily embark the F-35C variant being developed for the US Navy.

The Chinese worry about the Japanese because despite their massive buildup and huge navy which is probably double the size of the Japanese, the latter still have areas of excellence, such as in undersea and anti-submarine warfare which could give the Chinese a run for their money. There can be little doubt that should it wish, Japan could quickly add muscle to its existing fleet and develop actual aircraft carriers. Its limitations are neither financial
The third major development was, of course, the launch of our carrier, Vikrant which is slightly smaller than the Chinese Liaoning. Of course, this is still years away from commissioning. But in the meantime India will induct the INS Vikramaditya (ex-Gorshkov) into its Navy later this year. This ship, again slightly smaller than the Liaoning, will be fully operational by next year considering the Indian Navy’s long experience in aircraft carrier operations.

India has plans for building more carriers and there is already talk of a follow on to the Vikrant which would have 65,000 tons displacement bringing it into the class of American super-carriers. India, too, is contemplating the use of nuclear propulsion for the carrier.

What the Chinese are planning for is not clear. As of now they seem more focused on protecting their mainland against offensive American power. A secondary consideration is to protect their somewhat extravagant maritime claims. As for the Japanese, as an island country with a pacifist constitution, the main aim is to provide limited protection to Japanese sea lines of communications. As for India, it is the one with the big ambitions, which include its emerging as the dominant force in the Indian Ocean (not counting the real and only superpower of the day, the US).

But there is one big difference between the way in which the three countries we are discussing execute their plans. The Chinese and the Japanese are noted for long-sight and formidable manufacturing skills. So when they set out a goal for themselves they usually achieve it on time, or even ahead of time.

The Indians have a reputation for being laggard and nowhere is this more apparent than in naval construction. A performance audit conducted by the Comptroller and Auditor General in 2010-2011 revealed that where shipyards in the US, France, South Korea and Russia took between 66-84 months from the award of contract to the construction of a ship, in India, the time for comparable warships ranged from 116 to 120 months and, if anything, the situation had worsened.

Fortunately, we have options in the form of private sector shipyards built by companies like Pipavav shipyards, Larsen & Toubro, ABG shipyards and others which have created huge first rate facilities for naval construction. What they need are orders.

So far, the Ministry of Defence has doled these out in a niggardly way because it favours public sector shipyards like MDL. But these shipyards have more orders than they can fulfill and, in any case, they function in an inefficient manner. The only way we can become big players in the regional naval contest is if we harness our private sector talent and restructure our public sector shipyards.

The writer is a Distinguished Fellow, Observer Research Foundation, New DelhiĀ 

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