Donald Kirk writes for Forbes, August 13, 2013:
What is it about aircraft carriers that just about any nation of supersize and heft has to have one? That’s the question after the launch over the past week of two aircraft carriers by nations on either side of China – that is, India, to the south and southwest and Japan to the east.
The Indian aircraft carrier won’t actually be able to do anything for real for another five years while the Japanese carrier is supposedly just a large destroyer with an outsized flight deck. The Japanese say that’s big enough for only 14 helicopters, but it sure looks as if it’s intended for fixed-wing aircraft as well.
Nobody’s predicting that either of these mighty warships will go into battle in the near future. Still, the Japanese carrier, or destroyer, does appear as a response to China’s lone aircraft carrier, a discard from the Ukraine that was rebuilt in China but isn’t carrying planes except for testing and training.
Discreetly, the Japanese aren’t boasting much about the 19,500-ton Izumo, which should be ready for action in two years, but Japan’s success in producing such a vessel may diminish the Chinese challenge to Japanese control over the disputed Senkaku islands, Diaoyu to the Chinese. No one doubts that Japanese shipyards, after decades producing some of the biggest, most sophisticated commercial vessels, could turn out still more in the Izumo class – and go up in class to full-fledged aircraft carriers.
At the same time, India is trumpeting Monday’s launch of the 37,500-ton Vikrant as its first “indigenous” aircraft carrier, entirely engineered and produced in India at a shipyard in Cochin on the southeastern coast, but this vessel is far from functional. Yes, it’s safely in the water, to the din of a traditional band and Sanskrit chants, christened by the wife of defense minister A.K. Antony when she broke a coconut on the bow, but basically it’s a shell awaiting a flight deck, bridge and much else.
As for China’s carrier the Liaoning, the new name of a Soviet Navy ship that was launched 25 years ago, it’s been rebuilt and sailing around the Yellow Sea for more than a year, but it’s relegated to the role of a training vessel. Chinese shipyards are expected to try to produce home-made models in the next few years, advancing on much the same technology. At 55,000 tons, the Liaoning’s got a flight deck 999 feet long – not all that much longer than the 860-foot flight deck of the Vikrant or the 814-foot flight deck of the Izumo– and can carry maybe 50 fighter planes compared with 36 on the Vikrant. (The Japanese, of course, don’t say how many planes the Izumo might carry since, remember, it’s not supposed to carry any planes at all.)
China is obviously upset about the competition, especially from Japan, always seen as looking for an excuse to return to the days of Japanese imperialism that ended 68 years ago this week with the Japanese surrender on August 15, 1945. The Japanese have built hundreds of enormous merchant ships but no military vessel nearly as large as the Izumo since the “Pacific War.”
For India, not known as a ship-building nation despite its long coastlines, the launch of the Vikrant, meaning “courageous,” is a matter of intense pride. “A proud moment for Indian Navy,” headlined The Hindu, a major national newspaper. “In Elite Club,” said a subhead. “Indigenous” and “indigenization” are words that come up regularly in reports of the launch.
It’s as though Indians are overjoyed not to have to describe the ship as “Indianized” via “Indianization” – terms for converting three other carriers, two that began life in the British Royal Navy and a third that’s arriving soon from the Russian navy. “India will join a select club of four nations – U.S., UK, France and Russia – that have the capability to build and operate warships of this size,” said The Indian Express EXPR -1.73%, another national newspaper, despite “a long road ahead” before the ship is completed, has undergone sea trials and is ready for duty.
Actually, India has much more to do than that if the ship is fit for war – for instance against Pakistan. The new Vikrant will not go to war without destroyers for protection and tenders and supply vessels to keep it fueled and its 1,500-man crew adequately fed, but India’s first carrier, also named the Vikrant (the Hercules during its Royal Navy days, now a floating museum in Mumbai), came in handy in the Indo-Pak War more than 40 years ago. .
But where is the arms race in aircraft carriers really going? How can India justify the investment of more than $5 billion in an aircraft carrier against other priorities ranging from food and health to defense on its land borders with Pakistan and China?
The question seems all the more relevant as U.S. carriers more than twice as large roam the region’s waters. If the aircraft carriers of China, Japan and India ever go to war, it’s a safe bet that the George Washington and Ronald Reagan, nearly 100,000 tons each, will be throwing their weight around. And that’s to say nothing of a new class of supercarrier beginning with the Gerald R. Ford, due for launch this year.
[End of Forbes article]
Meanwhile, three days ago, on Jan. 15, 2014, the U.S. Navy announced that the USS Ronald Reagan, a Nimitz-class nuclear aircraft carrier, will replace the USS George Washington at Yokosuka Naval Base near Tokyo.
“The security environment in the Indo-Asia-Pacific requires that the U.S. Navy station the most capable ships forward. This posture allows the most rapid response times possible for maritime and joint forces, and brings our most capable ships with the greatest amount of striking power and operational capability to bear in the timeliest manner,” the Navy said in a news release announcing the move.