New INS Vikrant like Aircraft Carrier or Something Larger

The Indian Navy is planning to build a third carrier for its navy in the midst of a region where almost every major power is either planning to build carriers, building carriers, or already has some in service. The entire Indian landscape is basically up for decision in the next few years, from the fighter to the carrier itself, even the primary airwing is unsure.

First Piece of the Puzzle: The Fighter

It started with the Indian putting forward a plan to replace its current primary naval fighter in the short term with an international option and long term with a domestic option. The troubled Indian MiG-29K fleet has many problems that they are currently working through:

  1. Maintenance issues with unique spares of the K variant as the MiG-29UPGs in Indian air force service are totally different in architecture due to different lineage.
  2. Lack of single engine over water certification, a must-needed for any carrier-borne fighter.
  3. Local weapon plus sensor ecosystem can’t be deployed on this fighter due to its system design, although this is changing.
  4. Limited range and payload compared to peer naval fighters.

Past, Present and Potential Future?

Hence, India kickstarted the program to get a dual-engine naval fighter to replace MiG-29Ks in the short term. A Tejas derivative was also greenlit for longer term service onboard future Indian carriers. Called the TEDBF or Twin-Engine Deck Based Fighter, it’s a canard delta wing fighter with two GE F414 engines making full use of the domestic fighter development ecosystem that Tejas set in stone.

Short Term Woes

One issue with the naval fighter selection between Rafale-M and F/A-18E/F Super Hornet is that both the fighters have one or two issues that make them sub-optimal for the niche Indian carrier requirement. Let’s dive into the fighters one by one below. We must not forget that both are excellent platforms with decades of service and combat experience behind them. India is uniquely placed to easily absorb both these jets in the next few years and hence can’t go wrong with the selection.



  1. IAF already has the maintenance infrastructure setup to support their fleet, the Marine variant is just a minor change.
  2. Existing weapons stockpiles can be ported over.
  3. Training can be done in a joint fashion between the forces.


  1. The biggest con is a lack of folding wings which hinders operations onboard India’s carriers, might not even fit on INS Vikramaditya’s fore lift.
  2. Weight issues due to India being limited Russian aircraft arresting gear, which can be upgraded but will be costly.

Rafale-M returning from a sortie.

F/A-18E/F Super Hornet


  1. India has GE F404 maintenance infrastructure and will also have local GE F414 maintenance infrastructure for the Tejas Mk 2.
  2. Some of the weapons like Harpoons are already in service.


  1. Weight issue officially highlighted by the Boeing team that the Russian origin aircraft arresting gear needs to be beefed up for heavier jet launches.

F/A-18E During trials on the Indian SBTF

Second Piece of the Puzzle: The Carrier

The question of what India should build next keeps popping up in elite Indian defense news circles every 4-6 months. The previous Indian navy leadership wanted a 65,000 to 85,000 tonne EMALS equipped carrier, which has only been operationally deployed on the lead USS Gerald R. Ford, although her sisters will soon start using their too. The Chinese are rumored to have EMALS on their recently launched Type 003 Fujian as well.

Heavy weight king of Asian Waters.

Hence, the ask here doesn’t seem too tall on the surface. But it falls apart if you look deeper. The Indian defense budget is a fraction of the Chinese and US budgets. Supporting two existing carriers and building a third would drain funds from other equally important programs. Here is a list of the top six things India needs badly and like yesterday:

  1. More fighters for the IAF to replace MiG-21s in the short term.
  2. ASW helicopters to deploy in helicopter hangars currently filled by Chetak SAR helicopters or empty.
  3. Towed Sonar Array/Variable Depth Sonar for fleet-wide deployment.
  4. Supplemental amphibious assault capability in LPDs (like INS Jalashwa) and LHDs.
  5. Supplemental submarines.
  6. Replacement for ancient T-72s in the Indian army, etc.

So, an EMALS carrier is possible, but it makes little sense if other capital projects get axed because of it. So, what makes more sense than this? A smaller IAC-2, copy of the current INS Vikrant.

So, what are the pros?

  1. The design is ready.
  2. Making a second one is always easier as most of the issues are solved already building the first one.
  3. Infrastructure is ready.
  4. Powerplants are in service fleet-wide, and more are being bought.
  5. Sensors are in service fleet-wide, and more are being bought.

But we can’t ignore the cons.

  1. The Chinese Fujian is twice as large as INS Vikrant and is clearly superior in everything being a CATOBAR EMALS design.
  2. A second Vikrant will diminish overall fleet capability in the future against Fujian’s sisters.
  3. A second Vikrant will tie up resources for a decade or so, thus not allowing any changes to the plan once the resources are committed.

My Take: If the budget can support it, the Super Hornet and 65,000 tonne STOBAR is the best compromise available.

  1. The Super Hornet brings in an American fighter, giving India a bargaining chip against Russian issues.
  2. It brings in the potential to use the Growler with the Next-Gen Jammer along with excellent weapons like the AIM-120D, AGM-88 HARM, and AIM-9X.
  3. It is larger than Vikrant, so a better match to Chinese carrier capabilities.
  4. Larger spaces mean heavier and more fighters can be carried, importantly more fuel for better endurance.
  5. STOBAR with longer takeoff runs means heavier payload off the ship
  6. It doesn’t invest in costly EMALS tech.

But I do understand that I am an armchair analyst instead of the C in C Indian Navy, who needs to balance feeding his entire crew, keeping the ships in combat ready state and plan for operations and growth. His outlook is very different from mine and has way more to think about than me.




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