Four of the world’s 10 largest navies are preparing for new classes of aircraft carriers and one fleet watcher says it is the United Kingdom that is preparing to take the largest step forward. When it enters service with the fleet, likely sometime in 2015, the HMS Queen Elizabeth, at 65,000 tons and just a bit smaller than an American Nimitz-class carrier, will be the largest ship in the long, long history of the Royal Navy.
The United Kingdom learned a lot in the Falklands war of 1982 where it saw the limitations of small aircraft carriers,” said Eric Werthiem, author and editor of the U.S. Naval Institute’s Guide to Combat Fleets of the World. Commenting on carrier development plans underway in the U.K. India and the U.S., Wertheim said, “In my opinion, the new QE-class carriers represent the biggest leap forward of the three choices.”
A fourth nation, the People’s Republic of China, is also moving ahead on a carrier and may be nearing entry into the world’s flat-top club. After years of mystery and speculation on exactly what is taking place with the incomplete former Soviet carrier Varyag, the Chinese Navy may be only a year or so away from beginning sea trials with the ship. The Varyag was a Admiral Kuznetsov class carrier, construction of which halted in 1992 with the break-up of the Soviet Union. The ship eventually became property of Ukraine, which later sold it to China, supposedly with the stipulation it never be made operational as a carrier.
An August 2009 U.S. Dept. of Defense report on the state of the Chinese Navy stated the carrier is expected to become operational in the 2010 to 2012 timeframe, and will likely be used to develop basic proficiencies in carrier operations.” Speculation is that the new Chinese carrier will carry an air wing of either SU-33 or a derivative of J-11 aircraft. Jane’s reported in 2008 that the Chinese carrier will be called the Shi Lang.
Though there’s been no official announcement of any kind from the Chinese government, Wertheim said a domestically produced Chinese carrier is likely “sometime after 2015.” The Japanese news network Nippon reported in January that development work on one or two 50,000-60,000-ton new Chinese carriers is underway at a military facility in the city of Wuhan, with future construction planned at a Shanghai shipyard.
While China is beginning work on its own carrier even as it put the finishing touches on an old Russian flat-top, India is preparing to accept a Russian carrier of its own.
In a mid-March visit to India, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir signed three defense contracts with his Indian counterpart, Manmohan Singh. In the largest agreement, India agreed to pay Russia a total of $2.34 billion for the 45,000-ton Admiral Gorshkov carrier. The Gorshkov was first commission by the Soviets in 1987. After a 1994 boiler room explosion, it has primarily been tied up, though it did briefly return to service with the Russian fleet in late 1995 and early 1996. In 2004, the Indians agreed to purchase the ship for $974 million. The Russians negotiated the sales price upwards and agreed to make modifications to the long-dormant ship. It is expected to be delivered in mid-2012.
Once accepted by the Indian Navy, the ship will be known as the INS Vikramaditya.
“The Indians have some very impressive plans for the future, but are seeing very slow progress on their carrier programs,” Wertheim said. “I think they are far too reliant on Russia and this is costing them domestic shipbuilding expertise in the long run.”
The two other agreements signed by Putin and Singh was a $1.2 billion for India to purchase 29 more Mig-29K aircraft from Russia and a $600.7 million cooperative venture on a new transport aircraft.
India’s lone existing carrier, INS Viraat, will mark its 50th year of active service later this year.
In a December 2009 news conference, India’s top admiral, Nirmal Verma, told reporters that the Indian Navy will launch a 40,000-ton domestically-built carrier sometime in 2010. The keel of that ship was laid down in March 2009. A commissioning date of 2014 is called for by the Indian Navy, but many analysts are skeptical that India can meet that timeline.
As China and India work on adding carriers in the Pacific and Indian oceans and Britain works in the North Atlantic, the Americans are taking an “evolutionary step” with the new Gerald Ford-class. Similar in size to the Nimitz-class, the 100,000-ton Ford is due to enter the American fleet in 2015 and will be able to accommodate the new F-35 multi-role fighter. With two higher-power nuclear reactors and a designed created to reduce the ship’s radar profile, the Ford will give its commanders new flexibility and capability, Wertheim said.
“Improvements such as better catapults allowing for greater launch potential, increased sortie rates, smaller crew size and decreased maintenance requirements will give us a more capable platform that is also easier to maintain and keep on station then previous carrier designs,” he said.
The U.S. Navy currently maintains a fleet of 11 carriers – 10 Nimitz class and 1 Enterprise class – Wertheim said he expects the fleet to be relatively stable in size for the next decade or so.
“I see the number of large deck U.S. Navy carriers remaining relatively stable during the next ten years but decreasing slightly, perhaps 20 percent, during the next 20 years,” he said. “The carriers are getting more expensive to build and we simply don’t have enough aircraft to fill their flight decks anymore.”