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The aircraft carrier USS Harry S Truman on patrol in the Atlantic. The US navy has ordered three new carriers; first in the line, the USS Gerald R Ford comes with a price tag of $12.3bn. Kristina Young / AFP
The aircraft carrier USS Harry S Truman on patrol in the Atlantic. The US navy has ordered three new carriers; first in the line, the USS Gerald R Ford comes with a price tag of $12.3bn. Kristina Young / AFP

Big-ticket arms race for supremacy at sea

A new arms race of aircraft carriers is emerging, with Russia, China and India all working fast to build fleets to rival that of the United States.

When it comes to "big ticket" items, they don't come much bigger than an aircraft carrier.

Although still five years from entering service, the price tag for the USS Gerald R Ford, the first of three new American carriers, has already jumped 18 per cent in four years to US$12.3 billion (Dh45.18bn), according to the US defence department.

And now, despite these times of austerity, suddenly everyone wants one. China is the latest nation to join the club, but existing carrier owners India, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States all have ships on the stocks.

But it is in the Indian Ocean and the Pacific where the consequences of this new arms race will be felt. At stake is a change in the naval balance of power.

Since the end of the Second World War, naval power has depended on air power. The science had been pioneered by the British Royal Navy in the final years of the First World War, then taken up by the Japanese and the US in the interwar years. But by 1945 only the British and, overwhelmingly, the Americans were left.

Their giant flat-top ships dominated the world's oceans, controlling sea lanes, the approaches to ports and inland, projecting the threat of military force to the cities and industrial centres of any coastal nation. Armed with nuclear weapons, an American carrier battle group gives Washington the power to end the economic life of an enemy state on the other side of the world in a matter of hours.

For a nation's military, an aircraft carrier is a mesmerising weapon, and in the Pacific and Indian oceans, they have, for four decades, mainly been in the hands of the Americans - until last September, when China commissioned the Liaoning, its first carrier.

Later this year India will also acquire a new carrier, like Liaoning, also from the Russians. Renamed the Vikramaditiya, it will replace the ageing Viraat, which is 60 years old and tiny compared with a US Nimitz class behemoth.

The Chinese and Indian carriers by themselves are not a challenge to US supremacy at sea - the US navy currently has 10 carriers with three more of its new generation class, named after the late former president Gerald Ford, on the way. Still, neither intends to stop at one each.

Russia also has one carrier in commission and it certainly does not plan to stick there. The Russian navy is planning to build six aircraft carriers with the aim of having at least one new carrier battle group (CVBG) deployed in the Pacific Ocean by 2017, and another CVBG deployed with its northern fleet.

Each CVBG will include at least one carrier escorted by missile cruisers, destroyers and at least one nuclear-powered hunter-killer submarine, as well as frigates, corvettes, landing craft and in the northern fleet, icebreakers.

China has already said its new Liaoning is only a training platform for its navy to practice the operational and technical aspects of naval aviation operations. For the Chinese have made no secret they intend to design and build an entirely new class of carriers in the near future.

As well as acquiring the Russian carrier, India is also building the first of two more. The country has been operating aircraft carriers since 1961. Over the next decade it intends to extend its reach further into the Indian Ocean by deploying three carrier battle groups.

There are delays, but the first domestic produced carrier, the Vikrant, is due to join the Vikramaditiya in 2017 and the second, Vishal, should enter service in 2022. Carriers are expensive.

Then there is the cost of equipping the air wing with the right mix of fast jets and support aircraft, and training the crews.

Russia and China haven't bothered in the past, so why bother now? For the Russians, it is a matter of catching up.

"In the early 1970s, the Soviet Union could have built a real prototype aircraft carrier. The Project 1160 carrier design would have balanced the Soviet-US naval strengths," says Andrei Kislyakov, a political commentator with Novosti, the Russian news agency.

"However, Project 1160 was opposed by an alternative programme for building heavy air-capable cruisers [known by the Russian acronym] TAVKR. "But TAVKR was an unviable hybrid warship combining the specifications of a heavy cruiser and an aircraft carrier, [yet] in the mid-1970s, the government discarded project 1160, focusing on the TAVKR programme instead," says Mr Kislyakov.

"The Soviet programme was a complete failure."

Current Chinese motivation dates back to a naval skirmish with Vietnam in 1988 over who owns the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea and is more to do with local tensions than challenging the Americans. In a 2011 interview with Modern Ships magazine, Rear Admiral Chen Weiwen, who commanded the three Chinese frigates in their tussle with the Vietnamese, explained the difference that an aircraft carrier could make. China had won the battle but quickly withdrew.

"The thing we feared most was not Vietnam's surface vessels but rather their aircraft. At that time, Vietnam had Su-22 fighter aircraft, which had a definite ability to attack ships," said Adm Chen.

"The Spratlys are very far from [our] nearest airfield [Hainan Island]. Our aircraft only had loiter time of four to five minutes - in such a short time, they could not solve problems before they had to return, or they would run out of fuel. So we felt deeply that China must have an aircraft carrier.

"When China's aircraft carrier enters service relatively soon and training is well-established, this will solve a major problem. We will seize air superiority. Vietnamese aircraft will not dare to take off," he said.

And for the Americans the game remains the same: "A carrier is four and a half acres [flight deck size] of sovereign US territory," says Captain Bruce Hay, a member of the design team for the latest class of the ships.

"An aircraft carrier is a piece of America, and we're going to do what it takes to keep them relevant because a carrier is presence and American resolve, all at the one time."

 

dblack@thenational.ae

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