Philip Ewing and Jen Judson, Politico
2 September 2015
Following a visit by a delegation of top Indian Navy officials to see firsthand U.S. naval facilities along the East Coast, defense officials say they’re close to deciding just how the U.S. Navy will offer assistance to India as it attempts to develop its own aircraft carriers,
The effort has huge implications for U.S. defense and foreign policy in Asia. New Delhi wants American help in taking command of the Indian Ocean at the same time that another Asian power – China – is racing to expand its fleet and extend its reach all the way to Africa. Washington is seeking a closer ally and a check on Beijing’s ambitions.
It also has major implications for the U.S. defense industry. Even after years of frustrations with India’s infamous procurement bureaucracy, which can make the Pentagon look as nimble as a tech startup, American contractors see the prospect for vast new projects as the world’s largest democracy continues reaching to become a 21st century superpower.
“For industry, it’s the potential,” said Keith Webster, the Defense Department’s director of international cooperation. “It’s just something that ... cannot be ignored.”
Something else that’s different now are the commitments of President Barack Obama and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who have agreed to cooperate on developing aircraft carriers, jet engines and other defense technologies. Meanwhile, Modi has been making a big domestic political push he calls “Make India,” to create a new era of manufacturing on the subcontinent.
This is the context in which Vice Adm. S.P.S. Cheema, the chief of India’s Western Naval Command, Rear Adm. A.K. Saxena, the director of general naval design, Rear. Adm. S. Ahuja, the assistant controller of carrier projects, and Acquino Vimal, the Americas director in the ministry of external affairs, made their visit last month to the U.S.
They called at Newport News Shipbuilding in Virginia, Naval Air Engineering Station Lakehurst in New Jersey, the Naval Sea Systems Command in Washington, and a high-level meeting at the Pentagon with acquisition chief Frank Kendall.
“The big thing in which [the Indians] are interested is pretty clear,” said Rear Adm. Thomas Moore, who heads the Navy’s carriers office and participated in the recent Indian visit. “They clearly want to understand, how do you indigenously build an aircraft carrier?”
They “didn’t come over here saying ‘I want, I want, I want.’” he added. “They came over here saying, ‘Here is what I’d like to go do. Can you help us understand how you go do this?’”
The Indians were shown how the U.S. Navy builds a carrier from start to finish, including how to take top requirements from the Pentagon, flow them into a ship’s specifications and then take those specifications and turn them into drawings, Moore said. The delegation also got a taste of how the Navy’s carrier program office is organized, how technology and research is conducted and how the overall acquisition system works.
One specific area of focus was the General Atomics-built Electromagnetic Aircraft Launch System aboard the new aircraft carrier USS Gerald R. Ford, which uses high-powered magnets to help aircraft take off, in place of the steam system on older ships.
The U.S. Navy has endured cost problems and setbacks fielding that and other new systems aboard the Gerald R. Ford, but Moore’s Indian visitors nonetheless showed “significant interest,” he said. The Indian Navy appears committed to building ships that, like the U.S. Navy’s carriers, use catapults and arresting gears to launch and recover aircraft, as opposed to the “ski jump” used aboard smaller ships.
“They’d like the tactical advantages you get from catapults and arresting gear on an aircraft carrier, which is significant,” Moore said. “So they are trying to understand what it takes, technically, to do it.”
The Indians are already taking their first stab at building a 40,000-ton carrier expected to be delivered in 2018 or 2019. India’s plan for its next carrier is more ambitious: a ship around 65,000 tons.
With these plans in place, the next question becomes: what kind of aircraft would the Indians operate?
India has a fleet of about 45 Russian-built MiG-28K fighters that fly from its current aircraft carrier, the Vikramaditya, also acquired from Russia. The ship began its life as the Soviet missile cruiser Baku, which was mothballed and then purchased by New Delhi along with a major conversion to turn it into a more fully capable aircraft carrier.
That work, which stretched for years and cost nearly $2.5 billion, was one of the projects that has made Indian defense acquisitions infamous. Other examples have included deadly accidents aboard its ships and submarines as well as a years-long effort to buy a batch of advanced fighter aircraft, one ultimately cancelled this month even after India had formally selected the French Dassault Rafale.
Lockheed Martin had offered its F-16 Fighting Falcon as part of that competition and Boeing had offered its F/A-18E and F Super Hornet, which competed against the Rafale, the Eurofighter Typhoon and others. India’s interest in building its own aircraft carriers means that it eventually must decide which aircraft they’ll operate, but Webster said that has so far not been a part of the discussions with the Pentagon.
If and when New Delhi is interested, however, the U.S. government and its contractors would certainly listen
eagerly, and if the Pentagon and American aerospace were to try again with a fighter sale to India, Webster said, the bid would reflect Modi’s emphasis on “Make India.”
“If, for some reason, they decide to open that up again, and if they come to us and say, ‘our preference is, this time around, to have all that done under the rubric of [the defense technology-sharing program]? We would be willing to do that,” Webster said.