The launch of China’s second aircraft carrier, expected as soon as this week, will be an important and depressing moment for India. The “Type 001A” — likely to be named the “Shandong” — will give China an edge for the first time in the carrier race with its Asian rival, a literal two-to-one advantage. After decommissioning the INS Viraat earlier this year, the Indian Navy is down to a single carrier, INS Vikramaditya. Worse, the Shandong has been built at China’s own giant shipyard at Dalian; Vikramaditya is merely a repurposed 1980s-era Russian carrier formerly known as the Admiral Gorshkov.
Even more telling than the raw numbers is what China’s progress says about India’s ability to provide security in its own backyard. Chinese naval strategists have open designs on the Indian Ocean: According to one, “China needs two carrier strike groups in the West Pacific Ocean and two in the Indian Ocean.” The government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi has talked a great deal about revitalizing the Indian military; it’s opened the defense sector up to greater foreign investment and is building a much-closer relationship with the U.S. military, largely with China in mind. But spending has lagged. Worse, successive governments simply don’t seem to have thought through where best to direct those scarce resources.
For its part, the Indian Navy has gone all-in on a strategy that emphasizes carrier battle groups. The idea is that India must dominate the ocean that bears its name and needs carriers in order to project power well beyond its shores. As a result, it wasted far too much time and treasure on the Admiral Gorshkov, which arrived from Russia six years late and at three times the cost that had initially been promised.
Its efforts to develop a homegrown carrier have been even more misbegotten. The Navy plans to name, commission and float the INS Vikrant next year. At that point, the ship reportedly won’t have its aviation complex in place, or even anti-aircraft missiles. The Navy has puzzlingly refused to buy India’s indigenous light fighter, the Tejas, saying it’s too heavy. Meanwhile, the MiG-29s being used instead are enormously troubled, according to India’s government auditor; more than 60 percent of their engines were withdrawn from service or rejected in just four years. The Vikrant will only be properly combat-ready by 2023 — eight years behind schedule.
No one would expect India to match China’s defense spending head-to-head. China’s economy is four times the size of India’s; not surprisingly, its defense budget is at least three times larger. But the People’s Republic faces a parallel dilemma when confronting the U.S., whose military budget is about three times as big as China’s.