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Navy plans nuke-powered carrier

New Delhi, Dec. 3: The Indian Navy is designing a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier that it wants in its fleet, costs permitting.

An indigenous nuclear-powered submarine, the Arihant, is now in trials in the Bay of Bengal.

The Indian Navy “desires” to have three operational carriers in its fleet but the only one in use currently, the INS Viraat, is rusting away faster than it would like.

“The INS Viraat is ‘long in the tooth’ (outdated and too expensive to maintain),” the chief of naval staff, Admiral D.K. Joshi, said here today.

Naval headquarters is gradually beginning to take the view that the ship will have to be decommissioned before the planned end of its extended tenure in service.

The 55-year-old carrier has had several refits that have cost the defence budget heavily.

The navy commissioned the INS Vikramaditya (formerly the Gorshkov) in Russia last month. The carrier, now on its way to India, will take about six months after berthing in Karwar on the west coast to be made fully operational. It is expected in Indian waters in January.

Only the US Navy operates two or more aircraft carriers — always nuclear-powered — in Asia. The importance of aircraft carriers in the Indian Ocean region is right now a matter of focus for strategists after China commissioned its own, the Liaoning, earlier this year.

China also announced last week that it was imposing an air defence identification zone in the East China Sea, over waters disputed by Japan and South Korea. Aircraft carriers are the naval platform-of-choice for “sea control”.

The Indian Navy will take a final call on its proposed 65,000-tonne nuclear-powered carrier after studying the experiences of the UK and France.

Naval headquarters has set itself a deadline of two months in which to freeze the design. Nuclear propulsion would give the vessel a longer life but the reactor is expensive to build.

But India has fitted an 80MW reactor, with Russian help, into the Arihant submarine. Nuclear propulsion also provides longer endurance and therefore capability to deploy the vessel farther for extended periods.

The UK abandoned the idea of nuclear propulsion for its Queen Elizabeth II carrier, now being built for its Royal Navy, because of the costs involved. France is the only country barring the US that has built a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier on its own, the Charles de Gaulle.

The other decision, apart from the propulsion, that the naval design department is yet to freeze is whether the second indigenous aircraft carrier (IAC-2) should have Catobar (catapult assisted take-off barrier arrested recovery) like the US carriers or a flight deck for short take-off and arrested recovery (Stobar).

The 65,000-tonne IAC-2, tentatively named the Vishal, follows the Vikrant, or IAC-1, a conventional diesel-gas powered 44,700-tonne vessel being built in Kochi.

The Viraat, the only operational carrier with the navy currently, is planned to be in service till 2017 when the Vikrant is scheduled for commissioning. The Vikrant was floated out of the dry dock in Kochi in August this year.