Aircraft Carriers: The Queens of India’s Seas

In 1903, Wright Brothers undertook their first flight. In just 7 years, in 1910, coast guard Lieutenant Eugene Ely, flew a Curtiss plane from the deck of the US Navy cruiser USS Birmingham, landing in Norfolk, Virginia. In January 1911, he landed aboard the cruiser Pennsylvania in San Francisco Bay. The age of the Aircraft carriers as the King of the Seas had commenced.

On an average, modern day fighter aircraft can take off in 600 meters and land in 700-900 meters of runway. However, on an aircraft carrier, the flight deck for landing is just 150 meters. Needless to say, a lot of technological advancements had to be done to make the aircraft carrier the most decisive asset of a powerful Navy.

The first such system was the Naval Catapult. On November 5, 1915, a plane was launched from a ship by catapult for the first time in history by Henry Mustin (not in the War). Since World War 1, technological innovation has led to the development of 3 systems for launching aircraft from a ship- STOBAR (Short Take-Off But Arrested Recovery), CATOBAR (Catapult Assisted Take-Off But Arrested Recovery), and STOVL (Short Take-Off and Vertical Landing). Here, we will discuss only STOBAR and CATOBAR as they are the most used.

In STOBAR, the frontal part of the deck is elevated forming a curve. So, when an aircraft leaves the deck at the end of the runway, it is thrown upward due to this curve. Hence, by the time aircraft engines start generating the required thrust, the ski jump has already pushed the aircraft into gaining initial height. The aircraft uses its own power to launch after it is assisted by ‘Ski-jump’. Indian carriers- INS Vikramaditya and INS Vikrant use the STOBAR system.

In CATOBAR, the deck is completely flat. The front wheel of the aircraft is placed on the moving part of the catapult which is above the deck. Once the energy is released, it moves and achieves great speed in a short distance and time. CATOBAR uses two types of systems to power the catapults- Steam-powered and Electromagnetic Aircraft Launch System (EMALS).

For the last half a century, the Steam-powered CATOBAR has been in use, primarily by the United States and French Navy. However, the technologically sophisticated and heavier aircraft of today need more power than provided with steam. In addition, pilotless drones demand more reliable launch technologies has led to the development of EMALS for the upcoming Ford Class Carriers of the United States Navy.

In India, we primarily use STOBAR. STOBAR is less expensive, requires less maintenance and can be managed with a smaller crew. However, STOBAR cannot be used for heavier aircraft and systems like AWACS (Airborne Warning And Control System).

On the other hand, CATOBAR provides the Navy with the ability to carry a heavy payload which means they can operate at their full potential. With CATOBAR, heavier aircraft with full payload can be launched. As we in India are always threatened with a two-front war, CATOBAR can increase our capacities to their full potential.

Although the CATOBAR system is more expensive, requires more manpower along with more maintenance, it can provide the required punch expected from a modern Blue Water Navy like India. But in the meantime, let us look at something happening at the Jiangnan Shipyard, China.

China has been building its third aircraft carrier, Type 003 in the Jiangnan Shipyard. The commercial satellite imagery of the ship shows that China has moved on from STOBAR to CATOBAR. On top of it, it is rumoured that China will be using the EMALS technology in the Type 003. Based on current progress, this carrier may be launched by early 2022. The PLAN (People’s Liberation Army-Navy) got its first aircraft carrier, the Liaoning in 2012. Within 10 years, China has launched 2 aircraft carriers and the 3rd might be ready in a couple of months with the most cutting edge technology available. It is time for India to push the accelerator on our largest Aircraft Carrier- the INS Vishal.

The INS Vishal will be 65,000 tons at full capacity and the desired aircraft launch method will be electromagnetic catapults (through the purchase of the U.S. EMALS system). However, none of these characteristics have been confirmed by the Navy. The pace at which China is progressing makes it imperative for us to accelerate on INS Vishal. An EMALS powered INS Vishal will propel the Indian Navy into a commanding force of the seas with the capability to respond to any challenge from any adversary.

Many foresaw the use of aircraft in naval warfare within 10 years of the first flight by the Wright Brothers. History has shown that Britain ruled a quarter of the world with a powerful Navy and today the United States maintains its hegemony through the same route. With technological progress, today aircraft can be launched far out in the sea and become a decisive factor for naval victories. After 50 years of usage of Steam-powered CATOBAR, leading world navies are moving towards EMALS powered CATOBAR. It will be a proud moment for all Indians when the Indian Navy makes full use of its potential through an EMALS powered CATOBAR system in INS Vishal.


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