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Eye on future, India mulls options for nuclear-powered aircraft carrier

 Nothing projects raw power like an aircraft carrier prowling on the high seas, capable of unleashing strike fighters against an adversary in a jiffy. A nuclear-powered carrier can make the punch even deadlier with much longer operational endurance.

With its first indigenous aircraft carrier (IAC) set to be "launched" at Cochin Shipyard on August 12, and sea trials of the first nuclear submarine INS Arihant to begin shortly after, India is now examining the possibility of having a nuclear-powered 65,000-tonne carrier in the future.

Navy vice-chief Vice Admiral RK Dhowan on Thursday said a "detailed study" was underway on the "size, type of aircraft and their launch and recovery systems, propulsion" and the like for theIAC-II project. "Yes, we are also considering nuclear propulsion. All options are being studied. No final decision has been taken," he said.

There are huge cost issues with nuclear-powered carriers, which can easily take upwards of $10 billion to build. The Royal British Navy is reverting to carriers propelled by gas turbines/diesel-electric systems from nuclear ones.

However, the US has 11 Nimitz-class "super-carriers" — each an over 94,000-tonne behemoth powered by two nuclear reactors and capable of carrying 80-90 fighters - to project power around the globe. China, too, is now looking at nuclear-powered carriers after inducting its first conventional carrier — the 65,000-tonne Liaoning — last September.

So, while Navy may want a nuclear-powered carrier, it will ultimately have to be a considered political decision. The force, however, is firm about its long-term plan to operate three carrier-battle groups (CBGs). "One carrier for each (western and eastern) seaboard and one in maintenance," said Vice Admiral Dhowan.

But, even two CBGs will be possible only by 2019. The 40,000-tonne IAC, to be christened INS Vikrant, will be ready for induction only by December 2018, as was first reported by TOI.

"Design and construction of a carrier has many challenges. Around 75% of the IAC structure has now been erected. India joins only four countries — the US, Russia, the UK and France - capable of building a carrier over 40,000-tonne," he said.

The 44,570-tonne INS Vikramaditya - or the Admiral Gorshkov carrier now undergoing sea trials after a $2.33-billion refit in Russia - in turn will be ready by end-2013 instead of the original August 2008 deadline.

Vice Admiral Dhowan admitted India's solitary carrier, the 28,000-tonne INS Viraat, will soldier on till 2018 due to these long delays. The 54-year-old INS Viraat is left with just 11 Sea Harrier jump-jets to operate from its deck. The 45 MiG-29K naval fighters, being procured from Russia for over $2 billion, can operate only from Vikramaditya and IAC.

The 260-metre-long IAC, whose construction finally began in November 2006, will be able to carry 12 MiG-29Ks, eight Tejas light combat aircraft and 10 early-warning and anti-submarine helicopters on its 2.5-acre flight deck and hangars. It will have a crew of 160 officers and 1,400 sailors. Powered by four American LM2500 gas turbines, the IAC will have an endurance of around 7,500 nautical miles at a speed of 18 knots.

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