There is growing concern in New Delhi that the operational readiness of the Indian navy's air arm will be seriously affected by the navy having to retire one of its two remaining aircraft carriers, INS Vikrant, without provision for a replacement.

Following the retirement on 31 January of the 52-year-old warship (formerly the Royal Navy's HMS Hercules) the carrier force has been reduced to one ship, INS Viraat.

Local defence sources are warning that the navy's operational readiness will deteriorate even further in 1998, when INS Viraat is due for a major overhaul , effectively leaving India without an available aircraft carrier. The Viraat (formerly HMS Hermes) has been in service with India and the RN since 1959 and will also need replacing within the next ten years.

The Indian navy had retained the Vikrant for as long as possible in the hope that a replacement could be found. The naval air arm's sea-going ability has been further hit by a growing shortage of pilots for its British Aerospace FRS51 Sea Harrier and Westland Sea King .

India has been studying three options to replace the Vikrant, including purchasing the decommissioned Russian carrier, Admiral Gorshkov. The improved Kiev-class ship, however, is too large for India's dry docks and is considered to be in too poor a condition.

A more attractive possibility is the local construction of an "air-defence ship," similar in concept to the RN helicopter carrier HMS Ocean. The vessel would use a merchant ship-standard hull, but with a flightdeck for vertical/short-take off-and-landing (V/STOL) aircraft and helicopters.

The third (and more expensive) option is to build a foreign-designed V/STOL carrier in India as a collaborative effort. India has looked at Italy's Giuseppe Garibaldi, as well as Spain's Principe de Asturias, a scaled-down version of which is being built for Thailand.

India is understood to have approached the UK with the aim of purchasing one of the RN's three Invincible-class carriers, but was told that none was for sale.

Given India's $7.74 billion defence budget for 1996/7, and the competing claims made on it by the air force for new fighter and trainer aircraft and by the army for new tanks, financing a replacement aircraft carrier is likely to prove impossible without more funding.

Source: Flight International