A flat-top configuration also supports the navy's interest in fixed-wing airborne early warning (AEW) aircraft for operations off a carrier, and comes as good news for Northrop Grumman, which has spent the better part of the last decade pitching its E-2 Hawkeye to the Indian navy. The company, in fact, has also offered to help the navy with concept and integration of a steam catapult on the new carrier. Boeing is likewise expected to make its first presentations to the Indian navy later this year on the V-22 Osprey, both as a utility aircraft and a modified AEW platform.
But India's first flat-top is unlikely to see service before 2025. For starters, the Vikrant has experienced further delays, now totaling five years, and will not be commissioned until at least 2017. Apart from the attendant development and manufacturing difficulties that India's most ambitious shipbuilding effort brought with it, the program has been fraught with integration worries—including a recent road accident in which giant generators being transported to the shipbuilding site in south India were damaged and had to be returned to their manufacturer for inspection. Also, the state-owned Cochin Shipyard is not big enough to accept anything larger than India's first home-built Stobar carrier. So the navy will now need to identify a shipyard that can build a much bigger carrier.
The navy chief, Adm. Nirmal Verma, who will retire shortly, remains circumspect, saying: “It is too early to talk about the [second carrier]. There are other priorities right now, particularly the first carrier. Our designers are working toward the second.”
India's existing carrier, the INS Viraat, which has more than 50 years in total service, is not likely to be stretched beyond 2014. Its fleet of Stovl Sea Harriers is already down to just nine aircraft. The Vikramaditya, currently in trials in the White Sea, is expected to join the service early next year and will have a squadron of MiG-29Ks; 16 aircraft have been delivered and 29 more will begin to arrive in three months. Both ships will also operate variants of the indigenous Light Combat Aircraft-Navy, though it remains to be seen if the Mk. 1 version of the fighter proves safe and powerful enough for deck-based operations.