Vikrant, India’s first indigenously built aircraft carrier (IAC-1) which is presently undergoing extensive sea trials is expected to get commissioned later this year. This will provide a major boost to the Indian Navy’s existing blue-water power projection capability and reaffirm its status as the leading naval power in the Indian Ocean. India will also become only the sixth country in the post-World War 2 era to build an aircraft carrier, the other five being the five permanent members of the UN Security Council (USA, Russia, China, France and the UK). The indigenous construction of such a complex platform also bears testimony to India’s industrial prowess, technological skills and shipbuilding expertise and will inspire the national effort towards indigenisation and self-reliance (‘Atmanirbharta’) in the defence manufacturing sector.
An aircraft carrier is a versatile self-contained mobile air base comprising a mix of fixed and rotary-wing aircraft that can transit over 500 miles in a day with its own integral multi-mission capable combat air power. It can execute a wide spectrum of missions including maritime strike, Combat Air Patrol, anti-surface and anti-submarine warfare, airborne early warning, expeditionary operations and is a formidable presence for projecting political and military power in war and peace. Its integral capability is complemented by an accompanying battle group with multi-dimensional weapon and sensor platforms which not only protect the carrier from attack but also pack a formidable offensive punch for taking the fight to the enemy. A carrier is also configured as an excellent command and control platform capable of shaping the outcomes in a networked maritime battle-space and exercise sea control over a wide expanse of ocean.
As one enters the portals of the Naval Training Team at the prestigious National Defence Academy, the country’ premier military training establishment near Pune, one cannot but be struck by the sentence emblazoned at the entrance, “To be secure on land, we must be supreme at sea”. Attributed to India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, it highlights the importance of the maritime domain for India and the imperative to ensure its security. From Independence itself, the Indian Navy has been structured as a carrier-centric multi-dimensional blue water force with the ability to project power in furtherance of the country’s national and maritime interests. As the leading Indian Ocean navy, it is also the net provider of security in the region. In the very first Naval Plans Paper of 1948, approval was accorded for three light aircraft carriers. India’s first aircraft carrier, INS Vikrant (ex- RN Hercules class) was commissioned 13 years later in 1961. However, despite the need for three carriers figuring in all naval plans since then, the Indian Navy has made do with just one carrier for the most part and two carriers occasionally, of which one has usually been nearing the end of its service life. Presently, INS Vikramaditya, commissioned into the Indian Navy in 2013 has been the Navy’s sole aircraft carrier since INS Viraat’s decommissioning in 2016.
The commissioning of Vikrant later this year will therefore signal a significant addition to India’s carrier capacity and a commensurate enhancement in the Navy’s power projection capability. Carriers usually remain in commission for over four decades so these two carriers will serve the Navy together through a period when India’s primacy in the Indian Ocean will inevitably be challenged with great power rivalry and intense contestation becoming the order of the day. It also seems that the Indian Navy’s eternal quest for a third aircraft carrier will also continue despite its need becoming more urgent in this decade than at any time previously.
The indigenous construction of an aircraft carrier bears testimony to India’s warship building skills nurtured over the years and the substantial percentage of indigenous equipment on board a signal of its R&D capability and industrial prowess. In addition to the indigenous special grade steel used for its construction, significant portions of its machinery package and its sensor and communication suites are also Indian. It is to the credit of the designers and the shipyard that on her very first sea trials, Vikrant was able to achieve her maximum rated speed and its designed stability parameters which is rarely achieved even in countries with many decades of carrier building experience behind them. These are specialised skills which now require to be consolidated through further orders for similar platforms.
Vikrant is a medium sized aircraft carrier with a displacement of a little over 40000 tonnes and is configured to embark a complement of 36-40 aircraft including a maximum of 26 fighters and 10 or so helicopters. Presently, it will operate the MiG 29K fighter aircraft which also does service on board the Vikramaditya while the Navy evaluates various other aircraft . The indigenous Tejas has not yet been accepted and the design of an indigenous Twin Engine Deck Based Fighter (TEBDF) is currently underway. The rotary-wing complement will include the Kamov-31 AEW helicopter and the Sikorsky MR-60 Multi-role helicopter. She will be a worthy successor to her illustrious predecessor which served for 36 years and played a stellar role in the liberation of Bangladesh. It not only dominated the Bay of Bengal and severed West Pakistan’s logistic lines with its forces in the east but also incapacitated the enemy’s war waging capability with its aircraft carrying out spectacular strikes on land and sea targets thus hastening the end of the war.
Unlike India’s first two carriers which were smaller and primarily configured for an air-defence role with a limited maritime strike capability, this carrier, along with Vikramaditya will have a significant strike capability in addition to its airborne early warning, anti-surface, anti-submarine, land attack and networked C4SIR capability.
India‘s Geopolitical Imperatives
In the last two decades the global geopolitical and geo-economic centre of gravity has shifted to the Indo-Pacific. Driven primarily by the rise of China, economic factors have also played a significant role with more than 60 % of the global population resident here and generating over 62% of the global GDP. Concerns over the future of a Free and Open Indo-Pacific with China threatening to re-orient the existing rules-based order at sea into one with ‘Chinese characteristics’ and the safety of their trade and commerce with the region has led even Euro centric nations like Germany and the Netherlands to articulate their Indo-Pacific strategies while France and the UK have followed up theirs with a substantial naval presence.
India, by virtue of its size, standing and strategic location in the centre of the north Indian Ocean and its peninsular tip jutting almost 1000 miles into the sea occupies a pivotal position in shaping the future contours of the region. In the Indo-Pacific strategic construct, it is the only resident Indian Ocean power of consequence with most of the others located in the Pacific. The Indian Ocean is also critical to India’s security and economic well-being and will therefore turn increasingly to the sea for sustaining its future development. More than 90% of India’s trade by volume and over 74% by value travels over the sea. India’s ambitious objective of becoming a USD 5 Trillion economy by 2025 and a USD 10 Trillion economy by 2032 will see an exponential increase in the quantity and movement of this trade. More than 75% of India’s energy requirement are met from imports, all of which transit over the sea; the International Energy Agency (IEA) in its Indian Energy Outlook 2021 Report estimates that India’s dependence on imported oil will rise to above 90% by 2040 thus making energy security all the more critical.
Protection of its Sea Lines of Communication specially in the Indian Ocean is therefore a critical geo-strategic imperative for India as is the importance of ensuring the security of its contiguous waters, the Arabian Sea and the Bay of Bengal on its west and east.
China’s Indian Ocean Strategy
China too is looking at the Indian Ocean as its gateway to global maritime dominance as it provides China the maritime expanse to project power which its own unfavourable maritime geography severely constrains. However, it presently lacks adequate capability to project power in the Indian Ocean and maintains only a modest naval presence. Therefore, it also has to turnaround its ships and submarines from its mainland which then become vulnerable to detection and tracking when navigating the narrow choke points that connect the Pacific and the Indian Oceans. China is aware of its limitations and so, despite the stand-off along the disputed land border since 2020, it has steered clear of provoking India in the maritime domain.
It is in the process of rapidly augmenting its naval capability. The PLA Navy is already the largest navy in the world with about 350 ships though it still lags behind the US Navy in technology and capability. It is paying a lot of attention towards bridging this technological asymmetry while simultaneously building ships and submarines at a breath-taking pace. It is commissioning 20-25 ships and submarines ever year and is expected to become a 450-ship navy with at least four aircraft carriers if not more by 2030 and at least one third of its surface force being blue water capable. China is simultaneously developing its maritime infrastructure with basing and support facilities across the Indian Ocean through its economic initiatives (Belt and Road Initiative) and the export of military hardware, the latter more specifically in India’s maritime neighbourhood.
China is and will continue to be India’s main security threat for the foreseeable future. Its growing influence in the region will not only challenge India’s pre-eminence in the Indian Ocean from a global domination perspective but it will also attempt to contain India’s rise by its controlled aggression as it is presently doing across the disputed land border along the Line of Actual Control.
While the arc of like-minded regional Indo-Pacific democracies and even those from beyond are committed to ensuring a rules-based order and a Free and Open Indo-Pacific, their focus will largely be in the Pacific. Most of them (with the exception of the US Navy and a token presence of some others) lack the capacity and the capability to influence the maritime security dynamic in the Indian Ocean. Hence India will have to develop its own adequate capacity to counter not only the Chinese challenge aided and abetted by its proxy state Pakistan but also the myriad other challenges to maritime security ranging from the strategic to the hybrid, the sub-conventional and the transnational which affect India’s maritime security in the region.
By the end of this decade, China will gain a firm foothold in the western and eastern Indian ocean. Its base in Djibouti which is being extended to berth aircraft carriers, its de-facto control of Gwadar and its arming of the Pakistan Navy with four destroyers and eight submarines will enable it to threaten India’s SLOCs from the west including the Red Sea . Its overtures to Iran and a possible PLA Navy presence at an Iranian port in the Straits of Hormuz could severely compromise India’s energy security. On India’s eastern seaboard, it has supplied ships, submarines and other military hardware to both Bangladesh and Myanmar and it is setting up a submarine base in Bangladesh (BNS Sheikh Hasina in Cox’s Bazaar)thus gaining military and political leverage in both these countries to disturb India’s peace of mind in the Bay of Bengal even if it does nothing untoward. With its presence in Sri Lanka, it will also be able to minimise India’s advantage at the approaches to the narrow chokepoints, also called its Malacca Dilemma.
Securing Maritime India
India, as the premier Indian Ocean power cannot, under any circumstances, allow its maritime interests and security to get compromised. It has two distinct maritime theatres, one on its west and the other on its east and in both these it should have the power projection capability to deter any threat to its primacy. The addition of Vikrant will provide it that capability which has been deficient so far. Two powerful CBGs operating in the Indian Ocean
will send a clear message of India’s intent and provide the manoeuvring space to project power across the length and breadth of the Indian Ocean.
However, even with two carriers, the non-availability of any one due to either its planned maintenance and refit or simply a defect on board will create a vulnerability that India can ill-afford in the challenging maritime security environment in about a decade from now. It is for this reason that the Indian Navy has been projecting a requirement for three aircraft carriers but despite the urgency staring the country in the face, a decision has not been forthcoming so far. The third carrier will ensure that India will be able to deploy at least two CBGs , one on its east and the other on its west at all times thus reinforcing its pre-eminent status in the region and will also ensure that the industrial expertise gained during Vikrant’s construction are consolidated and not allowed to waste away.