Despite the length of India’s coastline being as much as its borders with either China or Pakistan, Indians have yet to realize the significance of a blue water navy capability. One reason for the absence of understanding of maritime issues is that the bulk of our India’s threats and conflicts have come from our land borders. Therefore, when Mr. Modi made his first outstation visit to Goa, after taking charge as PM, to formally induct India’s latest aircraft carrier, INS Vikramaditya, his visit carried several messages of importance to the country and our adversaries. Not only is India, the only country in Asia to operate a naval aircraft carrier group, but at this time before the decommissioning of the Vikramaditya’s predecessor INS Viraat, India now operates two aircraft carrier groups, a feat earlier accomplished only by pre-war Japan. China is still to get its act together with its own aircraft carrier, the Liaoning.
The concept of using aircraft carriers for force projection originated in the United States from the writings of Admiral Alfred Thayer Mahan, who argued that sea power could best be exhibited by having floating naval bases like aircraft carriers. Thus, the United States even now operates as many as 11 aircraft carriers groups. Most aircraft carriers never operate alone but move on the high seas like monarchs, surrounded by a flotilla of ships and gun boats that provide
it constant protection and also help project power when required. In recent years the United States has often moved an aircraft carrier group in Asian waters whenever tensions were high between the US and Iran or at the start of the conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan. It is a military base on sea, to launch attacks from.
Older generations of Indians will recall how the Nixon administrations attempted to brow beat India’s armed forces in the 1971 war, by moving the USS Enterprise into the Bay of Bengal, as our troops advanced to liberate Dacca. And how India’s forces – though much weaker and preoccupied with East Pakistan – had vowed to stall at any cost Washington’s gun boat diplomacy. Today, America sees India as an important maritime ally particularly to shoulder some of the challenges faced by the US and its friends between the Gulf region and the movement of private ships from the Arabian Sea via the Bay of Bengal through south of India and onto the Straits of Malacca. One reason for America’s confidence in the Indian navy’s capabilities is because of its professionalism that many countries regard on par with NATO’s forces. But with years of neglect, the Indian navy needed a shot in the arm, and INS Vikramaditya, will now provide that.
Though previously in use as the Russian aircraft carrier Admiral Groshkov, it is now a virtually new battleship, that has come at a cost of over US $4 billion, (including the cost of its fleet of MiG-29K fighters and helicopters on board), making it the costliest single weapon platform the country has ever bought. But its ability to not only provide India the strategic reach to “Strike Far, Strike Sure” in keeping with its motto, is enormous. In addition to its war like role, it can help protect the enormous traffic of sea borne trade and energy supplies that India needs to service its economy. But above all, India’s biggest challenge will come from China which does not see the Indian Ocean as India’s ocean. It has built up a number of important naval bases – in Myanmar, Sri Lanka and Pakistan – to surround India, and is unwilling to accept an Indian presence in South East Asia, which it clearly regards as its backyard.
This essay is Courtesy THE WEEK, June 29, 2014, where it was initially published. Maroof Raza is a strategic affairs commentaror. Visit: www.maroofraza.com