Indian Navy: Looking beyond the Vikrant

Aircraft carriers are extremely complex platforms to design and build ; hence, besides adding to India’s maritime might, it is also a recognition of India’s technological and industrial expertise.

Indian Navy: Looking beyond the Vikrant
Vikrant may take more than a year to be fighting fit with the potent air power fully operational for a naval combat.

By Commodore Anil Jai Singh, IN (Retd)

The Indian Navy is on the threshold of commissioning Vikrant, India’s first indigenously designed and built aircraft carrier, to coincide with the 75th anniversary of India’s independence being celebrated as the ‘Azaadi ka Amrit Mahotsav’. Aircraft carriers are extremely complex platforms to design and build ; hence, besides adding to India’s maritime might, it is also a recognition of India’s technological and industrial expertise.

Vikrant will also be the Navy’s first brand new carrier. So far, the previous three carriers operated by the Indian Navy had been bought second-hand and were then extensively refurbished to the IN’s specifications. India’s first aircraft carrier, the earlier INS Vikrant was a former Majestic class light aircraft carrier which had been laid down in 1943, launched in September 1945  but was never commissioned. India bought it in 1957 and after extensive modernisation, it was finally commissioned in the Indian Navy in March 1961and thus began a glorious saga of carrier-borne aviation in the Indian navy which continues to consolidate and grow. Vikrant and its accompanying battle group exercised complete domination in the Bay of Bengal thus cutting off the logistic support from West Pakistan to its forces in the then East Pakistan and hastened the historic surrender of the Pakistani military and the liberation of Bangladesh. Its carrier-borne aircraft, striking from seawards, decimated any semblance of Pakistan’s maritime resistance. Even the threat of intervention by the US Seventh Fleet led by the world’s largest aircraft carrier at the time , the nuclear powered USS Enterprise, could not deter the Indian Navy’s Carrier Task Force from achieving its objectives. Vikrant’s performance in India’s historic victory in 1971 was ample validation of the power projection capability of an aircraft carrier.

In 1987, the Indian Navy commissioned its second aircraft carrier, INS Viraat. She was the erstwhile HMS Hermes and had been the flagship of the Royal Navy’s Task Force that wrested the Falkland Islands back from Argentina in 1982.Operating 8000 miles away from home in the South Atlantic, this was another example of the power projection that a Carrier Task Force can exercise anywhere at any time.  Commissioned in the Royal Navy 1959, she was decommissioned in 1984 till the Indian Navy breathed fresh life into her. She was finally decommissioned in 2016 and thus became the longest serving warship in the world at the time.

Viraat was followed by INS Vikramaditya, the erstwhile Kiev class aircraft carrier, Admiral Gorshkov . She was commissioned in the Soviet Navy in 1987 and decommissioned in 1994 following the spectacular collapse of the Soviet Union and its mighty military machine. Vikramaditya was commissioned in the Indian Navy in 2013 after being extensively reconfigured to Indian requirements.

Aircraft carriers are an integral part of a blue water navy. They are floating air bases capable of transiting over 500 nautical miles in 24 hours supported by a potent multi-dimensional battle group to shape the maritime battlespace to advantage. Recognising the importance of the maritime domain for India and the need therefore to develop a credible blue water capability, the very first naval force level plan that was approved soon after independence included a requirement of three aircraft carriers which continues to this day. However, it is regrettable that for most of the last 61 years since the commissioning of the first aircraft carrier in 1961, the navy has had to make do with just one aircraft carrier except for brief periods when there were two in commission with one of them being more or less on its last legs.

The induction of Vikrant will, for the first time, provide the Navy with two modern fully operational aircraft carriers with cutting-edge capability and will greatly enhance the Indian Navy’s ability to project national power at a time when the maritime security scenario in the Indian Ocean is becoming extremely challenging. India’s strategic location with its peninsular tip jutting almost 1000 miles requires a commensurate capability to shape a favourable maritime situation across both, the country’s eastern as well as western seaboards.

Unlike the older two carriers, Vikrant and Viraat which embarked the Sea Harrier fighter aircraft and were essentially air defence carriers with limited strike capability, both Vikramaditya and the new Vikrant, displacing about 45000 tonnes each have greater strike capability with larger and more powerful aircraft like the MiG 29K with longer operating ranges and weapon payloads which will further enhance the Navy’s ability to project power at and from the sea.  The Government seems to have narrowed down the choice of aircraft after extensive trials, to two aircraft – the Boeing F-18A Hornet and the French Rafale-M.  The decision to procure these through a Government to Government (G2G) arrangement will, hopefully enable quicker decision making than the regular cumbersome and convoluted process of the Defence Acquisition Procedure. In any case, there is hardly any big-ticket item that has been procured through the Defence Acquisition Procedure (formerly called the Defence Procurement Procedure) with most coming through intergovernmental arrangements, be it with Russia, France, Israel or the USA.

While we celebrate the commissioning of Vikrant and highlight the country’s indigenous capability to build aircraft carriers as a triumph of the ‘Make in India’ and ‘Aatmnirbhar Bharat’ spirit, which it definitely is, it is also time to reflect on the future. The navy has been highlighting the need for three aircraft carriers so as to have at least two operationally available at any given time to ensure the country’s maritime security in its eastern and western maritime theatres as well as to ensure a decisively favourable maritime situation and superior naval capability in the Indian Ocean , which is the primary area of interest. The strategic construct of the Indo-Pacific has further widened the scope and range of the country’s maritime security imperatives.  A proposal for the construction of a second indigenous aircraft carrier (often referred to as IAC2) has been under consideration with the government for at least a decade if not more. The Navy has also identified the operational requirements – it will be larger than the present carriers, will displace about 65000 tonnes and will be powered by electric propulsion. Infact, till a few years ago, the Chief of the Naval Staff at the time had even suggested that a nuclear-powered carrier could be an option. This led to the setting up of a Joint Working Group with the US under the Defence Technology and Trade Initiative (DTTI) on aircraft carrier technology cooperation. Latest technologies like the Electro-Magnetic Aircraft Landing System (EMALS) have been discussed extensively with numerous presentations being made to industry and the government. EMALS has been installed on the latest American aircraft carrier (USS Gerald Ford) and China too is likely to install its own version of EMALS on its third carrier which was launched recently.

Over the last decade or so, the navy’s prospective plans, approved by the MoD, have included the IAC 2. In 2015, the DAC had also approved a sum of Rs 30 crores for the preliminary design effort. Discussions on the design, the EMALS system and electrical propulsion have been continuing over the years. Therefore, if the requirement of a third aircraft carrier had been recognised over a decade ago, it definitely could not have changed with the security scenario definitely grimmer now than it was a decade ago. Infact, in the last eight years, India’s foreign policy has been far more confident than at any previous time with the Prime Minister repeatedly emphasising the importance of the maritime domain; hence the need for a commensurate maritime presence and power projection capability has never been more significant than it is today.

Besides the requirement of at least three aircraft carriers from a national security perspective , retaining the skills and expertise to design and build these complex platforms is equally important. India is only one of a handful of countries in the world to build an aircraft carrier, the others being the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, Spain and Italy. Japan has built helicopter carriers and is in the process of converting one of these into an aircraft carrier. It has taken the country 17 long years to build Vikrant – the ship was ordered in 2004, keel laid in 2009 and it was launched in 2013. It has taken a lot of time, effort and expense to develop the expertise, human and otherwise, many lessons have been learnt along the way, cooperation with external suppliers has been involved and a successful industrial eco system has been created which understands the intricacies and challenges of ensuring the stringent quality standards. Many small and medium industries are part of this ecosystem and have contributed in no small measure to this successful indigenous effort which will be proudly showcased to the world in mid- August.

This has involved a considerable investment in resources – technical, human and financial – on which many of these small and medium enterprises have staked their future in anticipation of a sustainable return on their investment with further orders. The indecisiveness of the government and the consequent delays in decision making is not only threatening the future of this ecosystem but a gap in the in a follow-on construction programme will also lead to loss of expertise, capability, human resource, the physical infrastructure and to a lack of confidence in an insensitive governmental system impervious to the concerns of the industry. It is unfortunate that despite this being recognised, the programme remains mired in the labyrinthian corridors of South Block with little or no discernible progress as is also happening with submarines, minesweepers, Landing Platform Docks (LPD), helicopters, aircraft…and the list goes on and on.

Reinventing the wheel to regain lost aircraft carrier construction capability is a luxury that a resource-challenged India cannot afford; infact, expediting the decision-making process and commencing construction of the IAC 2 is definitely the most cost-effective option while attributing the delay to a resource constraint, as is the wont to justify delays, will actually prove costly and counter-productive in the long run in more ways than one.

(Author is Vice President, Indian Maritime FoundationViews expressed are personal and do not reflect the official position or policy of Financial Express Online. Reproducing this content without permission is prohibited).

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