Describing the addition of INS Vikramaditya to the Indian Navy as a “historic” step and underscoring India’s growing naval prowess, prime minister Narendra Modi a few days ago dedicated India’s largest warship off the Goa coast in Arabian Sea to the nation. In his first visit outside Delhi after taking over as the prime minister, Modi embarked on the “carrier at sea” by helicopter and witnessed a host of exercises by the frontline warships and aircraft to celebrate a major milestone. INS Vikramaditya joined the Indian Navy in November 2013 and was commissioned by former defence minister A K Antony last November at Russia’s Sevmash shipyard. The 44,500-tonne warship is a modified Kiev-class aircraft carrier and is equipped with MiG-29K naval combat aircraft along with Kamov 31 and Kamov 28 anti-submarine warfare and maritime surveillance helicopters. India remains the only Asian power to have two aircraft carriers in active service even as China is rapidly making forays into acquiring two more aircraft carriers after commissioning its first aircraft carrier Liaoning in 2012.
Even as the Indian Navy is increasing its profile, it remains beset with problems underlined by a number of accidents on its submarines. One of most significant ones was last year in August when INS Sindhurakshak, one of the 10 Kilo-class boats that form the backbone of India’s ageing conventional submarine force, sank, after explosions at the naval dockyard in Mumbai, killing 18 crewmen. Together the developments underscored the giant strides that India has made, but also the challenges that remain, as the country strives to emerge as a naval power.
It was last year only that India joined the elite club of nations that have demonstrated the capability to design and build their own aircraft carriers. INS Vikrant, as the ship is called, was launched with great fanfare in August as a sign of India’s coming of age as a naval power. A few days before the government had announced that the reactor in INS Arihant, the first Indian-built nuclear-powered submarine, had gone critical. Then prime minister Manmohan Singh had called the activation of the reactor aboard Arihant a “giant stride in ... our indigenous technological capabilities”. This project, conducted over more than a decade of highly secret work, completes India’s nuclear “triad” along with existing delivery systems using missiles and aircraft. And the submarine’s ballistic missiles will give India a second-strike capability. Under development for the past eight years, Vikrant is expected to begin sea trials this year. The carrier will not only help India defend its coasts but will also allow projection of power much further off its shores, something naval planners have long desired.
India is pursuing naval expansion with an eye on China, and Arihant, Vikrant and Vikramaditya notwithstanding, the country has nautical miles to go before it can catch up with its powerful neighbour, which has made significant advances in the waters surrounding India.
The aircraft carrier is critical for the Indian Navy, which is anxious to maintain its presence in the shipping lanes of the Indian Ocean and Arabian Sea, especially in light of China’s big naval build-up. In 2012, China commissioned its first aircraft carrier, Liaoning, a refurbished vessel purchased from Ukraine in 1998, and is also working on its own indigenous carrier.
India remains heavily dependent on imports to meet its defence requirements, so its recent successes are particularly important. It was with this in mind that Modi, during his dedication of INS Vikramaditya, stressed the need for self-reliance in defence equipment manufacturing, and suggested India should “give immense importance to latest technology”. He questioned why should India import defence equipment and why India can’t “send our defence equipment to other nations”.
The Indian Navy wants to be a serious blue-water force and is working hard to achieve that goal. Indian naval planners have long argued that if it is to maintain continuous operational readiness in the Indian Ocean, protect sea lanes in the Gulf and monitor Chinese activities in the Bay of Bengal, it needs at least three carriers and five nuclear subs. With INS Vikaramaditya and a second Indian-built carrier, INS Vishal, in the wings, India could have three operating carriers by 2019.
On the other hand, recent submarine disasters are a reminder of enduring safety and reliability problems. The Indian Navy has a poor accident record, with several mishaps in recent years. Sindhurakshak had been reintroduced to service only last year, after a refit in Russia. The accident was a reminder that while India’s surface-fleet expansion has been progressing well, the submarine fleet is ageing, and replacement boats are not on track.
Defence production has been marred by serious technical and organisational problems, leading to significant delays. Much like India’s other two services, the navy has found it difficult to translate its conceptual commitment to self-reliance and domestic production into actionable policy. The result has been continued reliance on external sources for much of the needed modernisation. Yet India’s reliance on its navy to project power will increase as naval build-ups continue in the Indo-Pacific.
Apart from China, other powers are also developing their naval might. Japan’s commissioning of a third helicopter carrier, the Izumo, has raised hackles in Beijing, which has referred to it as an “aircraft carrier in disguise”. Also, India’s naval engagement with east and southeast Asian states is integral to its two decades-old “Look East” policy. Countries ranging from the Philippines, Thailand and Indonesia to Vietnam and Myanmar have been pushing India to assume a higher profile. India is training sailors from Myanmar and at least four “offshore patrol vehicles” for that country are under construction in Indian shipyards. The navy has also been supplying spares to Hanoi for its Russian-origin ships and missile boats, and has extended a $100 million (Dh 367mn) credit line to Vietnam for the purchase of patrol boats.
The Indian Navy will remain an indispensable tool for furthering national foreign policy. But as resources dry up with the decline in economic growth, naval planners will have to think more carefully about what comes next if India wants to emerge as a serious naval power.
The author is a professor in international relations, department of defence studies, King’s College, London.