Indian Navy has sent a formal proposal to the Ministry of Defence to acquire a second indigenous aircraft carrier — a necessity at a time when China is expanding its naval fleet at breakneck speed
“Whoever controls the Indian Ocean will dominate Asia. This ocean will be the key to the seven seas in the 21st century. The destiny of the world will be decided on its waters,” US Admiral Alfred Thayer Mahan famously said in 1890. As the waters in the Indo-Pacific get more and more turbulent, the Indian Navy needs to be equipped with more powerful maritime assets to maintain peace and stability, and counter China and other expanding naval powers like Pakistan in the West Asian region. And Mahan’s prophecy should be factored in while formulating the Indian Ocean strategy.
With many powerful nations following this dictum and making serious efforts to dominate the Indian Ocean, the Indian Navy’s formal proposal to the Ministry of Defence to acquire a second indigenous aircraft carrier holds great significance. Amid fast-changing geopolitical alliances, the maritime might of a nation assumes great significance. An aircraft carrier represents the symbolic naval might of a nation and is a great deterrent factor in preventing rival forces from dominating the oceans and the skies. India being a principal force in the region, the world has been keeping a close watch on the developments in the Indian Ocean.
China is expanding its naval fleet at a breakneck speed, with reported plans to deploy one aircraft carrier on a permanent basis in the Indian Ocean. It becomes imperative for the Indian Navy to take note of the challenges China will pose in the coming years. Though the Indian Navy currently has two aircraft carriers, with the second one set to become fully operational at the beginning of next year, the naval headquarters’ official proposal, if actually materialises in roughly a decade or so, the Indian Navy will be a force to reckon with in the Indo-Pacific region. The Indian Navy has the primary responsibility to safeguard economic, territorial and strategic interests in its 2 million square kilometre Exclusive Economic Zone. The Indian Ocean, known as the third biggest ocean on Earth, touches the shores of Australia to Africa to the Arabian Gulf and the Red Sea, from where the Mediterranean Sea can be accessed and the Malacca Strait would be the entry gate to the South China Sea. The strategic significance of the Indian Ocean can be gauged from this geographical expanse of its waters.
China has at present two operational aircraft carriers — Liaoning, which was made operational in 2012 by retrofitting a Soviet-era aircraft carrier made at Mykolaiv shipyard, and Shandong, made in China’s Dalian shipyard and operational since 2017. It will soon have a third one, called Fujian, which is in the last stage of fitment, and a fourth one that is under development and yet to be officially named. China has plans to acquire more advanced aircraft carriers, including those nuclear-powered like the US Navy maintains. These are under the design stage and will make the Chinese Navy a global expeditionary maritime force once operational.
Not Enough To Match China Might But Indian Navy Must Have 3 Carriers
In this backdrop, we can understand the significance of the Indian Navy making a formal proposal for a third aircraft carrier. The Indian Navy plans to permanently deploy one aircraft carrier on each side of the Indian coasts — eastern and the western, i.e. the Bay of Bengal and the Arabian Sea. Since one of the three aircraft carriers will mostly be docked in the shipyard for maintenance, only two will remain operational. Hence, the two operational aircraft carriers cannot be spared for expeditionary assignment, as both carriers will be principally on guard duty to keep an eye on both coasts and deter any enemy movement in the vicinity.
China considers the US Navy, which has 11 aircraft carriers of over 1 lakh tonnes displacement, its principal rival. It also has ambitious plans to match this maritime might and is working in that direction. It will be a humongous challenge for India to match the Chinese plans to be equipped with aircraft carriers in similar numbers and of similar sizes.
A three-carrier Indian Navy can only be dubbed as having modest capacity if we consider the fact that the Chinese Navy will have five or six aircraft carriers a decade from now. However, since the Indian Navy does not aspire to have globetrotting capacity, the three carriers can be described as the optimum level, which must be maintained all the time.
What The Navy Proposal Entails
Since the decade of sixties, the Indian Navy has taken a lead in maritime firepower when the first aircraft carrier INS Vikrant with 18,000-tons displacement, acquired from the United Kingdom, was inducted. Two and a half decades later, in 1988, India got another second-hand aircraft carrier — Hermis from the British Navy, which was renamed as INS Viraat. This was of 28,000-tons displacement and went on to serve for nearly three decades.
While the INS Vikrant retired in 1997, the Indian Navy inducted, a decade and a half later, the next aircraft carrier INS Vikramaditya (formerly Admiral Gorshkov of the Soviet Navy) in 2013. It was a 44,500-tons megastructure of floating steel city. The Navy has a fourth aircraft carrier of equal size, the first to be made in India and named after the first retired Indian aircraft carrier, INS Vikrant.
An aircraft carrier is a floating air base equipped with dozens of maritime fighter planes, anti-sub and reconnaissance helicopters, defensive and offensive missiles, electronic warfare suites, anti-submarine defensive mechanisms etc. To fast-track the acquisition process, the Indian Navy proposes to place a repeat order to Cochin Shipyard, worth Rs 40,000 crore. The carrier would be of the same size and displacement of 45,000 tons as IAC-1 i.e. Vikrant. The second carrier will be a major push to indigenisation and would be initially called IAC-2. Earlier, the Navy was considering a 65,000-tons displacement capacity aircraft carrier. However, the opinion prevailed in the Naval Headquarters that a carrier of a different size would entail a different design, which may delay the acquisition by a few more years.
The MoD is expected to soon take a call on this official proposal from the Navy. The matter will be first discussed by the Defence Procurement Board headed by the Defence Secretary, and then by the Defence Acquisition Council chaired by the Defence Minister. After the latter’s green signal, the proposal will finally need to be cleared by the Cabinet Committee on Defence and Security. Naval observers believe the government will show sincerity in putting its final seal on the proposal at the earliest.