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Indian Navy’s 3rd Aircraft Carrier, Project 75I Submarines Need ‘Big Push’ To Counter China’s Bulging Navy

It is always helpful to recall the words of Kavalam Madhava Panikkar, one of India’s early maritime thinkers, who wrote in his seminal work ‘India and the Indian Ocean: An Essay on the Influence of Sea Power on Indian History’ (1945): “If India desires to be a naval power, it is not sufficient to create a navy however efficient and well manned. It must create a naval tradition in the public, a sustained interest in oceanic problems, and a conviction that India’s future greatness lies on the sea.”

With threats from China now reaching the Indian Ocean, a hugely contested space today, India will have to gather the ropes and begin building a navy that matches the challenge.

The Indian Ocean is the busiest sea lane of communication: over 80 percent of all seaborne trade in oil, equivalent to about one-fifth of the global energy supply, passes through this region.

It is not without reason that China decided to venture into the Indian Ocean region with its warships in 2007 on the pretext of fighting piracy in the Gulf of Aden. It needed a naval presence in the area, which is the lifeline of its energy security. Eighty percent of China’s oil imports come through the Malacca Strait, the Indian Ocean’s busiest ‘chokepoint.’

China’s String of Pearls to encircle India through naval infrastructure all over the Indian Ocean region is driven by its fear that India’s growing maritime power could put hurdles in its quest to emerge as a great power, and the oil supplies through the region are vital for Beijing to realize its ambitions. With these plans, China is building its turnaround points in locations such as Djibouti in the far west of the Indian Ocean and Hambantota in Sri Lanka, right in the middle.

The United States’ pivot to the Indo-Pacific, renaming a region once known as Asia-Pacific, was also driven by its realization that its vital strategic interests and threats to its number one position in the present global order lie in this vast oceanic space on the world map. Even otherwise, the US has had a more prominent naval presence in the region, and it was never a coincidence.

Indian Ocean Is India’s Responsibility

Against this backdrop, India needs to view its position and interests in the larger geopolitics of the seas. A look at the world map will indicate even to the non-discerning audience the geographical advantage India has in the Indian Ocean region. It is no wonder that the Indian Navy considers itself the net security provider of the Indian Ocean region and sees it as its backyard.

To enable the Indian Navy to perform its role effectively, the Indian government needs to invest more in building naval capacities and capabilities in the form of assets that help its navy assert this reality. The latest move by the Indian Navy to seek approvals from the Indian government for its second Indigenous Aircraft Carrier should be viewed from this perspective.

India spent around Rs 20,000 crore building its first Indigenous Aircraft Carrier at the Cochin Shipyard in Kerala, on the Arabian Sea coast. The second Indigenous Aircraft Carrier may cost more than the first and could even double the spending as its current budgetary ask is around Rs 40,000 crore ($5B).

But money should not be a constraint on building such a vital capability that enables the Indian Navy power projection, not just in the Indian Ocean Region, but globally, and asserts its preeminence in the Indian Oceanic backyard.

India currently has the required talent to build aircraft carriers at the Cochin Shipyard, and this capability shouldn’t go to waste. It is a capability that can fire up India’s economy through government spending on the project and can enable the Indian Navy to have three aircraft carrier battle groups at its disposal to patrol the two seaboards on the east and west at any given time.

Even if one aircraft carrier among the three goes into a required refit, which takes months together, the Indian Navy will still be able to project power on both sides of its peninsular region. And this is a much-anticipated requirement, nay, imperative.

Third Carrier Battle Group Much Needed

India currently operates two aircraft carriers. The Russian-origin, refurbished INS Vikramaditya, a refurbished Admiral Gorshkov inducted in November 2013 under a US$2.2-billion deal, with its combat aviation component of two squadrons of MiG29Ks, shares the responsibility of power projection with Indigenous Aircraft Carrier, INS Vikrant, which was commissioned last November and having Visakhapatnam as its home base.

Vikrant also shares the MiG-29K squadrons with Vikramaditya at present. However, a naval case exists to buy at least 36 Rafale-M, the flight deck-operated naval combat aircraft from the French Dassault Aviation stable. This proposal is currently in an advanced stage for approval from the government.

Rafale M
File Image: Rafale M

Loosely named Vishal, the second Indigenous Aircraft Carrier is being touted as a 45,000-tonne repeat order of Vikrant. The Indian Navy is hopeful that the aircraft component of Vishal shall be the under-development twin-engine deck-based naval fighter that the Defence Research and Development Organization is currently working on.

While the Cochin Shipyard took nearly 13 years to build Vikrant, with the existing capacities and capabilities, the Indian Navy expects Vishal to be ready for commission in about eight to 10 years. By this time, the new twin-engine naval combat jet should be prepared for production and induction, it is expected.

This is vital for India and its navy because its bete noire China launched its 80,000-tonne third aircraft carrier, Fujian, in June last year.

Indian Navy, too, wanted a more significant 65,000-tonne Vishal but has realistically toned down its expectations due to money constraints, yet to meet its vital capability needs. Of course, the US has 11 supercarriers of over 100,000-tonne displacement. So, the competition to India is vast in the aircraft carrier domain.

Credible Fleet Strength For The Next Decade

The Indian Navy is also aspiring to have a 200-warship fleet by 2035. Still, it would achieve at least 160 warships, not an ideal 175 warships, by that timeframe, even as budgetary constraints do not allow it to ask for the moon, and decommissioning of older warships would impact its fleet strength in the next ten years.

Concurrently, the Indian Navy’s other assets, such as naval combat jets, naval surveillance planes, helicopters, and drones, are set for growth during this period.

Already, the Indian Navy has placed orders for 68 warships, of which only two are under construction in a foreign shipyard, while the remaining 66 are being built by Indian shipyards.

The cost of these 68 warships has been estimated to be Rs 200,000 crore, a massive budget. But this spending would energize the Indian economy, as a significant portion would be injected into buying steel and military systems needed by these warships from domestic sources.

Unfortunately, the Indian government has not been able to decide on building futuristic conventional submarines under Project 75I, even though the contest is only between the state-run Mazagon Dock and Shipbuilders and the private sector Larsen & Toubro. This submarine project could cost upwards of Rs 50,000 crore ($6.2B).

These investments in naval assets are essential for India to maintain a credible force level and strategic reach in the Indian Ocean region and beyond, as the nation’s economic interests are also growing in the Pacific region, what with involvement with oil explorations off Vietnam in recent years.

China, which is India’s foremost threat, is building warships at a frantic pace and is already the world’s largest naval fleet with 355 warships, even more than the US. These naval capabilities are essential for India to counter China and keep it at bay, at least in its backyard.

  • NC Bipindra is a 30-year veteran in journalism specializing in strategic affairs, geopolitics, aerospace, defense, and diplomacy. He has written extensively for the Times of India, New Indian Express, Press Trust of India, and Bloomberg News. He can be reached at ncbipindra (at) gmail.com
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