by Lindsay Hughes

The Indian Navy (IN) has long aspired to deploying two hundred warships by 2027. That goal has grown increasingly unlikely, however, given the budget constraints under which it now operates. Raising concerns about the shrinking naval budget, the Indian Navy Chief, Admiral Karambir Singh, pointed out that: ’The Navy’s share of the Defence Budget has declined from 18 [per cent of India’s defence budget] in 2012 to approximately 13 [per cent] in 2019-20.’ That reduction will put a lot of pressure on the navy’s modernisation plans. It led the IN Chief to add: ’While we have projected our requirement to the Government, we remain committed to progress force modernisation, using the available resources optimally. In the face of shortages, the emphasis is on prioritisation, rationalisation and economy of expenditure.’

There is an obvious question here as to whether or not those resources were previously used optimally and if not, why not? The current issue though, is what basis the IN will now use to decide which assets to acquire? A linked question is: what short-cuts, if any, will it take to ensure that its overall objectives for national security are met?

While these issues demand examination, the larger one remains: how does the political class inhibit the IN’s functioning?


The IN’s objectives include:

  • Deterrence against war or intervention
  • Decisive military victory in case of war
  • Security of India’s territorial integrity, citizens and offshore assets from sea-borne threat
  • Influence affairs on land
  • Safeguard India’s mercantile marine and its maritime trade
  • Safeguard India’s national interests and maritime security

These are demanding goals that require a high level of sophistication in platforms, training and experience – the very foundations of naval power. It is concerning, therefore, that those goals are being eroded by budgetary constraints. That is not to say that the overall defence budget itself is shrinking – although there are several problems associated with it – but that the IN’s share of the defence budget is being reduced. In financial year 2019-20, the IN has received a capital allocation of 231.5 billion rupees ($4.8 billion), while the Indian Army received Rs. 294.6 billion ($6.1 billion) and the Air Force Rs. 393 billion (≈$8.15 billion).

As a consequence of the ongoing reduction in its share of the defence budget, the IN has pared its projected 200-vessel fleet to 175. It had previously sought to field three aircraft carriers, but will now have to meet its objectives with only two. The IN sought to acquire two additional aircraft carriers to supplement the one it currently has operating, reasoning that it would maintain two on patrol while the third would be in dock for repairs and maintenance. It is unlikely that the fifty vessels of other types currently under construction will be affected, however.

In addition to its shrinking budget, the IN must also contend with an inept political class. The saga of the INS Vikramaditya, the ex-battle cruiser-turned-aircraft carrier that India purchased from Russia, illustrates this point. Negotiations for the purchase of the Admiral Gorshkov, as it was then known, began in 1994. An Inter-Governmental Agreement for the acquisition of the cruiser, after it had been converted into an aircraft carrier, was reached in 2000. According to the terms of the agreement, the ship would be given free of charge to India, but the latter would pay US$974 million ($1.44 billion) in repairs and upgrades and a further US$1 billion (≈$1.5 billion) for the twelve MiG29 aircraft needed to equip it. Russia would transform the ship into a true aircraft carrier and remove the ship’s existing missile systems. They would be replaced by a full-length aircraft carrier flight deck of over nine hundred feet, with a ski ramp on the bow to assist in take-off. The carrier would carry up to twenty-four MiG-29K naval fighters and ten Kamov helicopters. It would receive new surveillance radars, new boilers, arrestor wires and deck elevators to transport aircraft from the hangar to the flight deck. The delivery date was to be 2008.

In 2007, however, Russia announced that the ship was only 49 per cent complete. Delivery was pushed back to 2013 at the earliest. Then, in 2008, Russia announced that it needed to increase the price of the carrier by a further US$2 billion ($2.96 billion). When India protested, Russia threatened to scrap the deal altogether. India buckled, leading the government’s Comptroller and Auditor General to lament that India had paid sixty per cent more for a second-hand aircraft carrier than a new one would have cost. Moreover, it was one that still did not have a definite delivery date. (See here for more Indian political ineptitude.) In the event, the ship entered sea trials in 2012 and was commissioned into the Indian Navy as INS Vikramaditya in November 2013.

It was soon discovered that the ship had far too few defensive weapons, being equipped with only four close-in weapons systems. As a consequence, the Indian Navy stripped the decommissioned guided missile frigate INS Godavari of its Barak-1 short-range surface-to-air missiles, which have a range of one-third of a mile to seven miles, and installed them on the Vikramaditya.

The MiG-29K aircraft that India purchased to complement the carrier were not fit to fly, either. Forty of the engines (sixty-two per cent) that were purchased for the aircraft were found to have design-related defects. Their reliability ranged from about 21.30 per cent to 47.14 percent, forcing the carrier to remain within a radius of two hundred kilometres from an airfield, to enable the pilots to land their aircraft if an engine failed. The Comptroller and Auditor General’s report stated that: ‘The service life of [the] MiG-29K is 6,000 hours or 25 years (whichever is earlier) but the deficiencies and snags in the aircraft are likely to reduce the operational life of the aircraft, thereby affecting [the] combat worthiness of [the Indian] Navy.’

Admiral Arun Prakash, who served as chief of the Indian Naval Staff, evaluated the aircraft in 1999, before their purchase from Russia. He was scathing in his assessment, saying:

The roots of these problems (serviceability and defects) lie in the extremely poor quality control in the Russian military-industrial complex and dismal product support being rendered by the Russian industry to the Indian Navy for the past 25 years. This is in spite of the fact that the development of the MiG-29K has been totally funded by the Indian Navy.

A previous FDI paper that examined the case of Indian Air Force pilots flying obsolete Soviet-era MiG-21 fighter aircraft concluded that:

There could be little doubt as to the professionalism of the Indian armed forces[.] … Their willingness to lay their lives on the line cannot be perfunctorily dismissed, however, by providing them with equipment and platforms that are sub-standard, obsolete or both.

Now, in addition to the failures indicated in that paper, we could add that the IN is also being hobbled by political ineptitude.