Sea trials of the warship are to begin as early as next month as New Delhi seeks to counter China’s growing influence in the Indian Ocean. India’s first domestically developed carrier will boost its offensive and surveillance capabilities, redefine its role in the Quad and make a statement about its technological prowess, experts say

The Indian Navy is to start sea trials of its first domestically-built aircraft carrier in a move that will boost its ability to counter China’s growing presence in the Indian Ocean. Sea trials of the INS Vikrant are expected to begin as early as next month, with Defence Minister Rajnath Singh saying last week that the warship was set to enter active service in the first half of 2022.

Experts said the new carrier would help India project power in a region that has come increasingly under China’s influence. In May, Kenya inaugurated a Chinese-built port on Lamu island, on the country’s Indian Ocean coast, while last week, Tanzanian President Samia Suluhu Hassan said the country might revive a plan with China to build a US$10 billion port in Bagamoyo.

INS Vikrant will be India’s second aircraft carrier. Its first is INS Vikramaditya, a 35-year-old warship that previously served in the Russian Navy as Admiral Gorshkov before it was bought by India. China has two aircraft carriers already in service – the Liaoning (which it built from the refitted hull of an old Soviet vessel) and the Shandong, which it developed domestically from scratch. Construction is under way on a third carrier, which according to some reports could be launched this year.

The Indian government has called its new carrier its “most potent sea-based asset” and an “incomparable military asset”. The carrier will operate Russian-built MiG-29K fighter jets and Ka-31 early warning helicopters, US-built MH-60R multi-role helicopters and domestically-built Advanced Light Helicopters.

Ben Ho, a naval analyst at the Singapore-based S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, said the new aircraft carrier would provide New Delhi with more options “for a wide range of scenarios, including another crisis with Beijing”.

“Having a larger carrier fleet should make for a more confident and robust maritime strategy, and this is likely to be in response to Beijing’s inroads on Delhi’s turf in the Indian Ocean,” Ho said.

Yogesh Joshi, a research fellow at the National University of Singapore’s Institute of South Asian Studies, said that while the INS Vikrant would “boost India’s naval presence and offensive capability”, that did not necessarily mean India would start sending warships to the South China Sea.

“But, aircraft carriers allow India to achieve some sea control in the Indian Ocean and therefore, would prove instrumental in any economic blockade of China during crisis situations,” said Joshi.

Projecting Power

Many in India’s defence circles believe the country has become too reliant on its single aircraft carrier, particularly as its engagement with friendly navies across the world increases. Recent engagements included the first India-European Union naval exercise in the Gulf of Aden this month, the Varuna exercise with the French navy in April and trilateral exercises with Singapore and Thailand in November last year.

On Monday, the Indian Navy even held a joint exercise with South Korea in Beijing’s backyard, the East China Sea, while last week it conducted a two-day exercise with the US Navy carrier strike group Ronald Reagan in the Indian Ocean. Coming up in the next few months are annual bilateral exercises with Britain as well as exercises and port calls along the African and European coasts.

RS Vasan, a retired commodore and director of the Chennai Centre for China Studies, said this heightened activity had reinforced the need for a second carrier.

“The idea is to have at least one carrier on each of the two coasts, especially when India has two primary adversaries, one on the East [China] and another on the West [Pakistan],” he said.

A second carrier will also boost India’s surveillance abilities.

“What many don’t realise is that an aircraft carrier allows naval pilots to go farther and conduct reconnaissance missions on the adversary’s ships. Naval pilots specialise in these missions, and can identify vessels much better than air force pilots,” said K Mohanan, a retired rear admiral.

“This is what makes an aircraft carrier so important for surveillance and collecting intelligence.”

Mohanan was the last active captain of a former Indian aircraft carrier, also named INS Vikrant, which played a pivotal role in the 1971 India-Pakistan war that resulted in the creation of Bangladesh. A former naval pilot, Mohanan felt India should now consider building a third aircraft carrier, an idea that is popular among navy officials but that has received a lukewarm response from the highest levels in the past.

Surveillance abilities are becoming increasingly important to India as China ramps up its presence in the Indian Ocean. In December 2019, a Chinese research vessel was expelled from Indian waters, while a month later between four and six Chinese vessels were once again spotted in the Indian Ocean. In September 2020, just months after Chinese and Indian troops clashed along their disputed Himalayan border, the Indian Navy claimed it had tracked a Chinese vessel collecting sensitive information about Indian waters.

A Sign To Others

Analysts said the new aircraft carrier would also help New Delhi pursue strategic and foreign policy goals, such as stepping up engagement with the other three members of the Quad (Quadrilateral Security Dialogue) – the United States, Japan and Australia – following the joint Malabar exercises held in November last year.

Joshi said the INS Vikrant could affect the group’s strategy in the region. “One change may be that India would be more willing to take up the responsibility for Indian Ocean security in the overall division of labour within the Quad. That could relieve the US and others to operate more in the South China Sea,” he said.

India’s development of the carrier is also a showcase of its growing capabilities. The Indian government says 75 per cent of the ship is domestically sourced, “from design to steel … to key weapons and sensors”. Retired commodore Vasan said this demonstrated India’s “technological prowess” and that showcasing the country’s abilities could help the Quad achieve another strategic aim.

“By constructing an aircraft carrier, more and more countries, especially in South Asia and Southeast Asia, who depend on Chinese military hardware and are looking for a way out, might see an alternative in India,” he said.

But for now, Vasan said, India should heed the maxim of China’s former leader Deng Xiaoping and hide its strengths and bide its time.