Having more carrier battle groups is predicated on New Delhi’s strategic calculus where the expansionist plans of the People's Liberation Army Navy of China are crucial imperatives 

With the commissioning of India’s first indigenously-built aircraft carrier, INS Vikrant, on September 2, the Indian Navy (IN) is sailing towards becoming a truly blue water navy. The 45,000 ton vessel is a powerful force multiplier that strengthens the navy’s offensive, and defensive capabilities.

This makes India part of a handful of countries who can indigenously design and make aircraft carriers. As Prime Minister Narendra Modi said at the commissioning ceremony in Kochi, “INS Vikrant has filled the country with a new confidence. It’s a symbol of India’s hard work, ingenuity, influence and commitment…a symbol of indigenous strength, research and skill.”

INS Vikrant — named after the country's first carrier which was decommissioned in 1997 — is a fitting testimony to the mantra of Atmanirbharta (self-reliance) in defence production that is echoing in the corridors of the Ministry of Defence (MoD). The carrier is truly a product of the ‘Make in India’ initiative, having some three-quarters of its systems and components built indigenously.

For instance, locally-produced steel from industry was used for making its superstructure. The involvement of private players in building warships owes to the MoD’s decision to earmark a substantial part of its annual spending for the private sector. As Defence Minister Rajnath Singh said: "The government has made improvements in the Defence Production Policy and Export Promotion Policy. FDI limit has been increased in the sector, defence industrial corridors have been developed and 68 percent of the capital acquisition budget of Rs 85,000 crore of the defence sector is for the domestic industry.”

This augurs well for faster indigenisation of India’s warship-building efforts, and highlight India’s credentials as a potential hub for ship-building.

Good For Economy

Critics argue that the Vikrant took a long time coming off the drawing board. It is true that after the MoD cleared the flat-top’s design and construction in 2003, it took till 2021 for the ship to begin its sea trials. The gestation period of an aircraft carrier, from design stage to its commissioning, often takes 10 years or more; in this case, India was building its first aircraft carrier indigenously.

But at the end of the day it seems to have been worth the wait since the Vikrant project may have already paid for itself: according to navy sources, more than 85 percent of the carrier’s project cost has been ploughed back into the economy. The ship’s construction has also helped to generate employment for thousands of people. In any case, given the 50-year plus lifespan of the carrier, its price tag is inconsequential when compared to its impact on national security.

More Aircraft Carriers?

The Indian Navy already operates the 44,570-tonne INS Vikramaditya — the erstwhile Russian Admiral Gorshkov, a modified Kiev-class carrier — from its western base. So the addition of INS Vikrant to its fleet will help the navy dominate the country’s 7,500-kilometre coastline, besides adding to its strategic reach. India’s position in the Indian Ocean has bequeathed it with a ‘maritime destiny’ as more than 90 percent of the country’s trade by volume is seaborne. The navy has a huge responsibility to protect this by keeping the straits of Malacca, Hormuz, Bab-el-Mandeb, and the South China Sea free of strife.

INS Vikrant is a key element in India’s stated goal of having at least two carrier battle groups (CBGs)— warship formations with an aircraft carrier as the centrepiece, protected by destroyers, submarines, tankers, and fighter aircraft — for the western and eastern seaboards. Only a handful of countries have CBGs which are deployed primarily as power demonstrators. New Delhi’s lone CBG option is currently focused on INS Vikramaditya. When operationalised, the second CBG could be formed around the Vikrant. In fact, the MoD has plans to build a third carrier bigger than the Vikrant to flag the western, eastern, and Andamans naval bases.

Having more CBGs is predicated on New Delhi’s strategic calculus where the expansionist plans of the People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) of China are crucial imperatives. If China took its time in deploying the CBGs it has to do with Beijing’s ambitious plans to build two carriers for each of the PLAN’s three fleets. The PLAN operates three aircraft carriers, and intends to have four more in the Indo-Pacific region.

Is Smaller Better?

While the navy needs more flat-tops, however, the watchword should be ‘more’, not ‘large’ as some experts who argue for bigger warships seem to believe. Modern navies are increasingly turning to smaller, speedier, and numerous warships and carriers are no exception. It makes a lot of economic as well as strategic sense to build, and operate fleets based around smaller, and more mobile light carriers that present a smaller target profile. Not only would such ships be less vulnerable to missile attacks, they would also give planners more options to increase the number of platforms at the navy’s disposal.

This suggests that the Indian Navy should ideally have not two but four or more CBGs so that its combat operational levels could be maintained without disrupting fleet activities in tomorrow’s oceans.