With a fleet of nearly 200 ships, including two aircraft carriers, over 15 submarines, and around 300 aircraft, the Indian Navy is a formidable force in South Asia

Russia has supported India's nuclear submarine program since its inception in the 1960s and it will continue to do so, according to an Indian Navy veteran.

Commodore Anil Jai Singh, who spent three decades (1981-2011) in India's blue-water force, with 28 years as a specialist submariner, stated that Moscow helped New Delhi gain invaluable experience in operating nuclear submarines.

Accoring to the Navy veteran, India's long-standing and close defense partnership with Russia would keep New Delhi in good stead as far as it's nuclear submarine program is concerned, given that Moscow would be more than willing to assist in the development and production of its own domestic nuclear-powered attack submarines.

Apart from Moscow's role in helping India's nuclear submarine project, the former naval commander also spoke of why the force is looking to develop its own naval fighter jet and why aircraft carriers will form the centrepiece of the Indian Navy.

Nuances of Submarine Development

For years, India has been leasing Russian nuclear-powered attack submarines (SSNs). What are the prospects of India and Russia pursuing joint production of nuclear submarines?

Anil Jai Singh: I am not sure if there would be anything called 'joint production' because it is not generally done in nuclear-submarine technology. In 1988, we got Chakra, a Russian nuclear submarine that went back in 1991. We learned a lot of valuable things about how to operate nuclear submarines when we got that. Then in 2012, we got the second Chakra, it was the Akula-2 class submarine, another very potent SSN that was frontline capable in the Russian Navy also.

These two submarines provided us a tremendous insight into how complex it is to operate nuclear submarines and what sort of infrastructure is required to operate them.

It is not only about a submarine and its reactor, but it's also about the shore support, the maintenance, your own civilian nuclear capability, and how much it can support the military nuclear capability.

It is about reactor development. You can make a reactor but to miniaturize it and fit it into a submarine is a whole different ball game and it has to be 100% foolproof. You can't afford to have a nuclear accident at sea on a submarine because it will be a disaster.

Taking all these factors into consideration, I think the very fact Russia leashed us to nuclear-powered submarines was a great, great asset as far as we were concerned in developing our own nuclear submarine technology.

We also built an SSBN, a nuclear-powered, ballistic missile-carrying submarine, called Arihant and we are building more of the same type.

Now the reactor that is on the Arihant, we developed with Russian assistance because the basic technology was Russian in nature. So they have supported our nuclear submarine program right through. I suppose even in the future whatever support we might need would come from them.

Russia has supported India's nuclear submarine program all through these years and it will continue to do so.

Prioritising Indigenous Production

Indian Navy chief Admiral R Hari Kumar recently said that Boeing's F-18 Super Hornet and Dassault's Rafale M fighters meet the Navy's requirements and it was ready to acquire any of them for its indigenous warship INS Vikrant. Do you think India made a mistake in not going for the MiG-35, given that the Indian Navy operates MiG-29s from its other aircraft carrier INS Vikramaditya?

Anil Jai Singh: There are various factors that must have led the Navy to these two aircraft. It is not about the aircraft, it is about logistics support. Yes, I know India operates a lot of MiGs of various types, so another MiG would have standardized a lot of things. But frankly speaking, the intention ultimately is to have an indigenous fighter.

Earlier the TEJAS MK-2 was supposed to be a naval version. That is not being found adequately suited for the purpose of operating from an aircraft carrier. So now, they are developing something called the twin-engine deck-based fighter.

In the meantime, they have to find some solution for Vikrant. So they decided to carry out trials with both the F-18 Super Hornet and the Rafale. Both of them performed satisfactorily, so the Navy has said either one of them is OK.

Now various other factors will come into play in deciding on which is a better aircraft more suited from the point of view of cost, the maintenance angle, and things like the strategic relationship India has with that country, and how deep it is. In any case, this is going to be an order for 26 aircraft and is an interim measure. Ultimately, the aim is to have a fully indigenous fighter.

Aiming At Blue-Water Navy

How do aircraft carriers fit into India's overall national security strategy? Why is the Indian Navy interested in developing these systems?

Anil Jai Singh: The visionaries who thought about the future of the Indian Navy planned that Indian Navy will eventually be structured like a blue-water Navy because it will have a large role to play in the Indian Ocean and in any blue-water Navy an aircraft carrier is the centrepiece of that blue-water capability.

An aircraft carrier gives you the ability to take a floating air base up to 500 miles in a day from anywhere to anywhere and when it is accompanied by its carrier battle group, it is almost like a Navy moving with an airbase

Therefore, both to protect India's maritime interests and the larger maritime interest of the Indian Ocean, the Indian Navy is now structured as a proper, balanced multi-dimensional blue-water capable force in which aircraft carriers form the main element of power projection in peacetime and potent offensive capability in wartime.

India has had aircraft carriers right from 1961. In 1961, we got Vikrant from England. Vikrant did a remarkable job in the 1971 India-Pakistan war.

It completely dominated the Bay of Bengal, India's eastern fleet had totally dominated the Bay of Bengal to an extent that it was able to prevent any logistic supplies from reaching [the] Pakistani Army which was at that time in east Pakistan besides carrying out attacks on Chittagong harbour from the sea by aircraft. The utility of the aircraft carrier was realized at that time.

The fundamental role, as far as India is concerned, is that we are the predominant maritime power in the Indian Ocean and we must continue to maintain that position.

Therefore, to maintain that position, particularly now with the maritime build-up that is taking place with the Indo-Pacific becoming the global geopolitical centre of gravity, it is very important for India to maintain a favourable maritime situation in the Indian Ocean. For that, we must have an aircraft carrier-based Navy.