Defence minister Rajnath Singh will on March 6 address the inaugural session of a top navy meeting on board India’s first indigenous aircraft carrier INS Vikrant

Defence minister Rajnath Singh will on March 6 address the inaugural session of a top navy meeting on board India’s first indigenous aircraft carrier INS Vikrant, with the move bringing into sharper focus the country’s steps towards achieving self-reliance in the defence manufacturing sector, officials familiar with the matter said on Wednesday.

Singh, Indian Navy chief Admiral R Hari Kumar, Western Naval Command chief Vice Admiral Dinesh Tripathi, and other top officials will board the aircraft carrier at Goa to attend the biannual naval commanders’ conference, said one of the officials cited above, asking not to be named. Only the opening day of the five-day conference will be held at sea, he said.

The discussions at the conference will cover issues related to operations, combat readiness, logistics, training, human resource development, jointness and indigenisation, said a second official, who also asked not to be named. The developments in the Indian Ocean region, where China seeks to increase its presence, are also likely to be discussed, the officials said.

Rarely are such top conferences held on board warships. In December 2015, Prime Minister Narendra Modi chaired the combined commanders’ conference on board INS Vikramaditya, India’s other aircraft carrier, off the Kochi coast. That was the first time the combined commanders’ conference, involving the top brass of the three services, was held on board an aircraft carrier. Modi has been in favour of big events being held outside the national capital.

The naval commanders’ conference is being held on board INS Vikrant six months after the aircraft carrier was commissioned into the navy.

“The development brings into focus the manifestation of the navy’s long-term maritime strategy by showcasing the India-designed and built INS Vikrant,” said former navy chief Admiral Arun Prakash (Retd).

Flight trials are currently being conducted on INS Vikrant. In February, a prototype of the naval version of the locally made light combat aircraft (LCA) TEJAS and the Russian-origin MiG-29K landed and took off from the aircraft carrier for the first time.

The French Rafale-M fighter has edged out the American F/A-18 Super Hornet in a direct competition to equip the navy with 26 new deck-based fighters for INS Vikrant. The Rafale is manufactured by Dassault Aviation while the Super Hornet is a Boeing product.

The 26 fighters that the navy plans to buy are only a stopgap until the country develops its own twin engine deck-based fighter (TEDBF). The first TEDBF prototype could make its maiden flight by 2026 and be ready for production by 2031, the officials said.

Vikrant, which has 76% indigenous content, will operate an air wing consisting of 30 aircraft including the new fighters, MiG-29Ks, Kamov-31 choppers, MH-60R multi-role helicopters and advanced light helicopters. INS Vikramaditya operates MiG-29K fighters.

The 45,000-ton Vikrant was built at Cochin Shipyard at a cost of ₹20,000 crore. Only the US, the UK, Russia, France and China have the capability to build aircraft carriers this size. It has been named after aircraft carrier INS Vikrant, which was operated by the navy from 1961 to 1997.

A second indigenous aircraft carrier to project India’s maritime power in the far seas is also on the navy’s radar.

INS Vikramaditya was bought second-hand from Russia for $2.33 billion. The navy has been arguing it needs three such floating airfields given its vast area of interest.

INS Vikrant is the fourth aircraft carrier to be operated by the Indian Navy -- the first Vikrant (British origin) from 1961 to 1997, INS Viraat (British origin) from 1987 to 2016, and INS Vikramaditya 2013 onwards.