According to a Deccan Herald opinion piece, India should have four aircraft carrier battle groups (CBGs) instead of three. This would allow the Andaman naval base and peninsular flanks to be flagged without disrupting fleet activities. 

Giving the go-ahead for another indigenous aircraft carrier was on the cards for the Ministry of Defence even before INS Vikrant completed sea trials.

The Indian Navy's 15-year plan includes four fleet carriers and two light fleet carriers. The plan calls for two of the four fleet carriers to be acquired, and the two light fleet carriers to be given up. 

India's first indigenous aircraft carrier, INS Vikrant, was commissioned on September 2, 2022. The Navy is currently working on a repeat order for another Vikrant class carrier.

As of October 2023, there are 21 aircraft carriers operated by 14 different navies. The United States has the most with 11, followed by China with 3. India, the United Kingdom, Italy, and Japan each have 2. 

India’s decision to build another indigenous aircraft carrier (IAC) is not surprising. The Defence Acquisition Council, the highest decision-making body on issues related to policy and capital procurement, is expected to give the final clearance for the carrier soon. The Indian Navy wants to acquire another aircraft carrier along the lines of the first IAC, INS Vikrant (named after India’s first carrier which was decommissioned in 1997).

The new vessel will also be built at the Cochin Shipyard that built INS Vikrant which is now based at Visakhapatnam, on the eastern coast. Besides the 45,000-tonne Vikrant, the Indian Navy’s carrier fleet comprises the 44,570-tonne INS Vikramaditya — a modified Kiev-class carrier, Admiral Gorshkov, bought from Russia — which operates from its base on the western seaboard.

Giving the go-ahead for another IAC was on the cards for the Ministry of Defence (MoD) even before INS Vikrant completed her sea trials. It stood to reason that a repeat order of the first IAC would not involve drastic changes in construction time, cost and indigenization of sea-borne aviation assets for the new ship which could have cutting edge capabilities at a minimal cost. With the experience of building Vikrant, the Cochin Shipyard is believed to be capable of building another IAC in less than a decade. This was noted by the Chief of Naval Staff Admiral R Hari Kumar during the Aero India 2023 at Bengaluru earlier this year. “Initially we will go for the repeat order with improved capabilities,” he said. “And in the meantime, we will go for a study of larger carriers.” However, defence sources suggest that the navy will not insist on a carrier of around 65,000 tonnes as was the original plan and instead settle for a ship closer in size to INS Vikrant.

The addition of a third carrier will bolster the Indian Navy’s capability to protect India’s 7,500-kilometre coastline and operate hundreds of kilometres away from its shores on the high seas, making it truly a ‘blue water’ navy. Considering that more than 90 per cent of India’s trade by volume is seaborne, the Indian Navy needs to assert itself in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) where India’s strategic interests depend on several countries dotting the shipping lanes — be it the straits of Malacca, Hormuz, Bab-el-Mandeb, or the South China Sea. For this, India has no alternative but to beef up the Indian Navy with more warships.

India's maritime ambitions are premised on a balanced fleet of surface ships, submarines, and an independent air arm. This includes, besides at least three aircraft carriers, a couple of dozen conventional and nuclear-powered submarines, and ship-borne aerial assets like unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to support the fleet. The Indian Navy’s push for its third carrier, therefore, could not be happening sooner. That it is to be built at a domestic shipyard underscores India’s credentials as one of the few countries in the world with the capability to design and build aircraft carriers.

"The doctrinal and strategic significance of aircraft carriers to any major naval force cannot be overstated. The absence of an aircraft carrier with its range and depth of combat capabilities could potentially force a fleet commander to alter battle plans into a defensive mode. Strategically, albeit nuclear-powered submarines with long-range ballistic nuclear missiles are indispensable for retaliatory deterrence, it is primarily aircraft carriers that are used for power projection. The latest example of this is the deployment of the super carrier, USS Gerald R Ford, in the Eastern Mediterranean Sea to help Israel. No wonder the late former US Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, famously quipped: "An aircraft carrier is 100,000 tons of diplomacy."

The Indian Navy needs at least two operational carriers at any given time, while a third is docked for routine maintenance. This allows two carrier battle groups (CBGs), comprising multirole destroyers, frigates, anti-submarine vessels, and submarines, to guard India’s eastern and western seaboards while a third carrier is docked.

Although the Indian Navy’s Maritime Capabilities Perspective Plan 2022 envisions three aircraft carriers, a three-carrier force structure with a fighter aircraft strength of 150 aircraft was proposed by the MoD a quarter century ago. That it remained on paper had a lot to do with bureaucrats arguing that naval acquisitions tend to take more time than buying equipment for the Indian Army or the Indian Air Force (IAF).

The IAF too is guilty of trying to trip the three-carrier concept, as air chiefs claimed that they could provide enough air support to the CBGs from shore-based airfields. Never mind if the limited range of fighter aircraft would be of no use to a CBG operating far away from the coast.

India’s defence planners should ideally look at not three, but four CBGs so that the peninsular flanks as well as the Andaman naval base could be flagged without disrupting fleet activities. This is imperative given the expansionist plans of the People's Liberation Army Navy of China in the IOR that include the construction of some 20 bases.

So, the sooner India’s carrier fleet is bolstered, the sooner the Indian Navy will be able to sail towards its goal of having a 200-warship fleet with integrated technology, concepts, and systems in the next 10 years."