Updated: August 6, 2021 10:20:01 am
With INS Vikrant embarking on its first sea trials, India can rightfully take its place in an elite club of six countries — US, UK, Spain, Russia, France, China — that have the capability and capacity to design and build an indigenous aircraft carrier. This is a historic moment for the Indian Navy, which has long had aircraft carriers but until now, none built at home. The first INS Vikrant, inducted in 1961, and INS Viraat which joined the Indian Navy in 1982, were British naval ships, and the INS Vikramaditya is a Russian aircraft carrier. The brand new INS Vikrant is said to be “75 per cent” indigenous, and as such, it is the first big ticket example of atmanirbhar India.
Begun in 2009, Vikrant was to be commissioned by 2014, and has rolled out of the shipyard at a time of concurrence among strategic experts that in order to tackle China’s expansionist tendencies on land at the Line of Actual Control, India needs to shed its sea blindness, and convey to its superpower neighbour that it not only means business on protecting its interests in the Indian Ocean, but is also willing to play further afield to recalibrate maritime equations. According to the Navy, the newly built warship will offer an “incomparable military instrument” for power projection over long distances. It will operate the Russian MiG-29K fighters and the Kamov 31 helicopters, as well as the soon to be acquired American MH-60R Seahawk helicopters.
Now that India has built an aircraft carrier, should the Navy make a second one, the planned Indigenous Aircraft Carrier 2, for which it has been seeking a go-ahead since 2015? In signing up to the Quad security grouping of four countries, each with its own China problem, India has in a sense already signalled a shifting of focus from land to sea. Strengthening the Navy should be the logical next step. The budget allocated to the Navy does not seem to suggest that this is the thinking in the top echelons of the military. Amidst all the talk of assertion at sea where Beijing might feel more threatened, another sobering reality check is that the People’s Liberation Army Navy, which did not have an aircraft carrier until 2012, is rumoured to have almost finished building a second indigenous carrier. By comparison, India, which deployed the old INS Vikrant to good effect in the 1971 war against Pakistan, is an old hand at aircraft carriers. But going by how many years it took for the Vikrant to be completed, atmanirbharta takes long. A shorter delivery time may serve the purpose better.
This editorial first appeared in the print edition on August 6, 2021 under the title ‘In a select club’.