DefenceIndian Navy

India’s Aircraft Carriers Are Key To Its Indo-pacific Strategy

Story Highlights
  • India has been trying to get less of its equipment from Russia, which currently makes up about 60% of its stock.
  • India was stepping up its diplomatic work with the U.S., Japan, Australia, and India as a group, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, and other countries on their own.

India is getting ready to send its aircraft carrier INS Vikramaditya back into service after a major repair. This is a key step toward India’s plan to send out two carrier battle groups, which is part of its plan to strengthen its maritime power in the region to counter China’s growing assertiveness.

The Vikramaditya, a former Soviet carrier that India bought from Russia, is about to be launched. It will join the INS Vikrant, India’s first carrier built in India and launched in September, in going through outfitting and sea trials. Both are expected to be fully operational by the end of the year.

“This is important for India’s ability to project power, especially in the Indian Ocean,” said Viraj Solanki, an expert on defence in the Indo-Pacific at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London.

“This really gives India a chance to show it can compete with China in the Indian Ocean, which is the top priority for the Indian navy.”

The People’s Liberation Army Navy of China has been growing and getting more modern for more than a decade. It is now the largest navy in the world. It launched its first aircraft carrier that was designed and built in the country in June. This was the country’s third aircraft carrier overall, and it was part of a plan to increase its range and power and make it more of a “blue water” force that can operate all over the world.

At the same time, China’s People’s Liberation Army has spent a lot of money on ballistic and cruise missile technology, and the U.S. Defense Department says that in the “near term” it will be able to do “long-range precision strikes against land targets from its submarines and surface combatants.”

As Beijing increases its naval presence around Taiwan and pushes its claims in the South China Sea, the U.S., Britain, and other allies have responded with regular naval exercises in the area and passages through the Taiwan Strait as part of their policy of a “free and open Indo-Pacific.”

China hasn’t sent an aircraft carrier into the Indian Ocean yet, but this is likely to happen in the next few years. It already has other ships that work regularly in the area, and it has set up its first overseas base in Djibouti, which is in the Horn of Africa and gives it easy access to the Indian Ocean.

In August, China docked what India called a “spy ship” in Sri Lanka’s Hambantota port, which is near India’s southern coast and was leased to China for 99 years in 2017. This caused alarm in New Delhi.

Ridzwan Rahmat, an analyst for the defence intelligence company Janes based in Singapore, said, “New Delhi sees Beijing as encroaching on its traditional sphere of influence, especially in the Indian Ocean region.”

“Even though a war with China is likely to be fought on land, China’s presence in the Indian Ocean can severely disrupt India’s sea lines of communication, which will be needed to keep the war going. The Indian navy has been working on modernization to make sure that things like this don’t happen “Rahmat said.

India, like China, has nuclear weapons and is building nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines as part of its “nuclear triad” of platforms in the air, on the sea, and on land. It has two of these submarines and plans for two more. It also has attack submarines that use nuclear power.

It also has 10 destroyers, 12 frigates, and 20 corvettes in its fleet.

In 2020, India and China fought on their land border, killing 20 Indian soldiers and 4 Chinese soldiers. The fight turned into a long standoff in the rough, mountainous terrain, where each side has tens of thousands of military personnel.

Arun Prakash, who was the head of the Indian navy before he retired, said that experience could make the seas more important in a future war.

“The 30-month military standoff between China and India in the Himalayas and China’s strategic posturing in the South China Sea should be clear signs to India’s decision-makers that maritime power will be a key tool of state policy in the future,” Prakash wrote in The Indian Express in December.

Capt. D.K. Sharma, a retired Indian navy spokesman who now works as a defence consultant, said that India’s plan for its two carriers is to put one on each coast.

India has mostly been focused on Pakistan in the west, but Rahmat said that with Chinese ships in important shipping lanes east of India, it would be smart for the Indian navy to show up there as well.

He did warn, though, that India still lacks, among other things, many of the support systems it needs to make its carriers work.

“The ships may be working, but it will be a few years before the Indian navy can send its forces into the Indian Ocean region with credibility,” he said.

The launch of the Vikrant was praised by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi as a success for his “Make in India” campaign to make India more self-reliant in defence.

The navy wants to build another carrier in India, but political worries and the long delays and huge cost increases in building the Vikrant have made many people doubtful that this will ever happen, said Indian defence analyst Rahul Bedi.

He said, “The government really doesn’t have the money or the vision to go for another aircraft carrier.”

In its proposed budget for 2023–2024, which was released on Wednesday, the government increased spending on defence by less than 2%. This makes it even less likely that big new investments will be made in carriers. Even if it does happen, it would take years to build a third carrier.

As it equips the Vikrant, India is likely to decide soon whether to buy 26 French Rafale-M or American F/A-18 maritime strike fighters. The Indian air force already uses a version of the Rafale from Dassault Aviation, which would make maintenance easier. The F/A-18 from Boeing, on the other hand, can carry more missiles.

India will keep using the MiG-29K fighters made in Russia that are already on the Vikramaditya.

India has been trying to get less of its equipment from Russia, which currently makes up about 60% of its stock. This is because the war in Ukraine has raised questions about how well they work and whether or not spare parts are available. The United States and its allies have been trying to convince New Delhi that they are good alternatives. They are also working more closely with the key player in the region and putting more attention on the Indo-Pacific.

Experts say, though, that it could take India 20 years to stop needing supplies and parts from Russia, even if they make their own and buy from different places.

Solanki said that even before the Russia-Ukraine war, India was stepping up its diplomatic work with the U.S., Japan, Australia, and India as a group, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, and other countries on their own.

“This really picked up speed after the border fights between India and China in June 2020,” he said. “That’s when we saw a real shift and a new focus on working with the Quad, with France, with the UK more actively, with Europe more, and also with the ASEAN countries.”

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