Be on Guard

The Indian Navy must constantly upgrade to beat competition from China’s PLAN

Rohan Ramesh

For the first four decades of independent India, the smallest wing of its armed forces, the Navy, did not receive as much attention as the army and the air force. This was because all the wars fought by India against Pakistan and China were land wars, although the navy played an important part in the 1971 war.

IAC-1 Vikrant
India’s indigenous carrier, IAC-1 Vikrant

The comparative neglect of Indian Navy by the defence planners was for two reasons. India shares land borders with its two acknowledged foes, Pakistan and China. In a conflict with either, the navy had a limited role to play. And in keeping with its importance, the navy received the smallest share of the defence budget.

But despite its comparatively smaller size, the Indian navy has punched above its weight. For decades, it enjoyed a reasonable level of superiority in the Indian Ocean. Thanks to its biggest and most prized assets – aircraft carriers.

In 1961, when the Majestic class carrier INS Vikrant was acquired from the British Navy, the Indian Navy became the sole operator of an aircraft carrier in the India Ocean. According to an anecdote, this was partly due to Lord Louis Mountbatten convincing erstwhile Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru to buy an aircraft carrier.

Although Lord Mountbatten’s concern was not so much about strengthening the defence of a newly-independent country as the desperate need of a broke empire to sell war surplus accumulated during World War II, the good turn he did to the Indian Navy contributed to Indian superiority in the Indian Ocean in the following decades. INS Vikrant displaced 19,500 tonnes and came with British-made Sea Hawks and French manufactured Sea Alize aircraft.

Although acquired from Britain in 1961, INS Vikrant did not see action until the 1971 war in which the ship, despite all its structural problems – ruled the seas, denying space to the incipient Pakistan Navy. Despite its operational deficiencies and the fact that the Pakistan Navy had acquired Daphne class submarines, it did not deter the Indian Navy. The carrier’s success in the war to liberate Bangladesh left an indelible mark on Indian maritime war history.

India added another aircraft carrier to its fleet in 1987 when it acquired INS Viraat – a Centaur class carrier that had served in the Royal Navy as HMS Hermes and was decommissioned in 1984. She served for over 30 years in the Indian Navy until being decommissioned in 2017. INS Viraat operated Sea Harriers as the primary aircraft of its air component and displaced 28,700 tonnes fully loaded.

In 2013, India commissioned a modified Kiev class aircraft carrier (Project 1143 or as the Krechyet (Gyrfalcon) class) renamed INS Vikramaditya bought for final price of USD2.35 billion. Originally known as Baku, the ship was commissioned in the Soviet Navy and went on to serve later in the Russian Navy as Admiral Gorshkov. The ship was sold to India in 2004. The carrier displaces 45,400 tonnes and carries a complement of 26 Mikoyan MiG-29K multi-role fighters besides 10 Kamov Ka-31 AEW&C and Kamov Ka-28 ASW helicopters.

Despite being much talked about, INS Vikramaditya has its fair share of problems. The carrier configuration is Short Take-Off but Arrested Recovery (STOBAR) which means the MiG-29K operating off the carrier are only able to take off with a restricted amount of weaponry and fuel. The STOBAR configuration prevents the operation of fixed-wing A&EW aircraft. Also, issues with the MiG-29Ks have forced the Indian Navy to look at western suppliers for suitable aircraft.

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