Sea Force

India’s ambition of being a three-carrier power still remains a dream

Yunus Dar | New Delhi

As the Balakot confrontation in February 2019 and its aftermath brought India and Pakistan on the brink of war, the Indian Navy moved its Carrier Battle Group (CBGs) to operational deployment on the western front. According to the official details on naval operations, which emerged later, during the height of tensions with Pakistan over 60 warships were part of a rapid redeployment in the North Arabian sea to give a ‘clear and resolute’ message to Pakistan.

INS Vikramaditya operating with the Western Fleet

The Indian Navy at the time was engaged in a major exercise — the Theatre Level Operational Readiness Exercise (TROPEX). The exercise was put on hold as the tensions ensued between the two nuclear powers, post the Balakot strike. The Indian Navy then moved forward those warships as it paused the exercise they were involved in, including the recently-inducted Scorpene class INS Kalvari submarine towards the Pakistani coast. The Indian Navy spokesperson had this to say: “The major combat units of the Indian Navy including the Carrier Battle Group with INS Vikramaditya, nuclear submarines and scores of other ships, submarines and aircraft swiftly transited from exercise to operational deployment mode as tensions between India and Pakistan escalated.”

In a scenario where war breaks out with Pakistan, it would require the least intervention of naval power, considering the nation’s geographic location close to the sea with a limited area exposed to the waters. Nevertheless, the Indian Navy can complement the joint strike by the Indian Army and air force along Pakistan’s coastline, with its warships possessing advanced with long-range weapons. The CBGs can play a lethal role in modern warfare, giving an added advantage to the air and land forces.

On the other hand, China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy continues to rapidly expand its assets in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR). The strategic importance of maintaining a dominant presence in the IOR is well recognised by India. China’s ‘String of Pearls’ strategy in the IOR and beyond, coupled with its intention to bolster its maritime presence in countries like Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Myanmar to sort of ‘encircle’ the India’s operational outreach can have severe outcomes. The necessity for the Indian Navy to develop a formidable asset capability has only increased over the years.

The navy says it has a requirement of two operational aircraft carriers, in keeping with the country’s maritime interests. A force level of three aircraft carriers to ensure availability of at least two CBGs at any given time is envisaged under Maritime Capability Perspective Plan. The Indian Navy aims to have at least 200 ships by 2027, and with the induction of four to five warships every year it hopes to have a deeper reach into the IOR. In line with Maritime Capability Perspective Plan, INS Vikramaditya has already been inducted, while IAC-1 is under construction. According to the sources in the Indian Navy, the case for IAC-2 is being progressed to meet all future requirements without any degradation in force levels.

The need for a three carrier fleet has been there for a very long time. Each seaboard would need one CBG, while a third can be held in reserve. That way India can protect both its flanks, by rotating ships, as the carriers take a long time of maintenance at berth. The Indian Navy has long struggled to achieve that goal with little success, considering how long the procurement processes stretch, for both modernisation of the existing battle carrier group and the acquisition of the IAC. The delay in projects is costing the exchequer thousands of crores, with no change in sight.

The delay in the completion of India’s first indigenously built aircraft carrier, future INS Vikrant, designated IAC-1, is expected to stretch till 2020 when the sea trials are held. The navy is inducting INS Vikrant into service on the eastern seaboard in the same year. The aircraft carrier, according to the navy has entered its final phase of construction at Kochi shipyard. It was in 2009 that the work on the carrier had started and the induction has since been marred by repeated delay in deadline. IAC-1 will be the lead vessel of the Indian Navy’s Vikrant-class, envisaged under the IAC programme, was officially launched in August 2013 and relaunched in June 2015.

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