India became the fifth nation in the world with the capability to indigenously design and build its own aircraft carrier recently. INS Vikrant, the new aircraft carrier, was launched by the defence minister amidst great fanfare. The launch came in the wake of the announcement that the reactor in India’s first indigenously built nuclear-powered submarine, INS Arihant, has gone critical, marking a turning point in New Delhi’s attempt to establish a nuclear triad. But the celebrations came to an abrupt end when INS Sindhurakshak, one of the 10 kilo-class submarines that form the backbone of India’s ageing conventional submarine force, sank with its crew after explosions at the naval dockyard in Mumbai. Together these developments underscored the giant strides that India has taken as well as the challenges that confront its attempts to emerge as a global naval power.
INS Vikrant is likely to begin sea trials next year. With INS Vikrant, India will not only be able to protect its eastern and western flanks confidently but also be able to project its naval power further off its shores. INS Arihant is the first ballistic missile submarine built by a nation other than the recognized nuclear powers. This highly secretive project will complete India’s nuclear triad, with the submarine’s ballistic missiles giving India second strike capability.
India’s naval expansion is being undertaken with an eye on China. But India has nautical miles to go before it can catch up with its powerful neighbour. The launch of the aircraft carrier is seen as critical for the navy, which is anxious to maintain its presence in the shipping lanes on the Indian Ocean and the Arabian Sea, in the light of China’s massive naval build-up. China has commissioned its aircraft carrier, Liaoning. It is also working on an indigenous carrier while keeping an eye out for a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier.
India remains heavily dependent on imports to meet its defence requirements. Hence, its recent successes are important. But it will be five years before INS Vikrant can be commissioned and INS Arihant is yet to pass a series of sea trials. Indian naval planners have argued that to maintain operational readiness in the Indian Ocean, protect sea lanes of communication in the Persian Gulf, and monitor Chinese activities in the Bay of Bengal, it needs a minimum of three aircraft carriers and a fleet of five nuclear submarines. With Admiral Gorshkov on track to be delivered by Russia by the end of this year and a second indigenously built aircraft carrier in the wings, the navy is close to realizing its dream of operating three carriers.
But serious challenges remain. The disaster aboard INS Sindhurakshak has brought the focus back on issues of safety and reliability. The navy has had a poor accident record. Initial investigations have shown that the arms on board INS Sindhurakshak may have had a role in its sinking. India’s indigenous defence production has been marred by serious technical and organizational problems, leading to significant delays in the development of key defence technologies and platforms. The navy, like the other two services, has found it difficult to translate its conceptual commitment to self-reliance and indigenization into actionable policy, resulting in a dependence on external sources for modernization.
Yet India’s reliance on its navy to project power is likely to increase. Apart from China, other nations such as Japan are developing their naval might. Moreover, India’s naval engagement with east and southeast Asian nations is integral to its ‘Look East’ policy. The navy will remain indispensable for furthering national foreign policy goals. But the decline in growth rate means that naval planners will have to think carefully about balancing ends and means if India is to emerge as a serious naval power in the coming years.