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Will India Become a Naval Superpower Thanks to Aircraft Carriers?

With one large carrier in service and another on the way, India has become one of the world’s pre-eminent naval aviation powers. How did the program come about? Where is it going? And what is the strategic rationale for India’s massive investment in aircraft carriers?

The Origins of India’s Carriers

Despite considerable economic challenges, India took carrier aviation very seriously in the years after independence. Unlike China (or even the Soviet Union), India focused on carriers instead of submarines. INS Vikrant, a Majestic-class light carrier, served from 1961 until 1997, fighting effectively in the 1971 war. INS Viraat, formerly the Centaur-class carrier HMS Hermes, joined the Indian Navy in 1987 and served until 2016. These carriers gave the Indian Navy long-term experience in carrier ops, as well as a compelling organizational logic for maintaining a carrier capability.

The Current Situation

By the early 2000s, Viraat was showing her age. The supply of second-hand carriers, long dominated by the Royal Navy’s World War II relics, had narrowed considerably. Instead of building a new ship itself, India determined to acquire an older Soviet carrier, the former Kiev-class warship Admiral Gorshkov, which had been out of service since the 1990s. India paid in excess of $2 billion for a massive reconstruction that left the ship nearly unrecognizable, with a ski-jump deck and transformed weapon systems. When accepted into service in 2014, the new 45,000-ton INS Vikramaditya could operate around twenty MiG-29K fighters, along with utility helicopters. Despite cost-overruns and serviceability problems, the ship offered the Indian Navy the chance to redevelop its aviation muscles after years of operating only VSTOL (vertical and/or short take-off and landing) aircraft from Viraat.

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Vikramaditya was only the first step towards recapitalizing the aviation wing of the Indian Navy. The second step was the new INS Vikrant, a 40,000-ton ski-jump carrier built in India’s Cochin Shipyard. Laid down in 2009, Vikrant is expected to finally enter service around 2020, with an air wing similar to that of Vikramaditya. The construction process has witnessed a number of setbacks, many of which are to be expected from a first effort at carrier construction.

For the time being, India has decided to stick with the MiG-29K as its primary naval combat aircraft, rather than the Su-33, the F/A-18 or the Dassault Rafale. Both Boeing and Dassault remain at least somewhat hopeful of exporting carrier-borne fighters to India. Even Saab expressed an interest in converting the Gripen for naval service. The Indian Navy also contemplated developing a navalized version of the HAL Tejas, but (for now) has wisely rejected the complicated effort to convert the troubled fighter.

Strategic Rationale

India’s carrier force has developed a three-pronged rationale for its purpose. The first prong is support of a conventional war against Pakistan, which would involve strikes against Pakistani naval assets and land bases. Unfortunately, Vikrant and Vikramaditya would struggle in strike operations because of limitations on aircraft weight, although they certainly would attract Pakistani attention. Second, the carriers make the Indian Navy the preeminent force in the Indian Ocean, better able to command the area than any foreign competitor. Indian carriers will always have better access to bases and support facilities in the Indian Ocean than China, the United Kingdom, or even the United States, and the presence of the carriers facilitates the projection of Indian power and the management of trade protection.

The third prong involves geopolitical competition with China. With the anticipated commissioning of its second large carrier, China has managed to leapfrog Indian naval aviation development in a relatively short period of time. Although China lacks India’s experience with carriers, it boasts a remarkably efficient shipbuilding industry and an increasingly sophisticated aviation sector, making it less dependent on foreign technology. Although India may struggle to keep up with Chinese construction, it can leverage geography (proximity to bases) to its advantage in the most likely areas of any conflict.

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