With the $3 billion Vikrant, India will join only a small number of countries with more than one aircraft carrier or helicopter carrier in service and become only the third country, after the United Kingdom and the China, to have commissioned a domestically built aircraft carrier in the past. three years.
The carrier has filled the nation with a ‘new confidence’, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said during a ceremony marked by fanfare at the Cochin shipyard in the southern Indian state of Kerala. .
“The goal can be difficult. The challenges can be great. But when India makes up its mind, no goal is impossible,” Modi said, before boarding the carrier and unfurling the new naval flag. from the country.
“Until now, this type of aircraft carrier was only manufactured by developed countries. Today, by entering this league, India has taken a step closer to the status of a developed country,” said Modi said, adding that the Indo-Pacific region remained “a major security priority”. ” for India.
John Bradford, a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, said India’s commitment to the ship reflected its “long-term vision to maintain a world-class naval force”.
“There are looming questions about the survivability of any aircraft carrier in the missile age, but major navies – including those of the United States, Japan, China and the United Kingdom – are doubling down their investments in aircraft carriers. In that sense, India remains in the running,” Bradford said.
Vikrant joins carrier INS Vikramaditya, a refurbished Soviet-era carrier purchased from Russia in 2004, in the Indian fleet.
With a displacement of around 40,000 tons, the Vikrant is slightly smaller than the Vikramaditya and the carriers of the United States, China and the United Kingdom, although it is larger than that of Japan.
But analysts have praised its potential firepower.
When its air wing becomes fully operational over the next few years, Vikrant will carry up to 30 aircraft, including MiG-29K fighter jets — which will be launched from its ski ramp-style deck — and helicopters as well as defensive systems, including surface systems – air-to-air missiles.
Powered by four gas turbine engines, its top speed is estimated at 32 mph (52 km/h) with a range of 8,600 miles (13,890 kilometres).
“India is sending the message that it has the power, it has the aircraft carriers and therefore the air power to dominate the far reaches of the Indian Ocean,” said Ajai Shukla, a former Indian military officer turned analyst of the defense.
Analysts said the new carrier, and the destroyers and frigates that will eventually make up its strike group, also provide India with more distant options.
“India can both influence and coordinate potential security solutions to regional problems. Having a Naval Deep Sea Capability Task Force to contribute adds to India’s influence and options. She doesn’t need to be part of a multilateral response, but can do that, or establish an independent independent group presence, if she wants to,” said Carl Schuster, a former US Navy captain who now teaches at the University of the Pacific in Hawaii.
The new carrier will allow India to play a bigger role in the military exercises of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, or “Quad”, an informal alliance of the United States, Japan, Australia and India.
For example, the American and Japanese carriers participated in the annual Malabar exercises in which members of the Quad participate.
Building Vikrant was not easy for India.
The government approved her design and construction in 2003 and the keel was laid in February 2009. The vessel was christened Vikrant – meaning “brave” or “victorious” in Sanskrit – and launched in August 2013.
But then delays set in: features had to be redesigned, there were problems securing Russia’s aircraft equipment, and then there was the Covid-19 pandemic.
Still, experts say India will be able to improve its domestic shipbuilding capability and learn from the experience.
“They now have the expertise to build the next carrier faster and probably with a better design,” Schuster said.
The Indian Navy plans to build a second indigenous aircraft carrier. This remains in the design phase, but there has been speculation that any new carrier could be in the region of 65,000 tons, roughly the size of Britain’s HMS Queen Elizabeth or China’s second largest carrier Shandong. .
China is considered India’s main naval competitor in the region. With two carriers in operation and a much more advanced third carrier launched last year, China is ahead of India both numerically and technologically, but analysts give India the edge when it comes to experience operational carriers.
The Indian Navy started operating aircraft carriers in 1961. Its first aircraft carrier, which it acquired from the United Kingdom, was also called Vikrant. The first Vikrant was retired in 1997. A second British-built aircraft carrier, INS Viraat, served with the Indian Navy for 30 years before being scrapped in 2017.
“On paper, China’s new carriers have more payload and technology capabilities than Vikrant. However, India has decades of experience in operating carrier air forces while China is still learning,” said Bradford, the Singapore analyst.
Even with that experience, it could take Vikrant a year or a lot longer to become fully operational as a fighting force. This is typical of aircraft carriers. The newest US carrier, the USS Gerald Ford, was commissioned in 2017 and is not expected to have its first deployment until later this year.