With China setting a furious pace in construction of new aircraft carriers, and India in the danger of losing this combat and power projection edge in the Indian Ocean Region, the Navy now plans to take up afresh its long-pending case for a third aircraft carrier with the government.
The move comes after the Navy hosted defence minister Rajnath Singh onboard its solitary aircraft carrier, the 44,400-tonne INS Vikramaditya, which operates the supersonic MiG-29K fighters from its deck, in the Arabian Sea during the weekend.
Sources say the aim was to showcase how a multi-dimensional carrier battle group (CBG), which can move around 500 nautical miles (900 km) in a single day, is “formidably powerful and extremely flexible” in providing a wide range of tailored responses across the entire spectrum of warfare, be it presence, surveillance, deterrence, coercion, intervention or war-fighting.
The 40,000-tonne indigenous aircraft carrier (IAC-I), or INS Vikrant, being built at Cochin Shipyard for Rs 19,590 crore, is slated to become fully operational by 2022-2023 after several delays. But the defence ministry is yet to give even the initial approval for construction of the 65,000-tonne IAC-II, which was first sought in May 2015.
The Navy has even junked its plan for IAC-II to have nuclear-propulsion to bring down the overall cost to about Rs 45,000 crore but to no avail. “It’s time IAC-II, with full-electric propulsion, was approved since it will take over a decade to build it. The projected Rs 45,000 crore expenditure will be spread over 10-14 years, with the bulk of it being plowed back into the country’s economy,” said a source.
The Navy has for long said it requires three carriers to ensure at least two are operationally available at any given time, one each for the eastern and western seaboards, while the third is undergoing its maintenance-and-refit cycle.
From here, the earliest IAC-II can enter service is 2031. By then, China will have four CBGs. After inducting its first 65,000-tonne carrier Liaoning in 2012, China is now operationalizing its domestically-built Type-001A carrier, even as it constructs two more.
“China already has six to seven warships deployed in the IOR at any given time. The permanent presence of a Chinese CBG in the IOR within the next few years, and possibly two by 2028, will create a power imbalance in the region,” said a source.
China wants to have a 10-carrier Navy by 2050. The US, of course, has 10 Nimitz-class nuclear-powered “super-carriers”, each of which is around 100,000-tonne and capable of carrying 80-90 fighters, deployed around the globe.
“We have to plan for the future. The IOR’s fragile maritime domain, with the collusive threat from China-Pakistan, necessitates a strong Indian Navy to meet future challenges. CBGs provide much more operational flexibility and lethality than shore-based airfields,” said the source.