[Editorial] INS Vikrant- Role in India’s Maritime Strategy

About INS Vikrant:

  • INS Vikrant or IAC-I is an indigenously designed and built aircraft carrier.
  • The name Vikrant is from Sanskrit for courage. The aircraft carrier holds the pennant number R11 and motto, ‘Jayema Sam Yudhi Sprudhah’- meaning ‘I conquer those who fight against me’- a line from Rigveda.
  • The previous INS Vikrant was originally built as HMS Hercules, for the Royal Navy, in 1943.
    • It was purchased from the UK by India in 1957.
    • It was commissioned into the Indian Navy in 1961.
    • It was notably deployed during the 1971 war against Pakistan.
    • After 36 years of service, it was decommissioned in 1997.
  • The planning for the new aircraft carrier started in the 1990s– before the older Vikrant was decommissioned. For a while after its retirement, India deployed INS Viraat– an aircraft carrier that previously served the Royal Navy as HMS Hermes.
  • The design and construction for the IAC-I was sanctioned in 2003. The task of building it was given to a public sector shipbuilder, Cochin Shipyard Ltd.

Features:                                     

  • It has a displacement of 43,000 tonnes.
  • It has an endurance of 7,500 nautical miles.
  • It is capable of reaching a cruising speed of 18 knots- despite its size and tonnage. It is capable of reaching 28 knots.
  • Its fleet consists of:
    • MiG 29K aircrafts
    • Kamov 31 early warning helicopters
    • MH-60R multi-role helicopters
    • Advanced Light Helicopters
    • Light Combat Aircrafts
  • It uses STOBAR/ Short Take Off but Arrested Recovery model with a ski-jump for launching its aircrafts. For their recovery, the vessel has 3 arrester wires.
  • It also has state-of-the-art offence and defence systems, surveillance radars, fire-control radars, etc.
  • It is an 18-floor vessel with nearly 2,400 compartments. It is able to accommodate some 1,600 personnel.
  • It has specialized cabins for women officers and sailors too.
  • It has a medical complex with a 16-bed hospital, a modular emergency operation theatre, ICU, physiotherapy clinic, pathology unit, radiology wing, dental complex, isolation ward and even telemedicine facilities.

What is its significance?

  • INS Vikrant is the first aircraft carrier to be indigenously designed and built. It is also the country’s largest and most complex domestically built warship.
  • This mighty vessel will not only function as a powerful deterrent but also as a floating airbase in the high seas. It will be India’s sovereign territory in the middle of the ocean.
  • It is important in strengthening the Indian Navy’s standing as a true Blue Water Navy– i.e. a naval force with global reach and capability to operate even in the high seas.
  • With its commissioning, India joins an elite group of nations with the capacity to design and build aircraft carriers- the USA, Russia, France and the UK.
  • It is the 7th largest carrier in the world.

What are the criticisms?

  • Strategic experts and observers are questioning the relevance of aircraft carriers in the contemporary times. Even as top naval officers reiterated the need for a 3rd carrier, there have been calls for a change in mindset among the naval top brass.
  • Critics say that spending large sums for an aircraft carrier to protect the Bay of Bengal or the Arabian Sea is wasteful, when near-sea defence could be easily ensured from airbases on island territories.
  • Critics say that aircraft carriers are not only logistically unviable, but also highly vulnerable to hypersonic weapons and other new disruptive technologies. Flattops are defenceless against underwater attacks and long-range strategic and ballistic missiles.
  • It is a fact that flattops, virtually sitting ducks in maritime conflicts, are priced targets. This is not only because of their significant cost and susceptibility, but also because of their symbolic value.
  • Given this value as a target, aircraft carriers are likely to be placed at the receiving end of the opponent’s heavy ordnance.

What is its role in India’s maritime strategy?

  • For navies to function in the oceans, they need 3 types of conventional assets:
    • ‘Hard power’ assets– which are fighting platforms like the frigates, destroyers, missile boats and attack submarines. These are used in combat operations- both offensive and defensive. They are intended to influence a maritime conflict’s tempo and outcome.
    • ‘Soft power’ assets– such as HADR platforms, hospital ships, survey vessels, etc. these have a vital role in the navy’s peacetime diplomatic undertakings and soft power outreaches.
    • ‘Power projection’ assets– which are an important part of the navy’s peacetime maritime strategy. These assets embody the country’s strategic capability and political intent.
  • The INS Vikrant is an example of power projection asset. However, this doesn’t mean it doesn’t have any wartime role. It just means that it needn’t necessarily be used in high intensity combats.
  • It is to be seen as a fungible asset when it comes to advancing national objectives. While the aircraft carrier could be replaced by a smaller platform that could also do the job, none could match it when it comes to demonstrative impact.
  • Till now, the navy hasn’t had much opportunity for operating the 2 carriers. With IAC-1 joining the fleet and with the possibility of a third carrier being added over the next decade, the navy could play a crucial role in shaping the Indian Ocean’s power balance for the 1st time.
  • However, there is a dilemma: this strategic objective of increasing influence in the larger Indian Ocean region competes with the objective of improving fighting efficiency and interdiction potential in the near seas.
  • The consensus among the experts is that if the aircraft carrier were to be replaced with a shore-based air power, India’s strategic capacity in the IOR would lose its vitality. Though shore-based air power has tactical advantages, it hasn’t been very effective at sea.
  • The Indian Navy also has China’s ambitions in the Pacific Ocean and the Indian Ocean regions to deal with. China already has several operational aircraft carriers- the Liaoning, the Shandong and the Fujian– which are expected to play key roles in the Chinese Navy’s ‘far seas’ strategy. In addition to this, China is planning to build 6 flattops by 2049.
  • Hence, the Indian naval commanders consider the aircraft carrier as more than a utilitarian asset. They perceive it as the beating heart that gives the essential vigour to all naval efforts.

What is the way ahead?

  • Despite the many criticisms, there is a compelling rationale for inducting an aircraft carrier into the Indian Navy. No other platform can provide as thorough an access to the littoral spaces. It ensures effective sea command, continuous and visible presence in the seas.
  • Despite its disadvantages, the aircraft carrier’s ability to influence the psychological balance in littoral space makes it an indispensable asset for modern-day navies.
  • IAC-1 was built at a cost of 20,000 crore INR. According to the navy, some 80-85% of this has been put back into the Indian economy through the use of completely indigenous construction, 76% indigenous components and through the employment provided to the 2,000 personnel at the shipbuilders’. Another 13,000 personnel were indirectly employed.
  • Now that the IAC-1 is commissioned, it is to undergo deck integration trials of fixed wing aircraft, flight trials, etc. After this, the carrier is expected to be fully operational in mid-2023.
  • The naval top command has been insisting on a 3rd aircraft carrier- IAC-II, to be named INS Vishal, with a displacement of 65,000 tonnes. The idea is to have 2 carriers at any given time, even if the 3rd carrier is in refitting.

Conclusion:

The commissioning of IAC-I is a landmark achievement for India on several fronts- indigenous defence manufacturing, strategic advantage in maritime space and global standing as a maritime power. Despite its costs and other disadvantages of an aircraft carrier, the geostrategic situation of India in the Indian Ocean and the rapidly advancing Chinese ambitions in the high seas are making the IACs imperative.

Practice Question for Mains:

Discuss the significance of INS Vikrant. Critically evaluate India’s need for aircraft carriers in the contemporary world. (250 words)

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