Why India Needs More Aircraft Carriers

New Delhi just commissioned its first indigenously built major warship. It will need more to challenge Beijing on the high seas.

By , the vice president for studies and foreign policy at the Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi, and , a research fellow at the National University of Singapore’s Institute of South Asian Studies.
Indian Navy officers and attendees gather on the deck of the INS Vikrant
Indian Navy officers and attendees gather on the deck of the INS Vikrant
Indian Navy officers and attendees gather on the deck of the INS Vikrant during its commissioning at the Cochin Shipyard in Kochi, India, on Sept. 2. ARUN SANKAR/AFP via Getty Images

In 1961, India became the first country in the so-called Third World to acquire and operate an aircraft carrier, a Majestic-class ship purchased from the British and commissioned as the INS Vikrant. The ship played a role in the 1971 Bangladesh Liberation War, used during a blockade on all shipping between the eastern and western parts of Pakistan. The Indian Navy has since striven to continuously maintain carrier-based task forces—comprising destroyers, frigates, submarines, and other supporting vessels but led by a fleet carrier. However, these task forces have always relied on foreign carriers and aircraft.

India’s first indigenously built aircraft carrier—a new INS Vikrant, which means “valiant” —therefore marks a significant break with the past. With this milestone, India joins an elite group of countries—China, France, the United States, the United Kingdom—that have constructed their own aircraft carriers. On Sept. 2, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi commissioned the warship, which was designed by the Indian Navy’s Warship Design Bureau and constructed at the Cochin Shipyard at a cost of around $2.5 billion.

When it becomes fully operational—between 12 to 18 months from now—the new ship will be able to carry a complement of 30 aircraft plus other armaments. With that, the INS Vikrant will become the costliest military hardware in the Indian Navy’s inventory. The new aircraft carrier provides a significant boost for Modi’s campaign for self-reliance in defense manufacturing, and it gives the Indian Navy extraordinary reach at significant distance from its own coastline. India has taken the mantle of a net security provider in the Indian Ocean region and for the first time in its history faces a significant hostile power at sea: the Chinese navy. Even as the new aircraft carrier will require significant protection given its prestige, its advantages outweigh the risks.

In 1961, India became the first country in the so-called Third World to acquire and operate an aircraft carrier, a Majestic-class ship purchased from the British and commissioned as the INS Vikrant. The ship played a role in the 1971 Bangladesh Liberation War, used during a blockade on all shipping between the eastern and western parts of Pakistan. The Indian Navy has since striven to continuously maintain carrier-based task forces—comprising destroyers, frigates, submarines, and other supporting vessels but led by a fleet carrier. However, these task forces have always relied on foreign carriers and aircraft.

India’s first indigenously built aircraft carrier—a new INS Vikrant, which means “valiant” —therefore marks a significant break with the past. With this milestone, India joins an elite group of countries—China, France, the United States, the United Kingdom—that have constructed their own aircraft carriers. On Sept. 2, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi commissioned the warship, which was designed by the Indian Navy’s Warship Design Bureau and constructed at the Cochin Shipyard at a cost of around $2.5 billion.

When it becomes fully operational—between 12 to 18 months from now—the new ship will be able to carry a complement of 30 aircraft plus other armaments. With that, the INS Vikrant will become the costliest military hardware in the Indian Navy’s inventory. The new aircraft carrier provides a significant boost for Modi’s campaign for self-reliance in defense manufacturing, and it gives the Indian Navy extraordinary reach at significant distance from its own coastline. India has taken the mantle of a net security provider in the Indian Ocean region and for the first time in its history faces a significant hostile power at sea: the Chinese navy. Even as the new aircraft carrier will require significant protection given its prestige, its advantages outweigh the risks.

The INS Vikrant can be a significant addition to the Indian Navy’s capabilities to safeguard India’s maritime turf in the face of China’s expanding naval power. The Indian Navy believes that it needs more aircraft carriers to dominate the Indian Ocean and deter China’s navy from challenging it in its maritime backyard. The legacy of carrier operations has biased the Indian Navy toward procuring such hardware to prove its naval power. But there are downsides: Modern surveillance and reconnaissance technology coupled with standoff weapons such as anti-ship missiles have created significant challenges for aircraft carriers.

Furthermore, one new aircraft carrier cannot reduce the capability gap between the Indian Navy and its Chinese counterpart. The People’s Liberation Army Navy is the largest fleet in the Indo-Pacific region, with a battle force of around 350 ships and submarines, which surpasses even the United States. China commissioned its first aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, in 2012 and has since significantly expanded its capability. Its third aircraft carrier, the 80,000-ton Fujian, is currently undergoing sea trials. Even more threatening is Beijing’s growing fleet of conventional and nuclear submarines. Its anti-ship missile force could destroy targets like aircraft carriers from a distance, and New Delhi’s would be the most prized target in any confrontation on the high seas.

Even so, the Indian Navy has sound rationale for deploying aircraft carriers in the Indian Ocean. First, confronting the Chinese navy on the high seas requires highly mobile power projection and firepower-intensive assets. When adequately defended with anti-missile and anti-aircraft cover, a carrier task force could pose challenges to Chinese naval operations in the Indian Ocean and help interdict Chinese trade in the region, if need be. In the last decade, India’s naval thinking has emphasized sea lines of communication interdiction—preventing movement along primary maritime routes—as leverage against China. Carrier task forces would support this punishment strategy by targeting China’s sea lines of communication in the Indian Ocean region.

Second, the Indian Navy’s carrier task forces could help reset the psychological advantage that China has gained in the last decade by projecting its presence in the Indian Ocean. The Chinese navy will still take significant time to establish a fleet in the region, far from home waters. The restrictive geography of the South China Sea renders the movement of the current Chinese fleet highly predictable. The Indian Navy has a grace period to develop capabilities to take on Chinese carrier task forces effectively, as India’s aircraft carriers could project power deep into the Indian Ocean region. By using sea denial platforms such as nuclear-propelled submarines and positioning standoff weapons such as anti-ship missiles in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, India could make the Chinese navy vulnerable. Such projection will also impress India’s ability to safeguard its interests upon island states and countries in the northern Indian Ocean.

Finally, any incremental increase in the Indian Navy’s strength against China adds significantly to its importance in the eyes of its partners in the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, or the Quad, especially the United States. U.S. grand strategy requires a formidable buildup of the Indian Navy, and if the Quad ultimately becomes a military alliance, its members will look to New Delhi to play a significant military role in the Indian Ocean. This gives India significant leverage, which it should use to bargain for more assistance to develop its third aircraft carrier. The United States and India could pursue collaboration on nuclear propulsion, catapult-assisted take-off, and joint production of fighter jets—making headway toward both of their strategic interests.

Despite its indigenous construction, the INS Vikrant’s critical subsystems will all be foreign-made, from its engines and propellers to the aircraft it carries. The Indian Navy has shown significant interest in French Rafale jets or U.S. F-18 jets to fulfill its requirement for multirole fighters operating from the carrier deck. Currently, India’s only other operational aircraft carrier deploys with aging MiG-29K jets, procured from Russia—but their performance is questionable. Until India fills these crucial gaps in supply and manufacturing, its indigenous capability for naval production will remain a pipedream.

The last time India expanded its Navy significantly was in the 1980s, when it first operated two aircraft carriers. Then, India’s relations with the Soviet Union and the lack of clear naval objectives stirred anxieties among regional players and the United States. Now is an opportune time for the Indian Navy to grow its capabilities again. It is now recognized as an important stabilizing force in the Indian Ocean region, and the rise of China’s navy—along with its aggressive behavior—has provided it with adequate rational to develop significant deterrence capabilities.  

To do so, it needs more support from the United States and its Quad partners. The development of India’s indigenous defense capabilities will significantly reduce the Indian Navy’s dependence on Russian equipment. Washington would serve its interests well by supporting India’s continued defense indigenization. It can start by cooperating on India’s third aircraft carrier.

Harsh V. Pant is the vice president for studies and foreign policy at the Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi and a professor of international relations at King’s College London’s India Institute.

Yogesh Joshi is a research fellow at the National University of Singapore’s Institute of South Asian Studies and a nonresident fellow at the Wilson Center in Washington.

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