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‘Third aircraft carrier soon, will make more’, says Defence Minister Rajnath Singh. Read why carriers are critical for Indian Navy in current global scenario

It is pertinent to note that three years ago, a US Department of Defence report, ‘Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2021’, warned, “China continues to build a multi-carrier force. Plans are for six carriers by 2030.”

The work on India’s third aircraft carrier, one of the long-cherished dreams of the Indian Navy, will start soon, as recently revealed by Defence Minister Rajnath Singh. Speaking with The Tribune, Defence Minister Singh said that India will soon start making its third aircraft carrier and emphasised that India will not stop at three aircraft carriers. He asserted, “We will make five, six more.” 

The Defence Minister made these remarks while referring to the proposal of the Indian Navy lying before the Defence Acquisition Council (DAC) for approval. The DAC is headed by the Defence Minister and is India’s highest decision-making body on issues related to policy and capital procurement for the defence sector. The Navy’s proposal is about building another indigenous aircraft carrier. It will have the same displacement weight (45,000 tonnes) as that of INS Vikrant which was commissioned in September 2022. 

(Picture during the commissioning of INS Vikrant, it is first Made in India Aircraft carrier, Image Source – India Today)

According to the proposal, the second Made-in-India aircraft carrier will be built with an estimated cost of nearly $5 billion, and around 28 fighter jets and choppers will be deployed on it. The Cochin Shipyard Limited has the experience of building INS Vikrant in 15 years. It is now believed to be capable of building another carrier in less than a decade. 

(Specifications of the India’s Indigenous Aircraft carrier, Image Source – Indian Express)

India currently has two aircraft carriers – INS Vikrant which is slated to get combat-ready by mid-2024 and INS Vikramaditya which has been in service with the Indian Navy for ten years. It was sourced from Russia and commissioned in November 2013. 

(India currently has two aircraft carriers, one Made in India – INS Vikrant and one sourced from Russia — INS Vikramaditya, Image Source – Defence Decode YouTube Channel)

Notably, while India had previously considered the possibility of having three aircraft carriers, Defence Minister Singh’s announcement of plans to build five or six more is the first indication of the Indian Navy’s long-term strategy, emphasising aircraft carriers’ centrality in realising strategic objectives, geopolitical power projection, and extending the reach of India’s carrier battle groups (CBGs) to thwart maritime terrorism and secure strategic trade routes as well as HADR (Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief) operations. Additionally, this matches China’s expansionist plans in the maritime domain.

Indian Navy balancing the geopolitical power projection by the Chinese Navy

It is pertinent to note that three years ago, a US Department of Defence report, ‘Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2021’, warned, “China continues to build a multi-carrier force. Plans are for six carriers by 2030.”

China has been building more aircraft carriers at a breakneck speed with reported plans to deploy one aircraft carrier permanently in the Indian Ocean. 

It currently has two operational aircraft carriers — Liaoning and Shandong. Earlier this month, China’s third aircraft carrier, Fujian completed its 8-day maiden sea trials. Fujian is a next-generation aircraft carrier with a displacement weight of 80,000 tonnes and is bigger than carriers made by the UK, France, India, and Japan. 

(Video Courtesy – Military Forces)

This supercarrier is China’s first carrier to be equipped with electromagnetic catapults for launching aircraft from the deck. China has become the second country after the USA to equip a supercarrier with this technology. A catapult launch allows jets to carry heavier payloads and reduces the time between the launch of two jets. 

Apart from India and China, other Asian countries are also racing to project power at sea and build aircraft carriers. The Japanese have converted the helicopter carrier, JS Izumo, into an aircraft carrier that is capable of flying F35 fighter jets. Additionally, it is converting another helicopter carrier, JS Kaga. Similarly, South Korea has plans to launch a carrier by 2030. The United States with 11 Aircraft carriers, has been dominating the maritime landscape with a loomimg presence in all theatres including the Indian Ocean Region, the South China Sea, and the Pacific Ocean among others.

Amidst the race for more aircraft carriers, it is important that India now has an inherent advantage in that it is one of the few countries in the world that has the capability to design and build aircraft carriers indigenously. 

Strategic Imperative for India to have more Aircraft carriers

It is important to note that over 90% of India’s trade by volume depends on maritime routes. These routes are frequently threatened by piracy, attacks from hostile or rogue actors, raging global or regional conflicts, natural disasters, and challenges to the free and open access of international waters, especially for transshipments, such as fuel tankers, and for small regional or island nations. These challenges are particularly prominent near the shores of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), and due to China’s expansionist maneuvers. 

In addition to this, India has actively served as the first responder in Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief (HADR) operations, especially in the extended vicinity of the Indian Ocean Region. 

Furthermore, the Indian Navy has demonstrated its increased capacity for maritime power projection by effectively combating piracy and hijacking incidents in international waters. It has also safeguarded crucial maritime routes near the Gulf of Aden and the Strait of Hormuz, preventing them from becoming battlegrounds for warring factions. This role has become particularly crucial amidst ongoing conflicts such as the Israel-Hamas war, where attacks on fuel tankers and private vessels have occurred. Unfortunately, Indian crewmembers have sometimes found themselves unwittingly caught in hostage-like situations, prompting India to take action to rescue them. 

With the Indian Navy bolstering its power projection, it becomes strategically imperative for India to increase its number of aircraft carriers. The late former US Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, had once famously said, “An aircraft carrier is 100,000 tons of diplomacy.”

The doctrinal and strategic significance of aircraft carriers is paramount for every major naval power as they serve as the primary means for power projection. Pertinent to note that nuclear-powered submarines that have long-range ballistic nuclear missiles are restricted only for retaliatory deterrence. The deployment of the supercarrier, USS Gerald R. Ford to the Eastern Mediterranean Sea in support of Israel is one of the recent examples of material power projection through aircraft carriers. 

At a time when the Indian Ocean is getting heavily militarized and China has a plan to permanently station an aircraft in the Indian Ocean region, the third carrier will bolster the capability of the Indian Navy to protect the country’s 7,500-kilometre-long coastline and operate hundreds of kilometres away from its shores on the high seas, extending its maritime reach and operationality.  

So far, it was argued that the Indian Navy requires a minimum of two operational carriers at all times, with a third undergoing regular maintenance. This arrangement enables two carrier battle groups (CBGs), consisting of multirole destroyers, frigates, anti-submarine vessels, and submarines, to protect India’s eastern and western coastlines, while the third carrier undergoes maintenance.

(Strike Carrier battle groups (CBGs), lead by Aircraft carrier also include frigates, destroyers and submarines etc, Image Source – Defence Study YouTube Channel)

Despite the argument that aircraft carriers are cost-intensive and their expense, which amounts to nearly a year’s entire defense budget over a decade, could be allocated to other state-of-the-art defense hardware, defense analysts emphasise the importance of having aircraft carriers. With India’s ambitions to enhance its role in global politics, movable battle carrier groups, facilitated by aircraft carriers, serve the following major strategic purposes

Extended Maritime Reach: Aircraft carriers would enhance India’s ability to project power across the Indian Ocean Region (IOR), crucial for safeguarding sea lines of communication, securing trade routes, and responding to emerging threats.

Deterrence Capability: The presence of an aircraft carrier in active theater would reinforce India’s deterrence posture, signaling readiness to respond decisively to threats and contributing to regional stability.

Power Projection: It would provide enhanced capabilities for sustained operations in various strategic theaters, enabling a comprehensive approach to safeguard national interests.

Operational Advantages: More than two aircraft carriers would help bridge operational gaps during maintenance cycles, sustain a formidable force structure, and facilitate effective responses to evolving threats.

Amphibious and Humanitarian Operations: It would support combat capabilities and provide critical assistance for amphibious and humanitarian operations, serving as a mobile airbase for rapid response.

Geopolitical Considerations: It would symbolise India’s commitment to regional naval dominance and enhance strategic partnerships through joint exercises.

With Defence Minister Rajnath Singh’s announcement that the Indian Navy will build five or six more aircraft carriers in the coming decades, India has demonstrated its commitment to actively safeguard the free access of international waters from all hostilities, threats, and dangers, while also showcasing its burgeoning power projection capabilities.

Ayodhra Ram Mandir special coverage by OpIndia

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Paurush Gupta
Paurush Gupta
Proud Bhartiya, Hindu, Karma believer. Accidental Journalist who loves to read and write. Keen observer of National Politics and Geopolitics. Cinephile.

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