x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

India is just starting the long voyage to naval-power status

Progress on an Indian-built aircraft carrier and nuclear submarine shows the promise of India's navy. But there are still many problems to overcome.

This month India joined the elite club of nations that have demonstrated the capability to design and build their own aircraft carriers.

INS Vikrant, as the ship is called, was launched with great fanfare on August 12 by the nation's defence minister, as a sign of India's coming of age as a naval power.

Three days earlier the government had announced that the reactor in INS Arihant, the first Indian-built nuclear-powered submarine, had gone critical.

But the nautical celebrations came to an abrupt end on August 14, when INS Sindhurakshak, one of the 10 Kilo-class boats that form the backbone of India's ageing conventional submarine force, sank, after explosions at the naval dockyard in Mumbai, killing 18 crewmen.

Together these developments underscored the giant strides that India has made, but also the challenges that remain, as the country strives to emerge as a naval power.

Under development for the past eight years, Vikrant is expected to begin sea trials next year. The carrier will not only help India defend its coasts but will also allow the projection of power much further off its shores, something naval planners have long desired.

Meanwhile Prime Minister Manmohan Singh called the activation of the reactor aboard Arihant a "giant stride in ... our indigenous technological capabilities".

This project, conducted over more than a decade of highly secret work, will complete India's nuclear "triad" along with existing delivery systems using missiles and aircraft. And the submarine's ballistic missiles will give India a second-strike capability.

India is pursuing naval expansion with an eye on China, and Arihant and Vikrant notwithstanding, the country has nautical miles to go before it can catch up with its powerful neighbour, which has made significant advances in the waters surrounding India.

The aircraft carrier launch is critical for the Indian Navy, which is anxious to maintain its presence in the shipping lanes of the Indian Ocean and Arabian Sea, especially in light of China's big naval build-up. Last year China commissioned its first aircraft carrier, Liaoning, a refurbished vessel purchased from Ukraine in 1998. China is also working on is own indigenous carrier.

India remains heavily dependent on imports to meet its defence requirements, so its recent successes are particularly important. But for all the euphoria, it will be five years until the Vikrant is finally commissioned. And Arihant has yet to have its sea trials.

The two announcements do show that the Indian Navy wants to be a serious blue-water force and is working hard to achieve that goal. Indian naval planners have long argued that if it is to maintain continuous operational readiness in the Indian Ocean, protect sea lanes in the Gulf and monitor Chinese activities in the Bay of Bengal, it needs at least three carriers and five nuclear subs. With the carrier Admiral Gorshkov on track to be delivered by Russia this year, and a second Indian-built carrier, INS Vishal, in the wings, India could have three operating carriers by 2019.

On the other hand, the Sindhurakshak disaster is a reminder of enduring safety and reliability problems. The Indian Navy has a poor accident record, with several mishaps in recent years.

Sindhurakshak had been reintroduced to service only this April, after a refit in Russia. The Navy has ordered a review after initial investigations suggested that arms on board the sub may have played a role in its sinking. The accident was a reminder that while India's surface-fleet expansion has been progressing well, the submarine fleet is ageing, and replacement boats are not on track.

Despite the success of Vikrant and Arihant, defence production has been marred by serious technical and organisational problems, leading to significant delays. Much like India's other two services, the navy has found it difficult to translate its conceptual commitment to self-reliance and domestic production into actionable policy. The result has been continued reliance on external sources for much of the needed modernisation. Yet India's reliance on its navy to project power will increase as naval build-ups continue in the Indo-Pacific.

Apart from China, other powers are also developing their naval might. Japan's commissioning of a third helicopter carrier, the Izumo, has raised hackles in Beijing, which has referred to it as an "aircraft carrier in disguise".

Also, India's naval engagement with east- and south-east-Asian states is integral to its two-decades-old "Look East" policy. Countries ranging from the Philippines, Thailand and Indonesia to Vietnam and Myanmar have been pushing India to assume a higher profile. India is training sailors from Myanmar and at least four "offshore patrol vehicles" for that country are under construction in Indian shipyards.

The navy has also been supplying spares to Hanoi for its Russian-origin ships and missile boats, and has extended a $100- million (Dh367mn) credit line to Vietnam for the purchase of patrol boats. The Indian defence minister, AK Antony, was in Australia, Thailand and Singapore recently forging closer naval ties, even as New Delhi's naval relationships with major western powers and the Gulf states are blossoming.

The Indian Navy will remain an indispensable tool for furthering national foreign policy. But as resources dry up with the decline in economic growth, naval planners will have to think more carefully about what comes next if India wants to emerge as a serious naval power.


Harsh V Pant is a reader in international studies at King's College London