x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Indian 'milestone' as it launches own aircraft carrier

India unveiled its first indigenously-built aircraft carrier yesterday, a landmark moment in the 300-billion-rupee project that seeks to project the country's power and check the rising influence of China.

Employees of Cochin Shipyard stand beside India's Aircraft Carrier P-71
Employees of Cochin Shipyard stand beside India's Aircraft Carrier P-71 "Vikrant" built for the Indian Navy at its launch in the southern Indian city of Kochi.

KOCHI, INDIA // India unveiled its first indigenously-built aircraft carrier yesterday, a landmark moment in the 300-billion-rupee project that seeks to project the country's power and check the rising influence of China.

When the INS Vikrant comes into full service in 2018, India will join a club of nations that have designed and built their own aircraft carriers including Britain, France, Russia and the United States but not China.

"It's a remarkable milestone," the defence minister AK Antony said as he stood on a red carpet in the shadow of the giant ship which was launched from a dry-dock in the city of Kochi and later pulled out into the harbour by tug boats.

"It marks just a first step in a long journey but at the same time an important one," he said before his wife, Elizabeth, officially launched the 40,000-tonne vessel by placing a garland on its hull.

INS Vikrant, which will be fitted with weaponry and machinery and then tested over the next four years, is a major technological and military advance for a country competing for influence in Asia, analysts say.

"It is going to be deployed in the Indian Ocean region where the world's commercial and economic interests coalesce. India's capability is very much with China in mind," Rahul Bedi, a defence expert with IHS Jane's Defence Weekly, said.

On Saturday, India announced its first indigenously-built nuclear submarine was ready for sea trials, which Manmohan Singh, the prime minister, called a "giant stride" for the nation.

"All these are power projection platforms, to project India's power as an extension of its diplomacy," Mr Bedi said.

The world's biggest democracy is spending hundreds of billions of rupees upgrading its mainly Soviet-era military hardware to bolster its defences.

Successes in its long-range missile and naval programmes have been tempered by expensive failures in developing its own aircraft and other land-based weaponry, leaving the country highly dependent on imports.

INS Vikrant is two years behind schedule after problems in sourcing specialised steel from Russia, delays with crucial equipment and even a road accident in which vital diesel generators were damaged.

Overall, India lags far behind China in defence capabilities, analysts say, making the success in beating its regional rival in the race to develop a domestically-produced aircraft carrier significant.

China's first carrier, the Liaoning, which was purchased from Ukraine, went into service last September.

Beijing is reportedly planning to construct or acquire a bigger ship in the future and Jane's reported this month that it has seen evidence that an indigenous carrier was being assembled in a shipbuilding facility near Shanghai.

India has one aircraft carrier in operation, a 60-year-old British vessel acquired by India in 1987 and renamed INS Viraat, but it will be phased out in the coming years.

India's ally Russia is also set to hand over a third aircraft carrier, INS Vikramaditya, this year after a bitter row over the refurbished Soviet-era warship caused by rising costs and delays.

The INS Vikrant, which means "courageous" or "bold" in Hindi, had a bare flight-deck decked out only with flags and yellow tassels but it will carry Russian-built MiG-29 fighter jets and other light aircraft when it goes into service.