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Challenges to India’s indigenous naval buildup

by Harsh V. Pant

Special To The Japan Times

Last month India became the fifth nation with the capability to indigenously design and build its own aircraft carrier. INS Vikrant, as the new carrier is called, was launched by the defense minister with great fanfare signaling India’s coming of age as a global naval power.

This launch followed the announcement that the reactor in India’s first indigenously built nuclear-powered submarine (SSBN), INS Arihant, has gone critical, marking a turning point in New Delhi’s attempt to establish a nuclear triad.

But the celebrations came to an abrupt end when, two days after the launch of the aircraft carrier, INS Sindhurakshak, one of the 10 Kilo-class submarines that form the backbone of India’s aging conventional submarine force, sank with 18 crew members after explosions at the naval dockyard in Mumbai.

Together these developments underscored the giant strides that India has made as well as the challenges that India faces in its attempts to emerge as a credible global naval power.

Under development for the past eight years, INS Vikrant is likely to begin sea trials next year. With INS Vikrant, India not only will be able to protect both its eastern and western flanks more confidently but will also be able to project power much further off its shores, something that Indian naval planners have long desired.

INS Arihant is the first ballistic missile submarine built outside the five recognized nuclear powers. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh called the activation of the reactor aboard Arihant a “giant stride in … our indigenous technological capabilities.”

This highly secretive project took more than a decade to complete and will complete India’s nuclear triad, with the submarine’s ballistic missiles giving India a second-strike capability.

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

The launch of an aircraft carrier is seen as critical for the Indian Navy as it remains anxious to maintain its presence in the shipping lanes of the Indian Ocean and Arabian Sea, especially in light of China’s massive naval buildup.

Last year China commissioned its aircraft carrier, Liaoning, which is a refurbished vessel purchased from Ukraine in 1998. It is also working on an indigenous carrier of its own even as it keeps an eye out for a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier.

India remains heavily dependent on imports to meet its defense requirements, so its recent successes are particularly important.

But for all the euphoria, it will be five years until the INS Vikrant can be commissioned by the Indian Navy, and INS Arihant has yet to pass a series of sea trials.

The Indian Navy wants to be a serious blue-water force. Indian naval planners have long argued that to main continuous operational readiness in the Indian Ocean, protect sea lanes of communication in the Persian Gulf and monitor Chinese activities in the Bay of Bengal, it needs a minimum of three aircraft carriers and a fleet of five nuclear submarines.

With Admiral Gorshkov on track to be delivered by Russia by the end of this year and a second aircraft indigenous carrier in the wings, the Indian Navy could be close to realizing the dream of operating three carriers by the end of the decade.

But serious challenges remain as exemplified by the disaster of INS Sindhurakshak, which has brought the focus back to the enduring problems of safety and reliability that the Indian Navy has been grappling with for decade.

The Indian Navy has a poor accident record with several mishaps in recent years. INS Sindhurakshak had been reintroduced to service only in April this year after a refit in Russia. The navy has ordered a review of its submarine weapons safety systems after initial investigations showed arms on board the submarine may have played a role in its sinking. The latest accident comes as the Indian Navy’s surface fleet expands. The Indian submarine fleet is not only aging but also depleting fast with the induction of new submarines not on track.

Despite the success of Vikrant and Arihant, India’s indigenous defense production has been marred by serious technical and organizational problems, leading to significant delays in the development of key defense technologies and platforms.

The Indian Navy, much like the other two services, has found it difficult to translate its conceptual commitment to self-reliance and indigenization into actionable policy, resulting in a perpetuation of reliance on external sources for naval modernization. Yet India’s reliance on its navy to project power is only likely to increase in the coming years as naval buildup continues apace in the Indo-Pacific.

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

In this regional context, India’s naval engagement with East and Southeast Asian states is integral to its two-decade old “Look East” policy. Countries ranging from Philippines, Thailand and Indonesia to Vietnam and Myanmar have been pushing India toward assuming a higher profile in the region. India is training Myanmar naval personnel and is building at least four Offshore Patrol Vehicles in Indian shipyards to be used by Myanmar’s Navy.

The Indian Navy has not only been supplying spares to Hanoi for its Russian- origin ships and missile boats but has also extended a $100 million credit line to Vietnam for the purchase of patrol boats.

Indian Defense Minister, A.K. Antony, was in Australia, Thailand and Singapore recently forging closer naval ties as New Delhi’s naval ties with Western powers and the Persian Gulf states is blossoming.

Harsh V. Pant teaches in the Defense Studies Department at King’s College London.

  • Mania

    India has longed to have a comprehensive
    and sustainable navy build up but not yet far has succeeded. It is working on
    collaborations with other countries especially Russia but the result is not
    well appreciating. India is spending very exhaustively to improve the set ups
    by cutting vast amount from the people’s wellbeing. It should learn a lesson
    from the last incident of naval ships which also took the lives of skilled
    crewmen. Why our government is least concerned about the victims which are the
    result of these expansionist expeditions with other countries. It should limit
    itself to safeguard the territory not beyond that to compete with other states.

  • Hadi

    For India, not known as a ship-building nation despite its long coastlines, the launch of the Vikrant, meaning “courageous,” is a matter of intense pride. But Indians are overjoyed because the Indian aircraft carrier won’t actually be able to do anything for real for another five years.
    Anyway, Indian naval build-up is advancing arms race in the region. But where is the arms race in aircraft carriers really going? How can India justify the investment of more than $5 billion in an aircraft carrier against other priorities ranging from food and health to defence on its land borders with Pakistan and China?

  • Abelard French

    INS Vikrant has always been a centre of debate that it is indigenously build by Russian advisers in India, after its launch another Russian build submarine INS Sindhurakshak was on fire due to not known reason. Some probable say that it is due to fire in the arms deck but IN establishment clearly admitted that IN has no trained man power. So it doesn’t matter on which number IN is in the world, Indian Navy has some ambitions which are out of reach with not even disaster management system.

  • tipu

    Again the Question of Indian Navy one has not forgotten the Kast month Incident and Diffrerent Incident as per Indian Navy is codrened from 2005 Since 2005, at least 10 serious incidents have been reported. Among them five are related to the Sindhughosh-class of submarines, of which Sindhurakshak is the one.

  • tipu

    A recent report by India’s Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) on the submarine fleet revealed that the operational availability of the existing boats was “as low as 48% .The CAG report also warned that more than 50% of submarines have completed three-fourths of their operational life and some are already beyond their maximum service life, compelling the navy to deal with the challenges of handling an increasingly obsolete fleet safely

  • rabia javed

    India’s focus is very much on the Andaman and Nicobar Islands
    - off its south-eastern coast – which sits astride important sea-lanes. Indian
    Navy has been marred by serious technical and organisational problems, leading
    to significant as the recent mishap of naval ship clearly shows to the world. Also
    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. Managed un-carefully, the potential for such incidents like
    INS Sindhurakshak turning serious in the future remains high, especially as
    Sino-Indian naval competition is likely to intensify with the Indian and
    Chinese navies operating far from their shores. The battle to rule the waves in
    the Indian Ocean has only just begun and the consequences of this struggle are
    far from obvious at this juncture.

  • Tooba mansoor

    India’s massive developments in the field of nuclear shows India’s negative ambitions. Why India is focussing more and more on defence sector where social sector is being neglected and people are away from the status of well being. India has not the capability to develop its own submarine, all of tem are Russian donated or from some other country. India donot have the man power to develop its own submarines and also to provide safety and security, lacks proper expertise. Whats the need of these developments when India cannot handle these massive technologies.

  • kir chovo

    The biggest challenge for India’s indigenous naval build-up is unprofessional navy. Though, Naval personnels make lame excuses while saying that they are getting less money to spend in naval developments. But reality is that Poor skilled Indian navy has sunk INS-Sindhurakshak because of poor expertise in dealing with Russian build submarine. Besides that naval expertise are not up to the mark and we have seen the result recently. There are no other technological challenges, no other challenges from neighbours rather our navy is not capable to deal with the latest technology. I suggest that 1st train them then buy nuclear submarines…. Now i am worried about INS- Arihant…

    • Madhu kumar Warrier

      Kir Chovo is Chinese, I am sure. No Indian with common sense would say that the Indian Navy is unprofessional. This is the writing and thinking of a jealous Chinese guy, who knows his country’s navy is nowhere close to being called a blue-water navy. The Chinese navy is just a coastal defense service, with obsolete vessels made by China with copied technology from Russia. So, first make sure that the Chinese navy will be able to use its new aircraft properly, including landing aircraft on its deck in turbulent waters and also work in waters far away from its shores. Then only, the Indian navy will begin to see the Chinese as worthy of being a rival.

  • Justice1215

    Soviet Union disintegration is due to out of control military spending.
    Every country has to think twice before its too late.

    If government leaders of the world use to check the rural people how they live,they won’t waste resources on military spending but more on building a fairer and more just world, alleviating poverty nationwide enhancing their self-esteem and dignity.