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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.