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Politics & Security

India's Second Indigenous Aircraft Carrier: Why Is It Important? 

The new aircraft carrier will replace an aging Russian model and assist India's Navy in conducting an increasing array of naval exercises with friendly nations.

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The seamless operational integration of the two aircraft carriers @IN_Vikramaditya & @IN_R11Vikrant as well as fleet ships & submarines is a powerful testament to the pivotal role of sea based air power & India’s role as the preferred security partner in the #IndianOcean & beyond (©Indian Navy via X (formerly Twitter) June 10, 2023)

India's government recently made the major decision to kickstart the process of acquiring its second indigenous aircraft carrier. This assumes significance because though the Indian Navy is one of the biggest actors in the Indian Ocean region, the Chinese Navy is now the world's biggest navy in terms of sheer numbers.

The new aircraft carrier will be known as Indian Aircraft Carrier-II. It will likely carry at least 28 fighter jets and helicopters when commissioned and will have a displacement of approximately 45,000 tonnes. 

The carrier will use the naval variant of the French Rafale fighter jets. More importantly, it will be constructed domestically at the Cochin Shipyards Limited.

Why the Acquisition of a Second Carrier is Important

There are a host of reasons for the same.

In the long term, the Chinese would be putting pressure on the Indian Ocean. This will occur even as the United States becomes engaged in other parts of the world. It is especially occupied in the Middle East due to the ongoing hostilities between Israel and Hamas.

In addition, if there are any hostilities in the Taiwan Strait, the US would need to redeploy its naval forces to the Indo-Pacific region.

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At the same time, the Indian Navy has a wide area of operation in the greater Indo-Pacific region. Its area includes the Arabian Sea, the Bay of Bengal and the Indian Ocean. 

In addition, the Indian Navy conducts an increasing array of naval exercises with friendly nations. A second carrier will allow the it to deploy carriers in joint exercises with partner countries.

Indian Navy's first aircraft carrier after its launch. (Image courtesy of Indian Navy.)

Updating Its Fleet

India currently operates two aircraft carriers. One, the Admiral Gorshkov (rechristened as the INS Vikramaditya) is of Russian origin. However, INS Vikramaditya was originally commissioned way back in 1987. Hence the need for an indigenous replacement is loud and clear.

The second is India's first indigenously developed aircraft carrier, the INS Vikrant. Prime Minister Narendra Modi commissioned this carrier in September 2022.     

In the past, New Delhi maintained a distinct edge over Pakistan in the naval realm. Furthermore, there is a strong commitment to continuing this edge in times to come. 

It is to be noted that New Delhi faces a two-pronged threat — one in the West from Pakistan and one in the North and East from China. Pakistan has been acquiring warships from China at a rapid rate, including two new Chinese frigates earlier this year. Besides, in the past, terrorists have used the sea route to attack the Indian financial capital, Mumbai (in November 2008). Hence, New Delhi needs to be on alert.

The INS Sahyadri 1 was one of India's participating naval vessels in the 2023 Malabar Exercises. (Image shared by the Indian Navy NIC.)

Preparing for the Future

In the future, New Delhi may be called upon to undertake various missions in its near abroad and this will require a big carrier fleet. In addition, as India is an oil-importing nation, keeping the sea lanes of communication will be important for its energy security.

Recently, India's leading body for clearing defense purchases, the Defense Acquisition Council has cleared the decks for procurement of 97 home-grown Tejas Light Combat Aircraft for the Indian Air Force and 156 home-grown Prachand attack helicopters for the Indian Army. 

The Modi Government has made a big pitch for indigenization. Construction of the second indigenous aircraft carrier will be another step in that direction. The new aircraft carrier would also generate a huge number of jobs.

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Challenges

Of course, there will be challenges.

The first of course, would be in pairing the new proposed aircraft carrier with weapon systems from other countries.

A second challenge would be the reaction from Beijing. It has already taken note of the new developments. 

Commenting on the decks being cleared for the second aircraft carrier, the Chinese state-owned Global Times quoted a Chinese analyst in its report. He said, "Not many countries in the world can independently build aircraft carriers, so in that sense, India has made a great accomplishment. India can rightfully develop its navy, but if its strategy is aimed at China, then it has tunnel vision." 

Clearly, his comments show that Beijing is worried in the maritime arena. The Indian Navy can easily cut off or stymie China's access to the Straits of Malacca. And that has always been China's Achilles heel.  

Base Commander Takahisa Ishimura (right) speaks about the significance of joint training in front of Indian Air Force Su-30MKI fighters, which flew to Japan for the first time, at the Air Self-Defense Force Hyakuri Air Base in Ibaraki Prefecture on January 10, 2023. (© Sankei by Ataru Haruna)

Implications for Japan and Lookout for the Future

For Japan, this is welcome news. Already, the Indian Navy and the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force (JMSDF) have been collaborating in a big manner. The two conduct joint exercises known as the JIMEX. And they are also a part of the Malabar naval exercises, which includes Australia and the US. 

A second homegrown Indian aircraft carrier would work to Japan's advantage as well. This would mean that China's PLA Navy would have to deploy sufficient resources and manpower to counter India. In return, that would lessen the pressure on Japan.

In addition, the Indian Navy requires a three-carrier fleet. It is configured with one ship on either flank while the third one can technically be on standby. 

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In 2015, early in his first term, PM Modi laid out the concept of the SAGAR (Security and Growth for All in the Region). Besides, India also has the "Act-East Policy." As part of the same, New Delhi has been looking at a bigger role in the Indo-Pacific.

It is in the naval realm that India has the biggest advantage. That is due to its long coastline. Things have also begun to change in India's immediate neighborhood.

For example, in countries like Sri Lanka, New Delhi needs to take advantage of the favorable geopolitical situation, especially with the departure of the Rajapaksa brothers. As they say, "A stitch in time saves nine."

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Author: Dr Rupakjyoti Borah

Dr Rupakjyoti Borah is a Senior Research Fellow at the Japan Forum for Security Studies. The views expressed here are personal.

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