Global CommonsKey IssuesRegionalSouth Asia

India’s aircraft carriers key to Indo-Pacific strategy

The Associated Press

India is preparing to relaunch its INS Vikramaditya aircraft carrier after a major refit, a critical step toward fulfilling its plan to deploy two carrier battle groups as it seeks to strengthen its regional maritime power to counter the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) increasing assertiveness.

The Vikramaditya, pictured, is expected to be launched imminently and will join India’s first domestically built carrier, the INS Vikrant, in undergoing outfitting and sea trials, with both vessels expected to be fully operational in 2023. The Vikrant was commissioned in September 2022.

“This is significant in terms of India’s power projection capabilities, primarily within the Indian Ocean,” said Viraj Solanki, a London-based expert on Indo-Pacific defense with the International Institute for Strategic Studies. “This really gives India an option to display its ability to counter China within the Indian Ocean, which is the Indian Navy’s priority.”

The Chinese Communist Party’s People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) has been expanding and modernizing for more than a decade. In June 2022, the PLAN launched its first domestically designed and built aircraft carrier, the country’s third overall, as part of a program to extend its range and power.

At the same time, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has invested in ballistic and cruise missile technology, and the United States Defense Department says the PLA in the “near term” will be able to conduct “long-range precision strikes against land targets from its submarine and surface combatants.”

As Beijing increases its naval presence around self-governed Taiwan, which it claims as its territory, and pushes its arbitrary claims in the South China Sea, Indo-Pacific allies and partners including the United Kingdom and the U.S. have conducted regular exercises in the region and freedom of navigation passages through the Taiwan Strait as they pursue a Free and Open Indo-Pacific. The PLAN is expected to deploy an aircraft carrier to the Indian Ocean for the first time within the next few years. It already has other vessels operating regularly in the region and established its first overseas base in the Horn of Africa country of Djibouti, which gives it easy access to the Indian Ocean.

The PRC raised concern in New Delhi in August 2022 when it docked what India called a spy ship in Sri Lanka’s Hambantota port, a facility that was leased to the PRC in 2017 for 99 years.

“New Delhi sees Beijing as encroaching into its traditional sphere of influence, especially in the Indian Ocean region,” said Ridzwan Rahmat, a Singapore-based analyst with the defense intelligence company Janes.

“While a potential war with China will likely be fought inland, China’s presence in the Indian Ocean region can severely disrupt India’s sea lines of communication, which will be essential in sustaining the war effort. The Indian Navy’s recent modernization track is to ensure that scenarios like these will not take root,” Rahmat said.

Like the PRC, India has nuclear weapons and has been building nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines as part of its nuclear triad of air-, sea- and land-based platforms. It has two such submarines and plans for two more, as well as nuclear-powered attack submarines.

India’s fleet also includes 10 destroyers, 12 frigates and 20 corvettes.

India and the PRC clashed on their disputed land border in 2020, with fatalities on both sides. The skirmish turned into a long standoff in the mountains, where each side has deployed tens of thousands of troops.

“The 30-month-long Sino-Indian military impasse in the Himalayas and China’s strategic posturing in the South China Sea should be clear pointers for India’s decision-makers that maritime power will have a critical role to play as an instrument of state policy in future outcomes,” retired Indian Navy chief Arun Prakash wrote in December 2022 in The Indian Express newspaper.

New Delhi plans to station an aircraft carrier on each coast, said Capt. D.K. Sharma, a retired Indian Navy spokesperson who now consults on defense issues.

While India’s focus has tended to be toward Pakistan in the west, the presence of Chinese vessels in critical shipping lanes east of India means it is prudent for the Indian Navy to make its presence felt there as well, Rahmat said.

India also is expected to decide soon on the purchase of 26 maritime strike fighters for the Vikrant, either the U.S.-made F/A-18 or the French-manufactured Rafale M, a version of which already is operated by the Indian Air Force.

The Vikramaditya, a former Soviet carrier acquired from Russia, will continue to operate Russian-made MiG-29K fighters India already owns.

India is seeking to lessen its reliance on military equipment from Russia, which provides about 60% of its inventory, with the war in Ukraine raising questions about effectiveness and availability. The U.S. and other Indo-Pacific partners are presenting themselves to New Delhi as alternative suppliers as they increase cooperation with the key regional player.

Even before Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, India was increasing its diplomatic engagement with Australia, Japan and the U.S. — its fellow members of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, or Quad — as well as with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and individual countries, Solanki said.

“This really accelerated after the June 2020 India-China clashes on the border,” he said. “That is when we’ve seen a real shift and focus to engage with the Quad, with France, to engage with the U.K. more actively, work with Europe further … and work with the ASEAN countries as well.”



Related Articles

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Back to top button