NEW DELHI: The commissioning of India’s second aircraft carrier has been delayed till September next year because of the Covid-19 pandemic. While reconciling to this setback, the Navy remains all the more keen to push its case for a third aircraft carrier as well as two new fighter squadrons to counter China’s expanding footprint in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR).
As the US recently displayed in the South China Sea, much to China’s discomfort, nothing projects raw combat power like an aircraft carrier strike group (CSG) capable of moving over 500 nautical miles (900 km) in a single day.
But India, which has currently deployed the bulk of its warships and submarines in the IOR to send a clear signal to Beijing, is in danger of losing its decisive edge over China in the CSG arena.
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Sources say the “basin trials” of the first indigenous aircraft carrier (IAC-I) being built at the Cochin Shipyard, which would have checked the 40,000-tonne warship’spropulsion, transmission and shafting systems, have been derailed by the pandemic.
The basin trials of IAC-I, first sanctioned by the government way back in January 2003, are to be followed by extensive sea trials. It’s only after IAC-I gets commissioned in September 2021 now, and is christened INS Vikrant, that the “flight trials” will be launched to make the carrier fully operational by 2022-2023.
The continuing delay in IAC-I, being constructed for Rs 22,590 crore, comes when China already has two aircraft carriers, while two more are being frenetically constructed. With the eventual aim to have a 10-carrier Navy by 2050, China is expected to begin deploying a CSG in the IOR within the next few years to take care of its “Malacca Dilemma”.
India is currently making do with only the 44,500-tonne INS Vikramaditya, the refurbished Admiral Gorshkov inducted from Russia for $2.33 billion in November 2013. Another $2 billion was spent on procuring 45 MiG-29Ks to operate from its deck.
Sources said Navy will once again push for grant of “acceptance of necessity (AoN)” for a third carrier, the 65,000-tonne IAC-II (tentatively christened INS Vishal), which has been pending since May 2015.
Having earlier junked nuclear-propulsion for IAC-II to bring down the price, the Navy contends the projected Rs 45,000 crore construction cost will be spread over 10-14 years, with the bulk of it being ploughed back into the country’s economy, as was earlier reported by TOI.
The proposal may well sail through this time, with the government fast-tracking some long-pending defence projects due to the military confrontation with China.
Similarly, the Navy has also cut down its requirement of 57 multi-role fighters capable of operating from carriers to about 36 (two squadrons) now. With the indigenous twin-engine naval fighter likely to be ready only by 2032, the French Rafale, American F/A-18, Swedish Gripen and Russian MiG-29K would be the contenders for this mega deal.
Unlike China, India has mastered the intricate art of operating “flat-tops” over six decades, commissioning as it did its first carrier INS Vikrant with its Sea Hawk jets way back in 1961. It must not lose that edge now.