INS Vikrant: India’s first homemade aircraft carrier that places it among the world’s naval elites

With a $3 billion Vikrant, India will join only a small number of countries with more than one aircraft carrier or helicopter carrier in service and will become only the third country, after the United Kingdom and China, to have commissioned a home-made aircraft carrier in the past three years.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi, at a ceremony at the shipyard in Cochin in the southern Indian state of Kerala, said the carrier filled the nation with “new confidence”.

“The goal may be difficult. The challenges may be great. But when India makes its decision, no goal is impossible,” Modi said before boarding the carrier and hoisting the country’s new naval flag.

“So far, this type of aircraft carrier has only been manufactured by developed countries. Today, by entering this league, India has taken another step towards becoming a developed country,” Modi said, adding that the Indo-Pacific remains a “key security priority.” for India.

John Bradford, Senior Fellow at the S School, said: Rajaratnam International Studies Center in Singapore, India’s commitment to the ship reflects its “long-term vision for maintaining a global naval power.”

“There are looming questions about the viability of any aircraft carrier in the age of missiles, but the major navies – including those of the United States, Japan, China and the United Kingdom – are doubling their investments in transportation. In that sense, India is keeping it going,” Bradford said.

Vikrant is India's first indigenous aircraft carrier.

Vikrant joins INS Vikramaditya, a refurbished Soviet-era tanker purchased from Russia in 2004, in India’s fleet.

With a displacement of about 40,000 tons, the Vikrant is slightly smaller than the Vikramaditya and the tankers of the United States, China and the United Kingdom although it is larger than Japan.

But analysts have praised its potential firepower.

When its air wing becomes fully operational within the next few years, Vikrant will carry up to 30 aircraft, including MiG-29K combat aircraft – which will be launched from the surface of the ski slope – and helicopters as well as defense systems including surface-to-air missiles.

Powered by four gas turbine engines, it has an estimated top speed of 32 mph (52 km/h) with a range of 8,600 miles (13,890 km).

“India is sending the message that it has the strength, it has aircraft carriers, and therefore the air power to control the far reaches of the Indian Ocean,” said Ajay Shukla, a former Indian military officer turned defense analyst.

Analysts said the new carrier, and the destroyers and frigates that will eventually make up its strike group, gives India further options as well.

Vikrant has a range of 8,600 miles (13,890 kilometres).

“India can influence and coordinate potential security solutions to regional concerns. Having a maritime working group with an open maritime capacity to contribute adds to India’s leverage and options. It does not need to join in a multilateral response but can do so, or create a separate independent group,” said Karl Schuster. , a former US Navy captain now studying at Hawaii Pacific University, “if she so chooses.”

The new carrier will enable India to take a greater role in military exercises through the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, or “Quadruple,” an informal alliance of the United States, Japan, Australia and India.

For example, American and Japanese airlines participated in the annual Malabar exercises attended by Quad members.

Vikrant's construction has been delayed due to remodeling and the Covid-19 pandemic.

Building Vikrant was not easy for India.

Its design and construction was signed off by the government in 2003 and the keel was laid in February 2009. The vessel Vikrant – meaning “courageous” or “victorious” in Sanskrit – was christened and launched in August 2013.

But then there were delays: the features needed to be redesigned, there was the problem of securing aviation equipment from Russia, and then there was the Covid-19 pandemic.

However, experts say India will be able to enhance its capacity to build domestic ships and learn from the experience.

“They now have the experience to build the next carrier more quickly and perhaps with better design,” Schuster said.

The Indian Navy is considering building a second domestic aircraft carrier. This is still in the concept stage, but there has been speculation that any new carrier could be in the 65,000-ton range, about the size of HMS Queen Elizabeth in the UK or the second Chinese carrier, Shandong.

China is seen as India’s main maritime competitor in the region. With two carriers in service and a third more advanced carrier launched last year, China is outperforming India both numerically and technologically, but analysts are giving India an edge in the carrier’s operational experience.

The Indian Navy began operating aircraft carriers in 1961. Its first carrier, which it acquired from the United Kingdom, was also called Vikrant. The first Vikrant retired in 1997. A second British aircraft carrier, INS Viraat, served in the Indian Navy for 30 years before being decommissioned in 2017.

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China’s first aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, was an unfinished Soviet-era ship that Beijing bought from Ukraine in 1998, and was finally modernized and commissioned in 2012. The first domestically built aircraft carrier, Shandong, entered service in 2019 and in June 2022 launched the third carrier, Fujian – Advanced carrier with electromagnetic catapult assisted firing systems, similar to those used by the United States.

“On paper, the new Chinese airlines have more capabilities in terms of payload and technology than Vikrant. However, India has decades of experience operating carrier air forces while China is still learning,” said Bradford, an analyst in Singapore.

Even with this experience, it could take a year or so much more for Vikrant to be able to fully function as a fighting force. This is typical for aircraft carriers. The newest US airline, the USS Gerald Ford, was commissioned in 2017 and is expected to be deployed for the first time later this year.

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