The recent integration of the indigenous fighter aircraft and MiG-29K with INS Vikrant was a watershed moment for Indian Navy that caught global attention. The successful landing and take-off of the indigenous LCA Navy on its first-ever Indigenous Aircraft Carrier (IAC I) put India in an elite group of nations with homemade aircraft carriers. The ‘trap’ and subsequent launch of the Naval Light Combat Aircraft (LCA-N) from the deck of INS Vikrant marks the successful culmination of an ‘initial phase’ of indigenisation efforts, with multiple critical technologies getting proven after decades of R&D, testing and refinement.
This event also makes the potential beginning of the next phase of transformation in India’s military capability – indigenously developed solutions which enable India to retain the military advantage in operations across domains – in line with the vision of Atmanirbhar Bharat (Self-reliant India). It is, however, imperative that the long-term investments to enable and even catalyse such transformation be made proactively soon.
A Window of Opportunity
A window of opportunity for such investment may be found in the maritime domain. INS Vikrant was commissioned in September last year. While helicopter operations from its deck progressed even during the pre-commissioning trials, naval pilots have been able to successfully undertake the launch and recovery of fighters from its deck within the second quarter of its commissioning.
Significantly, the successful flying operations of both the LCA-N and Mig29K fighters from the Indian Navy from the carrier on the same day mark the dawn of full-fledged maritime air operations from Vikrant. Consequently, in the coming months, the Indian Navy will be able to deploy two operational carrier battle groups in its areas of interest for the first time in several years. However, over the last two years, naval operations at sea have been without integral air support owing to the maintenance schedule of the Russian-made INS Vikramaditya, which has been undergoing a refit since December 2020, will significantly impact the way maritime military operations are planned and undertaken. Owing to the delays in supplies from Russia, for which Cochin Shipyard Limited (CSL) and the Indian Navy reached out to local industry, it is ready to sail out anytime soon, as per official sources.
Even with two carriers in service, the Navy will have to continue to plan with only a single carrier battle group to cater to the maintenance requirements of the platforms. In effect, this will inevitably result in one of the maritime flanks having a ‘capability gap’, impinging on the ability to deploy combat power against an adversary optimally.
Retaining The Naval Advantage at Sea
The situation led Indian Navy to finalise plans to repeat the order for an INS Vikrant-size Indigenous Aircraft Carrier (IAC)-2, with some modifications, which, given the long timelines, may be close to the time INS Vikramaditya leaves service, effectively becoming its replacement. According to the Navy Chief, Admiral R Hari Kumar, while placing a repeat order for the INS Vikrant-sized carrier, the Navy will continue to study the need for a larger and more capable carrier.
The Vikrant-maker, Cochin Shipyards Limited (CSL), has promised that it could deliver a follow-on of aircraft carriers in eight years after order placement. Even if an order is placed today, the earliest the ship would enter the Naval fleet would be 2031! At this time, India’s economy would likely have achieved its goal of USD 5 trillion and be among the world’s top 3-4 economies. India’s interests in 2031 would undoubtedly have expanded to larger areas in the maritime neighbourhood.
The Twin Engine Deck Based Fighter (TEDBF) is another aspect where timely governmental support to the follow-on carrier will ensure optimum results for all stakeholders. With the aircraft scheduled to fly in 2026 and get inducted by 2031-32, the design of critical aviation-related components of the follow-on carrier could be synced to the technical requirements of the TEDBF. This will enable the two programmes to mature alongside, enabling the TEDBF to be fully harnessed for operations from the very start. Subsequently, the other carriers in service could be upgraded during their scheduled maintenance periods.
This ‘synchronised’ plan would also be the ideal catalyst for the local MSME ecosystem, which has emerged in support of both IAC I and the LCA programme. The manufacturing, services and support demands created by these two programmes would be an enormous accelerant for the growth of the fledgling Indian defence ecosystem. The Vikrant already has 72 per cent indigenous components, which is remarkable given that a significant quantum of its construction happened in the early days of the self-reliance effort of the Indian government. It would be natural to assume that the follow-on platform, optimised for an Indian fighter aircraft, would have an even higher indigenous component, making it the perfect exemplar of a truly Atmanirbhar Bharat.
The Navy, which took an early lead towards indigenisation decades ago and launched the Indian Navy Indigenisation Plan (INIP) 2015-2030 to enable the indigenous development of equipment and systems, is further ramping up indigenisation efforts, especially in weapons and aviation-related items. This aligns with the government’s push to cut down on defence imports and boost domestic manufacturing, which has gained further urgency due to the ongoing Russian war in Ukraine and the large-scale dependency of the Indian military on Russian arms and equipment. Till mid-2022, the Navy has indigenised around 3400 items under INIP, including over 2000 machinery and electrical spares, over 1000 aviation spares and over 250 weapon spares.
As the Indian Navy continues to transform and innovate to secure India’s vast interests in the maritime domain, it’s essential that its capacity grows apace with its responsibilities. In the face of expanding challenges at sea, including the significant naval capabilities of China-Pakistan, the Indian Navy must retain its operational advantage. This requires sustained, all-domain application of combat power against the adversary. It’s a window of opportunity to allow the Navy to build the right and required capability. It would also be a significant national effort at self-reliance while ensuring safe and secure seas.