India launches Vikrant carrier amid rivalry with China

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NEW DELHI — India on Friday commissioned its first domestically-built aircraft carrier, effectively joining a small club of countries that are able to manufacture the warships — and use them to project power far from their shores.

The $2.5 billion INS Vikrant, built at the Cochin Shipyard in southern India, is the product of an 18-year design and production process that was hit by repeated delays. But the ship will enter service precisely at a moment when the South Asian nation — the world’s third biggest military spender — is shifting its attention away from land conflicts with its traditional enemy, Pakistan, and focusing more on an Indo-Pacific region that is contested by sea powers including its major rival China, and the United States.

At a ceremony in Kerala state, Prime Minister Narendra Modi called the vessel a milestone in India’s pursuit of technological self-reliance and defense manufacturing and alluded to his country’s new strategic outlook.

“In the past, security concerns in the Indo-Pacific region and the Indian Ocean have long been ignored,” Modi said. “But today, this area is a major defense priority. That is why we are working in every direction, from increasing the budget for the navy to increasing its capability.”

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When the Vikrant enters service sometime in late 2023, India will be one of five countries that operate two carriers. The ship is designed to carry a full complement of 30 aircraft, including fighters that will be catapulted off its “ski-jump” deck.

The Vikrant, along with India’s other carrier, the INS Vikramaditya, a refurbished Soviet-era vessel purchased in 2004 from Russia, will lead the navy’s strike groups.

For decades, India has sought to obtain advanced defense technology from its arms suppliers, including Russia and the United States, with mixed results. Even though much of the technology in the Vikrant will be indigenous, the carrier will be powered by generators from General Electric and feature radars from Israel. Its fighter wing will be composed of either Russian MiGs, French Rafales, or American F/A-18s, but not Indian aircraft.

While military experts say that modern-day carriers are increasingly vulnerable to missiles and submarines in the event of war, the ships are still widely seen as a symbol of national prestige and crucial for conducting far-flung operations.

In the increasingly contested Indo-Pacific region, many countries are investing heavily in their navies. In June, China unveiled its own first home-built carrier, which boasts electromagnetic catapult technology. Japan, a U.S. ally today, is currently building out the Izumo, the largest warship the country has produced since its defeat in the Second World War, into a light carrier. South Korea, meanwhile, is also planning to launch aircraft carriers at the end of the decade to counter China.

Ajai Shukla, a commentator on military affairs and a former Indian army officer, said the Indian military and policymakers have been debating whether the navy would eventually need three or even four carriers to meet the strategic aim of denying China access to the Indian Ocean in case of conflict.

“When India is talking about how to build up naval strength, it’s in the context of how to dominate the Arabian Sea, which it shares with Pakistan, and how to dominate the Bay of Bengal down to the Malacca Strait to deny China entry,” Shukla said. “India has clearly gone with the side of the argument that says, ‘you need aircraft carriers.’”

Successive U.S. administrations have sought to cultivate naval cooperation with India, which they have viewed as another crucial counterweight to China. The four countries of the Quad partnership — the United States, Japan, Australia and India — have held two naval exercises since 2020, and India sent a frigate in June to join drills with the U.S. Navy near Hawaii.

Since 2020, India and China have been locked in a bitter border dispute in the Himalayas, but tensions have spilled into the maritime domain. In August, a Chinese navy ship docked in Sri Lanka despite protests from India, triggering a full-blown diplomatic spat between the two Asian neighbors. The New Delhi government also issued unusual warnings about the “militarization” of the Taiwan Strait after China held military drills last month in response to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to the island.



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