Is India Ready For A Maritime Renaissance? INS Vikrant’s Success And The Imperative For IAC-2

The geostrategic challenges demand a proactive approach, urging the nation to invest in naval capabilities and embrace the maritime domain wholeheartedly. As the Indo-Pacific undergoes a ‘strategic churn,’ India’s choices today will determine its standing in the maritime-centric world of tomorrow.

India’s geopolitical fortunes are intricately tied to its geography, and the nation stands at the cusp of a maritime renaissance. The strategic significance of India’s central position in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) cannot be overstated. Its location astride crucial sea lanes bestows immense advantages, offering a platform for projecting power, ensuring mobility, and influencing maritime space. However, with great opportunities come significant responsibilities, and India finds itself at the epicentre of the ongoing ‘strategic churn’ in the Indo-Pacific region.

In the contemporary geopolitical landscape, the Indo-Pacific region is characterized by multi-layered diversity and interconnectivity. Recognizing the maritime centrality of the world, India has steadily grown in an interconnected global order that heavily relies on oceanic routes. As the world becomes increasingly maritime-centric, India’s future is inherently linked to the Indian Ocean, and neglecting the maritime domain would be at the nation’s peril.

India’s First Indigenous Aircraft Carrier – A Symbol of Maritime Prowess

The recent induction of India’s first indigenous aircraft carrier, INS Vikrant, marks a historic milestone. The roots of India’s aircraft carrier saga date back to 1961 with the commissioning of INS Vikrant. The evolution from a CATOBAR (Catapult-Assisted Take-Off but Arrested Recovery) Light Carrier to a STOVL (Short Take, Vertical Landing) carrier showcased India’s commitment to maritime capabilities.

The Indigenous Aircraft Carrier (IAC-1) project, initiated in 1997, is a testament to India’s prowess in complex shipbuilding. Designed by the Navy’s bureau with global consultancies, it was constructed by Cochin Shipyard Limited, showcasing India as one of the few nations capable of designing and building aircraft carriers. Despite delays, the project demonstrated India’s ability to innovate, developing indigenous marine-grade steel and other critical subsystems.

The Need for IAC-2 – A Prerequisite for Maritime Power Projection

While celebrating the success of INS Vikrant, the focus must shift to the future with the pressing need for IAC-2. The debate surrounding aircraft carriers, including cost, vulnerability, and the efficacy of air defence, mirrors past discussions during the inception of IAC-1. The investment required for IAC-2 can be accommodated within the Navy’s share of the defence budget, especially if it returns to the 18% share it held in 2012.

Critics often highlight vulnerabilities, emphasizing the susceptibility of aircraft carriers to modern missiles. However, this analysis tends to isolate the carrier, disregarding its role within a Carrier Battle Group (CBG). The CBG, equipped with offensive and defensive capabilities, counters surface, subsurface, and air threats. The perceived vulnerability of aircraft carriers is thus mitigated within the larger context of a coordinated naval strategy.

The recent talks with the Americans for assistance in integrating and developing the Electromagnetic Aircraft Launch System (EMALS) should be a mainstay for IAC-2, this system can allow the aircraft to takeoff with maximum payload as compared to the STOBAR configuration, which prevents the aircraft from carrying high loads. 

Additionally, airborne early warning and control systems (AWECS), which are larger in size and weight, can operate on the deck of the vessels, bolstering the detection capabilities of not just onboard fighters, but the entire carrier battle group.

Secondly, using the experience gained from Russians while integrating a nuclear reactor for the Arihant Class SSBNs, the Navy should consider nuclear-powered IAC-2 for a longer range and higher capacity to carry munitions and aircraft.

Dispelling Concerns: Aircraft Carriers vs. Submarines

The comparison between aircraft carriers and submarines is not an either/or scenario. Submarines, whether conventional or nuclear, play a different role in the maritime domain. While they offer stealth and tactical advantages, they cannot replace the strategic capabilities and geopolitical influence that a CBG brings. The mobility, reach, combat power, and visibility of a CBG are unmatched, making it a crucial component for maritime dominance.

India’s Geostrategic Imperative: Investing in Maritime Capability

As India aims to be recognized as a regional power in the Indian Ocean and the larger Indo-Pacific, investing in maritime capability is non-negotiable. The challenges in the Indian Ocean are expected to intensify in the coming decade, necessitating a potent Navy. Shifting focus from a continental mindset to embracing the maritime domain is imperative, given India’s geographical advantage and the capabilities the Indian Navy brings to bear.

Another point of concern is a two-front war.  China and Pakistan Cosying raises more pressure on the security apparatus of India. Having three carriers with one on each seaboard and one in midlife refit, the Navy can effectively cover both the Bay of Bengal and the Arabian Sea countering the rival navies or even cutting off essential sea lanes.

Conclusion

In navigating the future waters, India stands at a critical juncture where maritime power projection is key to asserting regional influence. The successful sea trials of INS Vikrant signify not just a technological achievement but a symbol of India’s maritime aspirations. The geostrategic challenges demand a proactive approach, urging the nation to invest in naval capabilities and embrace the maritime domain wholeheartedly. As the Indo-Pacific undergoes a ‘strategic churn,’ India’s choices today will determine its standing in the maritime-centric world of tomorrow.