India joined an elite competition of the world’s naval powers on Friday when it commissioned its first domestically built aircraft carrier, the INS Vikrant.
With the $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 UK and China, to have a domestically built aircraft carrier in the past. has been in use for three years.
The airline has filled the nation with “new confidence,” Prime Minister Narendra Modi said in a ceremony marked by fanfare at the Cochin Shipyard in India’s southern state of Kerala.
“The goal can be difficult. The challenges can be great. But if India makes a decision, no goal is impossible,” Modi said, before boarding and unfolding the country’s new naval flag.
“Until now, this type of aircraft carrier was only made by developed countries. By participating in this competition, India today took another step towards becoming a developed nation,” Modi said, adding that the Indo-Pacific region remained “a key security priority” for India.
John Bradford, senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, said India’s dedication to the ship reflected its “long-term vision of preserving a world-class naval power.”
“There are looming questions about an airline’s survivability in the missile era, but major navies – including those of the US, Japan, China and the UK – are doubling their investments in airlines. In that sense, India remains in the race,” said Bradford.
Vikrant joins INS Vikramaditya airline, a refurbished Soviet-era airline purchased from Russia in 2004, in the Indian fleet.
With a displacement of about 40,000 tons, the Vikrant is slightly smaller than the Vikramaditya and the US, China and UK carriers, although it is larger than Japan’s.
But analysts praised its potential firepower.
When its air wing becomes fully operational in the coming years, Vikrant will carry up to 30 aircraft, including MiG-29K fighter jets – which are launched from the ski slope-style deck – and helicopters, as well as defense systems, including surface-to-air missiles.
Powered by four gas turbine engines, the top speed is estimated at 52 mph (52 kph) with a range of 8,600 miles (13,890 kilometers).
“India is sending the message that it has the power, the aircraft carriers and therefore the air force to dominate the far reaches of the Indian Ocean,” said Ajai Shukla, a former Indian military officer turned defense analyst.
Analysts said the new aircraft carrier, and the destroyers and frigates that will eventually form the attack group, also give India options further afield.
“India can both influence and coordinate potential security solutions to regional problems. Having a naval task force with open ocean capability to contribute adds to India’s clout and options. It doesn’t have to participate in a multilateral response, but can do so, or establish a separate independent presence if it wants to,” said Carl Schuster, a former US Navy captain who now teaches at Hawaii Pacific University.
The new airline will enable India to play a greater role in military exercises through the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, or “Quad”, an informal alliance of the United States, Japan, Australia and India.
For example, the US and Japanese airlines have participated in the annual Malabar exercises attended by Quad members.
Building Vikrant was not easy for India.
The government approved its design and construction in 2003 and the keel was laid in February 2009. The vessel was christened Vikrant – meaning ‘brave’ or ‘victorious’ in Sanskrit – and was launched in August 2013.
But then there were delays: features had to be redesigned, there were problems securing aviation equipment from Russia, and then there was the Covid-19 pandemic.
Still, experts say India will be able to increase its domestic shipbuilding capacity and learn from the experience.
“They now have the expertise to build the next carrier faster and probably with a better design,” Schuster said.
The Indian Navy is considering building a second indigenous aircraft carrier. This is still in the concept phase, but there has been speculation that a new carrier could be in the 65,000-tonne range, roughly the size of Britain’s HMS Queen Elizabeth or China’s second carrier, the Shandong.
China is seen as India’s main naval competitor in the region. With two airlines in service and a third much more advanced airline launched in the past year, China is ahead of India both numerically and technologically, but analysts are giving India an edge in operational aviation experience.
The Indian Navy started operating aircraft carriers in 1961. The first aircraft carrier, which it acquired from the UK, was also called Vikrant. The first Vikrant retired in 1997. A second British-built aircraft carrier, INS Viraat, served in the Indian Navy for 30 years before being decommissioned in 2017.
China’s first aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, was an unfinished Soviet-era ship that Beijing bought from Ukraine in 1998, updated, and finally commissioned in 2012. The first domestically built aircraft carrier, the Shandong, entered service in 2019 and third carrier, Fujian, in June 2022 – an advanced carrier with electromagnetic catapult-assisted launch systems, similar to those used by the US.
“On paper, the new airlines in China have more options in terms of payload and technology than Vikrant. However, India has decades of experience piloting aviation forces, while China is still learning,” said Bradford, the Singapore analyst.
Even with that experience, it could take a year or much longer for Vikrant to be fully up to speed as a fighting force. That is typical for aircraft carriers. America’s newest airline, the USS Gerald Ford, went into service in 2017 and isn’t expected to first deploy until later this year.